The city elected Naheed Nenshi, a visible-minority Muslim academic, as its new mayor. Elsewhere in the country, Nenshi’s victory has been greeted with a combination of puzzlement and surprise. Not so in town. Calgary has always seen itself as a young, cosmopolitan, confident city attractive to migrants and eager entrepreneurs. And by this standard, Nenshi is just a typical Calgarian who proved smart enough to get himself elected mayor.
Nenshi was a relative unknown when he entered the race to replace long-time mayor David Bronconnier. His profile was largely limited to his work in the volunteer sector and arts community and a regular column he wrote in the Calgary Herald. But his strongest assets proved to be those same attributes that define Calgary: youth, work ethic, intelligence, business acumen and a passion for making life better.
The son of immigrants, Nenshi moved to Calgary when he was one. As an outstanding student he earned a scholarship to Harvard following an undergraduate degree at the University of Calgary. He returned home in 2001 after working for the prestigious McKinsey & Company. Currently he runs his own consultancy and teaches non-profit management at the Bissett School of Business in Calgary. The 38-year old is a bachelor who looks after his elderly parents at home.
Nenshi’s election platform was sensibly inclusive and focused on quality of life issues. On the polarizing issue of transit, for example, he argued that all modes of transportation require more attention: better plowing of streets in winter and cheaper downtown parking for cars, grade-separated lanes for bikes as well as more coherent investments in light rail and buses. And he ran an extremely professional campaign that made purple his signature colour and placed a big emphasis on social media. In fact, his polish and appeal even earned an endorsement from the populist Calgary Sun, which complimented him on his avoidance of “egghead bafflegab.”
On election day, Nenshi’s preparation and policies paid off handsomely. Voter turnout was an astonishing 54 per cent of registered voters, the highest level in several decades for a municipal election. This may be attributable, in part, to Nenshi’s success in attracting younger voters. And at 40 per cent of the popular vote, he easily outpaced the establishment candidate, long-time conservative alderman Ric McIver, who received 32 per cent.
So now Nenshi, an Ismaili Muslim, is the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city. This may seem significant nationally, but it is striking that his demographics were never an issue for Calgary voters. “I don’t shy away from the colour of my skin. I don’t shy away from my faith. I don’t shy away from my background or my education or my experience,” he told CBC Radio on election night. “All of that is part of the crazy mix that makes up Naheed, and all of it is part of the crazy mix that is Calgary.” In a city where what you can do matters more than where you came from, Nenshi proved to be the most appealing candidate.
In fact Nenshi may be the perfect symbol of his city’s commitment to meritocracy.
Calgary has always been a city built on immigration and opportunity. Its dynamic economy makes it home to more immigrants per capita than Montreal. Earlier this year in a ranking of 50 Canadian cities based on their attractiveness to migrants over 41 criteria, the Conference Board of Canada put Calgary in top spot. Nearly a quarter of the population is a visible minority.
And despite the recent recession, it remains a young, growing and exciting place to live. On a per capita basis, Calgary has the highest concentration of small businesses and the most millionaires. Calgary also topped a recent Maclean’s survey as Canada’s most cultured city, based on the percent of households who pay to attend museums and live art performances. In 2009, it earned our designation as Canada’s smartest city, and boasts the highest level of Internet usage in the country.
Of course, all this is in conflict with the popular image of Calgary as a white-bread oil town with a tendency toward big hats during Stampede Week. But the truth of the matter is, Calgary has changed substantially since its cowboy days. It’s time the rest of the country figured this out. Naheed Nenshi looks like just the mayor to make this happen.