Interview: Naheed Nenshi on Syrian refugees and anti-Muslim attacks

‘I think we’re going to show people who we are, our generosity of spirit, what we’re capable of’

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi during an event in Calgary, Alberta on June 14, 2014. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi during an event in Calgary, Alberta on June 14, 2014. (Larry MacDougal/CP)

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim to lead a Canadian city, stepped forward during this year’s federal election campaign to criticize the Conservative party’s policies on citizenship, the niqab and Syrian refugees and in recent days he has addressed both the Liberal government’s goal of welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees and a recent string of anti-Muslim attacks in Canada. I spoke with him by phone last night.

In another interview, you said, “I think the way we manage ourselves over the next several months will really be defining for us as a nation.” First of all, what specifically did you mean by that—what about the next few months is going to be determinative?

What I specifically mean is, how we welcome the refugees that arrive. And let’s set ourselves apart from the debate on how many are coming or when they’re coming. We know people are coming. We’re going to have a whole bunch of new Canadians and we’re going to have probably more than a thousand new Calgarians. And we have to make sure that when they get here, we give them every possible fair shake they can have to live a great life here. And so, I’m just going to be super sentimental for a moment if you don’t mind. We’ve been working with non-profit organizations and others on just bringing people together to do whatever we can do. One of the things we’ve been doing is—for better or for worse we actually have a higher apartment vacancy rate in Calgary than we’ve been used to for many years. So we’ve been talking to a lot of landlords and saying, can you make your place available? Whether it’s somebody with a basement suite or a very large landlord with hundreds of units, people have really been coming to the table, offering rental discounts, leases and so on. It’s really been quite extraordinary. I had one big evangelical church, earlier this year, even before this all became a bigger drama during the election, say to me that they were planning on just renting two apartments always so that if refugee families came and they were sponsoring them they would always have somewhere they could stay. So this is great, but today one of the larger landlords in Calgary, a company called Strategic, the guy is named Riaz Mamdani, gave a very odd interview. He just said, we’re making units available. The reporter said to him, what’s your budget, how long are you going to make them available for? He basically said, I don’t know, if people can’t afford to pay, they can’t afford to pay, we’ll just make it work. This is one of the wealthiest people in Calgary, you know? Of course, he himself came to Canada as a refugee from Uganda. And so that’s why he’s saying, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just make it work. So that’s really special.

But today I had a meeting this morning where we had a community forum on refugees. And I was a little bit nervous walking in because it was an open invitation, anybody could come, and I thought there might be some angry people or people with a lot of very difficult questions. And who was there were churches and synagogues and temples and mosques and grandmothers and volunteers and people from across the community, who were just asking the same question, which is by the way still by far the most common question I get, how can I help? And at one point a First Nations woman stood up. I only knew that because she said, I am a First Nations woman. I thought she was going to say, why are we having all this focus on these refugees when we have so many problems closer to home? And what she actually said was, I need some help. Because I need to understand how and when they’re coming because I want to make sure, and many of my First Nations colleagues, want to make sure that when these people come, we have an opportunity to have the elders there to drum them in and to do a smudge ceremony so we can welcome them to this land. I might have lost it at that point.

For all that though, how much do you worry—I don’t want to overstate things or sensationalize things, but there are these incidents, incidents is putting it mildly, of violence, of harassment. there’s another one just out of Toronto now about two women being harassed. How much does that worry you? How much concern do you put on those things?

Let me separate the two questions. I think you’re asking two questions and let me separate them. The first one is, am I worried that we’re going to screw up with the refugees? Actually I’m not worried at all. I think that, and when I said this is a defining moment for us, I think we’re going to come through this amazing. I think we’re going to show people who we are, our generosity of spirit, what we’re capable of, and I think that we’re going to make ourselves proud. I’m happy about that.

So that’s the optimistic side. The less optimistic side is, like every Canadian, I’m deeply shaken by these recent incidents. By what happened in Peterborough, by some of the incidents we’re hearing in Toronto. Where was this latest one, Aaron?

Toronto, on the TTC.

This is Toronto. The most multicultural city in the world. This is the city that my parents came to in 1971 when there five other Ismaili families, and tried to make a life out of it. It’s not who we are. It’s not who that great city is. I think it’s really, really important, not just for politicians to denounce this stuff, not just for the police to take this stuff seriously, that is all true, but it’s the time for good and decent Canadians, which is the vast, vast majority of Canadians, to put a line in the sand. When you hear that kind of talk, whether it’s across the fence with your neighbour or at the grocery store or on the bus or on social media, it’s time for all of us to say, you know what? It’s not acceptable, it’s not who we are as a people and that kind of careless talk, a straight line can be drawn between that kind of careless talk and these kind of horrific incidents. These horrific incidents, I think every Canadian would agree, do not reflect who we are as a nation.

It’s interesting that you parse the question that way because I did want to ask you whether you were at all worried about refugees coming in and whether all it’ll take is one or two bad incidents and that could feed more fear and more concern. But the other part of that is, Rona Ambrose made the comment yesterday that the federal government should be as transparent and clear as possible right now and that they may take away some of the fear. Do you worry at all that the government, in not coming out with its plan right now, right away, and being as open as possible—

No, only because I am privy to some things that not everyone is privy to. Don’t make it sound like I know what’s going on, because I don’t, quite. I can say that I have had conversations with the federal government and with the provincial government and I know there’s a lot of moving parts and they just want to be very clear when they announce stuff. But I also know that the people in Citizenship and Immigration Canada, they actually know what they’re doing. There’s a reason we’ve been one of the great, great countries for accepting refugees for decades, because those public servants actually do know what they’re doing, in terms of security, in terms of screening, and everything else. And I agree with Ms. Ambrose, I believe in tonnes of transparency, that’s how I run my life and my governance, but I’m also willing to give the federal government the benefit of the doubt that they just want to make sure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. But I’m confident that they will soon announce their plan and that their plan is thoughtful and they are looking at security in a very, very serious way, but also at expediting the process as quickly as possible.


Interview: Naheed Nenshi on Syrian refugees and anti-Muslim attacks

  1. This mayor is allowing for the beginnings of no go zones in his low income housing complexes in Calgary many immigrants are harassing white tenants, an employee stated bullying in the complex is common and a big problem. One white family had to move after their kids lives were threatened. The bullies did not move and they continue to bully white families. One family was told white people do not belong here. I thought low income housing was for everyone. In Edmonton, I know of 2 families who’s children were sexually assaulted by their immigrant neighbours those poor children are forced to see their attacker daily as Capital Region Housing will NOT move them. Many muslim men come from a rape culture where raping children and women is quite acceptable and we are allowing it. Rachel Notley ignores it, I shared their story with her .Mayor Naheed Nenshi is ignoring it the media ignores how disgusting .

    • What BS white supremacist propaganda. Mate, sorry, but Canadians are smarter than that.

      • You better believe it. I work in Egypt and yes Egypt has very high rape rates. Many are unreported.
        Some of the engineers wives have been attacked at Markets in Cairo.
        How about female genital mutilation. Turn your heads and ignore the fact your African/Arabic neighbors cutting their 12yr old daughters *&^%. Oh maybe we are civilized in Canada and that won’t happen, anyway turn your head and ignore it. Welcome Muslims with open arms as your neighbor, let them babysit your children.
        They are attacking Coptic Christian churches all the time.
        Nenshi doesn’t mention anything about the fact different Religions don’t mix.
        All the 50 yr old people here will remember being safe to go downtown in a city at night. Think you still feel safe to go downtown Toronto or Calgary at midnight.
        Immigration is nothing more than cheap labor for corporations.

  2. I agree that this is pivotal time for Canadians. We need to show the world what we stand for. Multiculturalism is the only winning game in town. Yes things are not smooth, especially after reading the story written below. Cultures clash. But we are a country of laws and human rights and we will get through this.

  3. Mr.Nenshi, politics and ideologies apart, you are one of the greatest administrators this country has ever seen. Another one was Stephen Harper. I am truly saddened when you believe what the Ministry and Citizenship and Immigration says and proclaim ” . Mr.Nenshi, here is some additional information for you. Upon the Liberals’ election win, Mr. John McCallum pronounced that he was extremely glad to leave Harper’s Canada and come into Trudeau’s Canada. Before I heard his words, I was deluded into thinking that it was a case of one party losing and another winning the election. I truly thought it was a normal occurrence in democracy. To date, I am wondering if Mr. McCallum had to take passport, obtain visa, etc.. In any case, you and I know that it won’t be that easy to come from Syria. And then when they arrive here, they shouldn’t be deceived into believing that another minister post is awaiting them. Mr. McCullum may have been an economist, and might have been a professor too. Right now, I truly, sincerely believe that he is a functional illiterate, and I am sure you fully well understand what that term means. Would you like to withdraw what you said?

    • “I truly, sincerely believe that he is a functional illiterate”. You really have no idea how bad you look and how that destroys your whole prejudice argument, do you?

      • You really have no idea what I was talking about. I had inserted a sentence from Mr. Nenshi’s quote which went on to say: But I also know that, the people in Citizenship and Immigration Canada, they actually know what they’re doing. – Macleans had eliminated that portion from my comment probably because I had used quotation marks there. It was not of prejudice or against prejudice. It was just a reminder to Nenshi, who always seem to get things done that this time he is banking on the wrong kind man for his hopes to materialize. Surely someone whose transmigration program experience consists soley and entirely of moving from Harper’s Canada into Trudeau’s Canada is not fit for any kind of job, let alone moving a whole mass of people one foreign country into another. I wasn’t commenting on the merits of a program of a Government that had been elected to do precisely that. A better way to understand this and outgrow your dilemma is to ignore whatever I have said here and try concentrating to grasp the term “functional illiterate”. Your preconceived notions will not help you in the venture but good luck though!

        • Actually, I don’t think anyone has a clue what you are trying to say. I think you are deliberately re-mixing Mr McCallum’s metaphor. “Functional illiterate” is a rather lame oxymoron, especially given your apparent lack of expertise in the use of quotations marks and the construction of coherent sentences and paragraphs.

          • Purely illiterate persons cannot read or write in any capacity, for all practical purposes. In contrast, functionally illiterate persons can read and possibly write simple sentences with a limited vocabulary, but not enough to deal with the everyday requirements of life in their own society.
            Right now, you are one. But you are trying to make me out one

          • “But you are trying to make me out one”

            Nice use of irony, but try to be a little subtler next time.

  4. Would someone please remind Nenshi that Syria is 10% Christian and the “greatest humanitarian project” would be to protect those persecuted with nowhere else to go.

    “Since we have limited capacity in a world of more than 7 billion people, it makes sense to focus on those who have nowhere safe in the Middle East to turn. Yes, Sunni and Shiite Muslims persecute each other in the Middle East, but each group has Sunni or Shiite enclaves they can retreat to in the region. The Christians, meanwhile, aren’t even safe in the refugee camps.

    So dangerous are the camps for Syrian Christians that they mostly avoid them. And the UN does its refugee head-counting in the refugee camps. If the Christians aren’t there to be counted, desperate as they are, then they don’t end up on the asylum lists the government uses for vetting potential refugees”


    • McCallum……. economist……professor……..two really contributing professions to the growth of this country. Did you see the Syrians he had on stage…….mostly men of fighting age….little site of children and women as told there would be. Go back and fight for your country, we don’t need you here The Liberals have always been carried by the immigrant vote and this is why its playing out. We do not need 250000 immigrants a year coming here. You see Paris…you see Great Britain…. they too were aww thats so sad, lets bring them here 20 years ago…. how is that working for ya now. ,its not. Get rid if them ,don’t need them, don’t want them,,,, will not accept them nor their children…..speaking of children was the gunman that shot the soldier in Ottawa not the offspring of a middle eastern .that we let into our country?????? Screw you Trudeau, you are a spoon fed never had to support yourself waste of a soul. Like his tail between his legs at war time Father of yours. We will be glad to see you go in 4 years

      • Terrorists can easily come in on Tourist visas. Why would they hang around in camps in Lebanon or Jordan for three years on the off chance of being picked by Immigration Canada.

        Oh, and the guy in Ottawa, his father was not an immigrant or a Canadian. His mother was a Canadian.

      • Dad was a Libyan immigrant As i said the offspring of an immigrant from the middle east. Cut and dry.

        • He was not an immigrant. He did not live in Canada. he was a Libyan citizen

  5. First of all, let me explain that I am First Nation, and I emphasize” First Nation”.I feel that many of our own First Nation people are,( quite frankly) displaced, because of economic restraints, chemical addictions, educational deficiencies and lack of housing on reserves. So, in a sense, we (urban natives) are somewhat akin to a type of refugee, from our own original place of residence. With that being said,” Do we expect special treatment?” No. However, we do require( at the very least) require assistance to enter mainstream working class society.At present, I work and pay taxes. Personally, I believe that welfare hand-outs should only be given to those who are not physically capable of manual labor. In a very real sense, he/she that will not work, should not eat.Is that a harsh statement to make?Perhaps in the viewpoint of some. Canada, give the First nations back their dignity as human beings. Empower them to become useful citizens! As far as the Syrian refugees are concerned…well, only time will tell.If it’s for the worst, and they become citizens of Canada, well, there will be an army of “I told you so-ers” that will rise up to challenge government’s decision to allow it. But let’s clean up our own backyard first!

  6. The Peterborough story has a happy ending. The citizens immediately raised funds to repair the burned mosque, and in fact raised way beyond the amount they needed. The imam begged people to stop giving them money!

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