Naheed Nenshi vs. Six-Million Dollar Man -

Naheed Nenshi vs. Six-Million Dollar Man

Colby Cosh on the latest chapter in a Calgary drama


Did you hear?—Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is being sued for SIX! MILLION! DOLLARS! Lawyers and journalists who have absolutely any experience of lawsuits know that there is zero meaning to this attention-getting arbitary number in housebuilder Cal Wenzel’s statement of claim for defamation [readable here courtesy of CBC News]; indeed, it says right in the statement, as a reminder to the gormless, that the amount demanded is $6 million “or such other amount to be proven at trial.”

Nonetheless, everyone in the news biz is making sure SIX! MILLION! DOLLARS! is in the lede. And who am I to swim against the current?

Wenzel’s lawsuit is the latest chapter in a drama that began Nov. 27, 2012, when the builder addressed a small secret conclave of cronies belonging to the housing industry and related trades. Wenzel, CEO of Shane Homes, outlined a political action strategy for rich Calgarians dependent on endlessly growing suburbs. Mayor Nenshi, Wenzel acknowledged, would be unbeatable in the 2013 election; but if the beneficiaries of sprawl could get eight reliable council votes, it would matter little who the mayor was.

A video of Wenzel’s talk surfaced on Global News and then YouTube in April of this year and became an issue in the Oct. 21 election. Some people found it sinister and objectionable; I personally did not see much wrong with it, although Wenzel’s warning that he would definitely find out who recorded the footage was a little creepy. Mayor Nenshi is now being sued because of some comments he made about Wenzel’s summit on CBC radio about two weeks before the election.

We had a scene right out of—out of the movie Godfather. We had a guy admitting that he broke the law in 2010 in favour of one candidate, Ward 7’s Kevin Taylor, running again. We realize the law cannot actually be enforced. It has no enforcement ability. We had a guy telling people in the room how to break the law in this election and going through every single race saying “This is the councillor that will oppose Nenshi” …

There is, in my non-lawyer’s opinion, a fair amount of squid-ink in Wenzel’s statement of claim, as is usual in defamation actions. Readers should remember several characteristics of such suits: they are never brought by poor people; they very, very rarely get even as far as the pre-trial discovery stage; when they get before a judge his first move is typically to strip away a mass of irrelevancies; and actual damages rarely exceed the low six figures. An award of SIX! MILLION! DOLLARS! would blast the Canadian record to kingdom come, as Jason Markusoff helpfully observed in the Calgary Herald.

Moreover, political speech receives the very highest level of protection under the Charter of Rights, and the late trend in defamation law has been to strengthen that protection. Plus: if the suit proceeds, it may expose Wenzel’s financial and political communications and records to discovery by Mayor Nenshi and his lawyers.

I would therefore anticipate a quiet, solemn end to this fracas before it ever sees the inside of a courtroom. But the passage quoted above from the CBC interview is probably the most serious and interesting part of Wenzel’s claim. Nenshi said that Wenzel “broke the law” in the 2010 election and told other people how to break it. He is not the first to make that assertion: in April, when the video of Wenzel’s meeting came out, Kelly Ernst of Calgary’s Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership wrote:

… the comments in the video seemed to suggest that one small, special interest group was trying to control the outcome of an election for its own benefit. The apparent claim that some political contributions in the last civic election exceeded the campaign donation limits set out in Alberta law was also of serious concern.

In the November 2012 video, Wenzel had mentioned helping Kevin Taylor against incumbent Druh Farrell in Ward 7:

Druh Farrell: in case anyone doesn’t know, she doesn’t like me and I don’t particularly like her. I had 13 trucks out last election delivering signs and then assembling them and I got called by Druh and the Elections [?] because they said I’d given five thousand in cash, so therefore my trucks that were out delivering put me over the five thousand and so they were gonna take us to court. So. Druh and I don’t see eye to eye on this.

The “five thousand” refers to the annual maximum donation to a municipal campaign in Alberta by a person or a corporation: $5,000, including the value of uncompensated “personal property, real property, or service… [provided] without fair market compensation”. So did Wenzel admit to having illegally donated above the limit to Taylor? Wenzel believes not, but it is not entirely up to him. On the other hand, there has been no judicial or regulatory finding of illegality. In Alberta the provincial elections authority can only investigate if a rival candidate files a complaint and litigates.

Wenzel’s defence of the activity, which he says Nenshi was made aware of after the video of his meeting got loose in the wild, is given in his statement of claim.

Shane Homes donated the maximum permissible campaign contribution of $5,000 to Mr. Taylor’s campaign in 2010. Several employees of Shane Homes, who had the regular use of Shane Homes’ vehicles during off-work hours, volunteered their time and services to assist in Mr. Taylor’s campaign during their off-work hours, without receiving any compensation from Shane Homes for their volunteered time and services, and used the Shane Homes’ vehicles in their respective possession when so volunteering. In turn, Mr. Taylor’s campaign issued gas cards to the volunteers as reimbursement for the cost of fuel used in the Shane Homes’ vehicles while these Shane Homes’ employees provided volunteer services.

Employees made use of Shane Homes trucks to assist Taylor’s campaign. Their own “services” as drivers count as innocuous volunteer activity under the law. They were reimbursed for gas. But the use of the trucks themselves, and the wear and tear placed on them thereby, has cash value.

Do the trucks count as employee property under election law just because employees are allowed to use them “regularly” as personal vehicles in their spare time? And if they do, why is it relevant that the fuel was paid for by the campaign? If the fuel was paid for, shouldn’t the rental of the Shane Homes-owned trucks have been paid for too?

Of such fine, intricate lace is campaign-spending law made. Mayor Nenshi made this whole business a little harder on himself by claiming flat-out, on the spur of the moment, that Cal Wenzel “broke the law.” It’s a good example of Nenshi’s political style, illustrating its risks as well as its attractive directness. An ordinary politician would probably have been pretty reluctant to say even that Wenzel was offending the spirit of the law. But if the mayor can show a sincere, defensible, rational belief that Wenzel did violate the Local Authorities Election Act, there is surely no question of defamation—not on that particular point anyway.

Wenzel, meanwhile, must be given credit for a sort of bravery, even if his lawsuit is motivated by cynicism or stupidity. His son was just named president of his company. They have a lot of business planned for Calgary and neighbouring Airdrie, and no doubt they have long-term plans to build elsewhere in southern Alberta, as they have done in the past. It is hard to see how using the courts as a weapon in a political controversy can serve the interests of the firm, and easy to see how it might harm them. Who likes doing business with a party both sensitive and litigious?

So this obviously isn’t about financial gain in the way that Wenzel’s funding of un-Nenshioid council candidates was. (Wenzel makes this explicit in the video, telling his housing-industry fellows that their investment of $5,000 on a friendly candidate’s campaign might save some of them millions.) Wenzel may legitimately feel that there is a higher principle at stake. And, in fact, it would be a genuine wrong for an office-holder to use his privileged media access to tell untruths about an opponent.

[Related material: Nenshi’s official response to the lawsuit, including a discussion of the legal merits by his lawyer. No decision has been reached yet on whether the city will be on the hook for Nenshi’s legal fees.]


Naheed Nenshi vs. Six-Million Dollar Man

  1. That’s right Colby. It’s the bourgeoisie and the builders that are the problem. How dare developers build stuff. Someone like Nenshi has to put a stop to this progress. Or maybe the mayor’s only claim to fame is his inflated ego. If you spent a little time looking at Nenshi’s accomplishments, you’d discover he’s really not that remarkable. But the national media believes what it wants to believe.

    • That was real deep. Waiting for the new X-box to arrive?

      • Wait for the second Billy Goat Gruff. He’s much bigger

      • “XBox, accelerate sprawl until Calgary’s downtown looks like Winnipeg’s!”

        I’m sorry, xx-N00bPwNeR666-xx, I can’t do that.

    • Nenshi should start shooting speedballs in his office in full view of news cameras, maybe punch an old lady, swear a lot. You know, to rehabilitate his image.

    • The issue isn’t that the builders want to “build stuff” but rather that the want the taxpayers of Calgary to subsidize every house they build to the tune of $4K. When the mayor doesn’t want the taxpayers to have to pay the $4K, Cal decides to try and stack the council.
      Now as for Nenshi and what he has and hasn’t done. I was in Calgary and was evacuated during the floods. Were you? My daughter is a manager at a facility that was disabled for months due to equipment being damaged. As a result 70 people were laid off. As the building was owned by the city, Mayor Nenshi took a personal interest to ensure that equipment was secured and the business was up and running and people were back to work as quickly as possible. I don’t think people like you have a clue what a great mayor he is.

      • “I don’t think people like you have a clue what a great mayor he is”

        I’d argue people like you don’t have a clue. Suburban development costs need to be adjusted. You will find many developers who agree. I would also give him credit for being front and centre during the height of the flood. He gives people hope. But it’s an illusion. He didn’t really do anything during the flood other than show up. He assumed credit for emergency plans that were in place long before he became mayor. The real heroes include Bruce Burrell and those who created and executed the plan which includes strategic communication. Anyway, while you are busy bowing to your Nenshi shrine, try not to overlook he is nothing more than a tax and spend Liberal. He campaigned as a fiscally responsible academic who went on to propose a municipal sales tax. He sees no problem keeping a provincial tax credit that by right should be returned to the people who pay the bills. He doesn’t play well with others who are critical of his ideas. He has pretty thin skin for a politician. He is most popular among low information voters and champagne liberals. 

        • Local government like a lot of government is progressive in that it builds on the actions of those who came before. The reason why the Harper Gov did so well in the financial crisis was thanks to Paul Martin; and it is testimony to Martin’s work that we did so relatively well despite the incompetence of Harper and Flaherty.
          Nenshi like most leaders is a figurehead in any emergency and he acquitted himself well in that role. The planners and responders actually do the work along with voluntary bodies – I know for I once did that. The fact that Nenshi wasn’t involved in front line work is irrelevant, what does matter is that he cleared obstacles and ran interference for those who were, just like a good boss should.
          The only people who don’t like Nenshi and his style are those who have benefited from publicly funded corporate welfare in the past, those who funneled that welfare to them and the knuckle draggers of the Wild Rose Tea Party.
          I wish Nenshi many more years in office because that will mean that the worst aspects of Albertan society are still being sidelined.

          • Harebell, he did more that act as a figurehead. He actually stepped in when stupid people interfered and made common sense decisions. For example, at one point the local health authority tried to shut down the food being given to the volunteers and other workers due to some ridiculous code violations. Nenshi put a stop to it and the people got fed. He also told people to stay off of the roads so the emergency workers could get to work. People actually listened to him.

          • Yeah okay
            But I guess what I was trying to say is he has no direct role in an emergency except to support the first responders and prepare the local authority for their roles once the immediate emergency has been dealt with.
            Volunteers, logistics, communications and support are the roles of the local authority and as such he fulfilled his part in it. Other aspects involve reducing fiscal red tape so funds are released quicker than would be normal.
            I’ve no beef with him and his actions and certainly didn’t mean to minimise them

        • You should consider a purchasing a dictionary.
          “Fiscally responsible” does not mean, for instance, “cuts government or services”.. it means to act in a fiscally responsible manner and actually pay for the government and services the people use. Proposing tax increases, given the amount that this city spends, is entirely fiscally responsible.

          Nor does “critical” mean “misrepresent and insult”

          “low information voters” does not mean “voters who don’t agree with me”.. and given that the “low information” and “champagne liberal” voters total over 3/4s of the votes cast — in Calgary, Alberta, no less — you may even want to reconsider your definition of “champagne liberals”.

        • I voted for Barb Higgins in the first election so I was not apt to “bow at the Nenshi shrine” Any respect I have for him, he earned.

    • Yeah, because cancerous, mindless incubator developments is what Calgary needs more of.

  2. CC,

    You can’t pass up the opportunity to look into the origin of the company name, Shane. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was based upon the 1953 movie of the same name – the protagonist being a gunslinger in the old west, described in this Roger Ebert review:

    Looked at a certain way, the entire story of “Shane” is simply a backdrop against which the hero can play out his own personal repression and remorse. The movie is conventionally seen as the story of farmers standing up to the brutal law of the gun in the Old West, with a lone rider helping a settler hold onto his land in the face of hired thugs.

    Look a little more carefully and you find that the rider and the farmer’s wife feel an attraction for one another. And that Shane is touched by the admiration of young Joey, the son of the farm couple. Bring Freud into the picture and you uncover all sorts of possibilities, as the newcomer dresses in sissy clothes and absorbs insults and punishment from the goons at the saloon, before strapping on his six-gun and proving himself the better man.

    Perhaps Cal was inspired as a kid by the last scene where son Joey yells out to a fading distant rider “Shane. Shane. Come back!”
    I guess we wait to see who the one is who gets white hatted in this modern remake.

    • Actually the name probably has a far more mundane source. His son and current president is Shane Wenzel, so I’m guessing it came from there.
      But nice story though.

      • How old’s the son? Older than 60?

        • He doesn’t look over 60 from his photo
          Late 40s early 50s

          • I saw a billboard on a train underpass, 2nd st SW, between 9th and 10th ave, south side saying “happy 70th Cal. We love you”. with what I think is his pic. Doubtful the city erected it.

            I assume that’s the father. Which fits what you’re saying. Still fits my storyline, and I’m stickin’ with it :)

  3. Cal Wenzel certainly has the wherewithal and the legal team to polish this turd until it shines in the moonlight, but he doesn’t seem to realize that the more he polishes it, the more it’s gonna stink.

    Maybe one of his high priced helpers could tell him about the Barbara Streisand effect.

  4. Most Calgarians LOVE Nenshi. Wenzel is doing more harm to his own image and that of Shane Homes by this ridiculous pride-driven lawsuit than anything Nenshi said on some obscure interview. I’m in the market actively looking at home builders; Shane is not on my list. Not because of anything Nenshi said, but for three other reasons – distaste at Wenzel’s comments revealed in the original recording, his unrepentant and petulant response to that revelation, and this vengeful and baseless lawsuit against a hero of this city.

    • Shane homes does build a good product. I am not in the market for a new home but having been through several new homes, there’s are really well laid out and they are well done. However, I cannot help but agree with you Sandy. This business with Nenshi is a bad, bad idea. Nenshi has done nothing but good for this city especially in light of the floods. His approval rating is over the top.

  5. You can contribute $5K to an Alberta muni politician but only $1K to a federal candidate?

    • Stephen Harper’s government reduced the federal contribution limit form $5000 to $1100 (or thereabouts) in 2006.

      I think on can contribute $5000 provincially and municipally in Ontario, Alberta, and many provincials, where they have not been courageous enough to follow Harper’s lead in limiting the influence of 1% money on politics.

      • Conveniently courageous, since his party was streets ahead in individual donors. If you’re going to give Harper credit you have to also give Chrétien credit for getting the whole thing rolling at a time when the libs were heavily dependent on corporate donors. His own president called the idea dumber then a sack of hammers. In some ways it was – for the Liberals.

        • Don’t be too quick to laud Chretien either. A lot of folks point out that Chretien did this on his way out, and many think he did it as kind of a spiteful last jab toward Martin et al who were taking over from him — personally, I can certainly see Chretien being willing to hurt the entire party just to poke a finger in the eye of Martin.

          • That would be a monumental case of sour grapes to take down both Martin and his party. I don’t see any evidence for it myself.

          • Of course there’s no direct evidence, but one simply has to look at the timing and at the depth of the feud between the Martinites and the Chretienites to consider it at least plausible.

            As a counterpoint I would ask what evidence is there to suggest the Chretien would ever do something to improve democracy? Because “pepper is something I put on my plate” certainly seems to stand against that.

          • Hmmm, you might be right. But i think if you dig deeper you will find[ i hope] some evidence that fiddling with democratic party financing was in the pipeline for some time, the way free trade or constitutional renewal was.

    • A person, union, and corporation can contribute upwards of $50,000 to a Alberta PROVINCIAL party each year, which I find quite disgusting.

      from Elections Alberta:
      An eligible contributor may contribute to a political party:

      •Up to $15,000 in any calendar year
      -Up to $30,000 in a campaign period, less any amount contributed to the party in that calendar year
      An eligible contributor may contribute to a constituency association, except during an election campaign period (from the issuance of the writ until two months post-polling day):
      •Up to $1,000 in any calendar year
      •Up to $5,000 in the aggregate to the constituency associations of a political party
      An eligible contributor may contribute to a candidate after the candidate is registered with Elections Alberta and the writ of election has been issued:
      •Up to $2,000 in the campaign period
      •Up to $10,000 in the aggregate to the registered candidates of a political party.

      • Good lord, that’s ridiculous!

        • Hey, that is nothing….it would curl your hair to know all the questionable contributions including from a lab services company that is apparently taxpayer/govt owned. How does THAT work. If the feds did half the crap the Alberta Tories do…..WOW!

          • Well….how many years has it been? I was there when Lougheed got in and everything was rosy….but all these years later a lot of stuff has crept into the system.

            If anyone else ever gets in, the opened books are going to be unreal

          • The sad thing is all of this corruption was reported in the news BEFORE the last election and people still voted for them .

          • Yeah….I gave up trying to figure out voters long time ago. They rarely ever vote in their own self interest….and they never seem to vote with the future in mind.

            Popularity contests, punishing someone else….bizarre things like the closeness of their eyes…..the things I’ve been told at the door are just scary.

      • Just a reminder that Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz cut a single cheque for $430,000 for the Alberta PC party just days before the last provincial election. Of course this was blatantly illegal so they made up this story that his wife, kids and assorted sycophants in his employ all donated $30K each to to get around that pesky campaign contribution maximum.

        Of course Premier Redford found this all perfectly acceptable. Katz is going to get a nice new hockey arena now, heavily subsidized by the taxpayers.

        • True.
          Up until this year it was ILLEGAL for any “Elections Alberta” official to make public that anyone was under investigation for election finance misconduct, and it was ILLEGAL to make public the results of any investigation.
          That is, anyone caught breaking the election finance laws was hidden from public scrutiny, paid their little fine (maybe, we’ll never know), and went on their merry way. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll burn in a lake of fire.
          “Building Alberta,” one cheque at a time!

  6. Wenzel was hoodwinked by some big city political organizers, and is now seeking compensation for his very public political castration.

    Unfortunately for him, this ill advised lawsuit will deliver another humilitation.

  7. Wenzel is a jackass and he deserve’s every bit of bad press. I don’t care if Nenshi is a lousy mayor or the virgin Mary, Wenzel was caught on camera openly talking about greasing councillors. The mayor was just confirming what everyone else already knows, Cal’s an old rich fart trying to get richer! The Shane home adds show the perfect family smiling beside their new Shane home. What they should show is a picture of Cal handing money to an elected official, and the family begging Mike Holmes to fix the lousy workmanship.

    • Donating money to one’s politicians of choice isn’t “greasing” Councillors, it’s a fundamental part of democracy. Are you seriously suggesting this is the first person who’s wanted electoral outcomes that work in his favor?

      • Rick,

        I only have to check the up/down blindly partisan votes to know you’re lurking nearby.

  8. I don’t think Nenshi as candidate should be reimbursed by the city. But was Nenshi commenting as mayor when he made the Godfather comparison? In part, I would say. The issues were campaign finance transparency and privately funded opposition to city subdivision policies. Would Nenshi as mayor and not candidate have said the same thing? Probably. Are taxpayers better served by backstopping their politicians in these cases so they can speak freely (imagine if MacIvor had won – he does not have a gentle tongue either)? Probably. Did Nenshi as candidate derive a large advantage from the issue and his comments? Yes. Should he be allowed to collect political campaign donations to defend himself if the City does not pay (that would be tax deductible and hence hit Alberta taxpayers in part)? In principle, yes, although I don’t know if the mechanics of when donations can be received would permit that.

  9. You know what? City of Calgary has a Code of Conduct that Nenshi has breached for the past 9 months or so which applied to ALL EMPLOYEES WITHOUT EXCEPTION. He singled out and posted the names of two individuals on his election website. Nenshi must be conscious of his position in society – an elected leader, 80,000 facebook friends, he defamed Mr. Wenzel, not just in council chambers, but in media around the world. And while claiming to be the Knight on a Hosre saving Calgarians from suburbia – did the media ever question how the Stealthy CivicCamp – Nenshi’s own invention, infiltrated city hall, how they pushed through PlanIt prior to it becoming an election vote issue in 2010, or whether the alleged 1,500 CivicCampers consitute some kind of election power sway??? No one even asks. Nenshi repeatedly hammered the Manning Centre…which is all the things CivicCamp is not – Manning is a legal organization, registered, it has a roster of responsible people and their duties on its site – you can call or email any of them; by contrast CivicCamp is run by ‘no one’, unregistered, no one knows where their funding comes from or who runs or manages it….how convenient to have an unaccountable organization especially when you are completely changing the direction of Calgary with PlanIt. Mayor Nenshi was so proud of all the CivicCampers who took the day off work to push PlanIt through – is that so democratic? What of the rig worker? The oil sands worker? The nurse in ICU? The doctor in surgery? THEIR voice was cut out. This should be investigated but the media never wants to touch it.