Nenshi's diversity problem

Why the Calgary mayor's push for diversity at city hall may be cause for concern

Jeff McIntosh/CP

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has built up an impressive trove of political capital since first being elected in 2010. On Jan. 15, he spent some. In a speech about diversity given at city hall to a Calgary Economic Development audience, the plain-spoken, ever-direct mayor had some plain-spoken, direct words about the city administration, starting with: “We are lousy at promoting a diverse workforce.

“When you look at our management levels within the city, my top six managers, there are no women right now,” the mayor continued. (The speech was transcribed by the Calgary Herald’s Jason Markusoff.) “There are no people of a visible minority. Throughout our 34 next most-senior managers at the city—I haven’t actually done the census—but off the top of my head, I can think of one person from a visible minority, and a handful of women. We’ve got to do a better job. And we have to look internally at our own organization to determine what are the barriers that are in place toward people getting promoted into these jobs.”

Alberta politicians simply do not say this kind of thing out loud, at least, not so confrontationally. The sort of public handwringing about ethnic diversity and gender equality that is common currency elsewhere has never become part of the climate. Alberta government institutions all have hundred-page diversity plans and officials responsible for pushing them, and provincial governments make visible minorities extra-visible at election time. Lip service is always paid—in a way that makes it obvious that it is lip service.

But for a Calgary mayor to communicate to the public that the upper ranks at “his” city hall are white to an awkwardly high degree? That is unusual and, in a sense, unprecedented.

Alberta possesses a self-image as a place wherein it is unnecessary to count the hues of various noses. We like to think of ourselves as impressively colour-blind, based on a long history of neighbourliness to Chinese restaurateurs, African-American athletes, Japanese beet farmers and Lebanese accountants. Yes, this may be a smug, self-satisfied fantasy constructed in defence of a white ruling class. But it is unfantastic enough for someone named Naheed Nenshi to have been elected mayor of Calgary twice, as he is the first to point out. “In Calgary,” he has said before, “nobody cares who your daddy was.”

That quote sounds a note that is deeply appealing to Albertans; both whites and nonwhites have good reasons for wanting to believe a colour-blindness myth. The racial calculus in Nenshi’s Jan. 15 speech sounds a more dissonant, dividing note—not less so because the math is unimpeachable.

Conservative commentators urged “patience” on Nenshi and promised that visible-minority integration would happen “naturally,” given time. This actually seems like a weird mirror-image of the scornful congratulations Alberta received for electing a female premier in 2012. According to the latest National Household Survey, Calgary’s population is 28 per cent “minority,” making the city significantly more diverse than Montreal (20 per cent) or Ottawa (19 per cent). The contrast between that figure and the folks occupying the big offices in Calgary city hall—even with a South Asian in the biggest, nicest office—is legitimately jarring.

Nenshi says his description of a possible fairness issue is not a call for “quotas” in city hiring. This attracted catcalls from some white chauvinists, and the mayor defended himself by emphasizing that he didn’t mention, or even refer implicitly, to quotas. The problem, of course, is that there is not much daylight between a “quota” and “an implied standard for diversity that the city sure as hell does not seem to be meeting.”

The mayor is not satisfied that his administration is being just to minorities. Presumably, there is some quantum or quotient of minority presence with which he would be satisfied. Hey, pick whatever Latin word starting with “Q” you like. People are going to hear “quota.” (Note: A quota would actually solve the problem, if there is a problem.)

Albertans really are colour-blind, most of ’em. They can afford to be. The province is an affluent land of individualistic, relatively independent farmers, entrepreneurs and non-union workers. But the broaching of racial grievance is not vexing only to those who are racists simpliciter. When well-meaning people hear the mayor talk about how there are not enough women and minorities in the upper ranks of Calgary’s government, they know perfectly well that, as soon as it does recruit some women and minorities, questions about minority women will follow. And then individual ethnic groups will start agitating for parity. And, before long, everybody is plunging into a thicket of mutually irresolvable claims and ad-hoc affirmative-action programs, with no one ever explicitly mentioning “quotas,” while overall institutional quality is neglected.

This is not what the mayor is proposing, but then, no one ever proposes such a thing explicitly. Nenshi’s complaint about city hall is obviously valid on its face—and yet the validity is quite irrelevant to the fears it will tend to arouse.

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