The Genius of Naheed Nenshi

On March 1st, Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi will address the X Conference at London’s Convention Centre.  Find out more at www.londonx.ca

‘WHEN THE BURDENS OF THE PRESIDENCY seems unusually heavy,” said President Lyndon Johnson, “I always remind myself it could be worse.  I could be mayor.”  There’s much truth in that statement when we consider that mayors end up at the end of long line of designs promoted by more senior level politicians and larger jurisdictions.  The tools needed to do an effective job at leading a municipality are often owned or manipulated by others with their own political goals.Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is in town to promote his city as a great place to work, live and do bus

Yet occasionally a mayor comes on the scene who teaches us we can do more than we think within our local confines.  Despite all the recent scandals confronting many of the country’s leading municipal executives, other mayors are forging new futures, extending networks, and challenging the status quo.  Ottawa mayor, Jim Watson, is just one example.  As is Naheed Nenshi, Calgary’s mayor, one of the few rock stars in Canadian politics.  He’ll be in the city for London’s X-Conference on March 1st and even the announcement of his coming has created significant buzz in a city that has almost forgotten how that felt.

Nenshi and I spoke at a venue at the University of Calgary a few years ago on the idea of global citizenship.  He brought energy to the room and the students found in him a kind of connection that was a pleasure to witness.  But given that he was a business prof prior to his run, it’s understandable why students liked him.

But there was more.  In two words, he was challenging and electric.  And his own background is so varied as to make him unique.  He’s an east Indian who lived in Tanzania prior to coming to Canada.  He’s slightly over 40 years of age, a Muslim, has a degree from Harvard, and just happened to best three solid status quo challengers to win Calgary’s top job.  Seated together at the front of that assembly room, I realized it was the very mystique about him that caused people to look at things in a new fashion.

Philadelphia mayor, Michael Nutter, once stated that, “I didn’t run for mayor to be the caretaker of the status quo.”  Neither did Nenshi, but there’s something of the effortless in him – he not only acts and talks different, he is different, and in that distinction politics in Canada might discover some new hope.  And it is that sense of optimism, of the possible, that lies at the root not only of Nenshi’s success, but his genius.

There is a kind of sagging despondency not only in our cities, but in the country in general.  Politics has become something of a calculated science.  It scopes out its enemies instead of concentrating on its potentials and winning friends.  It reduces us to the confines of a ballot box instead of communities who have yet to achieve their best.  In our sinews we know it and we’re tiring of being fodder for someone else’s designs for power and ideology.  The greatest thing we have lost is not only our sense of expectation, but our own place in it.  Partisan politics has led to a petrified democracy, and in the process we have lost trust in our political class, feeling that the moneyed class has the run of the field, and that the citizenship class holds no place of priority in those two areas other than our money or our vote.  Our country is now being built on tactics and privilege, not on us, and we’re opting out as a result, feeling things are disappearing.

And then along comes Nenshi and he causes us to revisit our presumptions.  He’s all over Twitter and Facebook, champions citizen engagement with considerable skill, and states that the purpose of politics is to unleash our communities.  The good citizens of Calgary were just as tired of the old politics as the rest of the country, but in Naheed Nenshi they caught a vision of themselves.  This eclectic politician showed Calgarians that they were just as nuanced, just as capable, and just as diverse as any elites.  More than that, he showed them not only that the future could be theirs, but that it should be theirs – they were the true heirs of democracy and politics should help them get it.

A now he comes to London, Ontario – a city down and out on its luck, but seeking a future community that would include them, not just power brokers.  We are a city hungry for ideas and many are willing to build that community.  Many of our politicians only show up when there’s a funding announcement or when they have an axe to grind.  A new breed of candidates are attempting to turn the tables by offering their names in the next municipal election.  We are a city creeping ever so slowly towards taking charge of our own fate, but we haven’t quite found our way yet.  We are dried kindling hungering for a spark.

Shortly, the mayor of Calgary will speak to us, reminding us that the flame required to start the bonfire resides in our own dreams, in our own commitments to one another and our children.  He will ask us to stop looking for saviors and just start looking out for one another.  And he will remind us that the political order can only find new life by following our reconnected neighbourhoods, our dynamic citizenry, our diverse businesses, and our enlightened artists.  He will hold up a mirror to us and we will suddenly see hope.  Nenshi’s genius at restoring faith in ourselves might well restore our future. 

Note:  Naheed was actually born in Toronto and moved to Calgary when he was one year old.  It was his parents who came from India, via Tanzania.  Apologies for the error.