It was 2010 when Mayor Naheed Nenshi was first elected to city council.
That year, he won with 39% of the vote. It wasn’t until the next election in 2013 that “purple reign” swept the city, with Nenshi being reelected after earning 73% of the vote.
While Nenshi is applauded as one of the most popular mayors in Canada, his popularity has waned over the years and he has his fair share of critics here at home.
Regardless of how you feel about his politics, most Calgarians can agree that Nenshi’s love for his city and the people in it shines through in his day-to-day interactions. He believes the people are the crux of what makes Calgary special.
“Our slogan is part of the energy. That doesn’t just mean being part of the energy sector. It means being part of the electricity in the air,” he says.
It’s a legacy that spans just over a decade, and we’re going to take a look at Nenshi’s 11-year journey as mayor as Calgary prepares to usher in a new leader on Oct. 18.
His welcome to cowtown moment
We wanted to learn more about Nenshi, but we would be remiss not to ask if he had any embarrassing moments to share. After all, he “lives for funny moments.”
“I have such a good one but I cannot tell you,” he laughs.
After some hemming, hawing, and some laughs — he couldn’t repeat most of them to us — he did share this one memory from when he was running to become mayor for the first time in 2010.
At the time, he was attending all of the customary Calgary Stampede events while campaigning.
“I bought myself a cowboy hat on Stephen Avenue, which was very stylish — I thought. It was one of those collapsible straw hats. So I wore it,” he explains.
At the time, a Globe and Mail reporter took a photo of Nenshi wearing the hat.
“That photo was on the front page of the Globe and Mail newspaper; you know, this hopeless candidate in the West is still running. The backlash I got… They said, ‘if you want to be mayor, get yourself a real cowboy hat.’”
He laughs about it now.
“I still remember one guy telling me ‘that’s not a cowboy hat.’ In other words, you’re not a bar star, you’re a mayor.’”
Nenshi bought a proper hat after that and has worn it ever since.
For Nenshi, it’s all about the community
It’s no secret that one of Nenshi’s favourite parts of the job was the people. He enjoys visiting all quadrants of the city and often participates in hundreds of events per month (pre-COVID).
He loves the diversity that the city has to offer.
“I thought I knew the city very well before I started in this job… but what I really love about this job is just learning about all the incredible things that are going on in different parts of the city that I otherwise never would have known about.”
He points to an example of when he attended a practice for young people preparing for the world jump rope championships.
“I didn’t even know that was a sport. Now I know that there’s a very passionate community here in Calgary and that kids from Calgary regularly do very well at the national and international level,” he adds.
“I love that stuff.”
Before the pandemic, it was common for Nenshi to cover 200 to 300 km within the city in a weekend while visiting different communities, events, and people.
“The coolest thing for me is that there’s so many people doing things to build the community all over the city,” he says.
It’s been a rollercoaster
It hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows — there have been tough times, too. Most notably, of course, is the ongoing pandemic and state of emergencies Nenshi is navigating.
“I always joke that in our 136-year history, we’ve had to declare a state of emergency exactly four times. And lucky me — I got to be the mayor for all four. “
Three of those have been since the pandemic started early 2020, but the first was during the Alberta floods in 2013, which devastated much of the inner city. He’s also led the city through a power explosion downtown, many wind storms, Snowtember, just to name a few.
“I hope correlation is not causation,” he jokes.
While the way the mayor worked tirelessly to respond to the flood was one of the defining moments of his career, one of his most cherished memories is actually about when the new Calgary Central Library opened in 2018.
“I stood on the steps of the new Central Library the day that it was going to open and I was under a lot of pressure to start my speech,” he says, adding it was his first time touring the facility.
“I looked out the window and there were people lined up around the block as far as I can see.”
That’s when he decided he wanted the thousands of people to be inside of the library when it opened.
“And we did…. and I was so emotional. I just said, ‘You know, I want you to be welcome in this place,’” he says.
“And if people ask me, ‘Why does it have to be so beautiful?’ Because everybody deserves beauty, and the people there were so happy to see this place.”
To this day, if Nenshi is ever having a bad day, he revisits that memory.
“I just walk across the street to that library and see every single person from every part of society doing their homework, people who are hard up on their luck trying to figure out their next step, families, recent immigrants all working on their English, all in the same place,” he says.
“This is what community is.”
How the city has changed over his tenure
Back when Nenshi was first elected as mayor, the city had about a million people or so. Now, the city has about 1.4 to 1.5 million people.
“So, we’ve grown by almost 60%, which a lot of people don’t realize. That’s a lot of new people, a lot of people trying to follow their dreams in this place,” he says, adding the economy has also shifted for the worse.
“We are (also) in a climate crisis that we’re trying to work our way through, and we’re coming to a real reckoning on the issues of equity, racism and reconciliation,” he says.
“And of course, we’re facing a public health crisis in mental health and addictions crisis, all at the same time.”
It’s a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a mayor who has navigated not only the current pandemic but also the 2013 Alberta floods. But Nenshi also sees a city that has flourished.
“I like to say that we’ve gone from being a small city to a big city on the global scale,” he says, adding many economists call Calgary the best city to live in the entire Western Hemisphere.
“I’m excited about what the next chapters of the story will be.”
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