How the West is Winning with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi

By Angus Gillespie

The first notable and substantial migration by eastern Canadians – predominantly those from Ontario – to booming western Canadian cities such as Calgary initially took hold in mid 1980s. The oil and gas sector was thriving and a number of other industries were beginning to establish strong footholds in Alberta and B.C. including mineral resources, technology, construction and advanced engineering.

The mayor leading Calgary’s latest economic surge is Naheed Nenshi, now serving as a second-term as the political head of Canada’s third-largest city, with the mantra of ‘working every day to make this place even better’.  He was elected in the 2010 municipal election, becoming the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city. Proving it was no fluke, Nenshi was handily re-elected in a landslide in 2013, garnering 73% of the vote, which is even more impressive given there were a group of nine candidates in the field, which more often than not serves to fracture voting into smaller winning percentages.

The 42-year-old Nenshi is anything but shy and simply won’t back away from controversy, and in fact seems at times to be a willing instigator.  A recent notable social media dustup centred on a rather heated Twitter debate with the outspoken Ezra Levant of Sun News. Making the feud even more dramatic is the fact the two men have known each other since travelling on the university debate circuit more than 20 years ago, so they’ve had varying degrees of feuds over the years.

“Will you disclose whether any Pembina staff are working on your election campaign, or have donated to you?” Levant asked via Twitter. “Is this a quid pro quo?”
Nenshi, always ready to send the ball back over the net twice as hard as it was received responded with his own loaded question. “When did you stop beating your wife?”

For those who may be unaware, the phrase is not as shocking as it seems on the surface in that it’s an oft-used response to signify a loaded question was delivered whereby the person responding to the question is already considered guilty, regardless of the answer.

“It’s a cliché used to expose gotcha questions from journalists. Not really asking him that,” Nenshi said in response to a question from a Twitter user on what exactly he meant by the phrase. Nonetheless, it’s certainly not reading material for the feint of heart.

2013 Floods

While it’s easy to come up with numerous positives about the city of Calgary, like all cities, it too has had its share of misfortune, most notably the horrendous floods last June, which have turned out to be the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.

“We believe that the damage in Calgary and southern Alberta is about $5 to $6 billion,” Nenshi says.  “Cleaning up after the flood will be by far the largest public works project in Alberta’s history. That’s the scale and scope of the devastation.”

According to Nenshi, the money needed for the massive cleanup bill would be a budget prodigious in size to more than double Calgary’s current light rail transit system, which is by no means unjustified given the city’s tremendous continued growth.

On the north side of the Bow River, most homes had no damage whatsoever.  On the south, it was another story altogether.  Such are the capricious ways of Mother Nature, even in a sophisticated country such as Canada.  The regular flow of water moving through the river in summer months is estimated at about 150 cubic metres per second.  It was more than 1,600 cubic metres per second during the flood. The Elbow River, which winds through downtown Calgary and was also flooded, usually runs at 40 cubic metres per second.  During the floods it was recorded at 1,200 cubic metres per second.

“I want you to understand the impact of that natural disaster on our community, because the story does have a good ending,” Nenshi states.  He went on to mention seeing mounds and mounds of saturated trash at the end of driveways when touring the devastation the following day.  But upon closer inspection, that trash included precious heirlooms, such as photo albums and children’s artwork or the couch that a young family had scrimped and saved for since first seeing it in a catalogue.

“It’s people’s lives, sitting out there in the streets,” Nenshi laments.

The waters peaked on that fateful Thursday night and into Friday morning. By Saturday the water levels had already begun to recede in many areas, but the extensive damage was already done.

“We started to get this enormous outpouring from citizens saying ‘I want to help’ and ‘what can I do’ so I talked to some of my colleagues at the city of Calgary and said we have to find a way to get people helping. There was a concern about how it was all going to be managed; getting people into evacuation zones. I began to get frustrated by it all so I put one of my assistants in charge of overseeing everything.”

Nenshi left the emergency operations centre on the Sunday night.

“When my alarm went off the next morning I turned on the radio at 7am and I heard that the city of Calgary was asking for volunteers to meet at McMahon Stadium at 9am, two hours later,” he recalls. “And I hadn’t heard about this when I left the emergency centre just hours earlier.”

The Mayor made a call to one of his staff members who responded by saying the best way to get things in motion was simply to get started.  Invitations were sent out to the public to show up at the stadium if they could offer volunteer assistance with the massive cleanup.  At first Nenshi was skeptical about the idea, given that not many would have heard about the request.  But the thinking was that if 200 people showed up to help out they could be deployed in some manner.

“When I got to the stadium I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he broadly smiles.  “Thousands of people – young and old – were there, united only in their desire to build their community and to help. We didn’t even have a PA system.”

That’s where Nenshi’s creating thinking mind came into play.  The city fire chief had loaned him a vehicle that weekend so he could get through various parts of the city that were most affected by the flooding.

“I climbed up onto the hood of the truck and reached into the driver’s side window and pulled out the PA and started talking to the people.  I was then told that we had run out of insurance liability forms.  So I told them, ‘you’re here and ready to work whether you’re wearing coveralls and work boots or a tank top and flip-flops, you know what neighbourhoods were hit and what neighbours are suffering – just go.  Knock on doors and help whoever needs it’.  It was amazing to see tens of thousands of people, self organized, out helping those in their time of need.”

Many home owners were assisted by complete strangers.

Community Infrastructure

Whether a municipality has 50 people or 5 million people, there is always the need to build and improve upon the community at its core.  From that develops economic prosperity, which can be traced to having strong local roots and alliances.  Canada is no longer an agrarian society; we are not what were in 1867. We are one of the most urban countries in the world, with about 80% of all Canadians living in cities and it directly affects the dynamics of how the country works.

“The federal Conservatives spent many years seeking their majority in the province of Quebec, but never found it.  Instead they found it in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver – and already had it in Calgary and Edmonton. If anything, they ought to be an urban party because that in fact is where their power base lies. But we still live in cities that operate under rules that haven’t changed in almost 150 years.”

“If the federal government disappeared, it would take about a week for any of us to notice,” Nenshi begins.  “If your provincial government disappeared, well you’d notice quickly if you were in school or at the hospital but it might be a few hours before anyone noticed.  If you’re messy, dysfunctional city government disappeared you’d immediately notice you’d have no transit, no parks or recreation, no fire protection and no clean water. Cities deliver essential services that we need every single day to stay alive. ”

What bothers Nenshi is the immense fiscal imbalance at the various levels of government.

“In Calgary, my entire tax take every year is $1.6 billion in an operating budget of $3 billion,” he remarks.  “Citizens of Calgary send to our provincial government $4 billion a year more than we receive back in services from the provincial government. To the federal government we send $10 billion a year. That’s the fiscal imbalance in this country. We’re not asking for a handout. When you see me and my fellow mayors with our hands out, we’re not asking for a hand out, we’re asking for a small tax rebate.”
Nenshi waded into some of Toronto’s infrastructure issues, including the decision to build a $3.5-billion subway in Scarborough championed by Mayor Rob Ford instead of a light-rail transit line.

“I, for the life of me, cannot understand the decision on the Scarborough subway and maybe I’m missing something. I don’t understand why you’d not spend less to serve more people,” he says.

“Clearly I’m missing something, I’m not that bright,” he said, rolling his eyes.

The city’s original plan was to build a light-rail line with seven stops that would cost $1.48-billion. The province had agreed to foot the bill for it. But Ford, the city’s most vocal advocate of subways, was not enamored with the original Metrolinx agreement and Toronto city council reopened the debate over which type of transit would replace the aging existing public transit, which currently connects to the Bloor-Danforth subway, this summer.

Nenshi says the obsession over partisanship and splitting votes on the right and left is distracting from real issues that impact adversely on the community.
“Here’s the thing: nobody cares about those old labels of left or right and liberal and conservative. Is removing the snow a right-wing or left-wing idea? Is fixing the potholes more New Democrat or Conservative? It’s ridiculous,” he said.

“If we went on to Bay Street today and asked 100 people, ‘Are you left-wing or right-wing?’ I guarantee you, 85 of them would have no idea what we were talking about and 11 of them would answer incorrectly.  And the rest would be John Tory.’” he said, to laughter from the audience at the Toronto Region Board of Trade, an event which Tory attended. 

Energy & Prosperity

Mayor Nenshi also unashamedly touts the many virtues of the oil sands industry that has become so prevalent in his province.  In fact, he calls the oil sands the engines of Canada’s growth and what helped keep the country out of serious financial trouble during the 2008 recession.  But he says there’s also a misconception from people living in the east that Calgary itself is full of oil wells and fields.

“It’s a two or three hour flight from Calgary to get to these oil fields,” Nenshi states. “You can fly half way across Europe in the time it would take to get to the oil sands from Calgary.”

So why are those great head office jobs all located in Calgary? Why not cities such as Toronto, Houston, Shanghai or Dubai?

“The answer is simple,” he says. “Calgary is a great place to live. Employers can find talent and people want to live there and raise their families.  If we can’t keep up with infrastructure needs, build great public transit and keep our water clean, those jobs will disappear.  If you’re an employer and you can’t rely on the fact your employees will be at work on time everyday because of congestion.  Our other orders of government – I will never say senior levels of government – need to understand that investments in infrastructure are not just nice things to do for citizens, but are hard-edged, strong economic development to ensure that we continue to grow our tax base.”

“The oil sands are the engine of Canadian prosperity,” Nenshi repeats.  “For better or worse, we need Canadian energy. It’s the hand we’ve been dealt.  Now when I say that, it sounds like I’m begrudging it, but I’m not.  We have a royal flush for a hand and we need to determine what to do with our resources. It must have access to the east coast, the west coast and the gulf coast and soon the Arctic coast and it must include alternative forms of energy.”

But for now and the foreseeable future, the lion’s share of the total amount of energy produced will be generated from the western oil sands.

“My thoughts about the oil sands are very straightforward,” Nenshi notes. “There has been a fundamental shift in the North American energy market.  Our biggest customer – the United States – is going to be energy self-sufficient in 20 years, thanks in almost entire part to Canadian technology. North America as a whole will be energy self-sufficient within five years.  That means it’s essential that we as a nation determine the differential between the world price and the North American price for Canadian energy. It’s only going to get worse unless we get our oil to offshore markets.”

There’s no disputing the Canadian oil sands generate lots of revenue – about $28 billion annually – for the federal government.  A good portion of Ontario’s GDP is directly related to the oil industry in Alberta, resulting in about 38,000 jobs through 650 companies, which translates into $3 billion in direct and indirect GDP expansion in Ontario.

“Yes, we need to build pipelines,” Nenshi says straight out. “Those of us who are engaged in municipal government will tell you very clearly that oil by rail is the alternative and it is not the answer. We need Keystone XL, we need access to the west coast, whether it’s Northern Gateway, TransMountain or something else. We need energy pipelines to the east to get our crude to new markets and create jobs across the country and to make sure we’re investing properly in our future.”

Nenshi went on to say that we must of course by responsible in our development, but that it is foolish to demonize the energy industry as not being sustainable or not being environmentally responsible.

“We cannot let a one-metre wide pipe bare all the sins of the carbon economy,” Nenshi says.

The oil sands currently account for less than 1% of all global greenhouse gases, yet it has somehow become the poster child for climate change. It’s common knowledge that coal-fire plants are much larger contributors to deadly gaseous emissions.

“My goal when I first became mayor was that Calgary became and remains the No.1 place in Canada to start and grow a business. Last year, 10% of all new jobs in Canada were created in the city of Calgary.

In a recent report, The Conference Board of Canada said it expects metropolitan Calgary to be the fastest growing region in Canada for at least another three years. There is a huge demand for workers with high-paying job opportunities in southern Alberta.

Canada produces between 3-5% of the world’s oil and gas but is responsible for between 12-20% of the world’s energy finance.  Calgary is a true meritocracy. The overriding theme from Calgarians is that they don’t care where you went to school or what your last name is, but rather whether you can work hard and make your ideas real.  If that’s the case, southern Alberta may be your place to shine.