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Naheed Nenshi: 'No one has ever given me the manual on how to be a politician'

Calgary mayor in Winnipeg for FCM

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on a tour Wednesday.</p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on a tour Wednesday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/6/2016 (1085 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been described as the rock star of municipal politics but all that celebrity doesn’t mean he’s not prepared to roll up his sleeves and do some heavy work.

Nenshi is in Winnipeg this week, attending the Big City Mayors Caucus and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference, where he hopes to steer the country’s municipal leaders towards dealing with poverty and ensuring urban aboriginal policies can be better effective in big cities. He is set to stop by the Winnipeg Free Press News Café at 12:15 p.m. Thursday.

“No one has ever given me the manual on how to be a politician,” Nenshi told the Free Press in an interview earlier this week. “Sure, sometimes I get myself in trouble because someone asks me a question I actually answer, or someone is really rude and sometimes they get it back. Politicians, journalists and political scientists look at me aghast and say that’s not how it’s done but with me, even if all my foibles get myself into trouble, people see who I am and I think, in some way, people appreciate that.”

Nenshi is a self-described policy wonk and academic who came out of nowhere in 2010 to pull off what appeared to be a last-minute election night win to become Calgary’s mayor. His celebrity was sparked by how he won that election – one month before voting day, polls had Nenshi in third place with eight per cent of popular support. His team had perfected a campaign relying on social media, so-called guerrilla tactics (writing platform positions in chalk graffiti in high-traffic areas) and cosy coffee parties where he could meet voters one-on-one. Within days of the election, a poll found Nenshi had climbed into a tie with the front-runners and he won the election with 40 per cent of the vote – attracting 28,000 more votes than the runner-up. He became the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city. Nenshi topped his inaugural run, winning his second election in 2013 with 74 per cent of the vote.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/6/2016 (1085 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been described as the rock star of municipal politics but all that celebrity doesn’t mean he’s not prepared to roll up his sleeves and do some heavy work.

Nenshi is in Winnipeg this week, attending the Big City Mayors Caucus and the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference, where he hopes to steer the country’s municipal leaders towards dealing with poverty and ensuring urban aboriginal policies can be better effective in big cities. He is set to stop by the Winnipeg Free Press News Café at 12:15 p.m. Thursday. 

"No one has ever given me the manual on how to be a politician," Nenshi told the Free Press in an interview earlier this week. "Sure, sometimes I get myself in trouble because someone asks me a question I actually answer, or someone is really rude and sometimes they get it back. Politicians, journalists and political scientists look at me aghast and say that’s not how it’s done but with me, even if all my foibles get myself into trouble, people see who I am and I think, in some way, people appreciate that."

Nenshi is a self-described policy wonk and academic who came out of nowhere in 2010 to pull off what appeared to be a last-minute election night win to become Calgary’s mayor. His celebrity was sparked by how he won that election – one month before voting day, polls had Nenshi in third place with eight per cent of popular support. His team had perfected a campaign relying on social media, so-called guerrilla tactics (writing platform positions in chalk graffiti in high-traffic areas) and cosy coffee parties where he could meet voters one-on-one. Within days of the election, a poll found Nenshi had climbed into a tie with the front-runners and he won the election with 40 per cent of the vote – attracting 28,000 more votes than the runner-up. He became the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city. Nenshi topped his inaugural run, winning his second election in 2013 with 74 per cent of the vote.

Nenshi’s time in office has been marked by the certainty of his positions, his bluntness, a commitment to open city hall to public scrutiny, avoiding political jargon, and his ability to reach out to individuals who’ve traditionally felt left out of politics. In his early days, Nenshi’s style was often compared to Toronto’s Rob Ford, also elected in 2010, albeit missing the displays of public drunkenness and rampant drug use.

A big, jovial man, Nenshi is rarely caught in a photo not smiling or appearing genuinely happy. It seems everywhere he goes, everyone wants to be in a selfie with him and wanna-be mayors repeatedly cite him as the country’s ideal mayor.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, left, with Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on a tour Wednesday.</p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, left, with Winnipeg mayor Brian Bowman in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on a tour Wednesday.

It hasn’t been all roses and rainbows, however. He was caught in an unauthorized video in April, riding in a Boston cab where he called the CEO of Uber a d*ck.

"I’ve never been popular in my life so I’m not even sure I am now," Nenshi said when trying to explain his popularity. "It’s not really about me and my personality, if it were, my council wouldn’t like that at all. It’s about the force of the idea, about trying to bring the very best ideas to bear.

"I go to work every single day and really try to make the community better for people, and in particular for people who don’t feel they have a voice in the community. To me, that’s a really special thing. As tough as it can be sometimes, I always remind myself that not everyone gets to go to work every day and make the community better and I feel that’s a good thing."

Nenshi came to Winnipeg early, arriving Tuesday afternoon. In the evening, he spoke at the University of Winnipeg as part of the Axworthy Lecture Series on social justice and the public good. He spent most of Wednesday touring the city in the company of Mayor Brian Bowman – visiting the zoo, the Canadian Museum for Human Right, The Forks, lunch at Neechi Commons, and an afternoon visit to Miles Macdonell high school in North Kildonan.

Thursday, the mayors of the country’s 21 largest cities, known as the Big City Mayors Caucus, will meet at the RBC Convention Centre, a day ahead of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities annual conference, which is expected to attract over 1,500 mayors and councillors from across the country.

Nenshi said while the FCM conference is like a traditional convention with workshops on municipal-related issues, he said the BCMC is a strategy session.

"We talk about things like how we’re working with the federal government on affordable housing, or how we’re going to lobby for what we need in the next (federal) budget, that sort of thing.

"The big city mayors are a remarkably effective group," Nenshi said. "When you look at the mayors’ backgrounds, they come from every political party, some are non-partisan like me….Yet, we roll up our sleeves and get stuff done. We have real consensus on stuff, despite our different backgrounds.

"Let me give you a simple example: We worked really hard with the previous federal government on their federal public transit fund, which was the first time in Canadian history that the federal government had made a permanent commitment to public transit. Now that we have got a new federal government, we’re working with them perhaps even more closely – a bunch of cabinet ministers are coming to meet with us in Winnipeg on implementing that fund on public transit as well as many other things."

Nenshi said he has three objectives from today’s BCMC: agreement on how to implement better urban indigenous policies, details from the Liberal government on how to access federal funding for public transit and infrastructure, and steps towards eradicating poverty.

"Poverty is not a municipal issue, per se, but it’s something cities deal with every day. What we found with homelessness is, it had to be the municipal governments that were really providing the leadership so the federal and provincial governments could step in behind. I’m seeing the same thing in poverty. We have cities like my own, Edmonton, and others, start to create municipal poverty-reduction strategies that are really creating an umbrella for the provincial and federal governments to come in under. And, I’d like to see a little more unanimity, a little more common direction amongst the big cities and how we talk about poverty."

Nenshi said he’s also looking forward to the three days of the FCM conference, taken up mostly with workshops and tours of Winnipeg.

At the FCM conference, "you learn everything from people who have new products, like concrete that is poured in water, to new ways of building rec centres. I actually strongly encourage my councillors to attend this event. I think they do well when they learn from the best practices at other places and we kind of get out of our own heads. I am one of the few big city mayors that sticks around for the whole thing because I also want to learn what’s new about concrete."

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Aldo Santin

Aldo Santin
Reporter

Aldo Santin is a veteran newspaper reporter who first carried a pen and notepad in 1978 and joined the Winnipeg Free Press in 1986, where he has covered a variety of beats and specialty areas including education, aboriginal issues, urban and downtown development. Santin has been covering city hall since 2013.

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History

Updated on Wednesday, June 1, 2016 at 5:53 PM CDT: Nenshi did apologize for calling the CEO of Uber a d*ck. A previous version included erroneous information.

7:38 PM: Adds link to News Café event.

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