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Back  |  September 13, 2012  | 

Earlier this year, Mayor Nenshi sat down with journalist Isabelle Gregoire from the current events (the French-language Canadian news magazine) for an interview in English (and some French) about His vision for Calgary. The full article can be viewed at I've included it below in full before it disappears online.

- Daorcey from Mayor Nenshi's team

Naheed Nenshi: a visionary in Calgary

This is already a small revolution for the capital of the Cowboys have elected a Muslim mayor. And Naheed Nenshi has not finished to amaze with its new ideas in urban development!

We imagine the head of Toronto or Montreal, but it is Calgary which elected mayor in October 2010. Bouille smiling, black curls and clear speech Naheed Nenshi, bachelor 39, surprised everyone by becoming the first Muslim mayor of the country. Its ambition: to reconnect people in municipal life. Bet partially won since the last municipal elections, it has increased the participation rate from 33% to 54%. Available in "12 better ideas" (see box below) to improve the lives of Calgarians, the program plans to abolish bureaucracy, to densify the city center, to fight poverty, improve access at the airport, etc. Clichés about cowboys and rednecks right, son of immigrants, of South Asian descent, embodies an increasingly cosmopolitan city, that Canada has not seen change. Informed user of Facebook and Twitter, which contributed to his election, he has translated in 23 languages brochures and videos (all on YouTube) with its program.

"Progressive Conservative tax" Nenshi supports the cause of the poor, but wants to be a wise manager of taxpayer money. His CV has something to rival many elected: after a Commerce degree at the University of Calgary and an MA in politics at Harvard, he was a professor, entrepreneur, columnist, author of a study on urban development... He is a lover of the arts and a committed Francophile, who spent a summer immersion at Laval University in Quebec City in 1998. The news met this workaholic at his office in City Hall Calgary, where he answered several questions in French.

*** You make the lie to the cliché that your city is composed of "right-wing rednecks." Calgary is it changing?

This shot was never based! My parents, of Indian descent, came from Tanzania 37 years ago when I was a baby, and I've never felt something preventing me from being what I am. That said, this city is changing like the rest of the country. It becomes more cosmopolitan, more diverse and more interesting. And I am happy that people are beginning to understand it.

If you had to describe Calgary to Quebecers who know only the Stampede and cowboys, what would you say?

In Calgary, nobody cares about your gait, your last name or your father was... a bit different in Quebec, right? [Laughs] No one seems odd that a man who comes from an ethnic community and who grew up in an immigrant family working-class east of Calgary becomes mayor. All that matters here are your ideas and going to implement them. Calgary is a breeding ground for innovation and entrepreneurship. Yes, it was cowboys. But Calgary is much more than that! The arts and culture, for example. I am a theater lover, I assure you that we have the most flourishing theater scene in English Canada. More innovative than Toronto!

Is there politics differently when you are an immigrant or immigrant son?

I live every day with the values that were instilled during my childhood: the determination, the importance of working safe, not to waste money. I often joke that, to know what a "fiscal conservative", he must have grown up in an immigrant family of middle-class east of Calgary! But my sister and I were raised with the idea that he had to share. We were not rich, my father was purchasing manager at a company that manufactured boxes and bags, and my mother was a lottery kiosk. But respect for human dignity and the need to take care of the less fortunate part of our lives.

What does mean to you to be a Canadian Muslim? Is it different to be an American or European Muslim?

Someone once asked me if I was first or Canada first Muslim. It's a ridiculous question! There is no dichotomy between these two states. We can be faithful to our beliefs while being of Canadians believe. Canadian Muslims living in this country for a hundred years. And for a hundred years, they are good neighbors, good citizens, who helped build this country while practicing their faith. As Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Sikhs... That's how we are as Canadians, and if we can export this behavior elsewhere, then it must be done! A cliché says that the world needs more Canada, and in that sense, I think it is true.

Some European leaders - Nicolas Sarkozy in France, David Cameron in Britain and Angela Merkel in Germany - have recently said that multiculturalism was a failure in their country. Similar concerns arise here too. What does that inspire you?

I do not question the reality of these countries, but I believe we Canadians can create a different model. What worries these three leaders is ghettoization and narrow-mindedness. In Canada, we do not have this problem, at least not in English Canada (I do not know enough about the Quebec reality to judge). Otherwise, I would not be sitting in this chair! But we must ensure that this remains so. I say to the different ethnic groups that I meet: live with your neighbors, contribute to the life of your neighborhood. The majority community also has a responsibility to remain open and welcoming. Having ridiculous debates about the kirpan, for example, sends the message that we, the host community, are bounded.

Why did you choose municipal politics rather than provincial or federal?

Because I love cities and I'd like to understand how they work. The services provided by municipalities are needed every day and every hour. I often joke by saying that if the federal government disappear, it would take a week or two before realizing it, and surely one or two days for the provincial government. But if the city administration disappeared, you would have no roads, no lights, no water...

You say do politics in "full sentences". What does that mean? You refuse to give 15-second clips to the media.

It is difficult for me to respond to the media in 15 seconds; I can not even say my name so fast! [Laughs] It's important for me to talk to people of their concerns, clarify the issues. This is why the 12 better ideas of my election campaign were so detailed. I do not believe in the so-called citizen apathy. I have never met anyone who was not interested in the future of his city. It's true that people do not vote, they do not participate enough, but it's not because they do not care. What they lack is the relationship between institutions supposed to help them and their daily lives. My job is to rebuild this link, to empower the citizens and involve them in decisions.


By listening! For example, an extensive consultation with Calgarians is underway to determine which services are essential to them to improve their quality of life. Which we must strengthen and how. Which we can eliminate. In this way, the City will develop a budget in line with the values and priorities of the people.

As during your campaign, you encourage people to communicate with you in Facebook and Twitter. How does it profit you? And how do you find time to "twitter" each day?

The great thing about Twitter is that messages do not count as 140 characters; so it is easy to answer! And usually I reply late at night. What's interesting, it's not the tool is to engage people in a conversation about their city. For they are not mere spectators and to take part in the changes taking place.

You work to change the culture of the city administration, which has 14,000 employees. How do you take it?

I want to change the way this administration works daily. We are in the process of transformation, with the goal of getting rid of bureaucracy. A process that will be long and difficult! Rather than regulate people's behavior, this administration must endeavor to facilitate their success. To become a positive force. Each frontline employee has to say. "My job is to help people succeed," not "My job is to enforce the regulations".

In the cities of Quebec, the blue-collar unions often have a bad reputation, their relationship with the mayor are difficult. Do you have this problem in Calgary?

Public unions here have, for the most part a good relationship with the City. We are currently negotiating with them and, of course, discussions can sometimes be a bit strained. But we treat our employees with respect and, overall, our unions are respectful of the fact that their employers, the taxpayers. That said, there is there room for improvement? Of course!

How do you transform Calgary into a green city, while a majority of Calgarians will work in the car?

That's a persistent myth about Calgary. In fact, the proportion of Calgarians who use public transport is one of the highest in North America. However, we have some way to go to improve service within the city through new light rail lines and an extensive network of express buses.

And outside of transportation?

We must do better in treatment waste. We were the last city in Canada to offer a collection service curbside recyclable products and we are currently studying ways to introduce composting organic waste. However, it is urban sprawl that has the greatest environmental impact at home. We absolutely must reduce. We need to provide more housing to downtown and densify existing neighborhoods by encouraging young families to settle there. We must also build living environments full service in the new neighborhoods on the outskirts of the city. The districts we are building are very different from those of five years ago. Much denser, they are designed to accommodate people of different income and can be more easily served by public transport.

So you also manage the suburbs?

Actually, we do not have many suburbs: Calgary has developed following the concept of unicity: one city [Editor's note: administered by a central municipal authority]. A concept rarely used in Canada. This way of working allows us to be masters of our destiny.

What other cities, in Canada or elsewhere, inspire you?

I'm a big fan of redevelopment of Melbourne, Australia. And how the city of Curitiba, in southern Brazil, uses express buses. In Canada, there are also many ideas that we can borrow: how Vancouver is densified while preserving its natural environment. Or one that Montreal has incorporated the use of bicycles, despite the harsh climate. All this is very inspiring!

*** Some better ideas of Nenshi

  • Limit urban sprawl and densify the city center. Taxing more real entrepreneurs who are building on the periphery. Encourage, through financial incentives, entrepreneurs who choose the city center.
  • Fighting poverty by providing more affordable housing; unify the different services of assistance to the poor to make them more effective.
  • Strengthen the independence of the city auditor.
  • Improve services to entrepreneurs, including removing unnecessary approval steps.
  • Facilitate the creation of local dedicated to the arts and other workplaces for emerging artists.

*** A look at Calgary

In 2010 population: 1,320,000 inhabitants (the third of Canada's most populous cities)
Estimated population in 2020: 1.52 million inhabitants
Average annual salary: 49,100 dollars (highest in Canada)
Median age: 35.5 years (39.5 years in Canada)


Categories: Interviews

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