On May 31, I had the opportunity to see the gregarious Mayor Naheed Nenshi speak as part of the Axworthy Distinguished Lecturer series at the University of Winnipeg.
Nenshi’s showmanship was present from the start, opening as he did with a series of remarks in French. He self-deprecatingly juxtaposed his participation in the series with the magnitude of the two speakers preceding him, Cornell West and Jane Goodall. “Comme ils ditent sur Sesame Street: ‘Une des cettes choses… n’est pas comme les autres.’ ”
It was some dexterous public speaking. In a few sentences, Nenshi showed a cosmopolitan flair (ooh! Il parle la français!), humility (mocking himself), and by correctly assessing that the average listener would know enough French to interpret his joke, spoken slowly and with rudimentary vocabulary, made the crowd feel a touch of sophistication. A very winning approach. Following that, Nenshi gave greetings in Blackfoot, an indigenous language of Western Canada. Nenshi then translated his greeting, “For those of you who don’t speak Blackfoot – and for those of you who do speak Blackfoot, and wonder what the hell I was trying to say.”
This gave the opening for Nenshi’s thematic question “How can I help?” A question he referred to as “The most Canadian of questions.” He expressed concern that this question, a core of our Canadian identity, has recently been paired with a qualifying statement: “We should be looking after our own.” This sentiment often implies those who look like me, act like me, identify with me. Nenshi explained that he saw things differently – to look after our own meant to look after all those who shared our common humanity – “All my relations.”
It was in the context of this introduction that Nenshi introduced his thesis: cities (of course), and the notion of resiliency. Unbeknownst to me, Calgary had recently been declared one of the world’s 100 most resilient cities. An admittedly abstract award, Nenshi chose to break it down into three areas: financial resiliency, environmental resiliency and social resiliency.
Having laid out the groundwork, Nenshi launched into a series of anecdotes about the 2011 Calgary Flood, and the city’s crisis response. “Imagine every movie you’ve ever seen about NASA.” Such was the techno-frantic atmosphere of the Emergency Operation Centre, where Nenshi spent most of his time during the initial responses to the flood. There, they were inundated with offers of volunteerism, but were uncertain about how to deal with this outpouring of benevolence.
“Civil servants can be… well, a little civil servant-y,” Nenshi confided to us. How could the city effectively access the potential legions of volunteers, in a way that was safe, structured and sensible? The mayor instructed his team to simply figure it out and make it happen. However, with the discussion moving slowly at the Emergency Operation Centre, he admitted to being quite surprised to hear a radio ad early on Monday morning.
“If you’re willing to help clean up with the flood, meet at McMahon station in 2 hours!”
Shocked, Nenshi called in to find out what had changed.
“Well, Your Worship,” (“It’s always bad when they start with ‘Your Worship,’” was the conspiratorial aside) “You asked us to figure this out. So we did.”
“But there’s only two hours until the meeting time! How will anyone find out about it?”
“Well… that’s kind of the point. We’ve never done this before. We don’t want too many all at once. We’ll do this small at first, figure out how to improve it, and keep going from there.”
There was some obvious, if backwards-sounding logic to this proposal. While not harnessing the enthusiasm of Calgarians, it would ensure a more organized response from the City with the first few hundred respondents.
I’m sure you can predict how the story goes from here. Glumly expecting a few dozen volunteers, but feeling obligated to greet them, Nenshi was blown away to find a scene of utter chaos at McMahon Station. Thousands of people were there, ready to help with the flood response. An over-matched team from the city was struggling to get the situation organized, lacking a sound-system. Driving in on a (legally) commandeered emergency vehicle, Nenshi had the loudspeaker to get the job done. He gleefully recounts the panic of one of the top public servants:
“Tell them to go home! Tell them we’re out of forms!”
With “visions of municipal lawyers dancing in my head,” Nenshi knew that he had to fan the flames of volunteerism, but that the city simply no longer had the capacity to oversee this. “Folks, we’re all out of school buses. And we’re all out of forms. But just go help. You’ll know where it’s needed. Go where it’s needed, and just go help.”
With this statement, he empowered the assembled crowd to act independently. As an elected official, he encouraged the assembled crowd to act on their own. They were capable, they were knowledgeable, and he tasked them to operate with independence. While telling his story, Nenshi acknowledged the semi-utopian vibes it gave, but insisted this had been the reality of the time. The state had given the people the mandate to act, and they had done so!
He told a few more stories about the flood, like families delivering hot meals to other families without electricity. (“Despite knowing they would probably never get that casserole dish back again.”) By keeping the stories light-hearted and unsensational, he captured an authentic and very believable spirit of community solidarity.
At this point, Nenshi moved into environmental resiliency. In the 2030 UN Global Goals, (which to me sounded like a delayed version of the 2015 Millenium Development Goals) the summative phrase could be “No one left behind.” Goal 11 of 17 was to have safe, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable cities, able to withstand the “active shocks” and “chronic stressors” which cities undergo.
In retrospect, it appears that he trying to set the context before the next leg of his speech. By raising the Global Goals, he was demonstrating that he did indeed have sustainable and long-term vision for Calgary, *BUT* – that we also need pipelines.
“Now – I know exactly where I’m standing as I say this,” Nenshi began, before launching into an extended critique of Naomi Klein and the LEAP Manifesto. Bizarrely, despite such an explicit declaration, Nenshi treated Klein’s ideas with all the seriousness of an aspiring Fraser Institute intern. Of the several hundred present at his lecture, there had to be significant overlap with the roughly 1200 who enthusiastically applauded Klein a few months earlier at Knox United Church. If not aware of that specific event, surely he would have to be aware of the ideological confluence. To my recollection, he did not discuss any of Klein’s ideas, but invoked author Chris Turner, and said in a tone of scorn, that Klein had gone “A leap too far!”
I am not a devout follower of the LEAP Manifesto, but am intrigued by its ideas (why not have a financial transaction tax?? Perhaps a separate article…) and its commitment to the long-term. I would have much preferred a serious discussion than a rejection, and I believe much of the crowd felt the same way. It was interesting (and a bit vindicating) to feel the crowd quieten, cooling to the speaker’s jokes, and erasing some of the cachet he had built earlier.
The conversation on environmental resilience was not without policy elements. Although anti-pipeline arguments weren’t examined, Nenshi did offer a rationale for his pipeline push. He explained that Alberta oil extraction lacked adequate market access. With limited options to whom they could sell, Nenshi estimated that Alberta oil sales were earning only 60% of what they could potentially make.
“We know we’re transitioning to a low-carbon economy,” he continued. To summarize the rationale: the revenue from oil could help fuel (harr harr) that transition, providing funds to research and implement green infrastructure. With oil prices having fallen over the last five years, and looking unlikely to reach their previous heights, the need is particularly urgent to construct the pipelines without further government delay, and benefit from them.
I disagree with this reasoning, and a recent Doug Sanders article in The Globe and Mail can summarize my concerns most efficiently. Oil-producing nations around the world are all similarly aware of this price dip. With an ongoing (if gradual) transition to a low-carbon economy around the globe, other countries will also be working to squeeze precious profit from their supplies. Some economists have, in fact, been overheard saying that as supply increases, the price at which supply and demand reach equilibrium will fall.
ndeed, some countries have already begun to strategically flood the market in order to lower prices and harm producers who mine oil with a higher cost per barrel (such as Russia, Venezuela and Canada). If the price of oil stays low, any new pipeline to the either coast will cost billions, take years to complete, and could easily leave Canada with a dead asset that doesn’t even effectively pay for itself. This is conjecture, but – and this is strictly the economic argument, not even the environmental one – aside from its construction, a Canadian pipeline might not even be economically valuable.
Having said all of this! Nenshi suggested that increased oil revenue could be used both to create a kind of sovereign wealth fund that could assist the transition to renewables. He also noted that the amount of potential revenue was comparable to the amount needed or to pay off Canada’s debt.
This part of the lecture made me outright frustrated. Here were two claims which flew in the face of recent Canadian history and economic policy. Alberta has had decades, literally, decades, in which to build a sovereign wealth fund. The concept is not new. Various iterations of the provincial government have, instead, chosen to give tax breaks (Alberta has historically had a 10% flat tax, instead of a progressively increasing tax according to income bracket) and tax refunds (Google “Klein Bucks”) instead of building a provincial nest-egg. To put the money in the hands of citizens as opposed to the government is an ideological choice that has been made with consistency by Albertans.
Regarding Canada’s debt, I am bemused, and must ask if the Mayor had ever heard of the National Energy Program, devised by a Prime Minister with a familiar surname. Admittedly, there were numerous aspects to the NEP. But a significant component of its criticism came from the demand to divert a greater chunk of Alberta’s oil revenue to the federal government. The NEP resulted in that whole “Western alienation” thing and lead to the eventual P-E-T resignation and Brian Mulroney’s landslide victory. I just don’t see the political landscape having changed that much.
Nenshi self-mockingly invoked naïveté and utopianism multiple times earlier in the speech, and referenced it many times later, too! Yet in the one area where his ideas were most fantastical, there was no acknowledgment that these ostensibly good ideas might not be so easily achieved.
If Nenshi lost the crowd on oil, he won them back on faith.
Before getting into social resiliency, Nenshi opened the conversation on his faith, as the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city.
He told a series of faith-based anecdotes, a mixture of serious and playful. Improvising Psalm Sunday sermons. One rabbi’s ornery hunt for a purple keepah for Nenshi to wear at a Menorah-lighting ceremony. He mentioned the media commentary around Sadiq Khan’s election in London. When Khan was referred to as the first Muslim mayor of a major Western city, “I have to say, I was a little hurt,” Nenshi joked.
Nenshi emphasized how little of an issue his faith had been during his two electoral campaigns. The moment of greatest controversy was an overwrought Calgary Herald column trumpeting the progressiveness of Calgarians for considering the election a Muslim mayor. The public’s response was massive and unified: “We don’t care about that! We don’t want to hear about his religion. We want to hear about his perspectives on transit.”
With another demonstration of vulnerability, similar to his stories about the flood, Nenshi re-earned the trust of the crowd, and eased some of the tension raised with his pipeline statements.
Social resiliency was broken down into two components: better public discourse and stronger civic engagement.
Public discourse has been faltering in the mayor’s home province. He highlighted the recent bomb threats to one of the provincial minister’s office, the vitriolic and violent online messages that many women in government experience, even in the civil service.
“Public good is at risk if public discourse is at risk. It’s not about bubble-wrapping politicians. It’s about honouring and respecting them.”
Civic engagement, probably this mayor’s specialty, was the final point to wrap up the notion of resiliency. He highlighted “3 Things for Calgary,” a civic engagement program aimed at helping people find the cross section of “What do I care about?” and “What am I good at?”
Was it too simple? Too complicated? Too structured? Too loose? In the end, amazing things have come out of the program – Nenshi highlighted one: A citizen who spearheaded a program to collect and provide free adult toothbrushes at a children’s hospital. One tiny puzzle-piece to help improve the quality of life for a worried, harried parent bringing their child into the hospital who, all things considered, likely did not remember to pack themselves a toothbrush.
With the upcoming 150th anniversary of Canada, Nenshi asked us to consider – why not 3 things for Canada?
The single lasting impression I have of Mayor Naheed Nenshi from that talk is one of an elegant, practiced and talented performer. There were a number of rhetorical strategies he used to win and hold the crowd’s interest and attention. Whether or not these were conscious and planned, or simply his natural charisma and intuition, it made for an enjoyable speech to attend.