Interview with Nenshi: Calgary mayor takes the ‘purple path’

Last week, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi made a long overdue visit to Vancouver, but this time not at the behest of anyone at Vancouver city hall.

Canadian Club chapter president Ray Greenwood says it was a mutual friend who helped him coax the man who is arguably Canada’s most prominent local government leader out to the West Coast for a speaking engagement.

Nenshi is an icon of progressive voters, often identified as a potential federal Liberal candidate. While he touts the “purple path” to signify his goal to represent all sides of the political spectrum, he’s also not afraid to get into online dust-ups with his critics — quite often conservative-leaning opponents.

How much political capital Nenshi still has remains to be seen. It will be put to the test next year, as Nenshi recently announced that he’s seeking a third term as mayor. I asked him why he is running again.

“I think it’s unfashionable to say things like this, but I like my job,” says Nenshi. “I like public service. [As well], all politicians will say, but it is particularly true at the moment, that there’s lots of work left to do.”

Nenshi goes on to describe how — in addition to him being a big voice for “pluralism and diversity” in Canada — he has a role to play in Calgary’s long-planned $5-billion Green Line LRT project. He does not try to hide that his relationships with both the Trudeau and Notley governments could help to secure the infrastructure funding.

The mayor paints a bleak picture of Calgary’s economy today. Once home to the lowest unemployment rate in the country, the city now faces Canada’s highest in just under two years. Not surprisingly, Nenshi is making a big pitch for his city’s business community, suggesting that companies seeking office space or talent in Vancouver consider Calgary as an alternative.

Vancouver has long struggled in its own right to attract those coveted corporate head offices. Frequently, these employers would choose Calgary over our city, but somehow the tables have turned. Hard times have truly hit our Alberta kin.

Nenshi has built upon his man-of-the-people image through effective use of social media, particularly Twitter where he has more than four times as many followers as the mayor of Vancouver. Not only does Nenshi directly interact (both positively and negatively) with followers, he takes advantage of those 330,000-plus connections to constantly promote Calgary.

I decided to test Nenshi’s Calgary boosterism by asking him to name one chart-topping music act besides the Stampeders from his home town (his answer: pop duo Tegan and Sara).

We then turned to the more serious subject of energy and pipelines, and what he thinks we can do in our province to overcome challenges facing the oil and gas industry.

“I think it would be extremely helpful for us to look at a national strategy around climate change, or at least a regional one in Alberta and British Columbia,” said Nenshi.

“There has been a lot of discussion about whether Site C [dam] can help Alberta green its grid and what that looks like,” added the mayor. “Whether or not that’s a good answer… all provinces [should] treat climate as something they’re looking at broadly, not in the narrow interests of their own province.”

On his counterpart Gregor Robertson using city resources to oppose the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, Nenshi responded, “I would not spend a lot of taxpayer money on political advocacy of that kind… At the end of the day, a country is about making trade-offs, and doing robocall campaigns to get people to call their MP, so the MP gets a tilted view of what people actually think, is not a tactic I would use.

“Call me naïve, but I like to believe that in this country we do nation-building based on what is right, based on evidence, and not what is politically expedient.”

On what it means if oilsands products do not get to tidewater, Calgary’s mayor is blunt.

“The country as a whole will suffer very significantly. We will lose a ton of prosperity… in British Columbia and everywhere else,” said Nenshi.

“We are not using our wealth to help us move to a low-carbon world. I think that is bad business, it is bad ethics, and it is bad policy.”

– Originally published in Vancouver Courier newspaper