Calgarians can pinpoint the moment when Naheed Nenshi’s race and religion became a major issue in the discussion around his campaign for mayor of their city. It began on Monday night. After he was elected. When the rest of the country gasped at the fact that Calgary, of all places, had elected Canada’s first Muslim mayor.
Here in town, during Mr. Nenshi’s five-month drive to the mayor’s chair — which catapulted him from a feeble 8% popularity just one month ago, 35% behind front-runner Ric McIver, to victory this week — the subject of his Ismaili heritage and skin colour was scarcely mentioned.
Mr. Nenshi briefly alluded to it — once. Early in the campaign some vandals broke a window in his campaign office and tore down some signs. On Sept. 11. His spokesman only called it “highly unusual.” Calgarians seemed largely unperturbed and the incident was shortly forgotten.
After all, it was Mr. Nenshi himself who eagerly praised the colour-blindness of the city, recently telling the National Post that Calgary was an “incredibly accepting city where nobody cares who your daddy was or what your last name is.”
It wasn’t just pander: Mr. Nenshi had arrived here as an infant. From a working-class family he made it to Harvard University, as a Kennedy fellow.
He worked for a top-drawer U.S. consultancy, McKinsey & Co., but left it behind to return, after all, to his hometown, where he started his own business, began launching and chairing non-profit and civic campaigns and eventually took a job as a business professor.
All along he was thinking about and intensively fleshing out ideas that he thought would improve his city, zealously delving into the inevitably frustrating details of urban planning practices, launching the environmentally themed Better Calgary campaign, and powerfully challenging the missteps of City Hall in a regular local newspaper column.
He took his ideas, found people to back them, and turned it into a campaign for mayor so successful that, by the time all the votes were tallied, early on Tuesday morning, the underdog, Mr. Nenshi, had beaten the favoured candidate, city council fiscal hawk, Ric McIver, by 8%, despite Mr. McIver having nearly three times as much money and recruiting many of the same seasoned organizers that helped build parts of the federal Conservatives’ formidable election machine. Until then, almost no one was talking about anyone’s race.
This was no Barack Obama phenomenon, says Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University — a phenomenon saturated by emotions around racial equality, mostly on the positive side: The psychological appeal of creating the first black president in a guilty nation with a racist past. A little bit on the negative side, with some racists still living in the past.
“There will always be a few, the racists, those would be scared that someone of the Muslim faith would take office, but that was very much in the minority here,” Mr. Brownsey says.
To outsiders, the city serves as a useful stereotype: The western, conservative cowboy culture offers a redneck strawman for the urbane liberal easterner yearning to feel enlightened. Never mind that one of Calgary’s tallest folk heroes was a former slave turned cowboy named John Ware.
Inside Calgary, or Alberta for that matter, the narrative falls apart: a place can’t both be a dynamic economy reliant on innovation and risk-taking, as the other reputation has it, and intolerant all at once. Exclusivity has never done anything but hinder enterprise.
This is a place where, merit, ambition and guts have always — whether accurate or not — been prized as the values for success. If this city was once ruled by burly white scotch-drinkers it was because they were among the first wave of arrivals seen to apply those values to the opportunities here — though the spectacularly successful early Jews, like the Belzberg family, and Chinese, like ’50s football star and former lieutenant-governor Norman Kwong, as well as the numerous highly accomplished Ukrainians, Italians, Persians, East Indians and other ethnic minorities here would likely argue that the history is far more complex than that.
As Jason Kenney, the Conservative MP and Immigration and Multicultural Minister from Calgary, pointed out after Mr. Nenshi’s victory, Calgary has had a “far more ethnically and religiously diverse contingent of elected representatives” than most major Canadian cities; a quarter of its MLAs and MPs come from non-European backgrounds, he noted.
Alberta elected the first Hindu MP (Calgary’s Deepak Obhrai) and the first Muslim MP (Edmonton’s Rahim Jaffer), and Peter Lougheed’s government was the first to make a Cabinet minister of a Muslim when the premier appointed Larry Shaben the minister of utilities and telephones in 1979.
And Edmonton was the place where the first mosque was built, the Al Rashid Mosque — in 1938. Ernest Manning, one of Alberta’s most prominent post-war premiers, was awarded B’nai Brith International’s Presidential Gold Medal for his “commitment to the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
Mr. Nenshi’s victory may be important, Mr. Kenney said, but the “stunning breakthrough for diversity meme” was nothing but “patronizing.”
Instead, he said, Mr. Nenshi ran a “brilliant ideas-based campaign.” It certainly offered up more by way of guts and brio than his main competitors, along with innovative, if untested proposals. Some were fiscally conservative, others not so much. But by pitching them with enthusiasm and creativity — he thoroughly dominated the online social media campaign– Mr. Nenshi proved himself to be a talented and driven political entrepreneur. Little wonder he was able to convince Calgarians to back him.
The theme of race that permeated every dimension of Barack Obama’s campaign, the lure of electing a minority, simply had nothing to do with it. In America, it’s understandable: Much of the country still yearns to complete an apology for wrongs in that country’s past. Calgarians, on the other hand, know they have nothing to apologize for.