Mayor Naheed Nenshi: Community Building as Nation Building

March 13th, 2013

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi made headlines when he became the first Muslim mayor elected in North America. In the 2012 John Kenneth Galbraith Lectureship in Public Policy at Memorial University (St. John’s, Newfoundland), he talks about pluralism and diversity, the role of cities, and citizen engagement.

In this excerpt from his talk, “Leader/Citizen/Leader: Community Building as Nation Building,”  Nenshi recalls how voters were more interested in his views on policy than his background, and appeals to all Canadians to share Canada’s success story.

The great success of Canada is how we have been able to embrace pluralism and diversity in a way that very few other places have been able to do.

October 19th, 2010, the day after I was elected mayor, I suddenly found myself famous. People wanted to talk about me on CNN, Time magazine. What they wanted to talk to me about was something very strange. Not about the fact that I’m the first non-white mayor of a major Canadian city. Not about how young I was to be mayor. What they wanted to talk about was my faith.

The fascinating thing is that during the election, nobody talked about it. It just wasn’t an issue. My ethnicity, my faith, my background, none of that was an issue. There were a grand total of two incidents during an intense six-month campaign when it became an issue. One instance of vandalism to my campaign office may or may not have been racially motivated. That was such a horrible incident for me – it happened on the anniversary of September 11th which is why some people thought it had something to do with that – and it lead to a giant outpouring of support from the community. One of the letters to the editor said the best thing anyone has ever said about it. “I hope that those guys were just jerks and not racist jerks.” The incident led to a giant outpouring of support from the community, and actually helped me a lot because people said “that that’s not the kind of Calgary that we want to live in” and “that’s not the Calgary that we live in.”

The second time was when the Calgary Herald published an interview with me that focused on my faith, The writer wanted a positive story about someone who might be the first Muslim mayor [of Calgary and in North America]. When asked, I said “You know, growing up in this city I never for one minute thought that there was any job I couldn’t have because of where I worshipped.” That’s all I said about it and it become this huge story. The Calgary Herald got more calls to their newsroom than for anything else that they published that year. 1% or 2% of the calls were racist and the other 97% or 98% of the calls were: “Why did you publish that? We want to know about where he stands on transit, we want to know what he thinks about poverty, urban planning and the growth of the community, etc. Who cares about what his faith is. He grew up in Calgary. He knows the city better than any of us.”

So, after my election I really had a choice to make. I could ignore all the media requests or I could use them as an opportunity to tell a story about Canada, a story about Alberta, a story about Calgary that is an important story to be told.

The Aga Khan once said something I think is worth us thinking about. What he said was “what the Canadian experience suggests to me is that identity itself can be pluralistic. Honouring one’s own identity need not mean rejecting others. One can embrace an ethic and religious heritage will also sharing a sense of national or regional pride. To cite a timely example I believe that one can live creatively and purposefully as both a devoted Muslim and a committed European (he might have said, a committed Canadian).”

Since the Aga Khan said that, we’ve had people like the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the then president of France and the Chancellor of Germany say that multiculturalism has been a “failure.” It is not up to us to question their context – it’s their reality after all – but it is up to us as Canadians to be role models for the world, to talk about a place where diversity works, where pluralism and multiculturalism work.

That place, of course, is right here. Let’s start by saying that [multiculturalism] is a good thing and that it works. When the forces of the small minded and the intolerant want to talk about whether women should wear a niqab in public or whether a baptized sikh should carry the kirpan, as Canadians we have to fight against small minded intolerance and ask “why are we having this discussion?” We have to say to the small minded and intolerant: we are far, far beyond that as a community.

Watch the complete video of the talk here.

Printed with permission from Memorial University

Mayor Naheed Nenshi is a passionate Calgarian, an accomplished business professional, and an active community leader. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce Degree (with distinction) from the University of Calgary and a Master in Public Policy from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he studied as a Kennedy Fellow.

The John Kenneth Galbraith Lectureship in Public Policy brings outstanding figures to Memorial University, whose work reflects their commitment to excellence in scholarship and public affairs.  The lectureship is held under the auspices of the President, and is coordinated jointly by the Dean of Arts and by the Director of the Harris Centre of Regional Policy and Development, or their representatives.

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