Mayor Naheed Nenshi to Canadians: ‘We need to talk’

Always worth listening to:

Welcome to Corridors. We’ve been sharing this space with contributors as obsessed as we are with policy and Canadian politics. This week, we bring you a voice from Alberta. Naheed Nenshi has been mayor of Calgary since 2010. He’s studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School and taught at Calgary’s Mount Royal University. Nenshi is a first-generation Canadian. His parents immigrated from Tanzania and, he says, “instilled the ethic of seva — service to the community.” He’s just announced he will not seek a fourth term in office and has been reflecting on lessons to share from his tenure. Over to you, Mayor. — Sue Allan, editor of POLITICO Canada.

DRIVING THE WEEK

When I announced this month that I won’t be running for re-election, I expected conversations about legacy, our historic investments in transportation, Calgary’s state-of-the-art library, or how we transformed government to deliver services more efficiently while maintaining the lowest tax rates in the country.

Instead, I’ve been mostly asked about racism and the increasing divisions in our society. In many ways, the exit interviews are a funhouse mirror to the conversations after I was first elected.

I found myself very famous the day after that 2010 election. Every national media outlet wanted a piece of me, as well as CNN, Time and Al-Jazeera. But no one was interested in my come-from-behind campaign or my radical ideas on how cities can work better; they only wanted to talk about my faith.

At the time, I took part, because I wanted to talk about this place where we live pluralism every day. I wanted to talk about how my race and my faith were not factors in the election, and that people just saw me as a Calgarian. Even in 2010, as I was seeing increasing waves of intolerance and hatred globally, I thought, and still think, that the story of Canada serves as a model for the world.

But now, things are different. We are more polarized than ever. Differences, whether political or cultural, are exploited to sow division. And with division, the threat of hatred, radicalization and violence grows.

You need only look to the dialogue around any of our current challenges. Either you believe climate change is real, or you love oil and gas (hint: most us think both are true). Personal freedoms are pitted against public health measures. This black and white, us-versus-them political positioning is not only a barrier to pragmatic solutions, it creates an environment where political disagreements stray outside the acceptable boundaries of debate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than on social media. In 2010, social media helped me, as a little-known academic, reach Calgarians during my first mayoral campaign. Twitter still held the promise of a platform to engage in constructive discourse. Today, social media is an anti-social battleground for unfiltered, post-truth put-downs and provocations. Whether I post about politics or a lost puppy, I can count on receiving vitriolic, racist and personal attacks.

This behavior isn’t limited to the online sphere. Political life has become increasingly adversarial, confrontational and dangerous. RCMP data shows threatsof violence against Canadian politicians are on the rise, and I’ve felt that in my own life. I’ve been asked to chair Council meetings remotely, or not to step outside. Attacks on gender, religion and race are much more common — all this at a time when we need better representation from women and people from diverse backgrounds.

Meanwhile, reports of anti-Asian hate crimes have risen to disturbing levels in North America, no doubt fueled by the former U.S. president labelling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus.” In Quebec, Bill 21 restricts what job you can have based on your faith. That’s not secularism, that’s bigotry, and we need to call it out no matter the political risk.

I don’t mind taking the arrows. I have broad shoulders and thick skin. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay. Not for me, not for anyone.

I fear that people, at a time when we need diverse voices in the public sphere, will see how I am treated, and how women in politics, who experience far more abuse than I could imagine, are treated, and will shy away, at the moment we need them most.

What we need now is a major shift in thinking. It’s a huge challenge, but one place we can start is with the way we interact with each other.

Politicians need to resist cheap political shots and rhetoric and we all need to hold ourselves and each other to higher standards, listen as much as we speak, and be disciplined in all we do. I know it sounds naive, but we need to learn to be much more deliberate, much less careless, or we risk losing, well, everything.

I still live in gratitude every day that I get to live here. There is no better place in the world to have these conversations. But we have to have them. And we have to have them now.

Source: Mayor Naheed Nenshi to Canadians: ‘We need to talk’

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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