Naheed Nenshi talks about lessons learned, civic engagement, and what it means to be an effective leader.
As Toronto’s mayoral race heats up, the question of what makes a good mayor is on many minds. Canadian cities have answered it in different ways: Ottawa, for example, elected the reliable Jim Watson, and Edmonton opted for promising new mayor Don Iveson. Yet no mayor in recent memory has attracted more envy from residents of other municipalities than Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, who won re-election last October with 74 per cent of the vote. Nenshi, the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, will be in Toronto for multiple events tomorrow.
We spoke with him about what he’s learned since taking office, why he loves civic engagement, and why mayors should always use a washroom when they see one.
Torontoist: You’ve been mayor for just over three years now. What did you think the job would be like when you went into it, and how has it been different from those expectations?
Mayor Naheed Nenshi: I followed City Hall pretty closely before I became mayor. I guess I was mostly surprised by how well the job matches what people think it is. It really is about representing everyone in the city. Remember that in the Canadian system, mayor is the only job in the whole Canadian political system where you are elected by everyone you represent, not by just one ward or one constituency. In most of the country [at the municpal level], we don’t have political parties, so that means that it’s just you. It’s your name and your face, and people will vote for or against that. And everyone has a bit of ownership of you that way, and I think that’s a really good thing. It certainly means that every trip to the grocery store becomes an open house on public transit, but it also means that citizens feel you are there to represent them, and that’s been really terrific for me. Certainly overwhelming, but also very humbling in that you have the opportunity every day to make a difference for so many people.
So then you see a mayor as someone who facilitates conversations and connects people with their city and each other?
Absolutely. Our legislative role is very small. I am just one vote out of 15 on my council, and we have no parties. So I can’t get anything done legislatively unless I get some of my colleagues to agree with me—at least seven of them. That’s not such a bad thing. When I have proposals or ideas, they have to actually stand on their own. They have to be able to be stress-tested in the public realm. I really appreciate that. Although I will tell you that by noon most days, I wish I just had a Parliamentary majority. But overall I think it makes it better. I think it makes it better for us to be successful that way.
As mayor, you’ve focused on getting the public more involved and more interested in taking ownership of issues—through initiatives like Three Things for Calgary. What kind of results have you seen from this?
I’m a huge, huge advocate of civic engagement, which is simply a more complicated way of saying “getting people more involved in their communities.” I think every single one of us has the power in our own hands to make the community better. Three Things for Calgary is a simple example. It’s a movement that asks every citizen of Calgary every year to do three things for the community. Tens of thousands of people have signed up to do everything from shovelling their neighbour’s walk to joining their local community association, and those are the things that really make a difference, in my opinion. Certainly politicians have power over policy, but the rest of us have the power to actually make our community better.
What’s the best advice you’ve received on being mayor, and what advice would you pass along to others?
Probably the single best piece of advice I received was right when I was elected, when an old politician told me, “Never walk by a washroom, couch, or plate of food without taking advantage, because you never know when the next one will come.” Which is true! Beyond that, I always say that I don’t really know how to be a politician—I never bothered learning that part. I just believe in being reasonable, being authentic—even if it gets me in trouble sometimes. Always just be focused on the best thing you can possibly do for everyone else in the community.
You can hear Nenshi speak at one of three events on Friday:
University of Toronto’s Claude T. Bissell Building, 140 St. George St., 9:30-11:00. Free.
Toronto Board of Trade, Sheraton Centre Hotel, 123 Queen St. W., 11:30-2:00. $99.
Osgoode Professional Development Centre, 1 Dundas St. W., 5:00-6:30. Free, but waiting list only.