What Nenshi’s campaign showed us about racism in Calgary

As a city, we are far too defensive.

The Sprawl

Late Monday night, after winning his third term as mayor of Calgary, a tired Naheed Nenshi delivered his trademark speech at a popular downtown beer hall. “For thousands of years, people have been coming to this place — this place the Blackfoot call mohkinstsis, the place where two rivers meet. They’ve been coming here to hunt and fish and trade, to live, to love…” His supporters screamed and cheered at the familiar words. Nenshi’s speech is always about the same things: how in Calgary it doesn’t matter who you worship or who you love, how in this community we’re all connected and every person has dignity. It’s a message that resonates deeply in a young city where the median age is thirty-six.

Over the past year, against the backdrop of escalating white supremacy and violence in the US, Nenshi’s familiar words often felt like a bulwark of sorts. The world might be coming apart, but here, on the city level at least, things were okay. Here, we still look out for each other. At the same time, the various iterations of The Speech sidestepped the city’s unspoken social, economic, and racial rifts — many of which were finally exposed during an unusually nasty election campaign over the past month. Racial and gendered slurs against Nenshi and other incumbents were commonplace online, and misinformation was everywhere.

For journalists covering the campaign, it all started to feel far too American: Where do you even start with setting the facts straight?

In the end, the electorate wasn’t swayed. Calgarians again went progressive, choosing Nenshi over Bill Smith, a conservative who campaigned on change and not much else. Smith was heavily favoured by the city’s right-wing establishment. Calgary conservatives are still recovering from their loss of power in Ottawa, to Trudeau’s Liberals, and in Edmonton, to Rachel Notley’s NDP. Smith was their man, the hope of old Calgary. He was going to rein in taxes. He was going to get a deal done with the Calgary Flames for a new arena (though he failed to say how), unlike Nenshi, who’s been driving a hard bargain with the team’s billionaire owners.

Unfortunately for Smith and his backers, it seemed he’d given no thought to what a city is or what it could be. He put forward no detailed policy. He frowned on Calgary’s downtown cycle tracks, even as the city’s economic-development agency prepared a bid for Amazon’s second headquarters, touting that same infrastructure as a selling point. He said he’d rethink a new LRT line approved by city council in June, but he failed to clearly articulate why or what he’d do instead.

Ultimately, Nenshi stood alone as a city builder. He won, albeit more narrowly than in his previous victories, with 51 percent of the vote. It was an election that saw the highest voter turnout in four decades.

In a time when it’s become fashionable to denigrate those of us calling for kindness and compassion and mercy and love as somehow weak — as “snowflakes” — we need to remember that this is not weakness. It is strength.
— from Nenshi’s August 24 Facebook note in response to increased bigotry and racism

But while progressives are celebrating the end of an ugly campaign, not all wounds have healed. The race took an unsettling turn when, in the final days, Nenshi was pilloried in local media for calling out racists who were attacking him online. “There are forces out there in the community that are supporting my opponents that really want us to go backwards,” Nenshi said in a Facebook video that sparked outrage. “That don’t want a city that is so inclusive of everyone.” Elsewhere, Nenshi warned against becoming a colder, meaner city, and he said that racism needed to be named and shamed. This was somehow a no-no.

White people in Calgary, as elsewhere in Canada, tend to think we’re colour-blind. After Nenshi was first elected in 2010, the national media made a big deal of him being Canada’s first Muslim mayor. Calgarians themselves barely recognized what they’d done. They’d been drawn to the policy nerd because he seemed to understand city hall better than anyone else; they weren’t trying to make a statement.

And yet, the 2017 campaign showed us that our colour-blindness is an illusion. After Nenshi called out the online trolls — and criticized Smith for failing to strongly denounce them — Calgary’s conservative establishment became defensive and accused Nenshi of playing the so-called “race card.” You can talk about race in Calgary but only, it seems, if it’s in comforting, reassuring terms.

Context is important here. In 2015, Nenshi was the target of 36 serious threats that were serious enough to involve police, according to city data. In 2016, the number jumped to 65. In public, as they happened, Nenshi didn’t draw much attention to these threats, even when they nearly doubled. He kept on with The Speech, portraying Calgary as a place of welcome. But, later, in the heat of the election campaign, when he dared to bring up Calgary’s simmering racism, he found a city in denial.

Like Barack Obama addressing Americans, Nenshi gave a portrayal of Calgary that was, perhaps, overly charitable. Bizarrely, in calling out racism, Nenshi faced more outrage than Ward Sutherland, the incumbent councillor who, in the last days of the campaign, made a quip about “Johnny Jew from New York” while commenting on public art at an election debate. Sutherland was re-elected on Monday; he claimed in the days after the debate that he had said “Johnny Choo,” perhaps meaning “Jimmy Choo,” in reference to a London-based shoe designer he’d learned about from Sex and the City. (The video is online, and Sutherland’s alliteration is crystal clear.) For all our progress, Calgary remains a place where you can let slip an anti-Semitic slur and still get re-elected.

Nenshi’s challenge now will be building consensus on Calgary’s fifteen-member city council, which now has four new faces. (All eleven incumbents were re-elected, which illustrates the absurd advantage incumbents hold in municipal elections—but that’s a topic for another time.) Nenshi has struggled to build council relationships in the past, leading to frustrating logjams on issues such as the city-wide legalization of secondary suites. Having won with a narrower victory than his past two elections, Nenshi has some reflecting to do, but then, so do Calgarians. Our defensiveness on the subject of race did not look good on us. We have to stop edging away from that conversation.

By Nenshi’s telling, the story of this election was that Calgarians rejected partisan politics on the municipal level. That’s part of it. But we are left now with some uncomfortable truths about our city. In 2010, we congratulated ourselves for being more progressive than we thought we were. In 2017, as we look in the mirror, we face a more discomforting truth: we’re not as far along as we think.

—Jeremy Klaszus

A version of this piece was also published by the Walrus.