‘Ups and downs’: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi on 11 years in office

With less than a week until Calgarians elect a new mayor, outgoing Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi reflects on his 11 years in office, and how the city has changed in the past decade. 

There have been four states of local emergency declared in 136 years. Nenshi has been mayor for all of them. 

“Lucky me,” Nenshi says, adding that floods, windstorms, hailstorms, economic drops, and the COVID-19 pandemic have had one constant — people coming together. 

“The flood, of course, is the best example. Thousands and thousands of people coming into the flooded areas and just cleaning up stranger’s basements. But through the pandemic, through every other crisis we’ve had, the number one thing we’ve been able to count on is the kindness of people looking after one another,” Nenshi said. 

“It also meant that we were able to build a very flexible government. And to me, that’s very exciting because people know they can count on their government to be there at times of crisis.” 

Periods of change 

Nenshi said Calgary is a very different city compared to when he was first elected in 2010, when the city’s population had just grown to a million people. 

WATCH | Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says city politics largely non-partisan:

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says city politics largely non-partisan

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Since then, he said the city has had a lot of victories in infrastructure, transit and housing, shaping the city into what it is today. 

“We were going through a transition from what I call a big, small city to a small, big city. And we were really trying to find our way on the national and international stages. And I think we’ve really moved forward on that over the last decade,” he said. 

He’s also worked with six premiers in the time he’s been mayor. 

“There’s been ups and there’s been downs,” he said. 

Upcoming civic election

Calgarians will head to the polls Oct. 18. 

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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi reflects on his time in office

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Nenshi said he’ll help Calgary’s next mayor through their first council meeting, and will hang onto their phone number until the end of the year. 

“Then I’m going to lose their phone number. They will have mine if they ever need me, but I certainly am not going to insert myself into their world,” he said. 

He said the main thing he’s noticed about recent elections is increasing levels of division amongst voters. 

“The one thing that I’ve really noted is there’s very few people who seem to be going into the ballot box with a sense of joy and a sense of optimism. People seem to be voting against something rather than voting for a better future,” Nenshi said. 

He says he’s been critical of this year’s mayoral candidates for not putting forth an inspiring vision of the future, but said they’re responding to an electorate that is tired.  

“A lot of folks have just been asking me, just tell me who to vote for. I’m exhausted. I don’t want to go through all this,” he said. 

“Of course, I’m not going to do that.” 

WATCH | Mayor Nenshi discusses what he is most proud of:

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi discusses what he’s most proud of over his career

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Nenshi says as the city has grown, infrastructure has kept pace. 4:12

But the one piece of advice he will give is for Calgarians to think about the person who can best represent the city on national and international levels. 

Highlights 

Nenshi said looking back 20 years from now, there are a lot of things he could point to and say he’s proud of. 

“I can point to that library, which I hope will last for many generations. I can point to all of the roads, the largest investment in mobility in our history. I can point to the [MAX Purple] and the largest investment in transit in our history. I can point to those four new rec centres. There’s a lot that we built as the city has grown,” he said. 

But what he’s most proud of is deeper than that, Nenshi says. 

In 2010 politics in the city were a lot more rigid, but that election had huge voter turnout, he says.   

“I hope that is just a symbol of people having taken a risk on the future of their community, with me continuing to be deeply involved in the future of their community… and I really hope that’s something that continues.” 

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What’s next 

“This is a really pivotal time in the city’s future. And I’ve been saying that for a long time,” Nenshi said. 

He says the city is dealing with five crises simultaneously — public health, mental health and addiction, economy, environment and equity. 

“It’s very difficult to leave at this really critical crossroads,” he said. 

But looking at the bigger picture, he says it’s time. 

“When I take the long view, when I take the 11-year view of the city, it is immeasurably better in so many ways,” he said. 

As mayor, you live, eat, sleep, and dream about the job. Nenshi said it took some toll, but that was expected. 

WATCH | Mayor Nenshi on COVID-19, floods and economic drops:

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi reflects on his time in office

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The outgoing mayor talks COVID-19, floods and economic drops. 2:57

“Ultimately that is something that I signed up for and I was happy to do it. I am looking forward to focusing a little more on physical and mental health and family going forward.” 

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