Interview: Sarah Pynoo. Photos: Irene Seto.


Name: Naheed Kurban Nenshi

Occupation: Mayor of Calgary



Q: You’ve lived in a variety of different cities. What do you find unique about Calgary and Calgarians among the places you’ve lived?

A: One of the things that’s really great about Calgary is that we’re at a really interesting size and a really interesting point in our evolution. You can do anything in the city. The arts scene is amazing, the cultural scene is amazing, but you can still kind of get your head around it – get a sense of what’s the great stuff going on, which I think is particularly exciting.

I was at the Betty Mitchell awards recently, the theatre awards, and I said something I really believe – which is that the quality of the work we put on stage in this city is as good as anywhere in the English-speaking world. It’s something that we can be very, very proud of. So, that’s just part of the great things that are going on in this city.

You know, a survey was done recently that said something like 91 per cent of Calgarians thought the city was on the rise. That sort of optimism is actually pretty unique to Calgary. Those of us who live here don’t always see it, and don’t always see how incredibly welcoming the city is, how easy it is for people to succeed as something unique, but it’s very unique and something we should celebrate.

Q: Speaking of that survey, you guys have done a number of public-input surveys recently – the Route Ahead survey, the food trucks survey, the parks and recreation questionnaire, to name a few. That kind of interaction is very new to Calgary – what has public feedback been like?

A: Really, really, really good. We just won a big international award for the work we’re doing with the budget feedback stuff. To me it’s really important. I always say, “Look. The 13 or 14 people sitting around city council table don’t have all the answers. The 15,000 people working for the city don’t have all the answers. But the 1.1 million people who live here really are the experts.” Everyone’s an expert in their own life, an expert in living in a great city. So I think reaching out to those people, asking “How can we make the city work for you?” is really important.

Q: I’m sure your own personal expertise and thoughts about how you could make the city better was one of the driving forces behind you running for mayor in 2010. Was that the main reason?

A: Well, you know I was a university professor and I loved my job. I really loved being in the classroom. One of the areas I did a lot of work on was cities – how cities can be better (particularly civic engagement) and how people, particularly young people, could get more involved in their city. People said to me, “Look, you’ve got so many ideas on how a city can be better. It’s time to put your money where your mouth is. It’s time to actually try and put those ideas into action.”

I really resisted that for a long time, thinking, you know, I’m the idea guy. Not the guy who is a politician who shakes hands and kisses babies. People eventually wore me down, and I realized, “You know something, it’s true. Instead of just being the guy who sits in the back seat, I should try and put these ideas to work,” and that’s really what inspired me to try and do this job.

Q: So, I have to ask – do you think you’re going to run again in 2013?

A: When I was first elected I made a promise to myself that I would never be one of those politicians who was always thinking about the next election, that I should just focus on doing the best work I could do today. I deliberately have not done that. Now, a lot of people are tapping me on the shoulder saying “You know, it’s just a year and a bit away, make a decision.” So if I don’t run, I do want to make sure people have an opportunity to prepare. And if I do run I want to make sure I have an opportunity to prepare. I’ll make an announcement on that probably a year before the election – so over the course of the next two months I’ll make my decision.


Q: What have you learned from or changed your mind about since becoming mayor?

A: When I first started, there was a real feeling – and I shared it – that the city’s bureaucracy was this nameless, faceless thing that wasn’t necessarily focused on citizens. One of the things that I started with when I came here, I did a big speech to all the employees about the need to be more citizen centred. We need to realize that we serve the citizen – not the corporation, not the bureaucracy, not the process. I thought that was going to be really, really hard. I thought pushing these bureaucrats who had been in this mindset for so long out of that mindset would be extremely difficult. And, as it turns out, it hasn’t been. I’ve really learned that my colleagues who work here at the City of Calgary really understand it. Sure, sometimes there’s red tape and bureaucracy to get in the way of serving citizens, but it’s through no lack of trying. I’ve been really pleased about how dedicated the folks who work at the city are.

Q: That’s a great thing to be wrong about.

A: Yeah!

Q: Do you have any advice for the average citizen who wants to improve the city or their community?

A: We have to stop relying on government, or business, or non-profits, or somebody else to make our communities better. Every single one of us has the power in our own hands, our own hearts, our own souls to make the community better. That was really one of my first principles when I started here.

During the 2010 election, people got really engaged in politics, a lot of people for the first time. One of the things I was trying to figure out was “How do we keep that going? How do we keep that positive energy moving?” So I pulled together a group of volunteers and they called themselves the “Mayors Committee on Civic Engagement” – terrible name. They came up with this great idea. I always wear this number three for Three Things for Calgary.

The whole idea behind Three Things for Calgary is that every Calgarian has the power to make the community better. This is the year for every single person to do three things for the community. Maybe big things – you might take on a new volunteer role, join a non-profit, join a board of directors. Or they could be small things. My favourite example is the guy who said “I’m gonna have a barbecue. But I’m going to have it in my front yard instead of my back yard. And I’m going to invite my neighbours who I don’t really know.”

Kids across schools have adopted three things. “I’m going to pick up litter in my school yard, I’m going to be nice to my little brother.” It really matters. If we get this right – these three things by the way, there’s actually a fourth thing. And the fourth thing is that when you finish your three things, you talk about it. Tell people about it. Encourage three other people to do the same. If we do this right, that means there will be three million acts of city building – big ones and small ones – over the course of this year in Calgary. Things that change the city forever. And I think people have the opportunity to say, “Look, if you see something wrong, don’t expect anyone else to fix it. Just fix it. Use your own skills and your own resources and your own past to make things better.”

Q: Would you say Three Things is one of the initiatives that you’re most proud of?

A: Yeah! I was skeptical when Three Things came to me because I thought it was too simple, but it has taken off like crazy. People are really thinking “What are my three things?” So I’m very, very proud; not of the initiative, but of Calgarians for taking it on.

Q: What are some initiatives coming up that you’re looking forward to? 

A: Well, this next year is going to be largely about longer term things. It’s not about, you know, “We’re going to build this interchange.” It’s really about setting this city up for the future. There’s a lot of structural issues with how we’re funded, with the kind of powers we have. We really have to work through those. I’m hoping that this year will be a year of real strategic thinking for city council. We’ll be working with the provincial government on the creation of a new city charter, which is probably the single most important thing this city has done in decades. In addition I’ll be working with my colleagues on council to really think about, “How does this run? How is the city governed? How can we improve those things?”

It’s a bit dry. The journalists aren’t going to have a ton of things to report on, knock on wood, over the next several months – but it’s really important to get these building blocks in place so that future mayors and future councils will be able to run this thing better.

Q: So, on a more light hearted note, we put out a call for questions on Reddit, a social networking site…

A: Oh yeah. Which I don’t really get. Anyway.

Q: One question that people wanted to know was what is your favourite movie, or if you ever get the chance to go out to the theatre?

A: I’m actually a huge film buff! One of the real problems in this job is that I haven’t had as much time to see as many movies as I normally do. When I was a professor, one year I saw 30 plus movies at the Calgary International Film Festival. So it’s been hard for me.

But this year’s been a little lacklustre! I sort of liked the Avengers. There haven’t been a lot of huge, intellectually stimulating stuff yet. We’re getting into Oscar season now, so it might be a bit better.

I will say, though, that I’ve seen a lot of superhero movies lately and there’s one thing I want to know – what is with all the destruction of urban infrastructure?! I feel like the evil aliens, or warlords, or demigods just don’t think! You have to deliver clean water. How are you gonna do that when you’re blowing up the water mains? When you’re blowing up the streets? How is that subway going to keep going?!

But, like I say, I have a lot of favourite films. When I went to the Olympics this year, on the plane I watched a movie I’d never seen before – Chariots of Fire. It was very, very interesting to look at this 1980s movie about the 1920s and get a sense of what the Olympics meant at that time, very cool.

So, yeah! I’ve had the opportunity to see a lot of great things. My favourite film of all time is probably a Quebec film: Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions Barbares (The Barbarian Invasions). It’s about a young man helping his father through the process of dying. I lost my own father this year, so I went back and thought, jeez, you know, this film was very touching at that time.

Q: To follow up on your busy schedule, do you ever get the chance to cook for yourself? Or if you’re eating out, do you have any favourite restaurants that you like to stop by?

A:  No, I very rarely get to cook for myself – which is too bad, because I do like to cook and I’m actually pretty good at it. Terrible baker – all those instructions – but a reasonably good cook. But I rarely get to cook for myself, just given how this job works.

But I do get to sample a lot of great restaurants in Calgary, so I have a lot of favourite things. My favourite Indian restaurant is called Mirch Masala up in NE Calgary. They know when I get there that my favourite dish is the papri chat.

I love chicken wings, though I’m told I’m not supposed to eat them as much as I used to. The blue cheese hot wings at District and the Rhino are among my favourite things.

Sometimes I get to go to nice restaurants. I took a friend out for his birthday this weekend to Model Milk. It was my first time there and it was neat to see that kind of restaurant doing so well in Calgary.

Q: Fast Forward’s Best Of Survey. Sexiest Man.

A: Two years running! Let’s be clear!

Q: How did that feel?

A: Two years running, poor Jarome. He just can’t get there.

Obviously, that’s just validation of things that people who know me have always known. So, it’s good to see that others are learning that as well. No! That was a bit ridiculous. The people in my office keep telling me that was a “joke win”. I don’t know how I feel about that… [laughs].

Q: Anyway, the question we always like to end off on is – what makes Calgary awesome? 

A: So many things make Calgary awesome! The physical environment, the built environment, the public space… but of course, the thing that makes Calgary the most awesome is the people. The attitude of Calgarians about being welcoming, about being open, about helping other people succeed, and just about building a great place together.