Naheed Nenshi, elected mayor of Calgary in 2010, is the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city.
Early Life and Education
Naheed Nenshi is one of two children of Kurbanali Hussein Nenshi, a small businessman, and Noorjah Nenshi. The couple immigrated to Canada from Tanzania in 1971, a year before Naheed was born. He grew up in Calgary’s Marlborough neighbourhood and attended Queen Elizabeth High School, where he participated in debating and acting.
“I grew up in a house where we read the newspaper every day, and we talked about politics over the dinner table,” he said. “I always did student government…and I was always very, very involved in policy issues, but I never really thought that I would be a politician. I thought maybe a journalist, or maybe a professor.”
A childhood hero while growing up was former Calgary mayor and Alberta lieutenant-governor Grant MacEwan — whom Nenshi met during his ninth-grade graduation, their meeting later immortalized in a photograph on Nenshi's desk at city hall.
Nenshi studied commerce at the University of Calgary, where he became president of the students’ union. He graduated in 1993 and went on to earn a Master of Public Policy degree from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in 1998.
Consultant and Professor
After university Nenshi worked for McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm, as an engagement manager, advising large telecommunication companies, banks, retail businesses and oil and gas companies with corporate strategies. In 2001, he founded his own consulting firm, the Ascend Group, whose clients included the United Nations, the Alberta government and various clothing retailers.
As a member of Canada25, a now-defunct, non-profit organization that helped engage young adults on public policy issues, Nenshi authored the 2002 policy paper, “Building Up: Making Canada’s Cities Magnets for Talent and Engines of Development.”
In 2004, Nenshi became an associate professor at Mount Royal University’s Bisset School of Business, where he specialized in non-profit management and marketing.
In 2004, Nenshi made a failed bid for a seat on Calgary city council. He spent the next six years as an academic, and exhorted his fellow citizens from all walks of life to enter municipal politics as a way of making change and building a stronger community in Calgary.
“One of the things I have learned is that it is very easy to get people involved in their community — you just have to ask them, ” he said. “But it is very hard to get people involved in politics.”
In 2010, at age 38, Nenshi entered the race for mayor. He made the decision as a way to show young people that voters “can elect good people into government . . . I wanted to prove a point,” he said. “Could a relatively unknown academic with good ideas and no money actually do well in an election? That was our [campaign’s] goal, to figure that out.”
Nenshi’s rivals were alderman Ric McIver and former CTV Calgary news anchor Barb Higgins. Rather than run a traditional campaign, he relied heavily on social media and other then-unorthodox means to engage voters. His campaign was dubbed “the purple revolution” as it reached out to voters across the political spectrum. The campaign’s hallmarks included the 40 or so coffee parties Nenshi held in the homes of his supporters, where he spoke to his hosts’ friends and families about his campaign platform.
A September 2010 Calgary Herald-CTV poll showed Nenshi with only eight per cent support — well behind McIver (43 per cent) and Higgins (28 per cent). A month later, however, another Herald-CTV poll showed Nenshi in a virtual tie with McIver and Higgins. On 18 October, he was elected Calgary’s 36th mayor — winning 40 per cent of the vote, including almost 28,000 more votes than McIver.
He was re-elected in 2013, receiving almost 74 per cent of the vote.
As with his campaigns, Nenshi has relied on social media as mayor to engage citizens. During the floods of June 2013 (see also Flood), he tirelessly offered comfort to besieged residents and urged people to help their neighbours rather than wait for emergency officials. His Twitter account gained 28,261 followers within 10 days after the floods, according to a report from Marketwired.
He has remained a prolific tweeter throughout his mayoralty, using the medium as a way of directly answering Calgarians’ concerns and questions on everything from transit policy to parking tickets. A 2016 New York Times headline called him “A Mayor Fluent in Twitter.”
Since taking office, Nenshi been a staunch supporter of the Alberta oil industry, which makes its corporate headquarters in Calgary. And he has been a vocal proponent of new and expanded pipelines to carry Alberta oil to foreign markets — a controversial stance among other big-city Canadian mayors outside Alberta.
Nenshi has sometimes been criticized for being better at talking than getting things done in his city. However, he has presided over upgrades and rider incentives in the city's mass transit system, and the building of a new airport access tunnel. His council has introduced a new city hall auditing structure. He has also worked, with mixed success, to contain the city's urban sprawl, while also championing projects to revitalize neglected or tired neighbourhoods.
Nenshi has been a vocal supporter of ethnic and gender diversity among the city’s senior staff, and is also the first Calgary mayor to serve as a grand marshal for the city’s gay pride parade. And he has provided a powerful, personal symbol of Calgary's growing ethnic and political diversity in the 21st century.
He was awarded the 2014 World Mayor Prize by the British-based City Mayors Foundation, a research and public affairs group, which called him "an urban visionary who doesn’t neglect the nitty-gritty of local government."
Nenshi’s lifelong passion has been making communities work better. On his 3ThingsforCalgary.ca website, the mayor challenged every resident to do three things for the city — whether selling pies at a bake sale for a charity, or donating toys to a community toy bank.