Sima Sahar Zerehi – Torontonians have never really felt the need to look to other cities in Canada for inspiration. Let’s face it we think that as the residents of Canada’s most metropolitan city, we are the ones to be watched.
Secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, we think of our city as the Canadian capital, ok not when it comes to federal politics (although, we believe we wield much sway when it comes to setting the political direction for the nation) but certainly we are the trendsetters, the place to be when it comes to culture, arts, finance, and above all diversity.
So it’s no surprise that when Torontonians woke up on the morning of October 19th to a headline about a Canadian city that read ‘Young, Diverse, Dynamic’ we were shocked and dismayed to find that the fuss was not about us and our beloved metropolis but about Calgary.
I mean, to a Torontonian, Calgary is the Texas of Canada. The place where right wing fringe politics run amuck and conservative politicians flourish .
Calgary is the place where on March 21st, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination; neo-Nazi groups took to the streets in opposition to the growth of immigration in the province.
Calgary is the city known for the stampede and bumper stickers that read I heart Alberta beef. This is oil town, where white bread politicians and businessmen in cowboy hats rule the wild-Canadian West. This is not a city that we as Torontonians have ever felt a need to compete with when it comes to diversity.
Yet, this week, a record-breaking number of Calgary residents marched to the ballot box and elected Naheed Nenshi, as their mayor. Nenshi, and his city Calgary now both share the distinction of being/housing Canada’s first mayor of Muslim descent.
Calgary can now boast about giving birth to one of Canada’s most inspiring immigrant success stories. Nenshi’s family immigrated to Canada from Tanzania in the early seventies; at the time his mother was pregnant with Naheed who was born in Toronto (at least we have this to hold on to).
What was amazing about Nenshi’s victory was the fact that his campaign was an honest to goodness grassroots efforts fueled by volunteers and supported by the energy of youth. Nenshi, seemed to be one of the few Canadian politicians who took notes from the lessons learned across the border during the Obama presidential race.
Through sheer determination Nenshi’s ‘Purple Army’ of volunteers was successful in defeating two campaigns that were not only better-funded but also backed by Calgary’s political royalty; one of his opponents was supported by Stephen Harper’s campaign team.
To really appreciate the grass-roots nature of Nenshi’s team you have to watch his acceptance speech, delivered by a genuinely surprised winner in a sparse basement hastily decorated by campaign placards.
In his acceptance speech Nenshi stated: “You know, the Purple Army was never about winning an election – it’s a good thing. It was about revitalizing the level of conversation in the city. It was about talking to the person next to you on the bus, it was about taking an extra minute with the cashier at Safeway, and now it is about doing the work to build a better Calgary that we all dream of.”
But don’t be fooled by Nenshi’s low-budget campaign; and his non-assuming geeky demeanor, this newly branded Calgary Mayor knows how to play with the big boys.
Nenshi’s a Harvard graduate and a leading academic figure in the emerging field of nonprofit management and holds a tenured position as a professor at Mount Royal University’s Bissett School of Business.
While his academic achievements are impressive, Nenshi is not just an academic; he also has significant corporate credentials. In the past he’s worked for the International business-consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., where he advised large companies on their corporate strategies.
In addition to an impressive employment history, Nenshi also has a long track record of involvement in Calgary’s’ non-profit sector, ranging from his role as Chairman of the EPCOR CENTRE for the Performing Arts, to his work with the United Way and Brown Bagging for Calgary’s Kids.
But its not Nenshi’s resume that has the country and media talking, the buzz is all about the fact that so called ‘white-bread’ Calgary has succeeded in gaining the distinction of electing Canada’s first mayor of Muslim descent.
For Torontonians, the Calgary election should serve as a wake-up call about what is possible when you activate the forces of social and political change and focus on improving your city and making it a world-class metropolis rather than on the bickering within City Hall.
Nenshi dared to rely on hope and a vision for a better Calgary to inspire voters to the ballot box. In his acceptance speech he outlines this vision, “Building that better Calgary – a Calgary that is innovative, that is risk-taking, that is not afraid of change, that is diverse and strong and proud of its diversity. A Calgary that is sustainable financially, ecologically and socially. A Calgary that is the best place in Canada to start and grow a business, and a Calgary that is the best place in Canada to raise a family. And a Calgary where City Hall works.”
If any mayor can make Calgary a true rival for Toronto, it may be Nenshi and his Purple Army of volunteers committed to the principles of urban renewal.
Nenshi notes, “To the good people who work for the City of Calgary, know that I am committed to make this a place where you are proud and happy to go to work every single day, where you are proud and happy to be spending every day serving this great city.”
But will Nenshi’s victory in Calgary have an impact on Toronto’s impending election?
Mayoral candidate Joe Pantalone thinks so, he states: “Mr. Nenshi’s victory is also a relief to people in Calgary – people who want a sign, through the cloud of anger created by Mr. Smitherman and Mr. Ford, that voting for what you believe in works. Voting for what you believe in is the heart of democratic elections. I am certain Mr. Nenshi’s victory will remind people they are free to choose the candidate they feel is best, not required to choose the bad candidate who speaks more smoothly.”
According to Pantalone Nenshi’s unexpected landslide in the Calgary mayoral race should serve as a sign to Toronto voters that voting for something rather than against something can pay off.
One of Pantalone’s celebrity endorsers echoes this sentiment. Canadian actress, director and screenwriter Sarah Polley states, “Without Joe Pantalone, the destructive, angry tone of this mayoral race would be too depressing to contemplate. Joe is the only candidate for Mayor who is talking about building this city rather than tearing it down. He is dedicated to the environment and to the arts, and he understands the great value that cultural diversity brings to our city.”
George Smitherman seems to agree with his opponent when it comes to voting for positive change. In speaking about Nenshi he comments, “I don’t know him personally, but I wish him all the best in his new role. There are winds of change blowing across the country – and we’re seeing that here in Toronto. I’m for a more inclusive, stronger Toronto that builds on our motto – Diversity Our Strength.”
Smitherman clearly is picking up on the theme of diversity echoed in his campaign and hoping that while Calgary may boast electing Canada’s first mayor of Muslim descent, perhaps Toronto will also be able to celebrate electing an openly gay man to our city’s highest office.
It is clear that Nenshi’s victory has heralded a warning sign for Toronto; we can no longer rest on our laurels and assume that the distinction of being Canada’s leading city will fall on us. This country is growing and changing, and we can expect more fierce competition for the number one position amongst Canada’s leading metropolises.
On October 25, we have a chance to make a decision that will surely impact the future direction of our beloved city. We can decide if we want to vote out of fear, and anger or to vote for the hope and possibility of continuing to build, grow and innovate our city.
We can decide if on Election Day we are going to focus on the office expenditures and petty squabbles of City Hall, or to vote for a candidate that will foster Toronto as a world class city; a city reaming with festivals, culture, arts and technology; a city that is green and sustainable, diverse and inclusive and a gateway for the greatest minds and talents that the world has to offer.
For my part, Toronto is not only the place that I live, but as a first generation immigrant, it has become my homeland.
If citizenship were based on affinity I would be a citizen of Toronto. This city, its neighborhoods, festivals, parks and urban landscape are the reasons that I feel a sense of belonging to this nation.
So I will vote for the dream of a Toronto that includes new immigrants, a Toronto that is accessible and sustainable, a city of creativity and innovation.
I invite you to vote with me, because if all the dreamers, the thinkers, the innovators, and the do-gooders took to the polls, we would surely win the Toronto that we deserve.