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Cowtown no more: Why Calgary chose Naheed Nenshi Add to ...

The Devonian Room is an elegant, semicircular dining lounge on the second floor of Calgary's Petroleum Club, panelled in dark wood and lit by a glittering outsized chandelier. The commemorative plaque downstairs will tell you the room only dates to 1958, but in a city with little in the way of Old Money - or Old Anything Else, really - this is as seasoned as a seat of established power gets.

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The space is a natural fit for a new mayor's luncheon address to the august old Canadian Club of Calgary. The only incongruous detail on Wednesday was the figure at the podium - the mayor-elect, Naheed Nenshi, looking at ease, if weary, two whirlwind days after pulling off an election victory so incongruous with the rest of Canada's stock image of Calgary that it made headlines and caused chatter nationwide all week.

"It's time for people to look at this place," Mr. Nenshi told his genteel audience, "and to look at this place as it is - as a city of boundless opportunity."

Calgary's 2010 election was supposed to be a choice between two flavours of status quo: Ric McIver, nine-year alderman, guided by some Stephen Harper strategists; and Barb Higgins, glitzy anchorwoman, coached by Ralph Klein's former chief of staff.

These established frontrunners were beaten, soundly, by a policy-wonk business prof from not-terribly-renowned Mount Royal University, which until last year was a community college. A guy whose age (38), religion (Ismaili Muslim), ethnicity (Indian by way of Tanzania) and local origin (Calgary's hardscrabble, polyglot northeast quadrant) were all without precedent in the mayor's chair. A guy who was admittedly "within spitting distance of zero" in the polls when the race began.

Outside Calgary, along with talk of his skilled use of digital channels such as Facebook and Twitter, there has been particular emphasis on his Harvard degree and his Muslim faith, almost as if he were a precocious and extremely high-profile minority hire. Among the electorate itself, these details were incidental.

The real key to the Nenshi phenomenon is that he electrified the city with a new vision of itself. Mr. Nenshi won not on image or spin but on big ideas and a road map dense with details on how to make them manifest. Cities - great cities, anyway - are products of the stories they tell themselves about what they are and what it is possible for them to become.

In their choice of mayor, Calgarians didn't see ethnic precedent or a Twitter feed; they saw a reflection worth striving for.

I can't pretend to objectivity on the subject. I'm describing what I saw in Naheed Nenshi's vision of Calgary, and what my Calgary-bred wife and our other friends and colleagues who became rabid Nenshi supporters saw.

What we now know, to our surprise and delight, is just how widely that viewpoint is shared.

A city hungry for ideas

The trailhead of my own path was a luncheon invitation my wife and I accepted back in 2007, not long before the last lacklustre civic election returned a slew of incumbents to City Hall.

A retired oil-patch veteran named Dave Matthews had embarked on a series of mealtime roundtables on Calgary's future. Many of his old colleagues had relocated to Victoria, and in essence he was trying to decide if he should do the same.

The core question facing the city, as Mr. Matthews saw it, was this: "Can we make this a great city or will it remain essentially a commercial centre, like Fort MacMurray South? You come here to Calgary to make your buck, and when you've made your buck or retire, you take off somewhere where you'd really prefer to live. Do we have to stay in that sort of mode, or can we do something better?"

It was something I'd been wondering myself, because the city I'd come to know since I'd moved from Toronto in 2003 bore only a passing resemblance to the caricature I'd arrived with. Was Calgary an oil-rich, artless rodeo town? A cluster of suburbs in search of a city? A steak-eating, SUV-driving, right-winging hicksville? From certain angles, this might be what immediately meets your eye.

But my wife worked as a funding officer for the Department of Canadian Heritage in the first years after I arrived, and through her I quickly discovered a rich undercurrent of cosmopolitan culture: A vibrant independent theatre scene and a refreshingly supportive literary community. Wildly inventive puppet troupes working out of divey warehouse spaces. Strip malls just as likely to contain a great little Vietnamese joint or a Filipino grocer as a pizza place or convenience store.

The most controversial public-infrastructure project in recent years has been a pedestrian bridge commemorating peace, designed by Santiago Calatrava.

The numbers supported my sense that I'd arrived in a city considerably less monocultural than its image. There are as many Chinese in Calgary as Ukrainians, more South Asians than Italians. Calgarians spend more of their money per capita attending arts performances than any other large Canadian city's residents.

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