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Alberta’s two big-city mayors will leave office a week after municipal elections on Monday – Naheed Nenshi, 49, of Calgary, and Don Iveson, 42, of Edmonton. Friends before politics, they are progressives who went some way in knocking down old stereotypes about the province on the national stage.

Both were first elected as mayors (in 2010 and 2013, respectively) at relatively young ages, in years of economic abundance for Alberta. They have led through a tumultuous period – marked by floods, fires, oil-price crashes and emptied downtown office towers, a revolving door of premiers and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr. Nenshi faced a fraught re-election in 2017, when a hurting economy and his outspokenness soured some Calgarians. A three-hour drive north, Mr. Iveson has turned off some Edmontonians for spending too much of his time on “confounding social issues the city is ill-equipped to solve,” according to the Edmonton Journal.

They’ve both been fierce critics of the provincial government’s recent handling of the Delta-driven fourth wave. The two mayors spoke to The Globe’s Kelly Cryderman the week before municipal voting day.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi rides his horse during the Calgary Stampede parade in Calgary, on July 8, 2016. After 11 years in the role, Nenshi will not seek re-election in next week's municipal election.Todd Korol/Reuters

Naheed Nenshi

Can you tell me about your regrets? Do they include the business-taxes debate in 2018 and 2019, and personally, not getting public support from Ottawa and the province for a bid on the 2026 Olympics?

Because of the structural problem of how property taxes are calculated, the hollowing out of Calgary’s downtown was leading to extraordinary tax increases for businesses outside of the downtown.

We ended up passing a budget with no relief for businesses because no one could agree on which model to use. Business got these giant tax bills. They thought their city didn’t care about them, and it was very difficult on everybody. And then council massively overreacted, and did this $60-million of mid-year budget cuts, which were ill-thought-out and ill-conceived. And three or four months later, I ended up reversing almost all of them in our budget. I really wish I hadn’t let that go on so long. Because it eroded peoples’ trust in government to do the right thing.

My biggest personal leadership regret was my own mishandling of the 2018 Olympics file. I should have been far more aggressive with the provincial and federal governments.

You have also talked about the importance of the mayor on the national and international stage. Did you change some people’s ideas about Calgary?

It’s been a really long time since anyone called it Cowtown. If I had a little bit to do with that, I think that’s really important. The fact that a small, often-frozen city on the Canadian Prairies was ranked the best city to live in in the entire Western Hemisphere by The Economist is a pretty big deal.

I know you’re not endorsing anyone, but do you feel confident that Calgary will be in good hands with the new mayor and council members?

I have not endorsed anyone in Calgary because I don’t think it’s fair. I jokingly say that when I said I was going to step down, I wanted to make room for new and diverse voices – but as I watch the debates, I’m like, “wait, not these voices.”

The other thing I will not be shy to do is to call out misinformation. So for example, one of the [mayoral] candidates, Councillor [Jeromy] Farkas, made a shocking, misleading and false, and insulting statement at a debate recently where he insinuated that city administration was skimming money from land developers.

He was the vice-chair of the audit committee. He should know better, and it is completely false. It’s insulting to public servants, and I have no time for politicians who are going to lie or mislead the public. He should apologize.

Does that mean you would say “do not vote for Jeromy Farkas”?

I would say if he doesn’t apologize and retract his statement one should think hard about their vote.

On the provincial government’s handling of COVID-19 during the fourth wave: When you’re calling them out, does it force any action?

Throughout the pandemic, until this past summer, I have had actually a very good relationship with the Premier. There were points when we were talking several times a week, and I really do believe that at that time they were listening and they were making the right moves. But at the point where they became fixated on the ‘best summer ever,’ and opening for the Stampede, I really felt they weren’t listening anymore.

Are you going to take some actual time off? I know you’re not a beach vacation guy. Are you going to go visit a great city of the world?

You know, that was my plan, but with COVID being what it is, I’m not sure how responsible that is. I am going to take some time off, and what people never realize about me – because I do have endless capacity for working – I also have an endless capacity for being lazy. I will have no problem at all napping through the day and watching movies through the evening. And going to the gym and focusing a little bit on my physical and mental health. That is my plan for the next little while. And then some time in the new year, I’ve probably got to go find a job, or something.

There’s been talk of you getting some kind of international posting. Do you think there’s anything to that? Can you see yourself leaving the city?

I’m the least-diplomatic person in the world. So I’m not entirely convinced that would do anybody any good if I were a diplomat. That said, I just want to serve. If there is any way in which my limited skill set can be helpful, I will never say no. I will always think about it. But as I say, my home is Calgary. My family is in Calgary. My 80-year-old mother lives with me.

I’ve got too big a mouth. I won’t comment on civic issues because that’s not fair. The new mayor and the council need the ability to have space to do the work they were elected to do. But there’s no way I’m going to shut up about provincial and federal issues.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson chants with Oilers fans in Edmonton on April 20, 2017. First elected in 2013, Iveson is not seeking re-election.CODIE MCLACHLAN /The Canadian Press

Don Iveson

Do you have any regrets about your time as mayor?

I would say no regrets. I’m in a place of gratitude about the things I did get to work on, even if some of them didn’t get as far as we would like.

What didn’t get as far as you would have liked?

Two main categories where we really struggled with the government of Alberta. The first would be the best-in-class arrangement between cities and provincial government – the city charter – with a very strong risk-sharing model, that most importantly had an upside to cities for helping to drive economic growth. And risk-sharing, frankly, downward too – so if the economy contracted, we would share that risk. That was the kind of mature partnership I think this country needs and certainly municipalities need.

It is very sad to me that after years of effort and progress, to have those things reversed [in 2019] and reversed in the heartless way that they were – treacherous, really, given that it was a reversal of a campaign promise. That was a gut-punch to the relationship between the economic engines of the province, and the province looking to restart its economic engine.

And the second is housing and homelessness. We’ve gone over the last eight years from a federal partner that was largely disengaged on this question to now one committed to a national goal of ending chronic homelessness. And we’ve gone from having the province that was out front on this under [former premier] Ed Stelmach to a province, that seems, as much as anything out of spite, unwilling to even take the federal dollars that are on the table for housing as part of COVID relief.

What about the province’s handling of the pandemic?

I think that speaks for itself. It’s sad, because I actually think that the early part of the pandemic was really well-handled, when there was a lot of open communication. But the later stages, and particularly the fourth wave: I was very nervous in June based on everything we were seeing about Israel and other jurisdictions, where Delta was more rampant, and from what our epidemiologists and doctors were telling us.

Now there are cascading effects in the health care system and the strain on frontline workers, from our first responders and the municipal side, to the nurses and the doctors, dealing with vaccine-hesitant people whose hesitancy was enabled by the message “everything’s fine” from the provincial government. It’s a huge tragedy, and it was avoidable.

The other thing that irks me is the colossal reputational damage Alberta has inflicted upon itself, and what that’s going to mean for the restart of our tourism industry, for labour-market attraction. I’ve just been in Ottawa for a couple of days, and people wince, and sort of joke like, “Well, I don’t know, you’re from Alberta. Should we shake hands?”

What makes you hopeful, then, at this stage?

I think back to something that the mayor of Strasbourg [France] told me once at a conference. He had been at a gathering of European leaders and they were fretting about Brexit and fretting about the dynamics of the European Union, and what this was all going to mean for their cities. And it was the mayor of Hamburg who said, “Hey folks, remember Hamburg has been here for 1,000 years. And countries have come and gone, and empires have come and gone. But the city shall persist for another 1,000 years.”

So what gives me hope is that Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge – these are timeless. They’re going through very tough times right now. We know what boom and bust looks like, and we always come through it. And one of these days we’re going to learn from it better than we have in the past. Because we are smart people and we’re caring people. These communities will hold together, because they’re too important to the people who live in them.

I do want to ask you what comes next, and why did you decide not to run federally?

There’s nothing imminent and I have no specific plans. I don’t feel like I have unfinished business in public service. But I wouldn’t rule anything out. I’m going to take a few months off to reflect, and do some writing. As to the federal question, I did take a hard look at it. In the end, the timing and the conditions weren’t right for me. My kids have grown up most of their conscious life with their dad as mayor. I’m looking forward to being more present in their lives for at least the next few years until as teenagers they don’t want to talk to me any more.

These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

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