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Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says he thinks the vast majority of people in this country would like to help refugees.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Born in Toronto to parents who emigrated from Tanzania, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi is watching how many Syrian refugees will be allowed into Canada.

Before his keynote speech at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship's LaFontaine-Baldwin symposium, Mr. Nenshi expressed his frustration with the federal government's handling of the Syrian issue.

Have you had any contact with Immigration Canada about how many Syrians are already here and how many more are coming?

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The numbers change every day. The numbers that people who work for the agencies and families trying to sponsor Syrian immigrants do not match the numbers the government is giving us [the Conservatives' most recent plan is to absorb 20,000 Iraqi and Syrian refugees]. If we can't share with our citizens basic data like that, if we're not honest, to me that's treating citizens with contempt.

I think the reason this conversation about the Syrian refugees hit us so deeply in the heart is because we were suddenly confronted with a very big gap between the stories we tell ourselves about who were are and the actions we take. When I was seven, my [northeast Calgary] community changed forever because suddenly we welcomed hundreds and thousands of refugees from Vietnam. Ultimately, those folks have enriched our community beyond belief, like the Hungarian refugees did in 1956. To me, there's something profound about Canada that a community said, 'Let's support a Hungarian Ball so that these folks feel comfortable in this place.' It sounds trite but it's an important part of our psyche. That's what we've got to get right on the Syrian side, and that's why I think the politicians who are using this as a micro-targeting exercise are missing the point where Canadians really are.

Has Parliament Hill responded to your questions and suggestions?

The only thing I have heard from the federal government on this in any way was that as long as I don't commit a terrorist act, I shouldn't have to worry my pretty little head without losing my Canadian citizenship under Bill C-24 [which allows the government to revoke the citizenship of certain dual nationals who are convicted of terrorism].

How did your family end up in Canada?

This past summer, I went to Tanzania for the first time in almost 40 years. I took my mom to the shore of Lake Victoria at Mwanza and I looked across and realized that if my parents had been born on the other side of that lake, instead of being immigrants to Canada in 1971, they would have been refugees coming to Canada in 1972.

My dad was working in a hotel in Arusha and, then as now, Arusha was used for a lot of international meetings, and my dad met a lot of Canadians. They used to get the Toronto Star delivered to them and they would give the newspaper to my dad when they were done with it. He saw the pictures of the opening of Toronto's City Hall. He couldn't understand how a building could be so tall yet round. So he said, 'One day in my life I'm going to go see that City Hall.' The point of the story is Dad came to Canada because he wanted to see a City Hall and, 38 years later, just before he passed away, he had an opportunity in a different City Hall to see his son become the mayor. That may sound like an extraordinary story, but it isn't. It's extraordinary in detail, but it's a very ordinary story. Only in Canada.

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Did you experience racism when you ran for mayor?

I had a little bit of vandalism at my campaign office, which happens on every campaign for every politician. There was much questioning about what the motivation was, and I was like, 'If you're going to be a stupid vandal, attach a note so I know what you're doing.' At that point, the feeling in the city was, 'Geez, I hope these people were just jerks and not racist jerks.' And I continue to believe they were just jerks who had a bad sense of timing. The most interesting thing happened after that incident. I received an anonymous donation for the maximum allowed by law [$5,000]. You don't just get a maximum donation by credit card on the website with a note saying, 'I hope this will go to help you. I've been watching you a while and what you stand for is what I stand for.'

Do I still experience racism? Yeah, I get it all the time. You learn to get a thick skin. You know that these are not representative of the vast majority of good, decent people. So you've got racists versus people saying, 'how can I help refugees?' It's probably hyperbole to say it's 100 to one on people who want to help versus the racists, but I don't think that's far off the number.

What does the Alberta economy need beyond a rise in oil prices?

The questions Albertans should be asking themselves in this economic debate in this election are: When we went through the good times, the boom times, was that because of government policy? Was it despite government policy? Or did government policy have nothing to do with it? It's actually a very profound question, and I suspected we would hear the opposition parties saying we've had the biggest cheerleader in the world for the Alberta energy sector [Conservative Leader Stephen Harper] and we haven't got many pipelines built. The point is to create a resilient and sustainable economy. And when I say sustainable, I don't mean just environmentally sustainable. I mean financially and socially sustainable. We need the entrepreneurs and innovators to stay here. That's what better diversifies our economy, not government going, 'Ah, we should invest in hydroponic cucumbers.'

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this digital story incorrectly stated that Mr. Nenshi's northeast Calgary community changed seven years ago. Mr. Nenshi was actually referring to the changes he saw when he was 7 years old. This digital version has been corrected.

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