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British Columbia Western Canadian mayors find a voice at home – and in Ottawa

Young, progressive – and connected

The mayors of Canada's three largest Western Canadian cities have acquired considerable clout with the federal Liberal government, writes Frances Bula

The four men were out for a walk on a snowy night in Ottawa last November, clearing hotel air from their heads. They stopped in front of the peace flame next to the Parliament Buildings, where they continued thrashing out what exactly they should ask for from the new Liberal government.

Let's ask them to pay half of any new transit in cities, said one. That would be a big jump – hundreds of millions – from the one-third they now pay. The group quickly agreed the idea was brilliant.

Three months later, when the federal budget was unveiled, the government included an unprecedented offer to pay for 50 per cent of any new city transit project.

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The four men were, of course, the young, progressive and, to a greater or lesser degree, very federal Liberal-connected mayors of four cities in Western Canada: Naheed Nenshi in Calgary, Don Iveson in Edmonton, Gregor Robertson in Vancouver, and Brian Bowman in Winnipeg.

They're a close group. Mr. Nenshi calls Mr. Robertson frequently and has visited him in Vancouver more than once. Mr. Iveson says he texts Mr. Nenshi "all the time" and has frequent phone calls with Mr. Bowman and Mr. Robertson, from whom he has taken over as the chair of the big city mayors' caucus.

"I go to him for advice and history and context [about the caucus]," said Mr. Iveson, speaking in his spacious office in Edmonton's high-design new City Hall, just prior to flying out to speak at the recent federal Liberal convention.

"What we want for our cities is very, very similar," said Mr. Nenshi. Mr. Robertson adds: "It's very helpful to have my fellow mayors on the same page."

Don Iveson

» Now 37, first elected to council when he was 28, elected as mayor when he was 34.

» Married to Sarah Chan, with two young children.

» Worked as the president of the Canadian University Press and then the advocacy chair for the University of Alberta Students’ Union before running for office.

» Twitter followers: 86,300.


Naheed Nenshi

» Now 44, he ran unsuccessfully for council when he was 32, then was elected mayor in a sweep when he was 38.

» Single.

» After getting a master’s in public policy at Harvard, he worked for a private consulting firm before starting his own. He was also a professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary before getting into politics.

» Twitter followers: 302,000.


Gregor Robertson

» Now 51, he entered politics as an NDP MLA when he was 40 and was elected mayor of Vancouver when he was 43.

» Divorced, with four adult children, including one foster child. Dating Chinese pop star Wanting Qu.

» He started an organic farm near Vancouver in his 20s, then went on to found and run a successful organic-juice company, Happy Planet.

» Twitter followers: 67,000. But he also has 90,000 followers on the Chinese version of Twitter, Weibo.

Frances Bula

But the three most-Western among them now also find themselves at opposite ends in a tug of war on one issue.

Mr. Robertson spent this week doing a full-frontal charge on Ottawa. Accompanied by three First Nations leaders, he campaigned aggressively to urge federal MPs to oppose any approval for the expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline that runs from Alberta to Vancouver.

He is arguing that a massive jump in tanker traffic in Vancouver, increasing the chances of an oil spill, puts the city's environment and economy at risk.

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Mr. Nenshi called him out publicly, saying what he was doing was "fear-mongering" and exaggerating the impacts.

In an interview last week, well before the Kinder Morgan drama blew up, Mr. Nenshi talked at length about the debates he has had for months with Mr. Robertson over pipelines.

"What we want for our cities is very, very similar," said Mr. Nenshi. Mr. Robertson adds: "It's very helpful to have my fellow mayors on the same page."

Echoing the arguments being used by NDP Premier Rachel Notley's team, Mr. Nenshi said Canada has a valuable resource that it is developing responsibly and ethically, which it might as well sell to the world while fossil fuels are still in use. "We are very, very lucky in this country," said the mayor. "We have resources that are valuable to the world. We are moving to a low-carbon, no-carbon world. But, in the meantime, it is very, very poor public policy to begrudge that resource. We have created a huge industry for one customer [the United States]. Our one customer has become our competitor."

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson makes his way to the Mayor's office on Tuesday October 22, 2013.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson makes his way to the Mayor’s office on Tuesday October 22, 2013.

Jason Franson/For The Globe and Mail

Mr. Iveson, also interviewed before Mr. Robertson's Ottawa visit was announced, has joined Mr. Nenshi in the past, advocating for new pipelines to one coast or another. He regrets the way mayors elsewhere are politicizing the National Energy Board process and asking everyone to think about the good of the country as a whole. He repeated that this week.

But Mr. Iveson has stayed away from personal, behind-the scenes debates with Vancouver's mayor, not really bringing up pipelines except in passing. He does adhere to the Alberta line, though, that "Alberta's carbon curve will take 15 years to bend down."

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Tactfully, Mr. Robertson says the apparent, but not real, disagreements are the outcome of the Conservative government's failure to come up with a coherent national policy. "So we're left struggling with that regionally."

Besides transit, where they agree, and pipelines, where they don't, what else separates or binds the three Western mayors?

Who can get the most done?

Mr. Robertson operates in a party system and all councillors are elected to represent the city as a whole, not wards. That makes a difference. "We're fortunate to have a party system and a city-wide mandate to get things done," said the mayor.

That has allowed the mayor to move aggressively in promoting rental-housing construction, emergency winter homeless shelters, bike lanes, density, a greenest-city action plan, and more. Yes, he acknowledges, sometimes that means he faces more backlash because his council can act more quickly and unilaterally.

As well, he said, his city is facing enormous pressures from growth and development, while Calgary and Edmonton are struggling these days with the opposite.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau shares a laugh with Mayor Naheed Nenshi at a Stampede breakfast in Calgary on July 7, 2013.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau shares a laugh with Mayor Naheed Nenshi at a Stampede breakfast in Calgary on July 7, 2013.

Todd Korol/Reuters

Both Mr. Iveson and Mr. Nenshi are the mayors of cities where there is no party system and their councillors are elected to represent neighbourhoods. "I don't know how the vote is going to go until I get to council," said Mr. Nenshi.

Although Mr. Nenshi has brought in some of the changes he promised in his first election campaign – more openness on campaign finance, more progress on building transit (where he has been unusually successful in getting provincial and federal money) – he has gotten nowhere on legalizing secondary suites in single-family houses. That leaves him open to criticisms that he talks a lot but can't always deliver.

His council is divided between those from inner "urban" wards and outer suburban ones and a group in the middle. Conservative opponents have been successfully picking off more liberal council candidates from that in-between zone.

In Edmonton, Mr. Iveson's council seems more unified. Although Edmonton also does not have a party system, it is a more uniformly liberal city than Calgary. Most of the councillors in that city's ward system are in general agreement on the big issues – transit, poverty, intensification, energy-use reduction – that the mayor campaigned on.

Who is the biggest policy nerd?

All three mayors can talk at some length about their policy initiatives, which all adhere to current trends among progressive urbanists. They all have big transit projects in the works – something that Justin Trudeau specifically promised money for during his election campaign.

They're all working on bringing density to their cities, as a way of improving affordability and livability. They all have initiatives to deal with poverty and homelessness.

Climate change and energy efficiency are prominent topics, especially in Edmonton and Vancouver. Mr. Iveson emphasized that Edmonton has the country's first commercial building that is "net zero" in energy – it generates as much as it uses – and the highest number of net-zero homes in any Canadian city.

There are bike lanes all over Calgary and they're being discussed in Edmonton. But, during his interview, Mr. Iveson, to make a point, pulled out from an office cupboard a plastic-coil-bound, four-inch-deep task-force report written in 1957 about amalgamation in Edmonton. Ding, winner of the policy-nerd competition.

Who has the biggest public profile (and biggest mouth)?

Mr. Nenshi wins this race by a long shot. He uses his position as mayor to embody Calgary's identity – friendly in a western-town way, multicultural (he's the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city), pro-business, but also progressive – even if he can't always make things happen politically.

An obvious extrovert, he doesn't hesitate to use the pulpit of his office to call people out – not just Gregor Robertson on pipelines, but rowdy residents attacking staff during transit consultations and idiots boating on the Bow River after a major flood, for example – on Twitter or via mainstream media.

All that, along with his propensity for retweeting pictures of lost cats and dogs or himself in a cowboy hat, has won him a huge following and given him a national profile. But earlier this year, his chattiness with a Boston taxi driver got him in trouble, when a video of him trashing Uber at length went public.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson as he meets with the big city mayors in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau talks with Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson as he meets with the big city mayors in Ottawa on Friday, Feb. 5, 2016.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Both Mr. Robertson and Mr. Iveson are social-media friendly, but more introverted.

Mr. Robertson, with his bike-riding and organic juice company, does seem to embody the stereotypical picture of Vancouver as an environmental nirvana. Mr. Iveson said one of his biggest challenges is getting people to understand what Edmonton's identity is. No one is quite sure.

Those mayors have had their occasional gaffes, as well.

Mr. Iveson, usually circumspect and moderate on all issues, had to apologize earlier this year for speculation that the federal decision to end the long-gun registry somehow played a part in a police officer's shooting death.

Mr. Robertson has gotten in trouble a few times. Although he is exceptionally cautious about making spontaneous public remarks, often getting his staff to issue written news releases rather than commenting directly, he was once accidentally recorded calling some citizens at council a group of "fucking hacks" for the opposition party.

Who has the best connections with the federal Liberals?

Mr. Robertson has a former communications director and a former party board member now working directly with the Liberals in Ottawa, as well as a number of other links. He seems to receive an inordinate number of visits from federal ministers, which his office faithfully tweets out pictures of, and he was the only mayor invited to go along with Environment Minister Catherine McKenna to a meeting in Japan recently of G7 ministers.

However, some political observers have speculated that his alleged "bromance" with Mr. Trudeau is under strain because of the pipeline debate.

Mr. Nenshi and Mr. Iveson both insist they are non-partisan and open to all parties. But several of Mr. Nenshi's staff have close ties to the Liberal Party. Mr. Nenshi's energetic advocacy for pipelines also give the Liberals someone they can rely on, if needed in future, who is progressive but more middle of the road than Mr. Robertson.

Several sources say that the chiefs of staff for Mr. Robertson and Mr. Nenshi essentially drafted the policy principles for the federal Liberals' budget sections on spending for housing and transit.

In Edmonton, one of Mr. Iveson's close colleagues on council was Amarjeet Sohi, now Infrastructure Minister.

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