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The West

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

And 23.2 per cent of the city's commuters get to work by means other than cars - just two percent lower than the non-car commuting rate in vociferously green Vancouver. Calgary might speak to the rest of the country in a single conservative voice, but it talks to itself in a hundred more nuanced argots.

The next time I ran into Mr. Matthews was at the inaugural CivicCamp, the first in a series of civic-engagement events I helped launch in early 2009 with a couple of dozen academics, activists and community leaders, including a business professor I'd known only from his column in The Calgary Herald - Naheed Nenshi.

On the model of the "unconferences" popular with tech types, instead of having a pre-set agenda, CivicCamp attendees nominated topics on the spot, then broke into groups to discuss them. The themes of that day read, in retrospect, like a first draft of the 12 "better ideas" the Nenshi campaign released, one per week, during their campaign.

They were clustered around the themes of transparency, mobility and livability - a radically enhanced role for the city auditor to keep watch on spending; tighter caps on campaign donations; new investments in transit infrastructure; and an overhaul of the city's growth model to redress the debt that City Hall incurred in the housing boom, bringing water and sewer services to new homes on the periphery.

I spoke to Mr. Matthews again this week. He told me he'd put any thoughts of a West Coast relocation on indefinite hold.

"People are really hungry for ideas," he said. "Previously they've been so apathetic because they've been treated like idiots, with just sound bites. So at least Naheed's tried to make longer discussions. He didn't dumb things down."

The scent of opportunity

On Wednesday I arranged to meet Mr. Nenshi at a restaurant in a Northeast Calgary strip mall. It was an eight-table, family-run Indian place called Mirch Masala, tucked between an African grocer and a long-established steak joint called the Reef 'n' Beef.

Mr. Nenshi had grown up in the Marlborough neighbourhood immediately south of the strip mall and now lived just a bit north of it; the drycleaner next door had been his default cleaner his whole suit-wearing life.

This was the land of opportunity to which Mr. Nenshi had been brought by his immigrant parents as an infant in the early 1970s. The Nenshis had first landed in Toronto, but an uncle had landed a job in Calgary with Canadian Pacific, and his enthusiastic reports convinced them to pack all their worldly possessions into a Dodge Dart and head west.

In Mr. Nenshi's stump-speech shorthand, the signature moment of his childhood was convincing the local librarians to let him take out more books than the official limit. Hard-working and ultra-bright, Mr. Nenshi ascended a steep, immigrant-parent's-dream of an arc: the gifted program at a downtown high school, student-union presidency at the University of Calgary, lucrative consulting gig in New York, scholarship in public policy at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and then home to be close to his family.

In 2002, when he was only 30, Mr. Nenshi was named chairman of the Epcor Centre, Calgary's premier performing-arts venue. Over tikka masala and vindaloo, he described it as a high-relief illustration of Calgary's egalitarian promise.

"That role had always been held by a corporate executive or a society matron in the past. And I don't recall anybody blinking or even thinking this was a strange thing. And I'm not so sure that would be the case in other cities in this country."

In speeches, Mr. Nenshi likes to paraphrase the Aga Khan, spiritual head of his Ismaili faith, calling Canada "the most successful experiment in pluralism in human history." Calgary, Mr. Nenshi argues, is the first among Canada's urban equals - a young city, in both historic and demographic terms, populated disproportionately by well-educated recent arrivals. Its business community is driven by the dramatic dynamics of boom and bust. There is no governmental presence larger in jurisdiction than City Hall.

That mix has produced an uncommonly smooth social fluidity, evidenced by the non-issue his ethnicity was in this election.

"In Calgary," Mr. Nenshi told me, "nobody cares who your daddy was and nobody cares what your last name is. They care what you bring to the table."

Harnessing boomtown energy

That boomtown mentality has long been a civic handicap for Calgary. It fuels the get-rich-and-get-out approach, encouraging a foreshortened time horizon in its institutions and a transient's sense of civic indifference. My wife, who came of age during the last bust, measures her social circle in part by all the holes left by those who never came back; when Mr. Nenshi took a call during our dinner, I noticed he used the old-hand Calgarian's tic of giving directions by landmarks that have been torn down.

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