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This week, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was a pitchman on the speaking circuit. He addressed the Canadian Urban Forum, the Canadian Club in Ottawa and in Toronto, a group of conference planners, MaRS (a self-described "discovery district" in Toronto for entrepreneurs), as well as students at the University of Toronto and the University of Ottawa.
He pitched them all on the virtues of investing, working and living in Calgary, as part of a trip paid for by Calgary Economic Development, a city subsidiary.
Before cutting his trip short and returning home to help lead response to the worsening flood, Mr. Nenshi spoke with The Globe and Mail about his pitch to the east, the disappointment of not having a Rob Ford-esque scandal and his upcoming election – with a warning for a rumoured challenger.
What's the gospel you're bringing here to junket, and speech, and event after event?
It's only like nine speeches in three days. The gospel of Calgary is a pretty straightforward gospel. It is a gospel about opportunity and about energy. Calgary last year was responsible for 14 per cent of all new jobs created in Canada. And we're one of the few places in the world, at the moment, where our primary concern is not unemployment, but rather a labour crunch. We anticipate that there will be 200,000 new jobs created in Calgary and area through the rest of this decade, and we want to make sure that all Canadians know there are great opportunities to be at the top of your profession in Canada, and you don't have to go abroad. That's really the first gospel I'm preaching. The second is one that mayors from time immemorial have preached, around the need for an agenda and a conversation around cities at the national level. Right now, that conversation particularly has to be focused on transit and in housing, and talking about national strategies in both of those important issues. And the final agenda, because I'm the mayor of Calgary, I can't come to Ontario without talking a little bit about the need for a national energy strategy, and the need to understand Canadian energy as the cornerstone of our prosperity.
I see in particular [immigration minister] Jason Kenney praised you for the defence of the energy sector.
I noticed that. It was very nice of him to come, actually. I mean that very sincerely. It meant a lot to me that he would take time out of his busy schedule to listen to his mayor. I was happy about that, but I think it is important for us to have a conversation – a real conversation – about the Canadian energy sector, not just rhetoric that doesn't really lead to much dialogue. It's important to have a diversity of voices in that conversation, and I'm happy to provide one of those.
You're coming up on your re-election campaign. Will energy play an issue in that?
Again, in Calgary, we're sort of in a unique position. Our issues really are around managing growth. And I'm looking forward to this campaign, and to really talk about the kind of city that we are growing into . Calgary is a hugely optimistic place. A survey done last summer said 90 per cent – 90 per cent – of Calgarians thought that the city was on the rise, and that's a great thing. And I hope we'll be able to use this campaign as a change to really talk about that, and talk about what form that rise is taking. And what kind of city we're building together. I always say I'm one of those rare politicians who actually really believes in democracy, and I really hope that we have a chance during that election to talk about the city and engage in a great discussion about what we need to do, not just for the next four years but for the next 40.
Former talk show host Dave Rutherford seems to be sitting on the fence, considering running against you. Do you have a message for him?
As I say, I actually believe in democracy, and I think that people are really well served when they have really clear choices. As long as everyone plays fair and plays by the rules, it's a good thing to have choices. And I hope that people will emerge to challenge for the mayor's job, with really neat alternative visions for the city so that people will have a good choice. And that's a great thing. I will say thought that it's probably not a good idea to think of it as a retirement job. It's not that easy, and the hours are pretty long. But it's very, very rewarding.
Are you calling him old?
No, I'm just suggesting that someone that currently has 12 weeks of vacation might find this job a little bit different. But you know, as I say, I welcome it. I really, really do. I think it is always better to have a great discussion with people when there are different perspectives on the table. And you know what? If citizens have a clear choice and they choose a vision that's different than mine, that's not just their right, I think that's their responsibility and their privilege.
Do you listen to Dave's show?
Uh, once in a while. I've been on it once or twice, too. I don't think I've ever been on it as mayor ... the problem is it's during the day.
You've got to work.
I've got to work.
Calgary is, I believe, the fourth biggest city in Canada [ by metropolitan area]. You haven't been arrested for fraud or involved in any alleged video of drug use.
I'm a little bit disappointed, because you know there was a surreptitiously recorded camera phone video that I was not in, that led to some very interesting details. And I thought it was a perfectly good scandal. I'm a bit sad I was one-upped by others.
[The Calgary video was of land developers discussing which candidates to financially support on council, those often at odds with Mr. Nenshi. The video raised questions about the impact of big money in municipal politics.]
Your scandal pales in comparison.
I probably shouldn't be saying that.
Between that, the Senate and everything, you have people in Ottawa saying trust in politicians is at an all-time low. You're visiting the city. What do you think?
I'm not sure that's a fair characterization. Certainly, the vast, vast, vast, vast majority of people in public life are decent, honest people who are just trying to do a better job because they love their community and they love their city. And I get to go to work every day with 14 city council members who have very different opinions and very different point of views, from me and from each other, on many issues. But I know that every single one of them loves what they do. And I also go to work every day with 20,000 colleagues who drive buses and mow lawns and create policy and make the numbers work… To me that's what's important, that we're able to have a great quality of life in our city. I think that's what people really see, and that's what matters to folks. And the rest is just distraction.
Why nine speeches on the trip? [The final two would be cancelled so he could return to deal with flooding.]
I'm a guy who likes to load myself. We're in this very cool hotel I've never seen before in Toronto called One King West. And I'm literally in the vault of the bank, that's the room they've put me in. Anyway, so nonetheless, why so many? I like to load myself up. I don't travel very often. If I'm outside of Calgary, I love to tell the story of Calgary, so I want to do it to as many folks as I can. I'm speaking from groups ranging from the genteel Canadian Clubs of Toronto and Ottawa to groups of students and young graduates at various universities, talking about the various opportunities in Calgary. I love it. It's lots of fun.
Move west, young graduate?
Move west young graduate, exactly. There are wonderful opportunities to live a great life and be at the top of your career right here in Canada, you don't have to think about going abroad.
Does it weird you out that, every time you go to Toronto, there's chatter on Twitter about them kidnapping you, wanting you as mayor?
You know, I've absolutely beefed up my security protocol. And my security detail. By which I mean so say that Chima [Nkemdirim, his chief of staff] has been going to the gym. So I'm confident he'll be able to deal with any kidnapping opportunities. But you know what? I love this city [of Toronto]. It is the city of my birth. I want it to be strong as much as I want Ottawa to be strong, Edmonton to be strong, and Calgary to be strong. So I think that's great, but I get to be mayor of the best city in the country, which is even better.
Josh Wingrove is a reporter in The Globe and Mail's Ottawa bureau. He covered Calgary's 2010 municipal election, when Mr. Nenshi emerged from a large pack of candidates to win the mayoralty.