Naheed Nenshi is the 36th Mayor of Calgary. He is leaving office on Oct. 25.
Typically, politicians at the end of their terms look backward, on their legacies. Certainly, the top question I have been asked since announcing I would not be seeking re-election is, “What are you most proud of?”
It would be a lie to say that I have not been spending a lot of time thinking on what we’ve accomplished as a city, but I also find myself looking at where we find ourselves now, and looking forward. Thinking about what we have not achieved, I’m forced to examine how the promise of this great country has not been kept, and how much work we have left to do.
We are at a crossroads in our country. We have five future-defining crises in front of us, any one of which could bring a lesser society to its knees: a public-health crisis in the pandemic, a mental health and addictions crisis, an economic dislocation like none we’ve seen before, an environmental crisis, and a reckoning on the issue of equity. This is all playing out at political and national levels, but also in every one of our families.
It all feels sometimes like too much. Is our country ungovernable? Are the voices of anger and hatred and division simply too loud? Have they won?
I don’t believe that. I never have. I can’t. I won’t.
The promise of this nation is a promise to humanity – a promise we cannot afford to give up on.
The promise of a place where everyone belongs. Where we offer a life of dignity and opportunity to all, a beacon of light and hope in an often cold, dark and cruel world.
For that promise to be kept we have to light that beacon, and we have to safeguard and nourish that flame.
In one way, the pandemic has been helpful (the only good thing about the pandemic) in that it has upended all of our expectations about how society works. Now it’s up to us to form something new. We are in a wet clay moment; we must mould the future now, before it sets.
We have solutions before us on how to get out of the pandemic, on how to build our economy into something new, with decent jobs for all and on how to manage the climate emergency. We even have a roadmap (partly through Calgary’s community action plan) on mental health and addictions. We just have to be brave enough to make the tough choices, take the hard road. But that fifth issue – equity – is the cornerstone, the foundation of all the rest.
These past 18 months woke so many of us up, in so many ways.
We realized that the most poorly paid people in our society are actually the ones we rely upon the most: long-term care workers, retail clerks, delivery drivers.
We learned that regional disparities in our country persist, and that the West is truly taken for granted.
And we learned, too many of us for the first time, that we have not created a society where Black lives and Indigenous lives truly matter.
So how do we build a more just, a more equitable society? What will it take? We need courage. We need to listen and understand each other. We need to get beyond partisanship and easy answers to make those decisions.
Most of all, we need all of us – everyday people, with our everyday hands and our everyday voices – to lead.
We are at a pivotal time. Certainly, we need politicians – municipal, provincial and federal – to step up. But we as citizens need to also meet the moment. We must. The future demands it of us.
And that means we have to respond. I don’t know the solutions to the five crises, but I know where the answers can be found: in our own lives, our own minds and our own hands.
I often refer to the Sanskrit word seva. It means selfless service. I think now, more than ever, we are all called to be sevadari. It translates as “one who gives service,” but I think a better translation is “human being.”
That’s why, in my political retirement, I am relaunching a program that we started 11 years ago: Three Things for Canada.
It’s simple. I am asking every citizen, every year, to do at least three acts of service, of seva. It can be something small (shovel your neighbour’s walk) or something big (join a non-profit board). It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that our service to each other is how we mould that clay, how we create that future, how we move to solutions on our five crises.
Eleven years ago, Calgarians took a big risk. They took a risk on a nerdy schlumpy professor to lead them, sure, but the real risk was on a better future.
It’s been the honour of my life to have held in my hand, even for a moment, the hope and dreams, fears and challenges, of my fellow citizens.
While politics lie behind me, I know that a better future lies ahead. For all of us.
If we are bold enough to grab it.
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