In 2010, when Naheed Nenshi was a relatively unknown candidate for mayor, a reporter asked him why he was seeking the job.
“Because I always wanted to be on that horse that led the Stampede parade,” the then university professor replied. A couple of months later, Mr. Nenshi shocked everyone (except maybe himself) when he became the first Muslim to become mayor of a major city in North America.
The following year he indeed got the honour of leading the Calgary Stampede parade, something mayors in the city have been doing for decades. The only year in his 11 as mayor that he didn’t was 2020, when the pandemic shut the fair down – the first time that’s happened since its inception in 1912. That’s right. Not the First or Second World War or the horrific flood of 2013 which put the fairgrounds under water could stop the Stampede from going ahead. But COVID-19 was just too powerful a force.
The fair is the first major festival of any kind to be held in Canada since the pandemic. The rest of the country is watching to see what happens, to see whether it was a foolish, overly ambitious endeavour that fuels a late pandemic surge in cases.
Mr. Nenshi was not enthusiastic about the idea, as someone who has taken the pandemic deadly seriously from the start. This has often put him at odds with Premier Jason Kenney, who has seen the Stampede as a way to signal that the worst of the pandemic is over; that Albertans have their cherished freedom back. There is little question its opening has been an important development in shoring up the province’s fragile psyche.
Crowds were relatively thin when the fair opened on July 9 but have been picking up in size every day since. During my visit to the fairgrounds earlier this week the crowds were thick; the stands of the rodeo grounds were mostly full. The lineups for mini donuts, bacon funnel cakes and deep fried Oreos were long but no one minded that.
This Stampede has been a particularly emotional one for the mayor, who leaves his job in October when the next civic election is held. There could be as many as 14 new faces (out of 15 if you include the mayor) on the new council, which makes the fall vote the most consequential in a generation.
The fair has also been a bit of a coming out for the mayor, who has been cooped up at home or in his office for the past 15 months, unable to enjoy the contact with citizens that he craves. On the fairgrounds, hundreds of people have approached him for a picture, knowing he’ll soon be gone. Many have admonished him for leaving.
His Stampede stump speech, which he has delivered at pancake breakfasts and other events, has touched on the one element that has been missing in Alberta for the past several years – optimism, promise.
“I tell people there’s a little extra flavour in the pancakes this year and that flavour is hope,” the mayor said in an interview in his office.
Still, he refuses to subscribe to Mr. Kenney’s rallying cry that this will be the “best summer ever.”
“Because it’s not going to be,” the mayor said. “There are still a lot of people who are trying to process a lot of things. There has been a lot of trauma in this past year. People lost jobs. People lost family members. Weddings were postponed. Graduations were postponed. One summer doesn’t instantly make you forget all that. It takes time.”
The Calgary the mayor leaves is dramatically different, in some ways, than the one he inherited. The boom times that made the city the richest in the country were still very much alive when Mr. Nenshi took over the job in 2010. Bentleys and Rolls-Royces were common sights along Stephen Avenue. High-end restaurants were packed every night.
Today, the city is still wealthy, but it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. The oil and gas recession helped empty out many downtown office towers, which have vacancy rates of 30 per cent or more. It will be years, if ever, before that space is again occupied. But tech companies are starting to move into the city, which offers some of the most advantageous tax rates in North America.
“I’m incredibly optimistic about the future,” Mr. Nenshi told me. “We’ve endured some incredibly tough times as a city but I think we’re coming out of them. Finally.”
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