Naheed Nenshi Loves the Drama

Calgary’s centrist ex-mayor will have to win over skeptical NDP voters—and take on Danielle Smith—to reclaim Alberta. He’s looking forward to it.
JUNE 2024_Interview_Naheed Nenshi_BY ALLISON SETO031

May 2, 2024

The moment Naheed Nenshi entered the Alberta NDP leadership race this past March, he was quickly named the candidate to beat—and the one who could beat Premier Danielle Smith. It didn’t matter that the next provincial election was three years away. This was the three-term mayor who comforted Calgarians during the devastating 2013 floods; who galvanized citizens, red and blue, with his overwhelmingly purple wardrobe; and who made international headlines for his social-media savvy. (One memorable meme: “Keep Calm and Nenshi On.”) 

Still, it’s going to take more than name recognition, violet socks and his trademark silver tongue to nab Nenshi the party’s top spot and take down the reigning UCP, a regime he’s called immoral and dangerous due to its climate change flip-floppery and controversial transgender youth policies. To many Albertans, Nenshi is the underdog. A Harvard-educated business prof with little rural appeal. A bandwagon-jumper who only became an NDP member in January. To the UCP, he’s a delightfully easy target. It’ll be a fight to win the West, but one everyone is looking forward to—Nenshi included.

So, after 11 years in the mayor’s office, you left politics altogether to make room for new blood. And here you are again!
I love Calgary, but I’m a Gen Xer, so I basically spent my life waiting for boomers to retire. We were coming out of the dark early stages of the pandemic and I thought, Here’s an opportunity for others to make their mark. After I left office, I worked hard to craft an interesting life for myself, making a lot of money doing public speaking, political commentary and consulting. But I felt like I wasn’t in “the room where it happens,” as they say in Hamilton. Just adjacent to the room where it happens.

What drew you back into the fray?
When I looked around and saw how awful politics had become at all levels, across parties, I thought: Wow, things are so bad. I’m glad I’m out, and Wow, things are so bad. I wonder if I could help fix them. I worked with six premiers from three different political parties in the time I was mayor; you disagree on policy, but you’re all kind of moving in the same direction, most of the time. I’ve never seen an Alberta government like the UCP’s. It’s so fundamentally uninterested in governing.

Which balls are they dropping, in your view?
For a couple of decades, this group has been seeking power—now, they’re the dogs who caught the car. Still, every decision they make appears to be about consolidating their power. Teachers have complained to me about class sizes, yet the government is focused on its ideologically motivated elementary curriculum. The premier says she wants to bring us to net zero by 2050, but says no to every action that’ll get us there. In some places in southern Alberta, on the weekends, people have to drive past many closed ERs to find one that’s open. 

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For years, you wore purple to signal a blend of red and blue ideologies. Now, you’re sporting more orange. How are you planning to sell yourself as the NDP guy when you weren’t even a member until this year? 
It’s extremely difficult to find ties and socks that are orange and purple. But enough people said to me, “Look, you have an incredibly limited set of skills, but one of the things you’re good at is bringing people together for a common cause.” I talked to forever-NDP supporters and non-NDP voters, and everyone wanted the same things: strong public services, no punching down on vulnerable people, and not to be bystanders to climate change. The NDP is a team that matches my values. I don’t believe in traditional left-wing, right-wing scales; I believe in good policy. 

You’ve said the N in NDP doesn’t stand for “Naheed.” How do you respond to those who say, “He’s trying to make the party the Nenshi show”? That this is all an ego play?
Folks said that when I was mayor, too. I’m aware that I’m a pretty big guy who takes up a lot of oxygen. I get my big clown feet over things. But when you’re the mayor, you have no caucus. During my years on council, the majority of what we did pass did so unanimously. I get that inviting new people into a party feels threatening for some, but you can’t defeat this government without doing that. If I can be the conduit, I’m not going to say no.

Do you have any diva-ish habits? An elaborate Starbucks order, perhaps?
I have probably a couple hundred ties and 96 pairs of shoes—more purple sneakers than you can imagine. I’m also extraordinarily cheap, so every one of those things was bought on sale. I will say I do have huge Papa Bear tendencies. If you go after my people? I’m ferocious. I rarely cuss, though, which is very weird in politics.

That is weird. Especially when you have so many reasons to right now.
There was one time when the previous UCP government did a particularly stupid thing: taking away local control over ambulance dispatch, which I knew would cost lives. I may have said, “Those f-ers.”

This seems like a good time to bring up Danielle Smith. The provincial election is years away, but people are already anticipating a clash of the titans. You’re seen as the only NDP leadership candidate who has a hope in hell of beating her—or persuading right-leaning people to switch teams. Is subduing Smith part of your reason for running?
People ask if this run is personal. Not really, no. I’ve known her for 30 years, but we were never enemies. It’s not like she’s my white whale. But I will say, Danielle Smith the premier is not the person I knew.

How has she changed?
At the University of Calgary, she was always a great communicator, always popular. She was president of the campus PC party when the Reform Party was in its ascendance. Later, she developed more of a right-wing persona, which is fine; we grow and change. But about a year ago, I was speaking at Henry Wise Wood High School in Calgary, and a non-binary student asked me a heartbreaking question: “Do I need to leave the province?” I looked them in the eye and said, “I’ve known Danielle Smith forever. There are a lot of things we disagree on, but I know she’s not a hater. She’s not going to come after you and your friends.” Now, a year later, I hate that I lied to that kid. She’s not the person I grew up with—or maybe I was fooled back then.

Shared history gives you an advantage. You’d said you have a good sense of how to get under Smith’s skin, which is hilariously petty of you.
I was being a little bit petty. I’m no saint! The funny thing is that saying I know how to get under her skin totally got under her skin. 

You seem to be getting under a lot of people’s skins. 
At the beginning of all this, conservative strategists wrote op-eds saying they loved that I was running for leader because they could eventually beat me. I’m not above taking a little bit of pleasure in how off-kilter they are. If I didn’t love the cut-and-thrust of politics, it would be a very, very bad choice to do this run. 

You are known for speaking off-the-cuff sometimes. Does your mouth get you into trouble more than it benefits you? 
During my time in the mayor’s office, there were two or three minor scandals—the worst of which was when I called Travis Kalanick, then CEO of Uber, an uncharacteristically mean word. (Later, there was a Netflix series on why he was, in fact, a jerk, so I felt vindicated.) On the small occasions when my mouth goes too far, you know, that’s me. Warts and all. I use $10 words, too. I grew up in a family that was quite poor, and we didn’t have money for sports, so the only after-school activity I could do was debate team. My family had political discussions every night at the dinner table.

Some doubt your ability to connect with rural Albertans—like, How could a Harvard-educated professor possibly relate? Didn’t you grow up working class?
Working class when we were working, yeah. 

I read that your elementary school in Red Deer had a rodeo. Did you take part?
I went! I lacked a horse, so the only event I was eligible for was the greased pig race, where you grease a pig and try to catch it. I found it a bit undignified—particularly for the pig. When I became mayor, my sister’s friend found a photo of me at the River Glen Rodeo, dressed up in what an immigrant family thought a cowboy would look like. I don’t claim that those years in Red Deer gave me deep insights into how people in rural Alberta think, but it really comes down to a little bit of empathy. 

I visited Alberta for the first time last summer. It’s very beautiful and very big—big hats, big sky, Big Oil. That trip also made me understand why it’s seen as an Americanized oasis in the Canadian West. And not just because you have Chili’s.
Only a few. 

There were some Confederate flags and MAGA hats—not everywhere or on everyone, but it was jarring to see physical evidence of how right-wing American ideology has bled north. Why do you think some Albertans have found kinship in it? 
It’s not a MAGA ideology; it’s a trans-national universal right-wing ideology. It’s fed by misinformation, but it’s rooted in people’s real anxieties about a world that’s changing fast. As human beings, we’re hard-wired to defend what we’ve got. This isn’t about Alberta being more American than anywhere else in Canada; you’ll find that sentiment just as much in Peterborough, Ontario, as you will here. 

But how do you deal with it there?
We have a couple of choices: we can try to go back to a past that never existed. (Take Back Alberta for whom?) The other response is much scarier: to throw open our arms to new and better ideas. A lot of folks in my profession are using fear in the short-term pursuit of power. The problem is, once you let the monster out of the closet, it’s very hard to control it. Toward the end of Jason Kenney’s tenure, he talked about how the forces of anger and intolerance had taken over. My response was that I don’t think the arsonist is allowed to call the fire department. 

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That adversarial “Alberta versus” tone is alive and well thanks to the UCP. Right now, it’s Alberta vs. Trudeau, Alberta vs. the carbon tax. How would you approach things differently?
My campaign slogan is “For Alberta. For all of us,” right? Half of the people who’ve signed up to the campaign say, “This is the first time a politician has told me to be for something.” For the longest time, we’ve been trained to be against: against Ottawa, against environmentalists, against drag queens. Albertans are tired of fighting.

You were once known for your flashy campaigning style, like Operation Purple Dawn, when you tagged Calgary with platform slogans in chalk on election eve.
Yes. The chalk. We didn’t know until later that it wasn’t entirely in bylaw compliance. Luckily, it rained the next day.

Do you see yourself playing it more low-key this time around? You’re 52 now.
I thought I did. I had an argument with our staffers the day after we launched, because they wanted to have a volunteer training session the next day. I said, “Guys, you can’t invite people on a Monday night and have an event on Tuesday. Nobody’s gonna come.” They convinced me to do it, and 500 people showed up. To me, that’s the exciting guerrilla stuff. 

Are you skimming any political memoirs on the road—for inspiration?
They’ve never been my thing—I like to live in the present—but people are always giving me great examples. I got one last night, after a speech in which I compared Danielle Smith to King Canute, trying to hold back the waves. A guy came up to me and said David Lange, the former premier of New Zealand, made the exact same reference before he swept to victory over a conservative government!

I was like, That’s a good sign. I have to find out more about that guy!

You once said that, if you had a time machine, the one thing you’d go back and change from your mayoral tenure was your failed Winter Olympics bid. Will you be watching the Games in a month’s time, or just grumbling?
It’s the Summer Olympics, so I can’t feel salty; I’ll feel very salty during the 2026 Winter Games in Milan. Because I don’t have, you know, children or hobbies, I like to go see international sport competitions live. I’ve seen the men’s and women’s World Cups! If I weren’t running for leader, I would be in Paris with my friends. I’m trying to figure out: even if I am the leader, can I take a little vacation?