Naheed Nenshi on why 'dog whistle' politics miss the mark

Calgary's mayor joins Evan Solomon on 'Everything Is Politics,' where he criticized the Conservatives on the niqab issue

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi waits to speak to the media as he the attends Big Cities summit hosted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Toronto on Thursday February 5 2015. Nenshi is criticizing Alberta Premier Jim Prentice for spending millions to hold an early provincial election after refusing to restore funding for more child death investigations. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi waits to speak to the media as he the attends Big Cities summit hosted by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities in Toronto on Thursday February 5 2015. (Chris Young/CP)

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi didn’t mince words about the Conservatives’ focus on the niqab when he joined Evan Solomon on his show on Sirius XM, Everything Is Political. “This is unbelievably dangerous stuff,” he said. Defence Minister Jason Kenney has since responded, suggesting that was truly dangerous is “legitimizing a medieval tribal custom that treats women as property rather than people.”

Below is a full transcript of Nenshi’s conversation with Solomon, where he discussed the Conservatives’ “dog whistle” politics, why he thinks Alberta Premier Rachel Notley should remain above the fray of federal politics, and more.

Evan Solomon:                    Joining me now, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Mayor Nenshi, great to have you on Everything is Political.

Naheed Nenshi:                   Well, thanks very much, Evan. Happy to be here.

Evan Solomon:                    Don’t – don’t take any umbrage with the Everything is Political because nobody knows everything is political as much as you. Everything is political.

Naheed Nenshi:                   Well – but of course in my world nothing is political. And everything’s about policy and governance.

Evan Solomon:                    Well —

Naheed Nenshi:                   And maybe a bit of politics.

Evan Solomon:                    — that – no, no, even policy is political. Nothing might be partisan, but you know —

Naheed Nenshi:                   Yes, that’s a better —

Evan Solomon:                    — like, everything’s political.

Naheed Nenshi:                   — way to put it.

Evan Solomon:                    Speaking of everything is political and slightly partisan, we’re in the middle of a federal election, and you – and we’ve talked to a bunch of mayors on the program throughout this, but you have been very much at the forefront of trying to get urban issues on the cam—at the front and centre of this campaign. And yet we keep seeing things like the niqab, and we keep seeing other issues – ethic issues, foreign policy. Do you believe urban issues have made an impact on this federal election campaign?

Naheed Nenshi:                   Yes, in fact I do, which is a bit of a change from my usual slightly negative point of view on the federal government’s understanding of urban issues. So you know, the key issue here is that city issues are not to be put in a box and say well, that’s what the mayor wants. They’re Canadian issues. Cities account for 75 percent of our GDP. If you don’t have a plan for cities, it means you don’t have a plan for the economy. And so I was really happy in the Globe and – in the Globe and Mail debate, which was on the economy, that there were questions about infrastructure, about immigration, about housing. These things have often been seen as municipal issues, but they truly are pan-Canadian issues. Now, I’m not saying I’m happy with all the answers, but I’m happy that at least we’re talking about them.

Evan Solomon:                    Well, what answers are you happy with? I mean, let’s get to it.

Naheed Nenshi:                   Well —

Evan Solomon:                    What do you – I – I mean, I know there’s always an ask. What answers aren’t you happy with?

Naheed Nenshi:                   So let’s go through the three. In terms of infrastructure, I’m happy that, you know, after that Globe and Mail debate, and throughout, the – instead of the various parties saying oh, well, infrastructure is not important, they’re actually competing with one another to see who has the best infrastructure plan. And I don’t remember that happening before. You know, the Conservatives in the last budget finally corrected a historical wrong of Canada, which is that Canada has remained the only country in the G7 without a national public transit strategy. And since then, the Liberals have argued that they’re going to invest even more in transit, and the New Democrats have been a little more vague about it but they’ve also intimated that they’re going to invest more in transit. And in fact, one would argue that spending on infrastructure is actually the centrepiece of the Liberal Party platform, so I’m happy that Canadians —

Evan Solomon:                    Alright. That’s fair – fair to say.

Naheed Nenshi:                   And I’m happy that Canadians are having a good debate about infrastructure, and not whether it’s important but more how we’re going to pay for it. Because you know, you’ve heard me say this before. When we look at cutting people’s commute – like that word infrastructure is boring. Who knows what that means? But what it really means is we got to cut people’s commutes, we got to reduce congestion. Congestion costs the economy tens of billions of dollars a year to have people just stuck in traffic and non-productive time. So we got to fix that. And the best way to do that is invest in transit. And – so I’m happy that all three of the main parties seem to agree that investing in transit is important. We still need to hear more about things like water and wastewater infrastructure and community infrastructure, like local rinks and libraries. But at least we’re much further on that debate than we were in the last federal election.

Now, housing is an interesting one. Because the Globe and Mail debate, all the leaders were asked about housing, and it made my heart, sitting in the front row in Calgary, very happy. And then all three of the leaders looked like they were surprised to be asked about housing. And really none of them had anything interesting to say. And so this is something we need to push hard on to ensure that they understand that our housing crisis is really a major economic issue. It’s not a social issue; it’s an economic issue. You know, even in the economic downturn in Alberta, there are restaurants in Calgary, and even in Canmore up the mountain, that cannot open for lunch because they cannot find staff. And they cannot find staff because there’s nowhere for those people to live. And so safe and decent housing, market housing, subsidized housing, the whole bit, we really, really need to have our heads on straight on this, and we don’t yet.

    Evan Solomon:                    Tell me something. Give us a sense on the ground the – the sense of how people in places like Calgary are responding to the price of oil. And you know, Alberta’s gone through a fundamental shift in the last 12 months, and you and I have spoke about this before. In terms of the oil industry, there’s – suddenly there’s layoffs, suddenly people are leaving, they’re not coming. What has happened there? And is that starting to have a political effect? People are asking different questions of politicians and their political leaders than they did a year ago.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   I’m not sure that it’s had a real political effect. But I can tell you a little bit about what’s going on on the ground, which is interesting. Because here in Calgary, through the first half of the year, despite all the headlines about all the layoffs and so on, we actually created more jobs than we lost in Calgary. So everyone is sort of holding their breath, waiting for the other shoe to fall.

    Evan Solomon:                    Right.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And certainly everyone knows someone who’s been impacted by job loss, but we also know people who got new jobs. So it’s a really strange situation. And we all think the other shoe is going to drop at some point, but we don’t know when or if that’s actually going to happen. So there’s – there’s this real sense of anticipation on the ground.

    I don’t believe that the economy has changed people’s thinking politically in Alberta. However, obviously we elected a brand new government for the first time, some people say, in 44 years. It’s actually the first time in over 70 years, because the previous government, prior to the PCs, was really just PCs with a different name. And I think what that did, it doesn’t suddenly mean that Tom Mulcair is going to win a whack of seats here in Alberta, but I think it did open Albertans’ eyes to the fact that, you know, something different is possible and we can do something different.

    Evan Solomon:                    And it’s been interesting to see how – how – it’s – I agree. It certainly validated the idea that you can change. Fascinating to see how often Stephen Harper has hit back at Rachel Notley and her new government —

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Well —

    Evan Solomon:                    — and the NDP policy there.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Well, he tried a few times, and – and then a few of us, including me, said something which kind of shut him up about it, which is I’m not sure it’s a great political strategy to tell people they’re stupid for the government they elected five months ago. You know, because the polls are certainly showing that Ms. Notley is still the second most popular Premier in Alberta. And you know, people did vote for her. So as a politician – and obviously I’m not a very good politician because such things wouldn’t occur to me. But as a politician, I’m not sure I should go to my voters and say oh, my gosh, you are so dumb, can you vote for me now.

    Evan Solomon:                    That – that – it was surprising. I mean, it was – it was weird, right?

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Yeah.

    Evan Solomon:                    And —

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And once I said it, he hasn’t said it since. So maybe —

    Evan Solomon:                    Right.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   — someone pointed it out to him.

    Evan Solomon:                    Do you think you’ve sort of – you’ve chastised Stephen Harper on that?

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Well, I don’t know if I have, but I think someone may have pointed it out to him at some point.

    Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

    Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

    Evan Solomon:                    Now, it’s interesting also that one of the issues has been climate change, and Rachel Notley has not aligned herself necessarily in terms of cap and trade with Thomas Mulcair either. I mean, there are so many cleavages – what do you make of that? And – and you know, we’ve got – you know, since this campaign has started, you’ve got Hillary Clinton say no to the Keystone XL; you’ve got the cap and trade announcement from Thomas Mulcair; and you’ve got Rachel Notley, who’s now on a tour, saying the province should get the final say on any cap and trade, it shouldn’t be top down.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Well, I’m not shy about stating my opinion on political issues, so I can state my opinion, which is, on this one, Premier Notley’s right. Because cap and trade systems have not been shown to work. And if you want to price carbon, then I would listen to the CEO of Suncor, who suggests a clean, transparent carbon tax makes a bunch more sense than a cap and trade system that just creates jobs for traders. I – I kind of agree with that.

    Evan Solomon:                    You just said the word carbon tax, which is supposed to be politically poisonous.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Yeah. So I was just quoting the CEO of Suncor. So you know, the world has changed in these conversations. And I think it’s a good thing that we can have relatively non-partisan political conversations because I don’t think that my premier necessarily should agree with everything the federal NDP says. I don’t think she should disagree with everything the federal Conservatives say. I think that Albertans and Canadians as a whole, as I always say, are looking for pragmatic politicians with pragmatic solutions to their problems, and they want the best ideas to move forward, regardless of who has that idea.

    Evan Solomon:                    I – I mean, that’s fascinating. Just quickly, on cap and trade, it was Justin Trudeau who said we need a cap and trade but the provinces have to come up with the idea. There’ll be limits set by the federal government, the centralized government. Even – you even think any cap and trade wouldn’t work. By the way, I should say in this context China’s announcing a massive cap and trade.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Well, you know, the world is changing, and I’m no expert. And certainly maybe there is a way to make the system work better. But I know early experiments with it have not been promising —

    Evan Solomon:                    Yeah.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   — either in reducing emissions or in creating economic value.

    Evan Solomon:                    Let’s talk about another issue, which is refugees. The cities have said we want to take in more refugees, but you’re not in charge of the numbers. The federal government’s in charge of the numbers, except in Quebec, which they have their own system there. How have you seen – that issue has not just been played out in terms of a humanitarian issue, but there’s a – there’s a tonal issue around the security question and the questions about who should come in, and comparing these Syrian refugees to other waves of refugees, whether it’s the Vietnamese boat people, whether it’s the Ismailis, whether it’s the Italians or the Jews. What’s your sense of how this is playing out?

    Naheed Nenshi:                   I have to say one thing, Evan. I’m going to harass you about something just because I can, which is people keep comparing this to the Ismaili wave in 1972, and of course I am an Ismaili. But I always want to remind people it wasn’t just Ismailis; it was all Asians —

    Evan Solomon:                    There were South Asians, that’s right.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   — who were expelled from Uganda.

    Evan Solomon:                    And absolutely.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And there were tons of Hindus and tons of others who also ended up here. So as an Ismaili, I want to say quit giving us all the credit.

    Evan Solomon:                    No, you know – you know what? Fair point.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   (Crosstalk)

    Evan Solomon:                    Idi Amin did throw out all South Asians, as that’s what he called them, a big —

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Yeah.

    Evan Solomon:                    — large chunk of them were Ismailis, but fair enough. Good point.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Anyway, it’s just a tiny, tiny thing, but of course the point being that, you know, I went to Africa this summer, and my family’s from Tanzania. I took my mom for the first time in 40 years. And we went to the town where she and Dad grew up, Mwanza, which is on the southern shore of Lake Victoria. And I looked across Lake Victoria, and I couldn’t quite make – it’s a very big lake, so I couldn’t quite make out Kampala, Uganda in the distance. But I realize that, if my parents had grown up on the other side of that lake, then rather than being immigrants to Canada in 1971, they would have been refugees in 1972.

    And we have a long and proud tradition of taking in refugees here. And I noticed, and so basically what’s happened, as is no news to anyone who listens to a program called Everything is Political, is that this has been massively and disgustingly politicized. I was happy that the Prime Minister in the last debate, the Monk debate, didn’t go back to that tired security argument, and in fact argued that they were doing enough or more than needed to be done for these Syrian refugees. Because that’s really what this is about. And look, I have a – I just sounded like the Prime Minister there: “Look.” I have a —

    Evan Solomon:                    Make no mistake about it.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Yeah. Let me be clear. So – we should stop that.

    Evan Solomon:                    Yeah, just for a little taste.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   You know, I’ve spoken out on this; other mayors have spoken out on it. Mayor Tory in Toronto has long been a leader in helping us understand what the right thing to do here is. Premiers have spoken out about it. And you know, when you have Brad Wall and Kathleen Wynne and Christy Clark all agreeing on something, it probably means that it goes beyond partisanship.

    Evan Solomon:                    But is there dog whistle politics here?

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Of course there is. But I’ll tell you that the dog whistle politics is badly missing the mark. Because, you know, as I’ve been speaking about it, sure, I’ve got some racists who come and complain about it. That happens. Right? But I have been absolutely overwhelmed – absolutely overwhelmed – by the number of everyday people who have contacted me with one simple question: what can I do to help?

    Evan Solomon:                    I – I – there is a generosity. But in the debate – I’ll get your take on this. What was your take on Stephen Harper’s use of the term old stock Canadian? Was it code word, or was it just a phrase that some people use?

    Naheed Nenshi:                   I’m actually going to give him a pass on that one. I was sitting in the front row of that debate, and honestly I didn’t even notice when he said it. There was a bunch of crosstalk going on.

    Evan Solomon:                    Yeah.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And he was simply trying to make a point that – about Canadian values. But that too – forget the term; that too was dog whistle politics. Right? I just think that dog whistle is going after the wrong dog because I think it’s really missing the point of where people are.

    Listen, I’ll give you a little example. I went to get tacos yesterday for lunch. And only in Canada of course is the taco shop owned by an Indian guy. And he – the owner — walked in and said listen, I don’t want to be rude, you’re on your lunch break – and I thought he just wanted to take a picture or something. What he actually said was, “I’ve been following what you’ve been saying about refugees, and I’m just a small-town business guy – a small-time business guy. I can’t do much. But do you think I could hire a few people when they get here? And do you think it would be OK if I went to the other owners of this franchise and see if they could each agree to hire a few people? You know, I know that’s nothing, but I want to do it.” And I looked him and I said “that’s not nothing, that’s everything.”

    Evan Solomon:                    That’s everything.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   That’s about giving somebody a chance —

    Evan Solomon:                    That – that’s the whole thing.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   — in our community. And that’s the kind of thing I hear everywhere I go. And so yeah, the dog whistle stuff totally at work. You know, I was seeing on Twitter all the time people seeing oh, it’s about security; oh, why don’t we look after our own homeless before we bring in other people, and so on. And you know, these are all the same people who nicely repeat the Conservative talking points on Twitter every day. But I don’t think it had any resonance with the public.

    Evan Solomon:                    But yet on Friday, you and I are going to watch the French language debate – I hope you’ll watch it – and guess what.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   No, I’ve stopped watching them. I just read the transcripts.

    Evan Solomon:                    OK, well, read the transcript.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   The crosstalk gives me a headache.

    Evan Solomon:                    But I – I’m going to tell you something. The niqab issue is going to be a major issue. Gilles Duceppe of the Bloc has brought it up. Stephen Harper has managed to change the question in Quebec from change to this niqab issue is massive. Tied in other issues like pipelines and so forth. But the niqab issue has become central. What do you make of that?

    Naheed Nenshi:                   This is unbelievably dangerous stuff. It’s not fun anymore. And you know, I spoke with a group of – I spoke with a group of mayors and councillors from all over Alberta last week, and in my speech, with all these people from small-town Alberta, I stood up and I said this is disgusting and it’s time for us to say stop it. It’s time for us to say this is enough. And I thought people would throw buns at me, and in fact I got wild cheers from these small-town Alberta folks because there have been two women who’ve attempted —

    Evan Solomon:                    That’s right.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   — to take the citizenship oath wearing their niqab. This is an issue that is relevant to absolutely zero of us.

    Evan Solomon:                    Yeah, but it’s being challenged —

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And —

    Evan Solomon:                    — in the – in the courts again by the Conservatives, and it has become the —

    Naheed Nenshi:                   I know! They’re spending millions and millions of dollars of yours and my money on what is an unwinnable appeal in order to appeal to a certain political segment because they think the polls say most people don’t want this. But you know what? This is a ridiculous situation, and it’s a dangerous situation.

    Evan Solomon:                    Oh, dangerous why?

    Naheed Nenshi:                   I was speaking – I was speaking recently at a big North American conference on anti-terrorism and counter-radicalization. And I talked to all those law enforcement people from New York, from all over Canada, from Mexico even. And they said – all of them, unanimously, these law enforcement folks – the kids who are getting radicalized are precisely the same kids who used to join gangs or who used to run drugs. It has absolutely, literally nothing to do with religion. It has everything to do with all the reasons kids join gangs: isolation; a feeling that they can’t succeed in any other way; this is the only way out; this is the only way to move forward.

    Evan Solomon:                    Right.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And so basically, we have all these law enforcement officers and community agencies spending an unbelievable amount of time and resources with these kids on anti-deradicalization stuff, saying, you know, you belong here. And then at the same time, we say to them except, by the way, in your culture, my religion, your religion, you can never be truly Canadian because your values are not compatible with Canadian values.

    Evan Solomon:                    Right.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And to send that message at the same moment you’re attempting to do anti-radicalization work is unbelievably counterproductive and unbelievably undermining. And if you’re doing it to gain a few points so that you can win a seat somewhere in rural Quebec, well, I expect more from my leadership than that.

    Evan Solomon:                    Dangerous times. I tell you, this debate – that – that will come up. And you wonder if we’re playing with fire here.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And you know – and (crosstalk).

    Evan Solomon:                    We’re – you wonder if we are.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   No, we – we’re playing with fire, without question. But you know what? Good for Mulcair and good for Trudeau for standing up and saying, you know, this is a ridiculous argument. Mulcair had a great line: weapons of mass distraction. Because that’s all this is. And Canadians know that. And you know, when I say to any Albertan who walks up to me and says women shouldn’t be able to cover themselves while being at the citizenship ceremony, and I say well, you know, I go to a million citizenship ceremonies. It’s actually my favourite thing to do as Mayor. And not only have I never seen a woman in a niqab attempting to do it, but you understand that the oath is just ceremonial. They have to unveil themselves and give ID and sign the forms and sign the oath, all of that, separately. And in fact, the woman in Mississauga even offered to wear a wireless mic so that people could hear that she was actually saying the oath.

    Evan Solomon:                    Right.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   And the minute that I say that, I’ve never had a person say I’m still opposed.

    Evan Solomon:                    I tell you, it is – it is one of these moments where I don’t know, and I – and I’ve written about this. Are we unleashing the so-called animal spirits here? And —

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Of course we are.

    Evan Solomon:                    And that is dangerous stuff.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   You know, I talk – I talk all the time about the core strength of our nation being the fact that we look after one another, that we try to share opportunity with everybody. But I also talk all the time about how incredibly fragile that is. It’s not because of something special in the water, or the fact that we are close to moose in this country, that suddenly we are nicer than other human beings.

    Evan Solomon:                    Right. Yeah.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   It’s because of the social norms that we’ve created —

    Evan Solomon:                    It’s hard-won norms.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   — that that is what you do, that you look after one another. And for our – when our leaders start playing with those norms, it’s a very dangerous game.

    Evan Solomon:                    I got to leave it there with Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. Sir, always a great pleasure to have you on the program. And – and as you know, I mean, we could talk about almost everything, including baseball, and it would get political. And I’m telling you, I know it’s – I know you’re not partisan, but – and you’re pragmatic, but let’s face it —

    Naheed Nenshi:                   I wear purple every day.

    Evan Solomon:                    It’s all – the politics, even the politics of the heart. Listen, it’s a pleasure to have you on the program. Great to chat.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Thanks very much, Evan.

    Evan Solomon:                    Thank you.

    Naheed Nenshi:                   Take good care. Bye-bye.

    Evan Solomon:                    Bye-bye.

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