Nenshi wins (some thoughts on a post-whatever Calgary)


It’s no secret to a lot of people who know me personally that since I first left Calgary eight years ago, I have had a very definite love-hate, on-off relationship with the city. On the one hand, I grew up there, have friends and family there, and still consider it to have been a great place to grow up. But on the other hand, Calgary and I have had a more recent stormy relationship. We are often diametrically opposed organisms, having split somewhere around 2006 - seemingly forever.

To me, the city became a claustrophobic environment of big business and bigger back lawns; a city sprawling outward year after year without taking enough time to look inward, leaving a dead core and deader, emptier suburbs, constructed quickly around snaking tubes of highway where everyone could be sheltered, bubbled, all the way to their attached double garage - a hypocritical city that boasted of its innovation and yet showed little, socially or structurally. And no matter how big it got, it never felt inclusive enough. It seemed a cold city, a  dying city, attached to a dying resource base - Alberta’s feverish Tropic of Capricorn, delusional in its conviction that a new boom is always just around the corner. A city that, despite my personal ties, no longer felt like home, but instead a sunny stucco dungeon of unwanted expectations. I left this place for good, I always thought. And thank God for that.

But. But maybe I was wrong.

A few weeks ago I discussed the October municipal election in Calgary with a friend over Twitter. I suggested at the time that Calgary hadn’t changed and that despite a late surge in the polls, outside-chance candidate Naheed Nenshi wouldn’t win the election. In fact, I predicted to a few different Calgary friends only just this past weekend, Ric McIver, with his working-class conservative base, would probably win by about six to eight per cent. As it happened, Nenshi - the outsider, erudite, egghead, Muslim, first generation Canadian with the purple campaign wave - won. By approximately eight per cent.

So, the same friend asked over Twitter last night, do I now believe that Calgary has changed? No, I replied. Not changed. Changing? Yes. Let us hope.

Mayor-elect Nenshi will have a tough time - let’s not pretend otherwise. He enters the role as an educated, albeit un-tested and unexperienced mayor. His first year or so will no doubt be a mix of trial-by-fire public posturing, callous council horse-trading, and - hopefully - some fulfilled campaign promises.

And then there’s the fervor. The lasting giddiness about his Purple Reign campaign will survive - for now. I’d like to avoid the easy Obama comparison with all my energy, but perhaps it is unavoidable. And if it is, then Calgarians - especially young, first-time voting Calgarians - ought to not become too discouraged. Politics, as far as I can tell, is not only a game of give and take but - bluntly - a game of fucking the other guy/girl longer and harder than he/she can fuck you. And that takes sustained support and energy - often from a base that has been disappointed by what, after such a euphoric victory, can often only be seen as a lackluster performance. That is to say, it’s very easy to offload responsibility after your candidate has won, and step aside and say, “We all got you here, go do our bidding.” It’s not quite that simple. So, Nenshi supporters, get ready for a long haul. Recharge your batteries and eat a banana - you’ll bruise less easily.

All that being said, I can’t help feeling a little happy to have been proven wrong; to have been left genuinely surprised that my hometown - the same one where I was required to wear a cowboy hat for a part-time summer job - could look at a candidate like Naheed Nenshi and say, This Man Represents Us. That his Muslim faith never became an issue for anyone other than the internet trolls on the Sun website might not say that Calgary is OK With It, but that it didn’t matter this time around. It’s not quite the same thing, but for now not only will it do, it also shows promise.

And, really, it’s the promise that really matters. In a city that has for so long has measured promise by the salary of its citizens, or - more often - by another new development on the new edge of its boundaries, it’s nice to see that it can now also mean something much more altruistic, something more heartfelt.

This past August, as I passed through Calgary on my way from Vancouver to Ottawa, I used Calgary’s new ring road, Stoney Trail, for the first time. It was obscured partially by the smoke from a massive British Columbia forest fire that had floated over the Eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains onto the Alberta plaines. I squinted into the haze and drove on, past endless overpasses and bedroom communities.

Calgary’s love affair with ring roads has, in my lifetime, turned to somewhat of a worrisome fetish. The city’s endless, unfulfilled promise of finally having a road that circumvented the city exemplifies its insatiable expanding appetite that has inevitably only forced it to slowly devour itself. It is forever on the way to some unknown, shiny, new promised land on the edge of the prairie horizon, believing that the dirty past of its abandoned centre can somehow be forgotten.

As I passed the never ending shadowy, identical monoliths of new aluminum siding on either side of the wide highway, I felt I was driving into nothingness - that I, like the soul of the city, was disappearing into the distant smoke. I silently lamented the fact that the new communities being built on either side of me were only so in an abstract sense - a kind of post-modern, post-everything, residential hell. A place where the word ‘community’ only existed in the abstract as just another marketing term used to disguise the ugliness of the unrelenting, infinite, cookie-cutter existence that awaits new buyers in order to convince them that when they arrive on the edge of nothing, they are actually looking at something. Fuck that, I thought, and pressed on the gas.

Now, I don’t know.

Nenshi’s victory will not make Calgary a community forever. Tomorrow it will still suffer from the overbearing and wasteful infrastructure disasters that it suffered from yesterday. But, at least for now, the excitement of not only Nenshi’s campaign but of the entire municipal election has reminded Calgarians that the way forward is, perhaps, to face each other rather than look so endlessly and hopelessly outward. This is not always an easy task to undertake, and rising to the challenge is something to be proud of.

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