Alberta’s two big-city mayors will step down on Monday, a week after municipal elections – Naheed Nenshi, 49, of Calgary and Don Iveson, 42, of Edmonton. Friends before politics, they are progressive people who have somehow made headway in breaking old stereotypes about the province on the national stage.
In years of economic abundance for Alberta, both were first elected as mayors at a relatively young age (in 2010 and 2013, respectively). He has led through a turbulent period – marked by floods, fires, oil-price accidents and empty city office towers, revolving doors of premierships and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Nancio faced a terrible re-election in 2017 When a damaged economy and its assertiveness upset some Calgarians. A three-hour drive to the north, Mr Iveson has turned down some Edmontonians for spending too much of their time on “the societal issues the city is not equipped to solve”. For the Edmonton Journal.
They have both been fiercely critical of the provincial government’s recent handling of the fourth wave operated by Delta. The two mayors spoke to Kelly Kryderman of The Granthshala a week before municipal voting day.
Can you tell me about your regrets? Do they include the business-tax debate in 2018 and 2019, and personally, the public support from Ottawa and the province not getting public support for bidding on the 2026 Olympics?
Due to a structural problem with how property taxes are calculated, the hollowing out of downtown Calgary resulted in extraordinary tax increases for businesses outside of downtown.
We ended up passing the budget without any relief for businesses because no one could agree on which model to use. Business got these big tax bills. They felt that their city did not care for them, and it was very difficult for everyone. And then the council reacted in a big way, and it cut the $60 million mid-year budget, which was misunderstood and misplaced. And three or four months later, I reversed almost everything in my budget. I wish I hadn’t let it go on for so long. Because due to this people have lost faith in the government to do the right thing.
My biggest personal lead regret was my own misunderstanding of the 2018 Olympic file. I should have been far more aggressive with the provincial and federal governments.
You have also talked about the importance of the mayor at the national and international fora. Have you changed some people’s thoughts about Calgary?
It’s actually been a long time since someone called it a cowtown. If I have anything to do with it, I think it’s really important. The fact that a small, often frozen city on the Canadian Prairies was ranked the best city to live in the entire Western Hemisphere by The Economist is a big deal.
I know you’re not supporting anyone, but do you believe Calgary will be in good hands with the new mayor and council members?
I haven’t supported anyone in Calgary because I don’t think it’s fair. I joke that when I said I was going to step down, I wanted to make room for new and diverse voices—but when I watch the debate, I think, “Wait, not these voices.”
The second thing I wouldn’t be ashamed to do is misinformation. So for example, one of [mayoral] candidate, councilor [Jeromy] Farkas made a shocking, misleading and false and outrageous statement in a recent debate where He indicated that the city administration was short of funds from the land developers.
He was the Deputy Chairman of the Audit Committee. He should know better, and that’s a complete lie. This is an insult to public servants, and I have no time for politicians who are lying or misleading the public. He should apologize.
Does that mean you say “don’t vote for Jerome Farkas”?
I would say if he doesn’t apologize and doesn’t take back his statement then one should think about his vote.
On the provincial government’s handling of COVID-19 during the fourth wave: when you’re calling them, does it force any action?
During this pandemic, till last summer, I have had a really good relationship with the Prime Minister. There were points when we were talking several times a week, and I really believe they were listening at the time and they were making the right moves. But to the point where they fixated on the ‘best summer ever,’ and opened up for a stampede, I really felt like they weren’t listening anymore.
Are you going to take some real time vacation? I know you’re not a beach vacation guy. Are you going to visit any big city in the world?
You know, that was my plan, but with having COVID, I’m not sure how responsible it is. I’m going to take some time off, and for those who never know about me – because I have an endless ability to work – I also have an endless ability to be lazy. I wouldn’t mind taking naps throughout the day and watching movies in the evening. And going to the gym and paying little attention to your physical and mental health. That’s my plan for the next while. And then sometime in the new year, I probably have to go find a job, or something.
You are in discussion about receiving some kind of international posting. Do you think there is something in it? Can you see yourself leaving town?
I am the least diplomatic person in the world. So I’m not entirely sure that if I were a diplomat it would do anyone any good. He said, I just want to serve. If there’s any way my limited skill set could be helpful, I’d say never. I’ll always think about it. But as I say, my home is Calgary. My family is in Calgary. My 80 year old mother lives with me.
My mouth is huge. I will not comment on civil issues as it is not fair. The new mayor and council need a place to do the work they were elected to do. But there is no way to remain silent about provincial and federal issues.
Do you have any regrets about your time as mayor?
I would say no regrets. I am grateful for the things I got to work on, even if some of them didn’t get as much as we wanted.
Didn’t get as far as you’d like?
The two main categories where we were really struggling with Alberta’s government. First would be the best arrangement between cities and the provincial government – city charters – with a very strong risk-sharing model, which most importantly was an upside for cities to help drive economic growth. And risk-sharing, clearly, on the downside as well — so if the economy shrinks, we’ll share that risk. I think this kind of mature partnership is needed by this country and of course the need for municipalities.
It is very sad for me that after years of effort and progress, to get them things reversed [in 2019] and mercilessly reversed the way that they were – treacherous, in fact, given that it was the reversal of a campaign promise. It was a gut-punch to the relations between the province’s economic engines and the province looking to restart its economic engine.
And the other is housing and homelessness. We have gone over the past eight years from a federal partner that was largely disengaged on this question, to one that is now committed to the national goal of ending chronic homelessness. And we’re gone from the province that was fronted under this [former premier] Ed Stellmach For a province, it seems, in spite of everything, Not even willing to take the federal dollars on the table for housing as part of COVID relief.
What about the province’s handling of the pandemic?
I think that speaks for itself. It’s sad, because I really think the early part of the pandemic was handled really well, when there was a lot of open communication. But the later phase, and especially the fourth wave: I was very nervous based on what I was seeing in June about Israel and other jurisdictions, where the delta was more prevalent, and what our epidemiologists and the The doctors told us.
There are now widespread ramifications in the health care system and the strain on frontline workers dealing with vaccine-hesitating people, from our first responders and municipalities, to nurses and doctors, whose hesitation is enabled by the “everything is fine” message. it was done. from the provincial government. This is a huge tragedy, and it could have been avoided.
The other thing that bothers me is the huge reputational damage Alberta has done to itself, and what it means for the labor-market, to restart our tourism industry. Attraction. I’ve been in Ottawa for a few days now, and people laugh, and joke like, “Well, I don’t know, you’re from Alberta. Should we shake hands?”
So then, what do you expect at this stage?
I think back is something that the mayor of Strasbourg [France] Told me once at a conference. He was at a gathering of European leaders and they were concerned about Brexit and the dynamics of the EU, and what it all meant for their cities. And it was the mayor of Hamburg who said, “Hey guys, remember Hamburg has been here for 1,000 years. And countries have come and gone, and empires have come and gone. But this city will last another thousand years.”
So what gives me hope is that Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Edmonton, Calgary, Medicine Hat, Lethbridge – these are timeless. They are going through a very difficult phase at the moment. We know what boom and bust looks like, and we always come through. And one of these days we’re going to learn better from what we have…