Yes, it’s true we elected the first Muslim mayor in a major Canadian city and are getting national media attention because of it.
But let’s face it — no one really cared during the election. It was only brought up once by a media outlet, and they were immediately rebuked by the public for trying to make Naheed Nenshi’s religion an issue worthy of discussion. It’s not.
There are many things, however, that are.
The most exciting thing to happen on election day was that 53 per cent of Calgarians showed up to the polls. In a Canadian municipal election, that is a huge number.
To help put it in perspective, only one-third of Calgarians voted in 2007, and just six short years ago an abysmal, hang-your-head-in-shame, 18 per cent bothered to visit a poll.
Some more perspective: More people voted for Naheed Nenshi this year than voted for all candidates combined in 2004.
Even if we ignore who the votes went to this time around, we know more Calgarians cast their ballot this year than in the two previous elections combined.
To have such a big turnaround in such a short period is remarkable.
What is even more remarkable is how we did it. In a world where politics is often boiled down to yes versus no, left versus right, this guy versus that guy, Calgary held an election where the basis of the electorate’s engagement was not polarization. It was about who had the best ideas.
A lot has been said about Nenshi and his “Better Ideas,” but every other candidate deserves an equal amount of credit in this regard.
Barb Higgins and Ric McIver put forward solid platforms — although a little late. They talked about the things that should be done in Calgary, in what order, and why or why not their ideas were more valid than those of others.
Sadly, this is not normal.
In short, they engaged Calgarians, in Nenshi’s words, in “adult conversations.” This was not a campaign of sound bites; it was a campaign of thoughtfulness.
And we saw Calgarians respond to that in record numbers. This should be the chief lesson we take from this election. We’re smarter than you give us credit for. When you give us options, we’re happy to participate.
This is the next challenge, however: How does a mayor who engaged voters in a way unlike any have done before continue under this expectation?
Fortunately we can look to Barack Obama to see how not to do it. Nenshi can’t stop tweeting; he can’t stop sending out emails to followers. He has to keep up the level of discourse we have come to expect from him.
If he doesn’t, he’ll fail. The problem is, the hardest part of the job is staying externally focussed. There are lots of internal city issues facing him, from the budget shortfall to the airport tunnel to just about anything else you can think of.
Nenshi isn’t a magician. He’s not the solution to all of our problems.
But if he can keep involving Calgarians in the decision making process, we’ll slowly start to see Calgary become that “beacon on the hill” the national media think we are.
Not because Nenshi is Muslim, but because he allows us all to participate in Calgary.