Thursday, July 23, 2015

On Naheed Nenshi and the Importance of Revitalizing Candid Inquiry on the Left

By Carol-Anne Hudson

On 25 October 2010 Naheed Nenshi was elected Mayor of Calgary. His come-from-behind electoral win was, largely, the result of a populist rejection of the front runner and long-time city councillor Ric McIver who was thought to be out-of-touch with the city’s changing demographic landscape and considered by many as an abrasive, torpid, schismatic, and immovable extreme right-wing conservative. Aware of rising ‘Anyone But McInver’ sentiments, especially among young voters, Nenshi shrewdly crafted a public image of himself as an approachable, energetic, cosmopolitan, progressive social unifier and urban modernizer -- a ‘hero of the common people’ -- the antithesis of McIver.

However, the reality of politics on the ground since the 2010 election suggests that Nenshi has not only failed to demonstrate any of these much vaunted qualities but has shown a complete disregard for the day-to-day economic struggles of the average person -- especially the poor and working class. Further, in his approach to social development and urban innovation Nenshi has revealed himself to be cut from the same cloth as McIver -- that is to say, he has been divisive, inflexible, controlling, exclusive, and a dogmatic champion of free-markets. Consequently, Nenshi has deepened and reinforced social, economic, and political hierarchies within the city as well as undermined grassroots’ efforts to strengthen social solidarity and advance alternatives.

Yet, despite the preponderance of evidence that casts serious doubt on Nenshi’s bona fides as a progressive social unifier and urban modernizer, his Worship continues to attract considerable admiration and support, especially amongst the social democratic left. It is particularly curious, given a dramatic rise in homelessness, poverty, and social exclusion in Calgary during the last five years, that many of Nenshi’s social democratic supporters are prominent Toronto-based community leaders in the areas of social housing, Aboriginal advocacy, women’s rights, public transit, and organized labour. These community activists hold Nenshi aloft as a bold, exciting, and morally responsible political leader. This raises two questions: why have so many (Toronto-based) social democrats bestowed upon Nenshi the mantle of progressive urban superhero when the facts show him to be a blustering, overbearing, authoritarian neo-liberal? And, what is the impact of such support on broader debates about progressive policymaking?


From the outset, Mayor Nenshi was drawn to the media like a moth to a flame. The Korda photo of a beret-wearing Che Guevara has not seen such a challenger for iconic status in Canada. The media darling -- receding chin resolutely tilted towards the heavens -- adorned the front pages of most major newspapers across the country with pithy captions that seem to stir the hopes of even the most cynical and battle weary social activist. One Toronto Star reader commented: “You can’t help but be cheered by him.”

Nenshi traveled the confederation, was a frequent and lauded guest on national evening news broadcasts, and was a much sought after motivational speaker, especially among the non-profit sector in Toronto. His message was simple: we must move our cities into the 21st century!

According to Nenshi, and elaborated in his 2010 Purple Revolution campaign manifesto, this included: modernizing public infrastructure (roads, transportation, and energy supplies), addressing inner city development (revitalization of decaying neighbourhoods), adopting strong environmental regulations and ethical procurement practices, and above all, eliminating poverty and social inequalities. Nenshi’s prescribed method to deliver these public goods -- inclusive policy inputs, development, and implementation, that is to say, the grassroots will lead the way forward.

For his proselytizing, in 2013 Nenshi was named by Maclean’s Magazine as the second most powerful man in Canada (after Stephen Harper) and in 2014 awarded the somewhat obscure prize of World’s Best Mayor. Where Nenshi was concerned, Torontonians, under siege by the petulant and drug-addled Rob Ford, seemed to have only one question, “when is he coming to save us?” Had MacLean’s, the WBM jury, or Torontonians done their due diligence they may have taken quite a different attitude.

Virtuous Champion of the Poor and Working Class or Tyrannical Profiteer?

Nenshi’s 2010 Purple Revolution campaign manifesto included, among other things, promises for sweeping changes to public transportation, inner-city neighbourhoods, and the promotion of social cohesion. However, once elected and despite the fact that a majority of Calgarians were strongly opposed to the construction of an airport tunnel (a 600 metre underpass from Calgary’s International Airport along the Deerfoot Trail to the downtown core at a cost of $300 million primarily to serve the needs of foreign oil executives), Nenshi adamantly refused to consider the less costly and more environmentally friendly alternative -- a dedicated HOV (high-occupancy vehicle) lane with an estimated price tag of between $20 and $40 million. He also back-tracked on promised LRT expansion into the city’s densely populated and underserved (and largely low-income) southeast quadrant. He failed to adopt a low-fare transit plan for low-income residents and has been a laggard in developing bike infrastructure in the downtown core as well as converting the LRT to a renewable energy source (wind power). Where positive changes have occurred (e.g., ethical procurement policies), they have been minimal, not open to public audit, and, for the most part, can be attributed to policies initiated by his predecessors.

Likewise, Nenshi’s approach to inner-city development -- namely, creating affordable housing and addressing poverty and social cohesion in the most diverse and poorest section of the city -- has privileged the interests of profit-seeking land developers, investment capital, and a small group of middle-class (largely white) professionals over the needs of the majority -- poor and working-class inner-city residents (comprised mostly of newcomers, Aboriginal, and racialized populations). For example, during the last five years Nenshi has smoothed the way for an explosion of high-end, low-density condos along the river-front through the use of a multi-pronged social cleansing policy which includes: revising Good Neighbour agreements to prohibit social service providers from feeding the homeless in the downtown core; relocating the city’s largest inner-city homeless shelter (situated on a prime river-front site) to an industrial area outside the downtown core; and, failing to adopt a secondary suites policy which would greatly expand the number of affordable living spaces in the downtown core.

Perhaps the strongest evidence for Nenshi’s draconian social cleansing program was his unique approach to developing Calgary’s first poverty reduction strategy. Unlike poverty reduction strategies developed in major urban centres elsewhere in Canada, Nenshi shut-out the bureaucracy, major stakeholders, and especially the poor during all phases of development. At great odds with the bureaucracy, who were advocating for a comprehensive progressive strategy, Nenshi personally selected two people to design the policy with clear instructions on what the strategy should look like. On this, Nenshi set limits to who would be consulted (e.g., small church-based groups) and policy parameters that excluded a focus on women (among the poorest and most underpaid in Canada), Aboriginals, income support recipients, and newcomers. The result was a marginal technical fix on existing service delivery aimed at the working poor (largely unskilled men) through the creation of community-based ‘hubs’. Implementation was out-sourced to a small business non-profit that emphasizes micro-credit programs and entrepreneurialization of the poor. To be certain that the focus of his anti-poverty policy remained exclusively on service delivery Nenshi came out strongly against adopting a living wage and refused to discuss job creation.

Clearly, Nenshi is a loyal agent of private accumulation and the propertied class. And according to Philip Sayton in his new book “Mayors Gone Bad”, Nenshi has not accomplished anything, is unpopular with city residents, has the record for losing the most votes on council (ever), and is ‘overbearing, arrogant, authoritarian, and bumptious’, in a word – a bully. So, how is it that Nenshi has acquired such a popular following among the Left, especially in Toronto often considered a bastion of progressiveness?

Presentation over Substance?

Philip Sayton offers some insight into this question. He suggests that the need for optimism in these dark times may blind some to the reality of politics on the ground. This seems to play out where social democratic community leaders in Toronto are concerned. When pressed on why they support Nenshi their responses often go something like this: he (Nenshi) is friendly, likeable, a good speaker, clever, nice, light-hearted and so on.

These progressive civic leaders do not give us legitimate reasons for supporting a right-wing anti-democratic tyrant. They are, in fact, arguing for improved civility in the public square. That is, they are making an appeal to social utility – it would be better for society if we were nicer.  Such an appeal (rewarding niceness) makes these people seem more open-minded than they really are. Nowhere in their defence of Nenshi (and other political leaders like him) is there the faintest attempt to provide evidence to prove the truth of their claims. They are proposing, in effect, that our political representatives do not have to be effective progressive leaders, we just have to believe it is so – blind faith. We cannot take these people seriously.

The objections to this kind of argumentation from progressives are so many that it is difficult to know where to begin. Foremost, perhaps, is that progressive such as these are introducing or creating taboos around what constitutes legitimate debate. This not only minimizes the importance of rigorous and candid inquiry, but ostracizes free thinkers – those who take decidedly different (progressive) positions. In many ways, it is an act of self-preservation, that is, these community leaders seek to preserve a position (social democratic) by looking past those parts which do not serve their ends. What is needed to counter this growing trend on the left is an attitude of scientific inquiry.

Conclusion: Can An Appeal to ‘Niceness’ Cure Our Troubles?

Canada is in considerable peril. The country is on the brink of environmental, economic, and social collapse. Some Canadians have responded to these crises by denying the gravity of the situation while others recognize the immediacy of our troubles yet look past our political leaders’ inability to respond effectively to them. To this end, any appeal to civility from the left rather than vigorously confronting those mandated to take action discourages candid inquiry and impairs intellectual rigour.

Put otherwise, if we focus on a social utility approach (niceness and a non-confrontational disposition) to policy-making our problems would not be solved. Rather, it would be a dangerous delusion because it misleads people whose thinking might otherwise be fruitful and this stands in the way of developing valid policy solutions. The question, therefore, does not concern civility but intellectual integrity. By this is meant, we must decide the difficult questions in accordance with the evidence. Reasoned and informed debate is far more likely to benefit the country than any emotional plea to social virtues (niceness) which has no basis in reality and, at the end of the day, offers little actual social utility.

In the end, indifference to the truth in favour of an appeal to social virtue is extremely dangerous and cannot save us from disaster. It is opposition to prevailing consensus that effects improvements and will move us forward. That is, genuine social progress depends upon dissent, reasoned debate, and intellectual inquiry. Responding to the issues of the day on the basis of niceness may protect us from crude contact with reality, but it will ensure that as little as possible shall be known about the subject. In the best case, an appeal to civility prevents the facts from coming out. In the worse case, people will be duped into becoming the unpaid hirelings of weak and self-serving politicians by policing the boundaries of what is considered acceptable political discourse. This of course, silences free thinking and flattens the political landscape. Getting at the facts is often very difficult, messy, and may lead to even greater anxieties and uncertainties. We may not find the answers to these difficult questions and solutions, therefore, will be delayed until more can be known, but ignorance is never the answer, however nicely it is framed.

Carol-Anne Hudson is completing a PhD in political science at McMaster University. Her research focuses on comparative social policy, specifically poverty reduction, living wages, and business participation in social policy renewal. She is from Calgary and now resides in Toronto.

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See Also: 42-2: John Tory, Toronto City Council and the austerity consensus

1 comment:

  1. "has privileged the interests of profit-seeking land developers, investment capital, and a small group of middle-class (largely white) professionals over the needs of the majority -- poor and working-class inner-city residents (comprised mostly of newcomers, Aboriginal, and racialized populations)."
    I find the parenthetical comments to be unhelpful at best.
    Also, you leave open the possibility that poor inner-city residents may also be largely white. Would that make your argument less valid?