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Naheed Nenshi’s real work: Calling out Calgary’s racism

After the most bruising election of his political career, Naheed Nenshi is still a little tender in spots.

Although he won handily, his margin of victory wasn't as awe-inspiring as in the past. Some of that erosion was to be expected: Any mayor who's been in office for seven years is bound to rub some constituents the wrong way. But this campaign was also more divisive and personal than any other the Calgary mayor has experienced.

He doesn't hide the fact that comments made about him, particularly online, were incredibly hurtful.

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"Certainly, there was a lot of coded language about me which I found uncomfortable," he told me while scarfing down Chinese food at his office desk. "When I raised the fact that the level of out-and-out racism and hatred and Islamophobia online was getting out of control, rather than condemning it the local media accused me of playing the race card."

This he found deeply offensive.

"Saying you're playing the race card actually means we will tolerate you in our society as long as you never remind us who you are," he said, a tinge of anger in his voice. "I was surprised that in this day and age you could actually say to someone who calls out racism that it is inappropriate to do so."

He found racism embedded in coded language. For instance, he would hear people say he'd become "too big for his britches" or that he'd "gotten uppity" – things, he said, people would never say about former prime minister Stephen Harper or the late Jim Prentice. This inherent racism was magnified online through bots and trolls, creating a level of ugliness the mayor had not known before.

Mr. Nenshi believes that racism is a bigger problem in his city than it was seven years ago, when he was first elected. Back then, he did not get the impression voters cared about his ethnicity or faith or the colour of his skin. But statistics show that acts of hatred and Islamophobia are on the rise across the country – and Calgary is no exception, he says.

"Certainly it's an issue here, but you also see it in Vancouver when conversations about real estate too quickly become conversations about 'the other,' " he said. "You're seeing it in Quebec with Bill 62, saying it's better to isolate people in their homes and not let them take a bus than it is to actually welcome these folks into our society."

This isn't the first time Mr. Nenshi has spoken out on the matter of race. He made headlines a couple of years ago when he told me he'd been personally "shaken" by the racist nature of the debate over accepting Syrian refugees. But generally he has steered clear of the subject, especially as it has pertained to racist rhetoric aimed at Muslims, like him.

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That reluctance, however, is disappearing. The mayor now feels a need to sound an alarm about a phenomenon we are witnessing around the world – and certainly in this country. As Canadians, he told me, we need to think hard about our "polite language around multiculturalism" and whether it's sufficient to protect the promise of a place where everyone can succeed.

"That is the big focus of our work," he told me, brushing rice off his shirt. "And that is the core strength of Calgary – certainly more so than our proximity to carbon atoms in the ground."

Mr. Nenshi now has four more years to champion this cause, and I hope he does. Few speak with as much passion and authority on the subject or can speak from his personal experience. Social media has given those who yearn for a society that existed in the past – who have no room in their hearts for people who may not look like them or speak like them – an unfiltered megaphone.

Still, the mayor has reason to be heartened. Voter turnout in Calgary's civic election was the highest in 40 years. Citizens were convinced that something significant was at stake – something worth fighting for.

Maybe the kind of city they want to live in.

Naheed Nenshi says it’s essential to understand the “nature” of the divisions created during the leadup to Calgary’s mayoral election. Nenshi won his third term Monday over main rival Bill Smith. The Canadian Press
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