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People Are Not Stupid: Calgary's Mayor on Making Extraordinary Change

The core of Naheed Nenshi's political philosophy is that everyday people can do extraordinary things when they are respected and given the information they need to act.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 24, 2014

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi captivated an enthusiastic Hamilton audience last night at the second annual Ambitious City talk, organized by the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce. The evening started with a talk by Nenshi, followed by a sit-down question and answer session moderated by Jennifer Keesmaat, Chief Planner for the City of Toronto and last year's Ambitious City keynote speaker.

Eschewing the politics and policy talk that usually dominate city building lectures, Nenshi just told a story. He told the story of the 2013 Alberta Flood, which cut short his visit to Ontario to attend a friend's wedding

By turns hilarious, poignant and downright tear-inducing, Nenshi's story articulated the core of his political philosophy: he believes that everyday people can do extraordinary things when they are respected and given the information they need to act. Or has he put it, "People are not stupid."

He celebrated the fact that Canada has a functioning political system, a fact that is often overlooked in the steady drumbeat of criticism directed toward the public sector. "We get to live in a place where government works."

At the same time, he asserted that government can work a lot better. In his conversation with Keesmaat, Nenshi noted that he tells his colleagues in the City of Calgary to stop several times a day and pose the question: "How is what I'm doing right now making it better for someone to live here?"

Nenshi is a master at clever turns of phrase that combine big-hearted reverence with what he calls the "prickly" side of his temperament. Talking about his efforts to get city staff to engage all the people who wanted to volunteer to help, he said, "I do love public servants but they sometimes get a little public-servanty."

When city officials asked volunteers to show up at the stadium on short notice, they assumed not many people would show up. Nenshi arrived to find "thousands and thousands" of people eager to help. There was just one problem: the City had run out of volunteer forms.

Instead of turning everyone away, Nenshi told the people to just go out to the affected areas and see what needed to be done. What resulted was a remarkable self-organized volunteer effort that reaffirmed Nenshi's belief that community resilience comes from people using their "everyday hands and everyday voice to make extraordinary change".

He showed a photo of a line of mud-covered volunteers smiling and eating hamburgers, and he pointed out that the hamburgers themselves were also the result of volunteers doing what they could to support the people who were helping with the cleanup.

His challenge to municipal leaders is to put their trust in people. Share information freely, be honest, and empower citizens to do the right thing by themselves. "That's humanity, that's power, that's resilience, that's how we make change."

In an aside to the candidates for Monday's municipal election in Hamilton, Nenshi decried political attacks: negative political advertising doesn't convince people to change sides, it convinces the other side's supporters "to stay home".

Surprisingly, the Q&A session with Keesmaat was not a lot more policy-oriented than Nenshi's talk. Instead, they discussed the mission of municipal governance.

Keesmaat spoke with awe about the remarkable but easily-overlooked fact that, thanks to hard-working municipal employees, everyone in the city can just turn a tap at any time of the day and have immediate access to fresh, clean water. "We lose perspective of what we've really got."

She also called on everyone to step back from their entrenched positions and allow some space for common ground and agreement. "It's okay to change your mind."

At the end of the event, Nenshi interrupted the applause to leave a closing comment on the matter of endorsements: "I endorse voting."

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By ItJustIs (registered) | Posted October 24, 2014 at 11:11:51

"She also called on everyone to step back from their entrenched positions and allow some space for common ground and agreement."

Now THAT'S a novel thought. Maybe one day, that notion will come to Hamilton?

"It's okay to change your mind."

And this of course applies to Mayoral candidates too, right?

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted October 24, 2014 at 11:38:54

It's very simple. Respect the citizens, listen to them and allow their efforts and good ideas to flourish. Identify and extinguish toxic ideologies that are harmful to others. That's all you need to be a good leader, you don't even need a platform or a single original thought.

As a politician, if you ever think that somehow you can do better with the secretive, top down approach as is the status quo not just in Hamilton but almost everywhere, you fail the public you're supposed to be serving.

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By Smink (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2014 at 12:31:26

"How is what I'm doing right now making it better for someone to live here?" Public servants should ask themselves this constantly, and it should underpin the culture at city hall. Candidates take note.

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By Publicspace Pete (anonymous) | Posted October 24, 2014 at 12:38:29

Listen to the public and make the right noises with generalist statements that mean nothing. Then when public feeling & outrage co-incide with what your political sponsors want, enact something meaningful.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted October 24, 2014 at 13:36:37

"Listen to the Public." Plebiscites on major issues would go along way towards that. Internet voting in Hamilton would be a nice small step.

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