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One on one with Mayor Naheed Nenshi

Mayor Naheed Nenshi recently took a few minutes from his busy schedule to chat with Mount Royal University. Read on to find out what movie he’s dying to see and if Mount Royal will ever see its own, dedicated C-Train station …

Nenshi speaks
When Naheed Nenshi speaks, he's finding that more people than ever listen.

MRU: Have you gotten used to being called Mayor yet?

NN: I’m starting to get used to being called mayor, finally. What’s even weirder about that though, is technically people are supposed to refer to me as "Your Worship," which is a bit strange. But I prefer to be called Naheed. 

MRU: How’s the first seven weeks of your new job been?

NN: It’s been very busy. I’m used to working hard though, so it’s okay. The thing about this is, I’m working hard but I’m working hard on stuff that’s really important and exciting and I feel like we’re doing good work every day, so that makes it easier to bare.

MRU: If you could take one thing from your life here at Mount Royal with you into your new job, what would it be?

NN: One of the things I miss about being at Mount Royal is that I was able to follow a pretty disciplined fitness regimen because the gym was right there. I haven’t been able to work that into my new life just yet and I think that’ll be a big priority for me moving forward, from a personal perspective.

MRU: If a genie came to you and said 'you can have one wish for your time as mayor,' what would you choose to be your legacy?

NN: At the end of my term, I want Calgarians to say, ‘it’s better now’ — ‘when I take Calgary Tranist, it’s better now, when I have to deal with City Hall, it’s better,’ and really that’s it. We’re going to build a lot of good, big things like expanding transit and getting the airport underpass built. But what’s most exciting for me is that we have the opportunity to craft a Calgary where Calgarians feel more a part of it and more like their city is serving them and that’s what I aim to do.

MRU: What's it been like trying to win over city councillors and convincing them to work with you and do things your way?

NN: The good news has been that so far, both the Council and City Administration have been remarkably willing to change the way things work. I get the impression they were waiting for a way to initiate that change to open up.

I’ve tried to foster a very inclusive leadership style, where I engage the people that work here and the council in what we’re doing and it’s been working so far. It’s certainly a riskier style than going about it in more autocratic fashion, but it’s intentional. I want to make people feel like they’re a partner in what I’m doing. So, so far, so good.

MRU: What’s been your favourite part of the job?

NN: I just love the ability to make change, so it’s been really fun to be involved in those processes. Even sitting through endless budget meetings has been exciting for me because I knew what we were doing was actually going to have an impact. I’ve also had the opportunity to do some crazy, fun things I wouldn’t normally get to do like riding the COP zip-line with Rick Mercer and I just did something very exciting just today with Citytv as a special Christmas gift to Calgarians, so watch out for that on Christmas Eve — I can’t tell you what it is yet though, it’s a surprise. But, trust me, it was really, really fun.

MRU: What’s the most challenging aspect of the job?

NN: The one thing that has surprised me is the volume. I knew it would be hard work and I knew what it would entail but it was remarkable to find out we get roughly 100 event invites every day. A lot of people are very excited about my being elected and they want to see me and spend time with me, so managing that has been a real challenge as far as balancing that with the demands of running the City, so I’m focusing on figuring out how to make that work.

MRU: When do you think it’s fair for people to begin judging your performance?

NN: They should start judging me right away. We have a number of things we’ve inherited from the old council that aren't our doing, but even then, people have every right to say, ‘did you deal with the deficit on the budget you inherited in a way I think is right?’

MRU: Speaking of things you’ve inherited, what’s bugging you the most that you’d like to change or deal with?

NN: I’m really happy with how we handled the budget. We made some massive increases in public transit, we protected programs for people with disabilities and got rid of that park n’ ride thing, thank goodness and we did it all for a tax increase of less than $5 a month, so that was a good start.

There are definitely decisions that I would have opposed had I been around and there’s little I can do about them now, for instance, the LRT isn’t going to come to Mount Royal and it should have, but that’s done. So now, we have to do the best we can with what we’ve got and make sure there’s outstanding bus service to Mount Royal and make sure that once the West LRT is built, the connections to the university from Westbrook are seamless. There are certainly lots we can change though and we intend to do that.

MRU: You’ve received an epic amount of media coverage since the last quarter of the election — how do you handle what’s being written and said about you?

NN: I’m getting used to it now. When I first started running it was more challenging, especially for my family because people say mean things on the internet in particular. But you have to get used to it.

We’ve found a general good rule is to avoid reading the comments beneath the stories on news sites. When you get to the bottom of an article, I now stop reading. That said, people have the right to comment, that’s the great thing about the society in which we live, even if sometimes it’s more mean-spirited than we’d like, there are also some good thoughts out there as well and I try to learn from those.

MRU: A year ago this time, you’d be busy grading final projects. Are you a different Naheed Nenshi than you were a year ago?

NN: I think I’m the same guy, but in a completely different context. It’s actually sort of funny because sometimes people are a bit surprised by my sense of humour, for example. It’s interesting to see how people react to that. Obviously, being in front of council at the chair is different from being in front of a class. Even during the budget hearings I try to keep it light and flowing and I think a few people are like, ‘is he smiling and making little jokes while we’re making budget cuts?’

MRU: How has the City Hall culture compared to academic culture for you and what’s the adjustment been like?

NN: It’s similar in that there’s a lot of bureaurocracy, folks often like to do things they way they’ve always been done simply because that’s the way they’ve always been done.

One of the big differences is everyone in the academic world is autonomous, so they do whatever they want. There’s not much hierarchy. The City is quite different that way. I find I muse about things like I would when I was an academic but then people start running around and doing them, so that’s been an adjustment.

MRU: Now that you’ve taken the office, are there any big secrets, like who shot JFK, you’ve learned?

Oh yeah, of course, but I can’t tell you any of them. That said, one thing I’m excited about, is that I now know where the entrance to the never-used underground C-Train station beneath City Hall is.

Apparently you have to take a rope ladder, so some time I’m going to try that out. I’ve also discovered that the Mayor gets a sticker on his car that allows me to park anywhere — that’s the one perk of the job. I can pretty much park on a fire hydrant if I need to and I won’t get towed (laughs).

MRU: I know you’re a big film buff — is there anything you’re looking forward to seeing over the Christmas holidays?

NN: I actually missed a lot of movies over the summer, with the election, and I am really looking forward to seeing Inception. I understand there’s someone in it who looks like me, so we’ll see about that. I did make time to see the new Harry Potter and was excited about that and of course I saw The Social Network — I figured being who I am, it’d be a good one to see.

MRU: I know you’re not from a Christian background, how will you spend the holidays?

NN: Well, I have young nieces and it’s tough when they’re little to avoid getting involved in Christmas. I’ll be there with them on Christmas morning helping them open presents.

MRU: From a Mount Royal perspective, what do you think is important for Mount Royal to maintain and strive for moving forward?

NN: Mount Royal has been an important part of the City for 100 years. This year is particularly important though. Choosing the right president to replace Dave Marshall as well, a number of deans are due to be replaced and getting the right people in those positions is critical.

Mount Royal’s been blessed with great leadership but as it moves forward as a university it needs to continue to have those types of people guiding it. There’s a shift right now, which is going to be important to see how it develops.

When I went "on leave" from the Bissett School of Business to run for mayor, students who were entering our school had higher GPAs than those entering the business school at U of C for the first time. Which means we have a different kind of student body now and we’ll have to find a way to adapt to the needs and desires of that student body without sacrificing what makes Mount Royal so special and I think that’ll be an interesting challenge moving forward.

Steven Noble, Dec. 16, 2010