Born in Toronto, Canada, in 1972, Nenshi moved with his family to Calgary, Alberta, when he was two years old. He made headlines at Queen Elizabeth High School when he was named Class Act student, an honour recognising an outstanding student from each high school in the city.
In mock parliament, Nenshi took on the role of Prime Minister, and he placed ninth at a U.K. public speaking contest among students from around the world. Nenshi was also elected president of the Student Union at University of Calgary in 1993. His best friend and vice-president, Chima Nkemdirim, later became his mayoral chief of staff.
After completing his Bachelor of Commerce Degree with distinction from the University of Calgary, Nenshi moved to Toronto to join McKinsey & Company, an international business-consulting firm. He travelled widely, advising retail companies, telecommunications companies, banks, and oil and gas corporations. With McKinsey’s sponsorship, Nenshi completed his master’s degree in public policy at Harvard in 1998.
In 2001 Nenshi returned home and started his own consultancy, eventually landing at Calgary’s Mount Royal University teaching nonprofit management.
Nenshi loved municipal issues. He became a regular sight at city council meetings and began writing a newspaper column on municipal affairs. He was also a member of imagineCALGARY and CivicCamp, both groups devoted to revitalising Calgary, and was the principal author of the 2002 report “Building Up: Making Canada’s Cities Magnets for Talent and Engines of Development,” which collected ideas from across Canada on channelling the creativity of urban youth.
Nenshi’s first run at City Hall was in 2004, competing with ten candidates for the vacant council seat in his ward, but he was ultimately unsuccessful. That same year, when then-mayor Dave Bronconnier announced he would not run for re-election, Nenshi consulted his close associates to ask if he should enter the race. Despite the odds against him in the polls (only eight percent in his favour), he decided to run. As the election drew closer, Nenshi’s support increased meteorically, a purple wave swept the city. Why purple? Nenshi explained that “it represented all sides of the political spectrum” (Jason Kirby, Macleans).
Purple signs began to pop up on lawns and windows, purple chalk writings on sidewalks said ‘vote Nenshi,’ and Calgarians began to ask ‘Who is Nenshi?’ His competitors had name recognition, but he didn’t — what he did have was grassroots momentum fuelled in part by his savvy social media campaigns noted for engaging citizens all over the city, which propelled him into the mayor’s chair. Nenshi made history as the first Muslim mayor of a large North American city. Nenshi was re-elected in 2014 and 2017; he chose not to run in 2021.
Neshi became an international phenomenon. Gary Mason of The Globe&Mail stated “Mr. Nenshi quickly set about setting a new tone at city hall. His brash, often cheeky style was a hit with his citizens. His urbaneness was something young Calgarians craved, a refreshing respite from the city’s redneck image. He made Calgary seem chic and hip.” He changed how City Hall works (Video). The city was the envy of all across the country and around the world as Nenshi’s Purple Revolution rolled out with gusto and big plans.
Nenshi invocated the “3 Things for Calgary” urging every citizen to do three things for the city, and share them with one another. He explained “It’s about creating an ongoing movement and motivation for citizenship, based on the understanding that citizenship is nothing to do with the piece of paper that you may or may not have from the government; it has to do with your participation” (Jon Alexander City Monitor). During the commemoration of Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation, Nenshi and his team encouraged “3 Things For Canada.”
In recognition of his work, Nenshi was named a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum, was awarded the President’s Award from the Canadian Institute of Planners, and received the Humanitarian Award from the Canadian Psychological Association for his contributions to community mental health.
The cornerstone of Nenshi’s legacy is the management of the 2013 flood, when he attained super-hero status through his pragmatic leadership, urging neigbours to pitch in with the city’s best spirit. Each night, Nenshi visited the most flood-affected neighbourhoods, offering reasoned optimism and a comforting presence to victims and volunteers. He did not have time for despair. “We’re there to help them. We as citizens have the power to take people from devastation to hope.” (Mason, The Globe&Mail). Calgarians will undoubtedly remember the unutterable “Nenshi noun” for those who chose to ignore the orders to stay away from rivers and river banks.
Following his stewardship of the community, Maclean’s magazine called him the second-most influential person in Canada, after the Prime Minister. He was also awarded the 2014 World Mayor Prize by the UK-based City Mayor’s Foundation as the best mayor in the world, winning out among twenty-five finalists. “The award aims to raise the profile of mayors worldwide by honouring those who have served their communities well by governing openly and honestly, and those who made significant contributions to cities nationally and internationally” (World Mayor Prize). The award placed Calgary on the international stage. “I think every leader can learn from what Nenshi has done to reinvent civic government” (Pam Ross, Huffpost).
To celebrate the incredible outpouring of support that citizens demonstrated during the flood, Nenshi and his Council established Neighbour Day in the following year. It is now an annual event for neighbourhood gatherings to celebrate the caring communities.
In 2014, he was also honoured by Elder Pete Standing Alone with the Blackfoot name A’paistootsiipsii, which means “Clan Leader” or “He who moves camp and the others follow.” A few years later, Elder Bruce Starlight of the Tsuu T’ina First Nation honoured him with the name Iitiya meaning “Always Ready.”
Nenshi has spoken at numerous events such as the Axworthy Lecturer Series on Social Justice and the Public Good, and at the thirteenth Lafontaine Baldwin Lecture organised by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.
Why was Nenshi invited?
“Each year we invite a speaker who can extend our conversation in new directions with original and inclusive ideas. Naheed Nenshi will bring the force of his thinking about citizenship and cities, along with his remarkable personal narrative, to the fore, ensuring another important Symposium conversation about who we are as a country.”
Charlie Foran, CEO Institute for Canadian Citizenship
(Video of Nenshi’s talk)
The Mosaic Institute named Nenshi an honourary Peace Patron in 2017, in recognition of his work to promote peace, reconciliation, and mutual understanding across communities in Canada.
Service comprises an important ethic in all cultures and religions including Islam, however, it is a cornerstone of the Ismaili community, to which Nenshi belongs. Caring for one another is prescribed in the sacred scripture and actualised by the spiritual leader of the global Ismaili community, His Highness the Aga Khan, through the network of agencies that he founded – Aga Khan Development Network – that operates in some of the poorest parts of the world. Nenshi, his family, and the Ismaili community learn our values of service to others from our faith. However, while volunteerism is strong within the Ismaili community, Nenshi advises that “we have to ensure that we don’t focus so much on volunteerism within our community that we run the risk of becoming insular. We need to actually be models for our neighbours and for the rest of society on how well volunteerism can work. That means that we need to value members of our community who choose to devote a portion of their community service outside our community, to help their neighbours with their lives.” (The.Ismaili).
While Nenshi faced many challenges including racism, he championed a culture of constant citizen-focused improvement at The City of Calgary. His passion for urban density, mass transit, food carts, bike lanes, his concern for poverty, housing, mental health, his inclusiveness, and his promotion of pluralism has made Calgary a great city to live in. Nenshi’s take on the biggest changes and accomplishments from his time as mayor, when Calgary changed, in his words, from “a big small city” to “a small big city” (Madeline Smith, Calgary Herald).
The nerdy professor, with his purple wave, has placed the city on a great track, assuring that “Calgary is a great pace to live and work in,” and that “regardless of where you come from, or what you look like, regardless of how you worship, or whom you love, you belong here” (Video).
Nenshi has left his mark on the city he so obviously loves, and has brought worldwide attention to it. He will forever be an integral part of the city’s history.
Contributed by Nimira Dewji, an invited writer at Ismailimail, although she has contributed several articles in the past (view previous articles). When not researching and writing, Nimira volunteers at a shelter for those experiencing homelessness, and at a women’s shelter.