Then Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi addresses the Canadian Federation of Nurses 2017.
Then Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi addresses the Canadian Federation of Nurses 2017. Credit: David J. Climenhaga Credit: David J. Climenhaga

Before we get carried away by the current outbreak of Nenshimania, let’s just remember that it wasn’t the Alberta Party or the Alberta Liberals that toppled this province’s 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty in 2015, no matter how much they might wish they had. 

It was the good old Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) that stuck by its guns and its principles in bad years and even worse years, elected a talented leader named Rachel Notley in 2014, and formed a majority government the year after that.

Notley, now Alberta’s Opposition leader, has announced she is stepping down and a contest must be held to find her replacement. Naheed Nenshi, Calgary’s mayor from 2010 to 2021, has let it be known he might be interested in succeeding Notley as the leader of the NDP.

Mainstream media loves the idea. Nenshi was a controversial mayor and as a former member of the press, I can assure readers that controversy makes good stories and advances journalistic careers. A substantial number of busy denizens of a multitude of social media platforms have greeted Nenshi’s putative candidacy with similar enthusiasm. 

On Saturday, Nenshi gave a public speech on trans people’s rights at a public protest against the cynical United Conservative Party (UCP) anti-trans policies announced by Premier Danielle Smith last week. It was powerful and passionate and, to many observers, had the ring of a campaign speech as well.

Judging from the enthusiasm generated on social media – including some suspiciously conservative corners – it has reached the point the sentiment can officially be labelled Nenshimania. 

Now, let it be said here that Nenshi is a fine man and he is certainly on the right side of this issue. But is he the right person to lead the NDP? That is another matter entirely. 

As he has himself admitted, Nenshi is not a New Democrat, and he is ambivalent about political parties. 

Two days before the May 29 provincial election, won by Smith’s UCP after a lacklustre and strangely passive NDP campaign, Nenshi half-heartedly endorsed Notley and the NDP with a caveat that suggested he really wished he didn’t feel he had to. 

“I need to engage with politics and elections fluidly and based on the context of the moment, as well as who is running,” he wrote in an op-ed published by CTV News. “I have voted for at least four different parties provincially and federally, and for municipal candidates all over the ideological map. And this time, I’m voting NDP.” (Emphasis added.)

Is this the kind of leader the NDP needs to elect?

Of the current UCP premier of Alberta and the NDP Opposition leader he is apparently pondering replacing, he added, “truth be told, from my perspective, neither was particularly great at the job.” He assailed Notley for being too cautious, a fair criticism, and implied Smith is not cautious enough – a qualification that has certainly proved to be true since the election. 

But, again, is this the kind of leader who can not only lead the NDP to a potential victory (quite possibly against a different leader than Smith) but who can inspire the party to thrive and fight and win again another day in the case of an ambiguous loss like that in 2023? 

Sorry, but it doesn’t sound like it to me.

Whether or not Nenshi is now a member of the Alberta Party – a political entity that has never caught the imagination of Alberta voters because it engaged in politics and elections too fluidly and too much based on the context of the moment – he is certainly associated with it. 

Some of his associates who would likely make up the core of his inner circle in the event he won the NDP leadership are certainly associated with Alberta Party and the Liberals before that.

Duncan Kinney of The Progress Report wrote Friday that Chima Nkendrim, Nenshi’s chief of staff at Calgary City Hall for seven years, told his former boss “I want him to think about it.”

Would that Liberal vibe make Nenshi an attractive target for the UCP? You can bet on it! 

It’s a funny thing about Western Canadian politics, and not just in Alberta, but to the frustration of both parties, many voters move between the Conservatives and the NDP with more ease than members of either group can give their support to the Liberals. 

And whatever Alberta is, while it’s not the festering MAGA heap the rightward fringe of the UCP insists it is, it’s also not the suburbs of Toronto! 

How might Mr. Nenshi work out as NDP leader? 

No one can say for sure, but we have the example of Thomas Mulcair, the former Liberal chosen to lead the federal NDP after the death of Jack Layton. Mulcair proved to be an able Parliamentarian but a dud as a social democratic leader able to motivate the party’s base. 

We also have the catastrophic example of Raj Sherman, the former Conservative the Alberta Liberals foolishly allowed to be elected as their leader who basically proceeded to lay waste to their party. Well, no one is likely to be that bad, but it’s still food for thought. 

Nenshi has a lot of support in Calgary as well as some bitter opponents. How much support does he have outside of Calgary? Again, it’s hard to say. No more than any other progressive in rural Alberta. But I’d be willing to bet that if he tried to dampen down partisan loyalty to the NDP’s orange banner and replace it with a kind of purple haze that it would significantly weaken the NDP’s hold on Edmonton. 

It’s all very well to say, as Nenshi does, that “purple is a combination of red and blue and I wear it to remind myself and others that we are not defined by our political tribe but by our common humanity. But in Edmonton, a lot of us bleed orange!

As University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young wrote in her Substack Sunday, accurately in my opinion, “If Nenshi applies to the committee for permission to run, what he’s really proposing is an informal merger between the Alberta New Democrats and his own political movement.”

I’m not here today to relitigate the falsity of the Conservative claim the NDP government was a fluke – it wasn’t – although the party did benefit from the split in Alberta’s conservative parties in 2015.

But part of the NDP’s successful formula was that the party always had stuck to its principles and Notley was the daughter of a respected NDP leader, tragically struck down in his prime. 

And whatever moving parts led to the NDP victory in 2015, it put to rest the ancient Albertan superstition that Conservatives could never be beaten, no matter how bad they got, or that the NDP was only a fringe party never able to summon the talent needed to govern. 

If that charge rings true about any party today, it is the UCP. The NDP’s Calgary and Edmonton caucuses are full of talent, ready to lead. 

Personally, I lean toward the view it’s dangerous to depend too heavily on interlopers and johnny-come-latelys when choosing party leaders. I know the NDP has had this debate and it seems to have decided to grant Nenshi an exemption under its rules and let him run if he wishes. 

In my view, though, this sets the stage for a reverse takeover of the successful NDP by the remnants of the unsuccessful Alberta Party – not a formula for success notwithstanding Nenshi’s own obvious political talents. 

Meanwhile, there are excellent NDP candidates to lead the Opposition party. 

Sarah Hoffman, the last competent health minister Alberta had, has declared her intention to run. 

Kathleen Ganley, minister of Justice in Notley’s cabinet, has said she will make an important announcement this morning. It’s expected to be that she’s running for the leadership as well. 

Rakhi Pancholi and David Shepherd may join in the next few days. 

If you’re suffering from Nenshimania, be careful what you wish for. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...