Mayor Naheed Nenshi has held Calgary’s top job for a decade, and no other year has been quite like 2020.
Nenshi has led the city through a crisis before; he was mayor when widespread flooding devastated Calgary in 2013. Back then, the water washed away within days and the community came together as a massive and expensive cleanup began.
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that hit in 2020, however, has endured, bringing with it division and anger, decimating the economy and killing hundreds of Albertans.
Global News’ Dallas Flexhaug sat down with Nenshi, virtually, for a look back at 2020 — and a look ahead to 2021.
COVID-19 restrictions hit Calgary
Nenshi says he had an eye on this virus in early January, but since Canada had dealt with SARS before and knew how to handle outbreaks, he didn’t view it as a large public health threat at the time.
At the end of February, Nenshi was on his first trade mission to India. He was supposed to travel from there to Houston for an oil and gas conference. That conference was cancelled. Then, the Taj Mahal closed, and people of the world began to realize how quickly the coronavirus was spreading.
“Things started to get worse,” Nenshi said. “We had our first case in Alberta and I realized that I’d better get home quickly.”
He flew home on Sunday, March 8, and held a news conference the next day, telling Calgarians they should start taking precautions, beginning with not shaking hands with one another.
“Can you remember when we used to shake hands?” he remarked.
Two days after that, on Wednesday, March 11, Calgary had banned indoor gatherings with more measures quickly following.
“By Thursday, (March 12) most offices were telling people to work from home. Friday, (March 13) the City of Calgary, as an employer, went to full virtual. Saturday, (March 14) we declared a state of emergency. That’s how fast this went. The following week, schools were closed,” Nenshi said.
Alberta’s economy moving forward
Nenshi says it comes as no surprise that 2020 has been a terrible year for the economy, following several other terrible years — referencing the recession Alberta has been in since 2014, following the collapse of oil prices.
When asked what’s going to move the economy in the right direction, Nenshi said it’s a focus on the core of the economy: “Industries like energy — both oil and gas conventional energy — and renewable and new energy, in financial services, agri-food and so on.”
Nenshi says boosting the core will require a “much deeper tech sector, as they all go through digitization in a brand new way that they hadn’t imagined before.” He says supporting the core industries will help the retailers and restaurants that have suffered so much in the pandemic.
“If you happen to have a restaurant downtown that mostly does lunch business, well, guess what? You’re not doing very well right now, even when you were open, because there’s no one to work in the buildings around you,” he said, referencing the high vacancy rate of Calgary’s downtown office towers.
That said, Nenshi does remain optimistic, saying there were some business successes we should celebrate, including “entrepreneurs taking a risk at the riskiest of times to start something new.”
Nenshi pointed out one of Calgary’s biggest tech companies, Benevity, had a banner year.
“It was valued at over a billion dollars, … making them what they call a unicorn in the tech industry,” he said. “That’s a huge success for Calgary.”
The mayor also finds optimism in Calgary’s new event centre, which he says we can officially call an “arena” now. Construction on the project is well underway.
“That will be done hopefully on time and on budget — along with the expansion to the BMO centre across the street — which is going to create one of Canada’s largest convention centres.”
Will Nenshi run for re-election?
Calgary’s next municipal election is on Oct. 18, 2021, and as of publishing, Nenshi has not announced whether he plans to run again.
“It’s bad procrastination on my part, but we are dealing with a pandemic and nobody’s got time for politics right now,” he said. “We have to be focused on public health.”
Nenshi says he will announce his plans in early 2021.
Looking ahead to 2021
Nenshi expects the first quarter of 2021 to be difficult even with the COVID-19 vaccine’s arrival in Alberta.
“Getting the people who are ill now either recovered or through the curve is going to take a while,” he said. “I don’t want to sugarcoat that.”
However, Nenshi does see the light at the end of the tunnel, saying Calgarians will be able to make up for lost time once restrictions are lifted.
“Let’s have all those delayed birthday parties. Let’s have lots and lots of hugs. Let’s meet our grandparents and make them feel better about the sacrifices we’ve made to keep them safe.”
He also hopes the resiliency we have gained in navigating through this pandemic sticks.
“Although it’s been hard and there’s been so much anger and bitterness, for the vast majority of us, we’ve been able to learn resiliency through a lens of compassion. I hope some of those traditions stick with us — that we remember 2020 as a rough and difficult year, but a year we ultimately got through, as we always do, together.”