Just yesterday, it seems, Alberta elected two young urban mayors — Don Iveson in Edmonton and Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi. They fancied themselves leaders of the New West. They were hip. And they were gifted with fresh ideas, they said, to make things better.
As it came to pass, some things got worse on their watch. In both cities, a gap-toothed and gutted downtown is their legacy. Edmonton’s regional transit system can’t get it together with insufferable construction delays. As for Calgary, there’s no hint of a high-speed train bulleting north to anywhere, let alone the provincial capital.
In 2021, both men decided not to run for re-election. There were whispers of federal or provincial politics, but neither made the expected leap. Nenshi, 51, the current darling of the CBC, lets me know he doesn’t have time for an interview. Don, 43, and with only a little grey in his beard, is more accommodating.
It took awhile before we got our computers to talk to each other. Casually dressed in a green LLBean sweatshirt, Don is in a kind of home-office deployment. A dog sneaks into the room, and he dutifully pets the critter.
Don was all of 28 when first elected to Edmonton’s city council. He studied political science at university. He seems to be fired up “to save the world.” He still intends to end homelessness, co-chairing the board of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness; build capacity for climate adaptation and resiliency as an adviser to Co-operators; and create better cities as an urban leader with the University of Toronto’s new School of Cities. Overall, I’m left with an impression his goal is to make Albertans more acceptable to the rest of Canada.
It’s self-evident both he and Nenshi represented an era when big city leadership in Alberta was the antithesis of the conservative politics that ran the province. Don won’t admit to a federal Liberal patina. “I was never comfortable signing up for somebody else’s playbook,” he said, pleading political neutrality.
You’ve never held a party membership?
Only once, he confesses, “I have to admit that at one time I was a member of the provincial Liberal party because (then-leader) Kevin Taft lived across the street from my dad.”
With his boyish good looks, fashionable beard and six-foot-four-inch frame, I’m thinking Don is a shoo-in for Justin Trudeau’s brother. And while he may not have acquired a Liberal passport, he definitely carried the flag for that team in Edmonton.
“I was chair of Big Cities Mayors for five years, happened to coincide with the current federal government and so I got tagged with that government because I stood next to them, to say thank you for enormous amounts of money that helped secure transit and housing and infrastructure and other things,” Don explains.
“But I’m not now nor ever have been a member of the Liberal Party of Canada. Contrary to political belief,” he says, flatly.
As New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley learned the hard way — there she is in a picture back when she was premier, smiley faced and all in the prime minister’s company — the Liberal brand may well be toxic for Don in Alberta.
Don credits Nenshi with creating the blueprint for what both young mayors tried to do in Edmonton and Calgary (demographically, the most youthful big cities in the country). The two men met frequently while in office, and still do. “I had lunch with him last week,” reports Don, “he was in town to speak to a teachers convention.”