The most passionate pushback on Conservative Leader Stephen Harper’s twin hot-button election issues is coming from his own backyard.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s outspoken criticism of the Conservative leader’s court appeal on the issue of niqabs at citizenship ceremonies and the stripping of citizenship from convicted terrorists in many ways pulls back the curtain on the Alberta that elected him as mayor of its largest city and handed a huge provincial majority to New Democrat Rachel Notley.

Albertans appear ready to overwhelmingly vote Conservative again in this federal election, but Nenshi is delivering eloquent reminders that support for that party in his province may be historic, but the province is taking a more progressive view on social issues than many parts of Canada.

In a speech to the LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium at the Stratford Festival, Canada’s first Muslim mayor spoke of the multicultural mosaic that is his city, his battle against the politics of fear and the “medieval”
nature of a citizenship law that allows dual citizens to be banished from this country.

He told the symposium his favourite task as mayor is officiating at Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

“Every single time, without fail, I cry,” he said. “I cry with joy to be with so many people who have chosen this place and I thank them for their choice.”

But Harper’s Bill C-24 makes it easier to banish these people from this country. It would even make it easier for Nenshi, who was born at St. Michael’s Hospital in downtown Toronto, to be stripped of his citizenship, he says.

“How did we let this happen?

“Either you believe in the rule of law in this country, or you don’t. One Canadian citizen committing the same crime should be treated the same as any other citizen, not subject to a different sort of justice if they had a parent or grandparent born someplace else.”

He said he is deeply troubled by the language of divisiveness he hears from Ottawa.

The language is always deliberate, and it is specific, he said, and it ties violent action to a religious group. His religious group.

“It encourages division. It is the opposite of Canada to which we aspired. It is the wrong thing to do.”

And when the government picks a fight over the niqab, “an issue that is relevant to exactly no one,” it undermines all efforts to ensure Muslim youth are not radicalized but are brought into the Canadian mainstream.

Such government actions, he says, send a simple message to them – you will never be one of us because of your faith.

Jason Kenney, the Calgary cabinet minister who introduced the niqab ban, said it was Nenshi “and people like him” who are politicizing the issue. He told the Calgary Herald “we’re all used to Naheed’s running social commentary on everything.”

That is nothing short of a stunning response to a man who, in his speech, said Canadians must always fight against the voices of intolerance, the voices of small mindedness and those who seek to divide rather than unite.

Nenshi likes to joke he was made in Tanzania but born in Canada. His mother was pregnant with him when they arrived in Toronto in 1971.

When the family lived in Arusha, Tanzania, Nenshi’s father, a voracious reader, had CIDA workers leave their copies of the Toronto Star with him after they were finished with the papers.

It was a Star description of the then-new Nathan Phillips Square that so fascinated his father that he resolved on the spot that one day he would see that city hall in person. The family did, doing whatever it took to put food on the table after their arrival. They ran a laundromat, his mother sold lottery tickets in a mall kiosk, Nenshi worked in bingo halls.

Nenshi told his audience about Connaught School in downtown Calgary. The 240 students came from 61 different countries and spoke 42 languages at home.

When he spoke there, he heard later from parents horrific stories of war, violence and deprivation.

It would have been easy to feel despair after hearing those stories, Nenshi said. But, instead, he had a moment of clarity.

“I knew one thing was true. Regardless of the horrible things they had seen and been exposed to, they had one stroke of extraordinary luck and that stroke of extraordinary luck was they ended up here, in Canada, in Calgary, at Connaught school.”

Nenshi, of course, isn’t running for anything in October.

But in the middle of an election that has driven into the ditch of identity politics, you kind of wish he were.

Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

tharper@thestar.ca Twitter:@nutgraf1

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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