On hiatus

On hiatus
Photo: Nick Devlin
Chima Nkemdirim is a big fan of the arts. But he didn’t choose the art that decorates his friend’s office. “This one here is kind of neat,” he says, motioning behind him as he takes a seat to have his photo taken. “We call it The Giant Lego Thing.” If the statement is intended to deflect blame for the strangeness that greets the eyes there, it is done politely. “That one over there by the desk I’m not so sure about,” he adds, pointing across the room. “It’s kind of creepy.”
The office belongs to the mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, who gives Nkemdirim a lot of credit for his startling victory in the 2010 municipal election. Nkemdirim headed a groundbreaking campaign that was the first of its kind in Canada to use social media to mobilize potential voters. Nenshi’s election shook the Canadian political scene on two levels: he was the first Muslim chosen to lead a city in North America and, at 38, was considered a young political outsider.

“[Nkemdirim] is a brilliant political strategist. He ran the whole thing,” says Nenshi, Nkemdirim’s friend since both were first-year students at the University of Calgary in 1989. Nkemdirim left a thriving career after 13 years as a securities lawyer at one of Canada’s top firms, Fraser Milner Casgrain LLP, to become the mayor’s chief of staff. He also gave up a side-job teaching at the University of Calgary’s law school. “It was one of those decisions where you think ‘when else do you get the opportunity to work at city hall?’ It was impossible to turn down,” he says with a shrug. “So, my law career is on hiatus. I suspect I will one day return to practice when this is done.”

The underlying theme of the 2010 Calgary election result is that, unless Nenshi and his gang of interlopers completely mess up the city, it will likely lead them to a higher level of government, or, at the very least, keep them in the art-lined office for another term.

Nkemdirim may be coaxed into striking out on his own one day. An informal poll conducted in the spring by respected Calgary blogger Dave Kelly placed Nkemdirim near the top of a list of preferred replacements for outgoing Conservative premier Ed Stelmach. “If he were to run, I’m confident he’d make a big splash with broad based support from all areas of the political spectrum,” Kelly writes at djkelly.ca.

Nkemdirim, however, remains committed to a party that he helped pull out of a dormant state two years ago. He served as president of the Alberta Party, which was founded in the 1950s, for several months in 2010 before resigning to join Nenshi at city hall. He remains on the board of directors of the party that has grown from a membership of 40 in 2010 to more than 2,000.

Nkemdirim and Nenshi are part of a generation of Calgarians born in the ’70s to new Canadians. The Nkemdirims are from West Africa, and arrived here two years before their son was born in 1971. The city no longer resembles the cowtown in which he grew up. It’s surpassed one million in population and is creeping toward the Rocky Mountains in a way that upsets long-time residents, who are now suffering from heavier traffic and rising taxes.

The Alberta Party’s approach resembles Nkemdirim and Nenshi’s approach to the campaign. Nenshi offered specific ideas to solving Calgary’s problems, like improving transit and creating affordable housing through the legalization of basement suites, without stopping to worry about ruffling feathers. “We’re trying to create a political party that is focused on solving problems without this ideological filter,” says Nkemdirim. “We have people who are Conservatives, people who are Liberal, and we have NDPers, all in the party, who are working together who are solution-oriented. There’s a real disconnect in Alberta between the citizenship and the government. I think you saw that at the Calgary election.”

Nkemdirim has even had some involvement in the Liberal party. He was the campaign manager for Kent Hehr when the long-time activist, who was left quadriplegic after being shot as a bystander during a 1991 drive-by shooting, was elected to the Alberta legislature in 2008. Hehr also made a run for mayor of Calgary in 2010, but withdrew before the vote.

Prior to the 2010 election, Nkemdirim and Nenshi were also both active in a group called Better Calgary, which, as the name suggests, was created to find solutions to the strain brought on by Calgary’s growth. Nkemdirim was also director for six years of the Sage Theatre, resigning two years ago from the board of the small-budget, small-venue group that specializes in avant-garde productions. He remains chairman of the Calgary Foundation’s Arts & Culture grant advisory committee, and handles all the arts-related matters for Nenshi’s office — save for the original placement of wall art.

“Chima got into politics for the right reasons,” says friend and former FMC colleague John Reynolds. “He is not motivated by special interests. He and Naheed are all about the community. They simply wanted to make this city better. That was their goal.”

Nkemdirim joined Fraser Milner Casgrain in 1997. Reynolds arrived a year later and both became partners in the firm’s corporate securities group. Nkemdirim gives some of the credit for his activism to FMC, saying the firm encourages its staff to become involved outside of the office. “I know a lot of places aren’t like that,” he says. “You could work in an environment where it’s just bill, bill, bill, bill, bill. I had a great experience working there. They were really supportive of my career. This is a big change, though. When we came in here there was no staff. We had one person left over [from the previous administration]. When you’re elected a week later, you’re in power and you have no staff. You have to find people to hire your staff. That turned out to be me. It was crazy.

“There is no instruction manual to do this job.”

Reynolds shakes his head at Nkemdirim’s pace. “He took a 50-per-cent pay cut for 20-per-cent more work,” says the mayor.

It could just be that Nkemdirim’s sojourn into politics lasts only for as long as his friend is the mayor. He can’t, or won’t, say. “Who knows what the future will bring?” says Nkemdirim. “I love politics and I like public policy. So, one day may be I’ll run, I don’t know. Right now I’m happy with what I’m doing.”

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