A middle-aged brown-skinned man with short curly brown and grey hair holds a microphone in his left hand. He is wearing black-framed glasses, a white button up shirt, red tie and a navy suit.
Former Calgary mayor and newly named Alberta NDP leader Naheed Nenshi speaks to a crowd at the Calgary leadership debate at the BMO Centre on May 11, 2024. (Photograph courtesy of Amir Said)

Topics: Ethical Living | Politics

New Alberta NDP leader Naheed Nenshi is the 1st Muslim to lead a major political party in Canada

After over a decade as Calgary's mayor, Nenshi is eager to bring his passion for social justice to the rest of Alberta. Is the province ready?


On June 22, Naheed Nenshi, the former mayor of Calgary, was declared leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP), making him the first-ever Muslim elected to lead a major political party in Canada. Nenshi received 86 percent of the vote, which the Alberta NDP said is the highest amount of votes any candidate has ever earned in a provincial party leadership race.

During his 11-year tenure as the first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, Nenshi was no stranger to social justice issues. In 2013, he declared March 31 as Trans Day of Visibility in Calgary; following the murder of George Floyd in 2020, he held a meeting of council where Calgarians were invited to share their experiences with racism; and during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, he controversially called out anti-maskers, urging leaders to condemn the racism and hatred that was being expressed at their rallies.

“I don’t know what true anti-racism [would look like], but I know that we can’t stop where we are now and we have to ensure that we are really building a society in a community where everyone has dignity and where everyone has the opportunity to succeed,” he told Broadview when asked about his vision for helping foster a more inclusive and accepting Alberta.

Nenshi, formerly non-partisan, now has 85,144 registered Alberta NDP members across the province to answer to. The question that’s on the mind of people across the political spectrum: will Nenshi’s charm and experience be enough to return the opposition party to power?

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Nenshi has big shoes to fill: he’s replacing Rachel Notley, who became the first and only Alberta NDP premier of the province in 2015. After losing the 2023 provincial election, during which the Alberta NDP swept Edmonton and took more than half of Calgary’s seats to form Alberta’s largest-ever official opposition with 38 out of 87 seats in the legislature, Notley announced the end of her 10-year tenure.

In the last election, despite winning the majority of seats in Calgary and Edmonton, the Alberta NDP lost all rural ridings but one. One of the biggest challenges ahead for Nenshi, a Harvard-educated former professor, will be increasing the party’s appeal to rural voters.

“I’m not arrogant enough to assume that I know what the most important issues for people living outside of the big cities in Alberta are,” he told me in a previous interview for the Western Wheel in March. “What I can promise is that I will listen, that people will get a fair hearing and that we will have an open and transparent conversation about how we can make life better, whether you’re in agriculture or ranching, whether you live in a big city or small town or on the farm.”

Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, where Nenshi previously taught as Canada’s first tenured professor of non-profit management, says that Nenshi’s strength as a leader comes from his relatability. “He’s the sort of person you could imagine … going for a coffee with; someone who used to ride the C-Train just to talk to ordinary Calgarians; someone who invites input from people who aren’t used to being asked about their opinion,” she says.

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Nenshi frequently references his adherence to the ethic of sevā, or selfless service to the community, which he says was instilled in him through his Ismaili Muslim upbringing.

“I’ve spent a lot of my time over the last two years … really focusing on [how we can] build community and encourage people in these really divisive times to understand the importance of looking after one another,” he said.

As leader, Nenshi will have to tackle some controversial provincial issues, including the upcoming legislation put forward by the reigning United Conservative Party and Premier Danielle Smith that limits the rights of transgender youth — a sentiment that many Muslim Calgarian parents have supported in anti-Pride protests.

“I think that that is not in line with what our faith teaches us about the dignity of every human being,” Nenshi told Broadview. “This is a very difficult conversation I’ve been having with people in the Muslim community about how we define ourselves as Canadians.”

Nenshi has garnered unprecedented support during his campaign. However, with the province facing turmoil over many issues, he has a lot of work ahead in the coming years.

“Alberta politics have become much less predictable over the last few years, and I think that’s going to continue to be the case,” said Williams. “At this stage, it’s impossible to know whether a change in leadership in the NDP is going to be enough to offset some of the concerns that have been raised with Danielle Smith.”



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