10/17/2015 03:13 EDT | Updated 10/17/2016 05:12 EDT

The Canada We Hope For

We've figured out a simple truth: we're in this together. Our neighbour's strength is our strength; the success of any one of us is the success of every one of us. But this is incredibly fragile. It must be protected always from the voices of intolerance, divisiveness, small-mindedness, and hatred. It's the right thing to do.

This is an edited and condensed version of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi's speech at the Institute for Canadian Citizenship's 13th LaFontaine-Baldwin Symposium in Stratford, Ont. on Sept. 19, 2015.

naheed nenshi

Naheed Nenshi at three years old in Calgary.

I'm just a kid from East Calgary who likes to share stories. And I will do that today, in the hopes that the stories may help us better understand this place we call Canada and the roles we all have in this play we're writing together.

This summer, I went on a family trip. I took my mother and my sister's family, and we all went back to Tanzania. Our little group ranged in age from six to 75, and we were exploring our roots. We saw the house my mum grew up in and the hospital where my sister was born and lots of elephants. But, more important, we reflected on our own roots. I stood on the shores of Lake Victoria in Mwanza and gazed across the lake. I realized that, if my parents had been born on the other side, instead of being immigrants in 1971 they would have been refugees in 1972.

In the early 1970s, my parents were working in a place called Arusha, which is used for many international and UN meetings. My dad met some Canadians working for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). They used to get the Toronto Star delivered to them, and dad, a voracious reader, used to ask for the newspaper when they were done with it. So he read, and he learned all about this strange place.

One day, he read an article about the new city hall in Toronto. He was amazed. How do you build such a tall building, he wondered, and make it round? He resolved that, one day, he would see that city hall.

A few years later, he got his chance. He had saved up so he could go to his sister's wedding in London, England. Since he was in London, he figured he might as well make a side trip to Toronto (I'm not sure he consulted a map). Just before leaving, they discovered my mum was pregnant and decided to go anyway, leaving my three-year-old sister with relatives. Much to my regret, they did eventually send for her.

When they got to Toronto, they immediately fell in love with the place (it was summer). They felt a certain freedom, like their kids could do anything there, and they decided to stay.

What followed was a very ordinary story familiar to so many of us.

When my parents arrived, there were six Ismaili families in Toronto and they did prayer services at someone's home. Only a few months later, this little group of six families found themselves having to look after hundreds of Ismaili families -- refugees from Uganda -- and show them how to make it in this strange new place. They never once begrudged this. Even though they had so little, these new arrivals had even less.

Even though my parents barely knew how to navigate Canada, the newcomers had no idea. So they got to work. It was the right thing to do.

'... what we lacked in money, we gained in opportunity'

When I was a year old, we packed up a Dodge Dart and moved to Calgary. Sometimes we were very poor. Sometimes we were only mostly poor.

But what we lacked in money, we gained in opportunity. I went to amazing public schools. I spent my Saturday afternoons at the public library. I learned to swim, kind of, at a public pool. I explored the city I love on public transit. And through it all, I was nurtured by a community that wanted me to succeed, that had a stake in me, and that cared about me.

And in 2010, 20 months before he died, my dad, who loved Toronto City Hall, got to sit in another city hall and watch his son be sworn in as mayor.

naheed nenshi sisterNaheed Nenshi with his sister Shaheen Nenshi Nathoo is seen at his headquarters after winning the mayoral seat in Calgary on Oct. 18, 2010. (Stuart Gradon/Calgary Herald/Canadian Press)

While that story may seem extraordinary in its details, what's extraordinary is just how ordinary it is. It is a very Canadian story. It is a story of struggle, service, sweat and, ultimately, success.

Almost every Canadian has such an origin story worth telling. They tell us about when Canada works. And when Canada works, it works better than anywhere.

We've figured out a simple truth: we're in this together. Our neighbour's strength is our strength; the success of any one of us is the success of every one of us. And, more important, the failure of any one of us is the failure of every one of us.

But this is incredibly fragile. It must be protected always from the voices of intolerance, divisiveness, small-mindedness, and hatred. It's the right thing to do.

I worry that, in our current public and political discourse, we are losing that fight. Let's talk about Bill C-24.

One of the highlights of my time as mayor is being able to go to citizenship ceremonies. Every time, without fail, I cry. I cry with joy to be with so many people to have chosen to be Canadian. They have worked so hard to be a citizen (in the formal sense of the term). They have taken on the great responsibility of being a Canadian. And I weep as I share in that special moment, talking about how growing up, I always wondered why my family all had these fancy citizenship certificates and all I had was a lousy birth certificate.

As I grew up, I realized that those pieces of paper were not only the most valuable possessions we had, but that they were really the same.

No longer.

citizenship ceremony(Photo: Canadian Press)

How is it that those individuals I get to watch saying their oath should somehow be less Canadian than others? How is it that we should allow it to be easier for our government to strip them of that privilege and responsibility of citizenship?

How is it that I, born at Saint Mike's in downtown Toronto, could be stripped of my Canadian citizenship?

I am deeply troubled at the language of divisiveness we hear in Ottawa these days. The label of "terrorist" is thrown around with disturbing regularity. It is targeted language that nearly always describes an act of violence done by someone who shares my own faith.

It ties violent action to a religious group -- many of whom are Canadian citizens -- and does little to understand the causes of violence or the potential solutions. Instead, it encourages division; the opposite of the Canada to which we aspire.

Our government warns us of the radicalization of Muslim youth in our own communities, but law enforcement officers and community activists have repeatedly said that the cause of this radicalization is alienation and isolation, that the kids being radicalized are the same kids who join gangs. It truly is not about religion. So, we must work hard to make these kids feel part of the community.

But then to appeal to some elements in our society, the government picks a fight on a completely irrelevant issue: the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. It spends millions of dollars of taxpayer money, to prevent one woman from voting.

And those kids -- the ones we are trying to convince that there's a place for them in our society -- are told that no matter what, they can never be truly Canadian. That their faith is incompatible with our values.

All that good work on de-radicalization? Completely undermined by our own actions.

We cannot shy away from these stories of divisiveness

I'm speaking as though these failures of the Canada to which we aspire are recent. They're not. I'm naïve, but I'm not that naïve.

After all, we are the nation of Japanese internment camps. We are the nation of the Chinese head tax and Africville. We are the nation of Komagata Maru and provincial eugenics programs. We are the nation of "none is too many." We are the nation that created and sustained residential schools.

These are our stories too. They are not lapses in our citizenship. They are not moments when we temporarily forgot what it was to be Canadian. They are real and they are stories we tell -- as uncomfortable as we are in the telling.

We cannot shy away from these stories of divisiveness. In telling those stories alongside our origin stories, we move forward.

When I first became mayor, I pulled together a group of super-volunteers who came up with a simple idea: Three Things for Calgary. A social movement that encourages every citizen, every year, to do at least three things for their community.

Can you imagine if for 2017, for the sesquicentennial of this great nation, we give Canada a birthday gift? Can you imagine Three Things for Canada? Showing everyone the right things to do.

The real answer in crafting an ideal Canada -- the Canada to which we aspire -- lies in engaging muscularly with the past and the future. It means a thousand simple acts of service and a million tiny acts of heroism. It means acting at the community level: on our streets, in our neighbourhoods, and in our schools. It means refusing to accept the politics of fear.

connaught school calgaryStudents celebrate Connaught School's centennial. (Photo: Calgary Board of Education)

I want to leave you with one last story. One I tell all the time.

I had the chance a couple of years ago to visit the 100th anniversary of a school in Calgary. It's called Connaught School, named after the Duke of Connaught -- the Governor General of Canada, the son of Queen Victoria.

Now, the population of the school looks different than when it first opened. Because it's right downtown, it's often the first point of arrival for newcomers to Canada. There are 240 students. They come from 61 different countries. They speak 42 different languages at home.

I spoke to some of those kids and their parents. I heard horrible things. I heard stories of war and unspeakable poverty. I heard stories of degradation and loss of dignity. I heard stories of violence so horrific I could not imagine one human being doing that to another, let alone in front of a child.

I looked out at those kids, sitting on the floor in the gym, wearing their matching T-shirts celebrating their school's birthday.

I looked beyond them, at their parents, in hijabs and kanga cloth, in Tim Hortons uniforms and bus driver caps, in designer suits and pumps.

In that second, I knew something to be true beyond all else. Regardless of what these kids had been through, of how little they have or had, of what wrath some vengeful God had visited on them and their families, they had one burst of extraordinary luck.

And that luck was that they ended up here.

They ended up in Canada, in Calgary, at Connaught School. They ended up with people who would catch them if they fell. They ended up in a community that wants them to succeed, that has a stake in them, that cares about them.

And I knew at that moment, that those kids, right here, right now, would live a great Canadian life.

That's the promise of our community. That's what I have the humbling responsibility to make real every day.

And that's the opportunity you have. Because it's the right thing to do.

Click here for the full text of the address.

Watch video of Nenshi's speech starting around the 25:20 mark:

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