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Alberta’s big city mayors bring capacity crowd to their feet at national summit on poverty

By Roderick Benns

Two of Canada’s most dynamic and change-focused mayors brought two capacity crowds to their feet at the National Poverty Reduction Summit in Ottawa.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson and Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, were both harbingers of massive, grassroots level change sweeping Alberta over the past few years. Now, with the NDP displacing 44 years of Progressive Conservative rule at the provincial level, both men were looking forward to working with a new change-oriented government to advance their own municipal agendas.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, who spoke yesterday at the summit, was elected in 2013 and immediately brought the weight of his office toward reducing poverty in his city.

Iveson was just 34 when he was elected as mayor and immediately began bridge building with the business community and city organizations. He created the Mayor’s Task Force to Eliminate Poverty in Edmonton within one generation, making no apologies for the word ‘elimination.’

“We have to think inter-generationally” on these important issues, to get it right for the future, not just for the politically expedient short term, he says.

“I’d rather do the right thing and lose the next election,” then do the wrong thing and win, he says.

Iveson says he is constantly challenging himself to build a city that is “uplifting for all.”

To that end, his poverty task force is not only focused on a generational fix for poverty, he is also ensuring that indigenous people are at the table from the beginning.

Edmonton’s mayor says that poverty is not just about a lack of money, but rather a lack of full inclusion from participation in public life. He notes that the Cree word for poverty doesn’t even refer to ‘money,’ but rather deprivation in general.

“For this work to be meaningful, it has to be based on the lived experiences of others. This is the most Canadian thing we can do.”

He says if people are more stable, earning more for their families, it’s better for the economy, too. “But it’s also the right thing to do.”

Iveson says he is pleased that businesses in Edmonton see the poverty elimination goal as achievable, along with community-level organizations, noting that cities are good at building big tents without the complexity of political party affiliations.

He says the poverty task force has seven key areas they are focusing on: Economic security, early childhood education, community well-being, education, health and wellness, justice and democratic participation, and housing and transportation. He notes that housing should always connect to transportation to improve mobility for everyone.

All of these seven points, Iveson says, are connected to the social determinants of health and are therefore crucial.

As he closed his remarks, Edmonton’s mayor says he is only doing his part in a timeline of change that has been needed for some time. He chided the federal government for their lack of participation and cooperation on files of importance to cities.

“We’re trying to build a movement,” and it will require real partnerships and leadership at all levels – including federal.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi Supports Basic Income Guarantee

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi says the scourge of poverty keeps him up at night.

Speaking to the National Poverty Reduction Summit Thursday morning, Nenshi asks the crowd why poverty levels have virtually remained the same for a generation, despite all the good people doing good things, and despite all the great stories that advocates can point to.

“We’re not doing it right. A lot of this is government policy, and those in government need to be brave” in the fight against poverty and inequality.

The first Muslim mayor of a major North American city, Nenshi is the son of immigrants who came from Tanzania. Pointing to his own immigrant family’s roots, he says he has the lived experience of poverty. “Like many immigrant families, we worked hard and had times of struggle.”

Growing up in a working class neighbourhood, Nenshi says they didn’t have much money but they had “extraordinary opportunity.” These opportunities included a great public school, to a quality transit system that enabled them to get around, to a community that cared about their success. Nenshi and his sister both worked part time from the age of 14 onward.

“The core of our success as a nation is that we are all in this together. We need to look after one another.”

Calgary’s poverty reduction strategy, initiated by Nenshi, is called Enough for All. The strategy has three key outcomes: by 2023, 95% of all people living in Calgary are at or above Statistics Canada’s Low-Income Cut-off (LICO) rates; by 2023, 90% of all people living in Calgary are at or above 125% of LICO rates; by 2018, Calgarians consider reducing poverty to be a high priority.

The overall goal is to reduce poverty by 50 percent by 2023.

Nenshi says it’s up to Canada’s mayors to take leadership on important issues, like reducing poverty.

“The frustrating thing is that we know what the answers are.”

Bringing up the idea of a basic income guarantee – and noting that this is just an extension of the Child Tax Credit except for all Canadians who might drop below the poverty line – he called for “brave steps” and vowed to take leadership on this particular issue.

In his closing remarks, Nenshi says his immigrant family story is actually an “ordinary story.”

“An ordinary family is supported extraordinarily by a community. That is the promise of our country. Every single person…deserves the chance to live a great Canadian life.”

Nenshi was awarded the ‘World Mayor’ prize in 2014 by the City Mayors Foundation and was the first Canadian mayor to win this award.

The National Poverty Reduction Summit is being hosted by Tamarack and Vibrant Communities Canada.

— More stories to come.


  1. I think, helping out poor people is a good idea, but there are several practical problems. I have met many people on social assistance who have shaped their lives around what the government provides. They have become resigned to whatever they get from the government and are not even trying to get on their feet. It is not good for society to have healthy, competent people who are not producing value for society.

    I like the idea of helping people. However, they should be required to somehow participate in a personal development or skill development program where one day they can become self-reliant. This is good use of the public’s money.

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