What do Jay Naidoo and Naheed Nenshi Have in Common?


You guessed it! They were both keynote speakers at last week’s Couchiching Conference, “From the Ground Up – Civic Engagement in Our Time,” one at the beginning on Thursday, the other at the end on Sunday. (On the left, Jay Naidoo; right, Naheed Nenshi.)

The two book-enders were chosen because they both illuminate in an exemplary fashion the main theme of the conference: if one has a passionate commitment to social change and wants to move from the ground up, one must sharpen one’s skills for civic engagement – on many levels. Of course, it helps if one has what these two men have – dynamic, winning, magnetic personalities, a great sense of humour, and the conviction that power is merely a means to an end.

In the ’nineties Jay Naidoo was twice a member of Nelson Mandela’s government in South Africa but since then has been devoting himself tirelessly to great global causes – especially improved nutrition. The other keynoter, Naheed Nenshi, started his career working on some of the world’s most intractable problems. He worked with the U.N. to determine how global business can help the poorest people on the planet. He then zoomed in on Calgary, where some of the richest people live and, most theatrically, became its 36 mayor. He is not yet forty.

Though of course he vigorously denies any higher aspirations, no one should be surprised if one day he becomes the first Canadian prime minister of South Asian descent. But his ambition is to bring about social change, not – Heaven forbid – to wield power. If he can do good only from 24 Sussex Street in Ottawa, then he may be persuaded to pay the price.

The conference revealed something that is by no means obvious. In a surprising number of our fellow citizens – not by any means only those who attend Couchiching conferences – there lurks, behind a façade of worldly indifference, an astounding amount of social idealism that it would be unfashionable to show.

Those who may wish to know more about the Couchiching Conference can visit www.couch.ca.


4 responses to “What do Jay Naidoo and Naheed Nenshi Have in Common?

  1. Alan Pearson

    For me, the big message of the conference was that there is no such thing as apathy – only disengagement born of frustration and alienation. Offer the people genuine and relevant consultation and they will engage like crazy. (And don’t forget they can smell the fake version.)

    In addition to Naidoo and Nenshi, two utterly wonderful characters (in a conference packed with terrific speakers), I found Kwame McKenzie and his wry perceptions enormously enlightening.

    For example, his notion that “engagement” is a merely temporary relationship, and that the permanent one is “marriage” – the crucial difference being “commitment.” Given that Canadians are stuck with each other for the long haul, perhaps we should treat our political interactions as transactions in a marriage – however flawed – rather than the fly-by-night deals of the used-car salesman.

    The other bon mot of his that will stay with me is the horrible fate he labelled “death by consultation.”

  2. In addition to being keynote speakers at this past weekend’s conference, they are both amazing human beings.

    I agree with Alan, people will engage when they are offered genuine and relevant ways to do so. And yes, people can smell fake engagement when they see it!

    Thank you Eric for a lovely post. And you already know that I’m not very fashionable and I wear my social idealism on my sleeve. 😀

  3. Very interesting! This conference deserves more media attention.

    • You are so right. It’s not only the conference as such that deserved media attention but, perhaps even more so, the continuing vitality of an institution that had its greatest days when it was covered by CBC Radio, five times a week. To many older people who remember it, it must seem to be an anachronism. One reason why it’s doing so well is because ways have been found to make it possible for many lively students to come.