This article is part of a series in which CD editors asked NDPers, current and former, to weigh in on the state of social democracy in Canada, and on Avi Lewis’s recent decision to pursue the party’s nomination in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. This is the first component of our coverage in advance of the upcoming federal election in fall 2021.
It’s official: Avi Lewis is running for the NDP in the next federal election, which may well happen later this year. He secured the nomination for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country in late May, and has hit the ground running on his campaign. Lewis, of course, is a seasoned activist on the Canadian left, with a particular dedication to climate justice. But he comes from a broader family tradition through his father Stephen and his grandfather David, who led the Ontario and federal NDP respectively. Before that, David Lewis played a foundational role in the early CCF, and his great-grandfather chaired the Jewish Labour Bund for a time. Combined with the fact that his wife is internationally renowned writer Naomi Klein, and Lewis forms a key part of one of Canada’s first families of the left.
Speaking with me an interview for Canadian Dimension, Lewis said that while he is undeniably proud of his family’s contributions, he rejects the term political dynasty in lieu of what he calls a “heritage of struggle.” In this, he took special care to highlight not just his father’s side of the family, but also his mother and feminist trailblazer Michele Landsberg.
There is clearly a great deal of energy for Lewis’s campaign. Many see him as an essential connection between the NDP tradition and grassroots climate activism, and he has scored truly massive endorsements, including from progressive scientist David Suzuki, who praised his activism, and suggested he is the “person for this historic moment” where humanity is at a precarious crossroads. In a recent CBC interview, Lewis himself suggested that he was running at this particular junction because he wants to serve as an intermediary between party, parliament, and social movements, and also to better connect the struggles of climate to other aspects of social injustice. But he also recognizes that the severity of the climate crisis and other forms of injustice in this country necessitate a strong, rapid, and bold response from the federal government.
In our conversation, Lewis noted how this tension between activism and electoral politics has defined his own life and contemplation of family. While he appreciates the efforts of his father and grandfather, he acknowledged the role they sometimes played against activist elements within the CCF-NDP (such as against the Waffle). Rather, he looked to his great-grandfather’s work in the Labour Bund as a model for a politics that links social and cultural movements.
Friends, I'm announcing that I'm seeking the NDP nomination for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country. We're in a unique moment with the opportunity to fix the overlapping crises we face but only if we do it together, for the many, not the few https://t.co/uWT7dMf17v— Avi Lewis (@avilewis) May 17, 2021
If there has been one key focus in Lewis’s campaign thus far, it’s been the need for a Green New Deal. Indeed, the GND has been one of the main focal points for the international left in recent years, and Canadians have been inspired by the concept as promoted by American leftists such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But it should be remembered that activists and intellectuals like Lewis have been laying the basic groundwork for the GND well before AOC and Sanders pierced the mainstream discourse within and beyond the United States.
Many of us remember the Leap Manifesto, which called for a radical transition away from carbon capitalism as an act of environmental and social survival, but fewer people know that early activism around the GND in the US was shaped by the work of Lewis and Klein, especially in some of the broader formulations of what the philosophy should entail. This included collaboration with grassroots organizations in the US, but also with AOC herself. And in his speech accepting the nomination for the NDP, Lewis emphasized that the GND is the only path towards a sustainable future and a just recovery coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. As leftists, he emphasized that COVID has shown us the path to “seize the wheel” of society towards egalitarian ends, and the GND as the showpiece to break the silos dividing the core issues progressives espouse.
Clearly, Lewis brings a wealth of experience to this campaign, combined with long-lasting connections within and beyond the NDP, to boot. But there will almost certainly be crucial challenges ahead for him. First, the Vancouver riding Lewis is contesting is by no means an NDP stronghold, and Lewis’s campaign itself has acknowledged this. Indeed, the NDP has never won this riding, and in the 2019 election, the party finished in fourth place behind the Greens with less than 14 percent of the vote. So while Lewis brings star power the party has not had in recent years to the riding, it will nevertheless be a challenge to reel in the incumbent Liberal MP.
Lewis does suggest, however, that if he can consolidate the support of progressive Greens in the community there is a chance to challenge the Liberals. He also suggests that his campaign will be more prepared and resourced than others in previous local campaigns. Crucially, he told me that even if he is unsuccessful in this attempt, he is committed to a two-cycle effort in order to turn the seat orange.
It should also be said that Lewis has often clashed with the NDP brass over their positions, particularly on climate. The aforementioned Leap Manifesto was decried by Rachel Notley and many in the Alberta NDP, and it was so acrimonious that Lewis’s speech at a 2017 CCF-NDP academic conference in Calgary became the source of a minor controversy. Likewise, many on the left want to see Lewis maintain this critical streak, especially with John Horgan’s BC NDP, who have disappointed activists on everything from climate to housing to Indigenous rights to labour reform.
Lewis is right to be critical of moderate and conservative elements within the party, but doing so from the inside is always a more daunting proposition. This is on top of the fact that it is very difficult to bring an activist spirit to Parliament and not have it diluted or crushed. Many have failed where Lewis wants to succeed on that front. In his comments to me, Lewis suggested that he will not shed his critical edge of the NDP brass, but will strive to be constructive within these discussions. He noted his desire to work with left MPs like Leah Gazan and Matthew Green, and suggested the NDP’s recent Palestine resolution is a model for how debate can function within the party even on tense issues.
But Lewis has an opportunity to make a real impact on Canadian politics within the formal arena. One hopes he can join other left voices in the NDP caucus fighting for a more just country and world. I’m glad he’s giving it a shot.
Christo Aivalis is political writer and commentator with a PhD in History. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and Passage. He can be found daily on YouTube and at his new podcast Left Turn, Canada.