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.
The decision by filmmaker and activist Avi Lewis to seek election as an NDP Member of Parliament is a positive move, one that offers hope for all who want to challenge neoliberalism.
I last saw Lewis speak on a cool November evening in Winnipeg, in 2019 where he was the keynote speaker to the 50th Anniversary Convention of the National Farmers Union.
He was in good form, offering a sweeping review of the past four decades of globalization. His comments were well-researched, passionate, and crystal clear in terms of our current state. He called the many global challenges we face “a fork in the road for humanity.”
His message to the gathering of progressive farm interests and others was stark—four decades of deregulation, privatization and free trade had locked-in neoliberalism. He argued that climate change left us no choice but to win, the stakes are too high to even contemplate another result.
A comparison of 90 years of gross farm revenue versus net income (between 1926 and 2016) showed that the ‘high water’ mark for farmers, in terms of net income, was in the early 1940s. Most sobering was the fact that since the mid-1980s, banks and corporate agri-business interests have captured 98 percent of all farming value.
The talk that evening was filled with similar fact-based assessments of the power that capital has exercised over all forms of labour. I left that event wondering not if, but when, Lewis would move beyond The Leap project and into mainstream politics.
Interestingly, the “fork in the road of humanity” comment was from a book written by his grandfather, former CCF-NDP leader David Lewis, in 1943. It was titled Make this Your Canada: A Review of CCF History and Policy, and co-authored with Frank Scott. Lewis referred to the book, which he had recently read, as having much to offer activists today.
This is perhaps the biggest contribution Lewis might make to national discourse—his grasp of the issues and his respect for historical lessons. In today’s world of social media rants, Canada’s left could use a talented communicator with this skill set.
Full disclosure, I am friends with Avi’s Father, Stephen Lewis, arguably the most popular keynote speaker at CUPE national conventions over the past three decades. I also attended the launch of the Leap Manifesto and recommended that CUPE adopt it (which our national executive board did unanimously).
While there is justifiable enthusiasm regarding this move into electoral politics, I am certain that Lewis is clear-headed about the obstacles he will face.
While his candidacy will excite young, progressive climate activists, it will threaten some of the NDP establishment. Many of that establishment were around in 2016 when the federal party convention in Edmonton saw Tom Mulcair defeated and considerable effort directed towards limiting the impact of Lewis and the Leap Manifesto.
A pro-forma motion enabling riding by riding discussion of the Manifesto ensured that it would fade away, which is exactly what occurred.
History will no doubt judge the Leap Manifesto to have been an accurate assessment of the climate crisis. It was always intended as a visionary beginning to a needed conversation. I knew, however, in September 2015, that it was in for a rough ride, just by who wasn’t signing on to support the vision.
These same forces will politely applaud a Lewis candidacy, while looking for ways to manage its impact.
Six years removed from Official Opposition status, the federal party has retreated to more traditional NDP policy turf, and the leader and the caucus have performed well.
They correctly read that an election was not an option during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have advanced solid policy options which the Trudeau Liberals have, at least in part latched onto, including meaningful pandemic income supports, and a program of national child care.
This is an important time in Canadian politics as the public has seen the positive power of government in the face of the worst global health crisis in a century—perfect timing for a strong, progressive voice to enter the fray and to push transformative economic and climate policies.
The Green Party’s recent moves to self-implode also spell an opportunity for the federal NDP to attract support from the progressive wing of the Greens.
Notwithstanding all of these positives (and yes, I plan to fully support Lewis’s run) I am left with some nagging questions.
Powerful, effective voices pose a threat to the party, which has fully embraced leader-centric decision making. Federal party caucuses are at the best of times full of tension and at this moment, the NDP caucus is no different.
Lewis will expect democratic debate and transparent decision-making as a caucus member, yet I predict he will be disappointed and further that he will not accept the way things are. This is a good thing, but it will lead to tension with the leader and his office.
Avi, and in fact the entire Lewis family, have both strong links with, and tremendous respect for, organized labour. But labour today is split when it comes to the NDP, the party that it helped found 60 years ago.
Some unions remain strongly aligned with the NDP, some are non-aligned and ambivalent about direct party activity—with any party. A third group are active Liberal supporters, including the recently retired leader of the Canadian Labour Congress.
Sadly, some on the left have celebrated what they term a post-partisan phase for the CLC.
For Lewis this means he cannot rely upon strong support from labour. This isn’t his fault, as there is less overall labour support for any New Democrat, and this, in and of itself, is consequential for the overall strength of the NDP.
This is a matter for labour to face beginning with a long overdue internal discussion, one that might well occur with the new leadership team recently elected to head up the CLC.
I have never believed that labour should abandon the party it helped found. Two-party politics has all but killed the American labour movement and we needn’t go down that road.
The upcoming expected federal election will be a referendum on federal management of the COVID crisis and the Trudeau Liberals will likely retain power but perhaps not with the majority they yearn for.
The NDP looks set to not just retain its current level of support, but to add seats, including perhaps Avi Lewis in the West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country riding.
At this critical time a voice that challenges the power of capital is a welcome prospect.
Avi Lewis is not afraid to ask and tackle the tough questions we face collectively. He has both the moral courage and the policy credentials that have the potential to add substance to the NDP. The party must embrace the opportunity that his candidacy represents.
The mention of his grandfather’s book in his NFU speech caused me to seek out this publication. It is refreshing in its cogent analysis, and its candour, regarding options for Canada. One moving passage, now almost 80 years old, remains top of mind:
…we may ask about our national unity, our sense of purpose. These should be a mark of a democratic society. Have we attained them? And finally, what progress have we made in securing and expanding our political and economic democracy? How far have we developed the various people’s movements such as trade unions, co-operative societies, and political parties needed to promote and safeguard the rights of common people? These are the sorts of questions which anyone concerned about democracy will ask of the eleven and a half million people who make up Canada.
Avi Lewis opting into mainstream politics represents a positive move, one worthy of our active support. His reference to our current time as a fork in the road for humanity caused me to recall the prescient words of Czech playwright and dissident Vaclav Havel, who said, “we live in the post-modern world, where everything is possible and almost nothing is certain.”
Havel also said, “Freedom and democracy require participation and therefore responsible action from us all.” Avi Lewis’ move to electoral politics offers the kind of quality participation our democracy needs.
Perhaps the bigger question is: are we willing to join him in order to build a better world?
Paul Moist was a CUPE member for 40 years, serving as National President between 2003 and 2015. He is a lifelong New Democrat, and lives in Winnipeg.