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Can Avi Lewis carry on the success of his family’s electoral tradition?

Activist, filmmaker has chance to play key role in the evolution of social democracy in Canada

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Filmmaker and activist Avi Lewis speaks during the West Coast premier of This Changes Everything with his wife, Naomi Klein, September 25, 2015. Still image from YouTube.

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.

On May 22, 2021, in advance of an expected spring or fall federal election, Avi Lewis announced his candidacy in the West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country riding for the New Democratic Party.

“I want to be a people’s accomplice,” he explained at a celebrity-studded online launch event, hosted by his wife, Naomi Klein. “I’ve been outside, in the streets for decades—now it’s time for me to cross over—to see if I can get in there and hold the door open to all that creativity and energy coming from movements outside the gates.”

For decades, inspired by his mother and “hero,” Michele Landsberg—“a ground-breaking feminist journalist”—he worked as a reporter, filmmaker, and social movement activist to try to expose and address inequality and injustice around the world. He had, he admitted, no “compulsion” towards electoral politics.

“But now,” he says, “I have begun to reflect on the path of my grandpa David Lewis and my dad… And what I’ve realized is this: we need it all. Truth telling. Mass movements. Political power. All working together. So, I’ve decided to run for office.”

The decision shocked many, including activists who remain skeptical of the electoral process and party stalwarts who view Avi as an outsider and interloper. The reality is far more complex.

“My earliest memories,” Lewis reflected in 2017, “are of committee rooms, shop floors, prop planes, and election day boards. Campaigns with six events a day. Plates of sandwiches with amputated crusts, festooned with neon pickles. The heaving, surging emotion and drama of convention floors and election nights, often beyond my capacity as a child to understand, but always, as an emotional being, overwhelming in their intensity.”

He had, “through sheer accident of birth, a front row seat at some of the party’s historic moments.”

David Lewis, his grandfather, was raised in the secular and democratic socialist tradition of the Jewish Labour Bund and committed his entire life to electoral politics. He became secretary of the nascent Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1935 before, in 1938, leaving his law practice to become a full-time party organizer. From 1937 to 1950, David acted as national secretary and was elected national vice-chairman in 1950 and 1952 and national chairman/president in 1954, 1956, 1958, and 1960. He co-authored, with Frank Scott, the 1943 Make This YOUR Canada, a radical platform that became a surprising best-seller.

In 1958, he led efforts to merge the Canadian Labour Congress with the struggling CCF, resulting in the establishment of the New Democratic Party three years later.

David was elected to the House of Commons in 1962, losing in 1963 but regaining his seat in 1965. In 1971, he replaced the retiring Tommy Douglas as leader of the new party and, in 1972, ran the incredibly successful Corporate Welfare Bums campaign that held Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals to a minority government.

“So complete was my commitment to the task of building the [party],” he later explained, “that even the ones I loved took second place.”

In 1963, at the age of 25, Avi’s father Stephen became the youngest person elected to the Ontario legislature, winning a seat in the newly-created riding of Scarborough West. In 1970, he took the leadership of the Ontario NDP and, in 1975, led the party to second place (and official opposition) in the provincial election.

When the party failed to improve its electoral fortunes in the 1977 election and slipped to third place, Stephen resigned as leader and decided to retire from electoral politics. He was only 40 years old.

“I was,” he recalls, “tired and frustrated by it… I had nothing to go to… but I had been in the Legislature more than fifteen years and that is a long time.” He also found Canadian politics boring and parochial, was frustrated with its increasing technocratic pettiness, and wanted to focus on broader issues. His politics became extra-parliamentary and international.

David and Stephen never reached the ultimate heights of power in Canada, and were, in fact, controversial figures within the NDP, but their effective use of the legislature—federal and provincial—helped shift the political discourse at the federal and provincial levels in important ways.

David, for instance, forced the Trudeau Liberals to implement tax reform, electoral financing rules, and the (partial) nationalization of the oil and gas industry. As well, his principled stance against the invocation of the War Measures Act—while earning derision from across the political spectrum at the time—offered a prescient voice for the many Canadians who opposed the loss of their civil liberties. Stephen compelled action from Progressive Conservative governments on mental health facilities, occupational health and safety, protection of agricultural land, rent control, education, and many other issues of relevance to the people in Ontario. Together, they made Canadians aware of the inequalities in the system and the potential for collective action to transform living and working conditions to benefit the masses.

“What’s so important to me in our political structure,” argues Avi’s often overlooked younger sister Jenny, is “that there is a voice for those smaller voices that can bring the issues forward. And that you get to be in the House and keep pounding.”

In this vein, Avi pulled no punches in his campaign launch, insisting his plan is “to take on the climate polluters and the pandemic profiteers. To pry their hands off the levers of the federal government.” His offering: “the pandemic recovery must be a Green New Deal for All.”

At a time when concerted effort is required to address the overlapping crises of colonialism, the climate emergency, the COVID-19 pandemic, economic inequality, and racial injustice, perhaps more activists should, in fact, seek a seat in the House of Commons. And maybe, when the votes are counted in the next federal election, there will be another Lewis pounding on the desk, demanding justice and equality for all Canadians.

Roberta Lexier is an Associate Professor in the Departments of General Education and Humanities at Mount Royal University. Her research examines social movements and left politics in Canada, including a current SSHRC-funded project on the contributions of the Lewis family to social democracy and the nation. She is a frequent contributor to The Forgotten Corner and The Alberta Advantage podcasts.


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