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Can Avi Lewis inject new life into the New Democrats?

The challenge before us is epic. But in the cataclysmic times we are living in, anything is possible—even reforming the NDP

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Documentary film producer and Leap Manifesto co-author Avi Lewis is seeking the federal NDP nomination in a riding in southern British Columbia. Lewis is pictured here at an NDP convention in 2016.

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.

I am a long-time off and on member and activist in the NDP. I was a grassroots supporter of the Waffle back in the 1970s, when the NDP made its biggest mistake in forcing the talented youth group out of the party. Thirty years later, after a couple attempts at running in Ontario, I worked with Jim Stanford, at the time the chief economist of the Canadian Auto Workers, and two left-wing NDP MPs, Libby Davies and Svend Robinson, to create the New Politics Initiative (NPI), which called for the NDP to re-establish itself as a new party with closer links to social movements and hopefully a merger with the Green Party. We got 40 percent of the vote but lost after the party brass promised to do everything we asked short of founding a new party. Needless to say, they didn’t, but instead Libby and Svend moved to support Jack Layton as leader, hoping that he would make the changes we wanted to see.

From my lived experience, I am not optimistic about changing the NDP. Every effort to date has failed and the party up until recently has just kept moving further and further to the right and to be more and more centralized.

Can Avi Lewis change this? I doubt it. But the NDP is changing. After they ran to right of the Liberals in Ontario in 2014, I signed a letter criticizing them during the election, and more or less gave up on the party. I vote for them and occasionally give money to a left-wing candidate, but I have given up on reforming them. When Svend Robinson recently contacted me to introduce a resolution on Palestine to the NDP convention, I rejoined to do it and was pleasantly surprised to see in the riding—University-Rosedale where Chrystia Freeland is the MP—a diverse group of mostly young people and unanimous support for a pro-Palestinian rights resolution, which then passed for the first time in NDP history.

I have known Avi since he was a very young man and always liked him and the work he was doing. I have participated in discussions with him and his partner Naomi Klein about working within the NDP and was part of the group working on the Leap Manifesto, the germ of the Green New Deal. I’m always impressed with his ability to bring people together and to communicate complicated ideas in an understandable way. He’s always been on the side of justice whatever he was doing. I’m glad he’s running but I’m also glad that Paul Taylor, a Black gay man who came to Toronto from Vancouver and transformed Food Share to be a truly anti-racist, democratic organization is running in Parkdale. I am also glad for many excellent backbench NDP members like Matthew Green and Leah Gazan. I’m also aware of other radicals who are running this election and I think that with a strong anti-racist, eco-socialist left in his caucus, Jagmeet Singh has the potential to move left.

If there is one thing I have learned in politics, it’s that a single person cannot make all the difference. I think leaders are important but individual leaders when they are successful almost always come under the influence of the powers that be.

As an activist, I always look for the light in politics and Avi’s running is definitely a light. But as a writer I know that we can’t look to one person to solve the problems of social democracy even if he is part of a broader eco-socialist movement. I’m especially a little disturbed that Canadian Dimension is focusing so much on him. He’s running in a riding where the NDP has never won. Avi explains to the media that as a well-known white man with resources he could win this riding when others couldn’t, and while he could run in a winnable riding, he prefers to leave those seats to those from groups less well represented in Parliament. Bravo, and I’m sure we’ll see more from him along these lines. But we should be looking forward not backward. Avi is part of the Lewis family but his history and politics have not focused on the NDP. There is no dynasty here.

Avi’s history and privilege allow him the freedom to speak out without losing his place in the party and that’s great, but let’s not forget about the new people who are coming into prominence in the party, many of them racialized. I know Avi sees his role as part of this progressive group of politicians. The challenge before us is epic. But in the cataclysmic times we are living in, anything is possible, even reforming the NDP. Just like the Waffle emerged in the tumultuous 1960s, so a new feminist, anti-racist, eco-socialist movement can emerge today inside the NDP. That is my hope and I know that Avi will be part of making it happen.

Judy Rebick is a Canadian writer, journalist, political activist, and feminist.


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