Cheri DiNovo’s Kicks off the NDP Leadership Contest

What does this mean, and what’s next?

Photo by Marc Demouy

Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Cheri DiNovo is the first declared candidate for the Federal New Democratic Party leadership contest. After initially announcing an ‘unofficial’ campaign, she has since come out and declared herself an official candidate.

While some have attacked DiNovo as an emblem of NDP incompetence and irrationality, and I myself have questioned her earlier unofficial entry, I nevertheless feel she offers a fresh take on the party’s history and future.

This is especially true in regards to her record as an activist and legislator. DiNovo, who identifies as bisexual, has been a stalwart pioneer for GLBTQ* rights and freedoms, from protests against homophobia in the 1970s, to spearheading Toby’s act, which encoded gender identity/expression into Ontario human rights legislation, to performing one of Canada’s first gay marriages in 2001. She is also a United Church Minister, linking her social activism to a faith-based matrix, as previous NDP stalwarts like Tommy Douglas, J.S. Woodsworth, Stanley Knowles, and Bill Blaikie have. Additionally, her fight against poverty and injustice in Ontario’s labour market is not merely an intellectual crusade: DiNovo has a direct experience with homelessness that politicians often lack.

But beyond this, what specifically does she bring to this race? Recently, DiNovo was a guest on the Canadaland Commons podcast, where she outlined what her campaign sought to represent. Without going into too much detail, the following points stood out:

  • Evident was her use of the word ‘socialism,’ which she felt was essential to defining her vision and what she felt the party should stand for. Relatedly, she openly used the word capitalism, blaming it for most contemporary social maladies. This is in contrast to mainstream NDP messaging, which has largely jettisoned the ‘s-word,’ and often targets the ends of capitalist modes of production and distribution without addressing the injustice emanating from capitalism itself.
  • She readily criticized NDP leadership, deeming the recent centrist federal and Ontario NDP campaigns disastrous. She was also critical of those NDPers rejecting the Leap Manifesto. DiNovo supports many of the Manifesto’s positions, and argues that it lays bare the idea that profit-based economies may be inherently unsustainable from both social and environmental perspectives.
  • She is positioning herself within both the historical and contemporary left. DiNovo sells herself a modern leftist by acknowledging Occupy and Black Lives Matter, but also links her vision to CCF-NDP foremothers and fathers. Connections were also made to figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. Ultimately, she purports to speak for not only the NDP’s left, but for all leftists regardless of formal partisanship.
  • DiNovo on policy matters is seeking a general expansion of the welfare state to include things like dental and childcare, as well as housing and free tuition. She also wishes to pull policy levers in order to see Canada’s union density greatly expand.

In this sense, DiNovo has a broad left vision and rhetoric for the NDP, but is largely anchored in drives for a strong unionized workforce, along with the use of the welfare state to dull social and economic inequalities. She offers a departure from the NDP’s recent trajectory, but nothing too drastic.

But what does DiNovo’s status as first entrant mean to the field?

  • The NDP’s mainstream leadership will be increasingly motivated to field a centrist challenger: This was likely always a goal for those who felt Mulcair’s defeat was based, not ideology, but on strategy. The definite front runner here would have been Nathan Cullen, but his abstention leaves the role open. Some have thus suggested Peter Julian given his position in the federal caucus and his fluent bilingualism.
  • The NDP’s Quebec contingent will be left wanting: DiNovo’s inability to communicate in both official languages will hurt her. She can, of course, learn French, but there isn’t much time to do so. With this in mind, her campaign won’t do much to dissuade a challenger from Quebec like Alexandre Boulerice, who also has a left wing bent, but who served as Mulcair’s Quebec Lieutenant. Another option is Ruth Ellen Brosseau—who gained fame as the NDP’s Vegas girl—but who has since become beloved by her constituents and the party.
  • There is still the issue of racial diversity in leadership: DiNovo’s candidacy doesn’t address the fact that the Federal NDP has only been led by people of European descent. A non-white leader could serve as recognition that the party must do better at reaching out to racialized communities. The favourite in this regard is DiNovo’s caucus-mate and ONDP Deputy Leader Jagmeet Singh, who is seen as a strong example of what the party can stand to gain through diverse candidates addressing their own communities.
  • Other party leftists may be more hesitant to run for leader: If DiNovo appears to be consolidating left support, others may question entering the race, because even though the ultimate winner requires support from a majority of voting party members, two candidates running as left alternatives will split fundraising and volunteer bases. Other left challengers may have to stake their candidacy on different grounds. For instance, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton may be able to build support as a young woman speaking to the highly pertinent issue of intergenerational inequality, especially as it pertains to student debt, unpaid labour, and increasing employment precarity.

DiNovo is a great voice to kick off this race, especially given her desire to speak openly and ask difficult questions. Though I don’t see her as a favourite to win the position, that doesn’t mean that she won’t generate an impact.

Christo Aivalis is an adjunct professor of history at Queen’s University. His dissertation examined Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s relationship with organized labour and the CCF-NDP, and is under review with UBC Press. His work has appeared in the Canadian Historical Review, Labour/le Travail, Our Times Magazine, Ricochet, and Rankandfile.ca. He has also served as a contributor to the Canadian Press, Toronto Star, CTV, and CBC.