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Interview: Joel Harden on running for ONDP nomination in Ottawa-Centre

Joel Harden
Kevin Taghabon

September 2, 2017

Joel Harden is a long time economic, labour, and social justice activist, as well as a former member of the International Socialists. Harden is now running for the nomination to be the Ontario NDP (ONDP) candidate for Ottawa-Centre. Kevin Taghabon interviewed him for

KT: Why the ONDP?

JH: For years I’ve been a voter. When I was a member of the IS I was still a voter. There was really nothing else to vote for if you were on the left, if you were a socialist in Toronto. And I volunteered on campaigns too. I volunteered on Paul Dewar’s campaign federally. Provincially, two elections ago I volunteered for a good friend of mine Anil Naidoo’s campaign. Some of your readers may know Anil’s work, he’s a water campaigner. Now he works for the National Union of Public and Government Employees, for the Nurses’ Union. Just a very left, activist guy. When he put his name into the mix – this is 2011 – I said, “absolutely”. And that planted a seed for me because I got to go door knocking in Ottawa-Centre.
What I realized is that this riding is full of thousands of very progressive people, but they’re not united necessarily behind anything. It’s safe to say that the ONDP back then was more of a brand than an organization. It came together around the election and asked people to sign up, donate money, and then go away. I don’t think it was malevolent, I just think that was the implicit message. “We’ll call you when we need you, otherwise leave it to the experts.” And Anil was never comfortable with that. I’m not comfortable with that.
So I stayed doing what readers of Socialist Worker and activists everywhere do. We build really great campaigns. I was happy with that, but I will admit that some of the things I’ve been involved in recently, particularly the climate crisis, have made me question my level of urgency and my willingness to take risks in pushing issues forward. For me the ONDP became more of a choice for me to consider not just volunteering for and voting for, but actually putting myself forward as a candidate. With the advent of what happened in the United States with the Sanders campaign, following what’s happened all over Europe and South America, organizations like Podemos , socialists I’m in contact with in countries like Chile, and most recently and most movingly for me the Corbyn campaign . Something snapped in a lot of our minds when we saw that.
Jeremy Corbyn was someone I had met years ago when I had my first nine-month faculty job, sessional, but full-time gig. I had a few thousand bucks to go to a conference and I went to one Colin Barker, SWP member, hosted on social movements. Jeremy Corbyn was there.  I got to meet him, and I didn’t really think much of the guy at the time. He was very understated. The George Galloways and the Matt Wracks and the huge personalities filled up the room, Lindsey German. I didn’t think much of Corbyn at the time, except for a couple of conversations I had with him, and I said, “what keeps you going?” And he basically just said “the people”, the people in Islington, and the friendships and relationships he feels an accountability to. And he wouldn’t deny it was brutal slogging through the Blairite version of the party at that time. But then he said, “my life’s not difficult. What’s difficult is raising three kids on benefits. My life’s not difficult, I can do this.” And I remember thinking at the time, “wow, that’s an impressive human, I’ll remember him.”
I’ve been following what happened in the leadership contest, how his own party attempted to undermine him, how he found a way to campaign positively through all of that. How he defied pretty much what amounts to a coup attempt after the Brexit results. And he stared that down with the power of UK Momentum and grassroots organizing. And then June 8th.
People who have been bugging me to do this for a long time ratcheted up their volume a little bit. “Come on Joel, get off the couch.” I’ve never been “on the couch”. I’ve lived in the street, I’ve lived in the movements, and I believe in them. And I have a lot of good comrades here in the city who are doing fantastic work, and I think it’s important. But they made the point, and it resonated with me, “is it enough of an audience for us? Who’s hearing what we’re doing? We make the media, we move a few things forward, we bring some organizations together to work in collaboration.” And that’s all really important. Thinking about the Leap Manifesto as a really great collaborative venture that was really important, and I’ve been involved with. But is it enough? Does it have the sustained conversation with everyday people, to really get them to act politically to meet the urgency of the climate crisis? Or the threat of nuclear war? Or as we’ve seen more recently, the ongoing and terrible presence of racism. Or transphobia? Or ableism?
And I started succumbing to these arguments. My friends are making a point. I want to be able to look my kids in the eye twenty years from now and tell them, “I took every risk I possibly could. I stretched every aspect of my being to think about a way in which we could speed up the process for change.” This is the latest version of that.
I’m honoured to have forty organizers already involved in the core of the campaign, some people I worked with in the IS years ago, other people I’ve met through union work, through social justice work. Yesterday we had a fantastic anti-racism rally on the steps of the embassy . A lot of the people who organized that are people I’m working with on this campaign. It makes me think I’m in the right place.
There are going to be more than a few bumps in the road. I’ve got a huge learning curve because while I’ve been around politics my whole life, I haven’t necessarily been around institutional electoral politics my whole life. And that’s its own ball of wax. I’m coming into this with some humility, but I’m excited.

There’s a lot to unpack there. What lessons do you think you can bring in from the recent campaigns that you mentioned? What does the NDP have to learn and what do you plan to bring to them?

This is an open question. Not only does the NDP have to learn, but are certain influential people in the NDP willing to learn? I think there’s real difference between some folks in the leadership – not everybody – and the grassroots. What Tariq Ali in England calls “the extreme centre”: the people who have run social democratic parties into the ground by succumbing to “market friendly ideas”, cozying up to powerful interests, relying only on very tight relationships with the leadership of progressive organizations, and not doing grassroots organizing in any serious or consistent way.
To me Canada is one of these places on the planet where the extreme centre has held. We see it in our federal government right now, this is basically what we’re dealing with. We’re dealing with a government that will make all kinds of progressive gestures – the Prime Minster last weekend marching in Montreal Pride with the trans flag – that’s not insignificant, it’s significant. But at the same time they’re inking Canada’s biggest arms deal in history with the most misogynist regime on the planet, Saudi Arabia. Doing these at the same time, and calling that arms deal and the need to follow through on that arms deal, in the Prime Minister’s own words, “a matter of principle.
It’s amazing how resilient this brand is, how resilient that extreme centre is. Not just for the Liberal Party, federally and provincially, but for the NDP. We’ve had failed experiments in Nova Scotia, in Manitoba. We’ve been out-lefted at the federal level. In the last federal election where our leader for some reason thought that it was important to commit to zero deficits, and essentially an austerity budget and getting outflanked by Trudeau who was able to countenance what would have been called “liberalism” in the 1960s. Deficit Keynesianism, deficit spending.
The fact that at the federal level there hasn’t been a substantial rethink about what the problem there was, that somehow it could be chalked up to the principled position the party took on the niqab, it boggles the mind. Trudeau took the same position. So the issue for me is, “will some people in the party learn?”
I have come to believe that for some people it is more important for them to control the party in its every move at the executive branch than to see it be successful. And what I mean by “be successful”, I like to talk about it this way, and those working on the campaign think about it this way: there’s a difference between being in government and thinking of that as success, and being in power. They’re not the same thing. I think there are some very smart people in Canada – some of them I know very well – who’ve figured out the right nips and tucks to get into power. Offend as little as possible the political punditry. Offend as little as possible employer lobbies. Dress your leader up right. Emblazon their name over everything. Engage in the cult of personality war. And seem as inoffensive as possible, and you might sneak your way in.
It’s happened in Ontario. When I was a student in the 1990s the first government I protested was an NDP government. snuck in with 38.5% . So yeah, there are a lot of people in the party who’ve figured out how to be in government, but I don’t think many yet have figured out how to be in power. The difference is: if you look at the Fight for 15 movement here and what it has done to not just force the Liberals here provincially to make the concession they’ve made through Bill 148 – not perfect, but significant – you have tens of thousands of people engaged on this issue. And if the Liberals don’t follow through on this, or water it down, they will be on them. There will be consistent community pressure, and that’s powerful.
Any political party that can attach itself to community organizing in that way will not only, whether they become government or not, they will be a force to be reckoned with. That’s what I think Corbyn accomplished. To a certain extent I think it’s what Sanders accomplished. They’ve figured out that balance of moving into an electoral space, having to go through the motions when you do that, but bringing that defiant movement spirit that wins people over, that punctures that cynicism that most people feel about politics. I think it’s everywhere.
This is what I’d like to say, with this campaign, we really have an opportunity here because of the level of politicization here. We have an opportunity to do both. We can take the riding back from the Liberals. But we don’t have to do it in a fake and insincere way, with talking points and verbiage. We can do it by giving people a sense of their power and telling people, “look what was accomplished with the Fight for 15. Think about a candidate, think about someone who will bring resources back to the community so we can do more of that organizing.” This sort of thinking about politics is what’s gotten me really psyched about doing this. But it flips the script on what we would normally do.
So your original question, “do we think the NDP is open for this?” I can tell you that in the two months, roughly, that we’ve been working on this campaign, we’ve been so thrilled to see the deluge of support on the grassroots side. I’ve been contacted by lots of people I happen to know – just from my political walk in life – at the leadership level and the executive staff level who are excited we’re doing this. But I think we’re also making some other people sweat. And that’s fine.

You have a lot of experience trying to get people out to show an expression of power in the street. There’s this thing we need to protest, this thing we need to support. One of the things that struck me comparing the mobilizations, the North American ones and the European ones, if you look at the pictures from Germany, half of the flags say “Die Linke, SPD, Greens.” I have never seen any nominally or actual left party flags or call outs to their membership lists when we need to mobilize people. Even when it’s to their political benefit, even when the temperature says, “the world is against this”, they still don’t call people out. Why do you think that is and how do you think the party can be better about it?

I don’t think the NDP as it stands right now is an organizing party. I think the NDP is a great election organizing party. It has figured out an infrastructure to engage in elections, and there are a lot of NDP members who themselves are activists in all kinds of movements. The NDP isn’t the home for that movement. I would like it to be. Most people walking up and down the street right now know what the NDP is, but they won’t necessarily know what the Leap Manifesto is, they won’t necessarily know what the International Socialists is, or what the sanctuary city movement is. But the NDP could be their conduit to that.
I’m fearful that for some in the party, they’re so worried about what they believe to be worrisome elements in the social movements, things that will hurt their brand, hurt their electability, that they would rather control the party to a mediocre result than open up the party to what I think would be a successful and uplifting result. Control is the thing. But this is a contested arrangement. I know that at the leadership level there are people that want a deeper and more honest relationship with social movements.
There’s a two-way street to that. Movements, we have to push our way into the party, in a respectful way. We have to roll up our sleeves and be willing to do the everyday work that people who are NDP stalwarts have done. Thankless work. The phone banking, the organizing of events. Not the thing at the front of the room, but all of the important mini subtasks that go into making useful community events happen. There are a lot of NDP members for whom I have a lot of respect who do that. So people coming into the party from a movement angle need to be respectful of that. I think the collaboration is really possible and can be really rich.
There’s one writer – his name has eluded me for the moment – he worries, observing the federal leadership race, he was worried that the party had caught an illness called “movementitis”, where people were competing to be progressive on Palestine, where people were competing on eliminating tuition fees, and seeing this somehow as a bad thing.

That’s where I get lost.

Me too. That element in the party is very powerful. We can’t underestimate that. These are the people who get called when the NDP has the potential of forming a coalition government in BC with the Greens. My analysis of that is, it wasn’t the best election platform, but it was a hell of a lot better than what I had seen in BC for years. The equivocation that many are worrying about, myself included, about the Kinder Morgan pipeline out there right now…the fact that the now-Premier was willing to say to Rachel Notley – when she made repeated lobbying visits in the run-up to that election – “no, we’re actually opposed to this project,” is significant. It actually shows the work of climate justice campaigners on the ground in that province, and Indigenous movements as well.
It’s just become so serious. Some of the organizers that I’ve met that are out there are sophisticated on a level that I barely understand. We use this program called NationBuilder to do work on the campaign. For them this is romper room. They’re a few levels evolved beyond that in their ability to target and map sentiment across various cities. They’ve been at it for a while, and what just happened is the fruit of that labour. What I worry about though - particularly given what’s been happening in Alberta – would be that the party will lapse into this defensive posture. “We can have a bold idea here or there, but we really have to focus in on the leader, personality, the charisma of somebody like Jagmeet Singh, or Charlie Angus. Many would like it to be Niki Ashton. We’ll see. And not the substantive policies.
What I take out of the UK result, friends of mine who organize there, they tell me two things: the persuasiveness of the message, and the authenticity of the message. So you can’t just have the authenticity of the messenger and not have a robust message. In Ontario we risk being out-lefted by the Liberals again. If the Liberals are willing to fight for a $15/hour minimum wage, they’re willing to propose a pharmacare program they claim will cover all drugs for youth, a kind of targeted universalism, these are not insubstantial demands. If we don’t pump up the significance of what we’re putting forward we risk being out-lefted by them again. But I think we can deal with that.

What limitations do you see in parliamentary social democracy, in engaging that way as opposed to staying in the movements? How far can you go there?

Joe Strummer’s, the anniversary of his was a few days ago. The frontman for The Clash. He had a good answer to this. His was, “the future is unwritten.” I used to be very much of the mind that it was impossible. There was no electoral way to socialism. There was no parliamentary path to a bold future. It still may be true, but what’s the harm in trying? What’s the harm in stretching ourselves to figure out every single avenue? Because I can tell you from my own experience – not judging anybody else – but from my own experience, I’m pretty convinced that I haven’t done enough. I’m pretty convinced that just doing the movement organizing stuff is not enough. Even though it’s very important.
I can just give you a few anecdotes. Just from doing this campaign and this work I’ve come in contact with people I would never have. One example: an ACORN Ottawa activist. There was an Art in the Park event in Centretown , and she was showing her work. Proud Black woman, double spina bifida, and it was a beautiful piece of art. I went there, I wanted to meet people, meet activists, tell people about the campaign. But I was also there to listen, to see what other people were doing, and she had this fantastic piece of art. It just embodied her resilience and her anger about dealing with the Ontario Disabilities Support Program. The daily humiliations.
And I asked her what she wanted for it because I wanted to put it in a raffle to raise money for the campaign. She told me and I said, “whoa that’s too much money,” so I put in a down payment. I went and met her at a place in her co-op a few days later. Turns out – Sally Thomas is this person’s name – she used to be a Paralympic weight lifting athlete for Canada. She played on the women’s Paralympic basketball team. deals daily with the kind of surveillance that maybe even Kafka couldn’t even imagine. If her bank account fluctuates above a certain level there are officials in Toronto that will claw back her benefits, or claw back service providers that she’s in. This is someone who represented her country, who has given a lot back. Her art is her outlet for her anger. I would have never met this person had I stayed in the movements – maybe there’s a chance because she’s an ACORN person – I don’t know.
I’ve also come into contact with people that I meet at the doorstep. Grassroots NDP members. Our standard script is to say, “hi, we’re representing this campaign, the nomination meeting is upcoming, we’d really like to earn your support, what do you think the NDP needs to do to win?” And there’s usually this weird five second pause, it’s very awkward . And people say something like, “no one’s ever asked me that.” And, you know, “I’ve been a member for 10 years, for 15 years, and nobody has ever asked me that. And we say to them, “well it’s time the party did.”
I’ve knocked on dozens of doors and I have a regular bicycle canvas that I do after work, and a lot of people in the campaign are doing the same. We have group canvasses. We just keep hearing from people, they feel like they’re ATMs full of money. “The party calls me up when they want money, when they want to put a lawn sign up, or something in my window of my apartment, and then I’m a stage army. I’m an afterthought.” The response that I would say is, “well then this is the campaign for you, you get to steer this campaign, you get to be involved in this campaign, you get to influence it.” It’ll only be successful if we have engaged people.
We set three goals. The first goal is to recruit 300 people to the party. The second goal is to either by phone or in person talk to every NDP member in the riding. There’s over 2,500. And we want to raise $6000. When we tell people that they say, “holy shit, okay this is serious.” We say, “the guy we’re trying to beat, Yasir Naqvi, the Attorney General of Ontario, he’s been there ten years.” He’s been on my porch three times arguing about different things. He’s everywhere. If we want to take that on it’s not just about having a face and a name and broadcasting and spamming people. We actually have to build that respect through face to face organizing. When people hear all of that they think, “okay, this could maybe work.” I’m hopeful.
We may not achieve the vaunted vision of Tony Benn or Jeremy Corbyn or the Waffle Movement or something like that. I think we have a responsibility to carry the torch forward in a serious way. This represents an opportunity, so we’ll see where it goes.
In the 2015 election there were a lot of NDP candidates who said stuff like, “we cannot extract any more oil.” There were a couple of candidates who came out in favour of Palestinian rights and were summarily ostracized or excommunicated. Considering your politics and the party that you’re entering do you feel any of that tension already, and do you have any concerns about any of your views being beyond what the party establishment is comfortable with you articulating?
I was very honest with them and they were clear with me when they vetted my nomination papers. I said, “if I’m asked a question about what I think about BDS for example, I’m not going to pretend that that’s somebody I’m not. I’m going to say, on a personal level I support BDS.” It’s because I believe in justice for the Palestinian people, and I believe in justice for Arabs and Jews in the region. If we can’t pursue that through a campaign that has been endorsed by 175 civil society organizations in Palestine, people all over the world, then what kind of message are we sending? That’s my own personal belief, and I’ll say it to anyone who asks. But is the provincial party there? No, they’re not there. But should people who read Socialist Worker see me as somebody they can know as an ally, who won’t change? Yeah. I’m going to be the same person.
I say the same thing about the Leap Manifesto. Does the Ontario NDP endorse the Leap Manifesto? No, they don’t. Do I? Yes, I’m an organizer here for it. Will I try to pretend like the party believes in it? No. I think this is how we have a level of maturity in our politics. If we can enter these larger institutions and not try to speechify them and preach to them in holier-than-thou ways, and compel them to what we think is a radical point of view. We can be proud of who we are, and I think that’s important. But I also think it’s important to know that we’re walking into this bigger institutional space where there are going to be opinions all over the map.
I used to work in the labour movement. Friends of mine in northern Ontario think is Satan’s spawn. They have been told and have been convinced that this is taking jobs away, that this is Toronto arrogance. And these are good people. I’m not interested in preaching to them, seeming to condescend to them, but I am who I am. This is going to be a process where people like me – and there’s a lot of people like me – are going to get into these bigger electoral spaces because we see an opportunity to move our ideas forward. But there’s going to be a delicate dance in how we do it. It has to be done with respect and humility, but hey, this is Capital Pride this week.
We have to be proud of who we are and our way. I’m proud of all the lessons and all the people who have helped me understand climate justice, Indigenous solidarity whether it’s in Palestine or right here at home, I’m proud of all that I’ve learned. I’m not going to shirk from who I am, but people who are interested in my campaign and are involved, we have to remember that when we engage with people with whom we disagree with in the NDP, we have to do that in a respectful way.

Why should somebody with working class interests not be supporting the Liberal Party of Kathleen Wynne?
. You know, I actually give the electorate more credit than most political scientists do. On that question I actually think our electorate’s pretty shrewd. Part of the problem is that the NDP hasn’t put forward a compelling enough platform, a compelling enough vision to make them to break from the Liberals, or the Tories for that matter. That’s the real threat in this election. The Liberals are in the worst tailspin I’ve ever seen. The party that I cut my teeth protesting in my 20s when I was an IS member is now polling at 42%. What does Patrick Brown say? He’s saying, “it doesn’t matter who you love, it doesn’t matter if you’re union or non-union.” He’s trying to take a page out of the Liberals’ book. He’s moving to the centre and he’s had mutiny at the grassroots level who are angry they can’t be more belligerent and hate immigrants more, and hate queer and trans people more.
I’m actually happy, to a certain extent, with Patrick Brown’s opportunism. It’s acknowledging where people are at. At the same time, it is opportunism. This is the same guy who pushed hateful stuff for years when he was a federal MP, and I don’t trust him, and I don’t believe him. I haven’t met him. We’ll see, but I think the fact of the matter is that that’s the greater threat for working class voters.
I’m from rural Ontario, I’m not from Ottawa. I grew up in a place where a majority of my friends didn’t pursue post-secondary education. Before my mom remarried we were a very poor family. I don’t forget my roots and where I come from. I’m mindful of the fact that a lot of the people I grew up with supported the Liberal and Conservative parties because they saw them as defending their interests. Sometimes there was a racist tinge to that. Sometimes there was a homophobic tinge to that. But there was just kind of this familial history with these parties. The NDP had never put anything forward to inspire them otherwise.
The sole exception perhaps being – and this is long after I left and moved away – Jack Layton’s NDP, which to me has a contradictory history. It’s got the history of professionalizing the party and moving it much more to a party controlled by the central apparatus. But Jack as a person, knowing him as I did in Toronto, this was a movement friendly guy whose door was always open to me, to complain to him, and everybody else. Non-political working class people I grew up with were inspired by Jack. When he died they really thought there was a distinct possibility that he could be the Prime Minister of the country. Like people say about Corbyn.
I think working class voters shouldn’t trust the Liberals. The instinct that, not just working class voters but any right thinking person has to be cynical about politicians, is justified. But the answer to that cynicism is not to vote for the lesser evil, it’s to create the greater good. The slogan for our campaign is, “give ourselves something to vote for.” “Let’s put a candidate in this race who we know will be accountable to us. And if Joel isn’t we know we can drag him on the carpet and bring him in line because he’s one of us.”
An important promise we’ve made, which takes a page out of the Scottish Socialist Party and Tommy Sheridan’s campaign: I promise that if elected I will make no more than the average wage of a skilled worker in this riding. $70,000 a year. An MP’s salary is $115,000 a year. We’re going to take that $45,000 and we’re going to build community forums and do community organizing. Not just knocking on doors during elections but doing it all the time.

I think there are elected officials in the States who do the same thing. Kshama Sawant, socialist city councillor in Seattle, donates the majority of her salary to community organizing.

I think that we’ve got to set an example. Working class people, regular people see politicians and politics as a circus of narcissism. The way to bring politics back down to earth, to the grassroots, is to show people that you know better. That you’re not in some elite clique that deserves some special treatment.
I’d rather do something with the resources we’re given and show through that leadership that we can do politics differently. Hopefully that carries the message and that gets through to people that they don’t have to vote for the lesser evil.

What can the labour movement expect from you? What kind of stuff do you want to fight for on that front considering your history with them and your understanding of the ONDP right now?
I owe a lot to the labour movement. When I was a graduate student at York they were the people who gave me some of the first opportunities to get out and organize with workers, work with workers, learn from workers. A lot of the skills I have now are a credit to socialists I met in and outside the IS through union organizing. I’m a union person in my blood, but any right-thinking union person knows that internally we’ve got a lot of work to do.
Unions have a friend in me, but not an uncritical one. We have to do a substantial rethink in the labour movement about how we campaign for stuff. The work that I’m most proud of that I did in the labour movement was the work on the pension campaign that I did for the Canadian Labour Congress. I helped design a campaign to improve the Canada Pension Plan. We had an internal struggle at the time when I was working at headquarters down on Riverside Drive. Some union leaders were coming to us saying, “I want to use the Congress as a platform to defend union pensions. Public sector pensions, because we’re under attack all the time.” It took no short amount of arguing to have to convince people that that was a failed strategy. We should do that, but the big demand should be to take a pension that everybody contributes to, the Canada Pension Plan, and improve that. And for the labour movement to show leadership in doing that.
That has to be our focus. 95% of our resource have to go into that. Then we can show the average person that’s not in a union that we’re not an elitist bunch of self-serving people that the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and other organizations paint unions out to be. That was not an easy consensus to get, but we got that and we got an enormous success. Under the Liberals we got a modest improvement to the Canada Pension Plan. Not what I wanted, but it’s good. I think with Bill 148 in Ontario and with other measures improving employment standards, improving the livelihoods of every single working person, should be the goal of the labour movement.
All too often we get sucked into these defensive battles just because of the nature of collective bargaining and industrial relations. Friends of mine in the labour movement, they need to know that I don’t want to fall into that trap. I know a lot of smart people in the movement who don’t either. So I’m a friend, but not an uncritical friend, and most of the people I know who are serious about union organizing are in the same place.

What do you think the ONDP’s role on climate change and green transition should be?

This is my succinct answer: The best thing the party has done in this moment has been to propose taking Hydro back into public ownership. That’s a massive opportunity not just to reduce people’s bills but to grow renewable energy. I’m not sure the party has fully figured this out yet. People who are interested in my candidacy, we can see this campaign as an opportunity to do that education.
You look around the world, countries like China, Germany, Denmark, they use huge public utilities to grow renewable energy very quickly. The Liberals in Ontario have this feed-in tariff model that was very generous at first, hoping farmers and everyday people would put up wind turbines and solar panels on their properties. It had an impact. But if you look at the closure of the Siemens plant in Tillsonburg, we see the bankruptcy of that strategy. It’s great for Siemens is as long as it’s profitable and when it’s not they’re out.
If we take Hydro back into public ownership not only do we have the opportunity to fund seed projects like they have in the city of Toronto where racialized youth are employed in growing public transportation and some of the great work the Labour Council is doing there, but think about the bigger picture. In ten or fifteen years some of the big nuclear facilities in Ontario are going to be decommissioned. The Liberals are already earmarking billions of dollars to replace those facilities with more nuclear facilities. What if we had a public utility that invested massively in renewable energy? What if Ontario’s manufacturing base – which used to be the manufacturing base for the country – what if that was used to retool the entire country towards renewable energy strategy?
Most of the skilled industrial workers that I’m familiar with in Ontario have gone to work in various resource projects because there’s been no leadership. Unfortunately, we get pitted into this debate of environmentalists versus energy workers, and it’s a losing debate. I think the ONDP’s biggest contribution – I think some have made it knowingly, but most have not – is the idea of taking Hydro back into public ownership. It’s a huge opportunity to grow renewable energy. That’s what I see, and a lot of opportunity lies there.

The climate of xenophobia is reaching public consciousness in a way that it hasn’t before, for very negative reasons, but it is on the tip of everybody’s tongue. From inside and outside the party, what do you think the most effective strategies are in opposing it? And perhaps from a legislative level how can we quell the anxiety that breeds these far right movements?

Good question, fresh off this anti-racist demo we had yesterday . In the run-up to that demo we had a lot of debate on the event page, which to me mirrors a lot of the debate we have in our society. And not just in our society, but on the left, how we deal with this. There’s a significant constituency who really have thought their way out of this problem. They believe to be colourblind. They believe that “All Lives Matter”. There’s a lot of education to be had.
I think of Sandy Hudson and the fantastic organizers in Toronto with Black Lives Matter. They’ve personalized it by telling stories from the perspective of black and brown people and racialized folks who deliver to white people like me the whole honest truth of what economic apartheid looks like in this country.
Grace-Edward Galabuzi, professor at Ryerson, has written extensively about this. It’s uncomfortable for white folks to grapple with, but it is a reality that we live in a labour market, we live in a society where the colour of your skin still really matters. The receptivity of your accent and how you speak English really matters. We can’t think our way out of that problem. We live and breathe it. We can either be honest about it and have those uncomfortable conversations about it or we can just imagine ourselves out of the problem.
What I said yesterday as the MC for the rally, I just talked about the debate we had on the event page on Facebook. We had a bunch of folks there who were saying, “All Lives Matter”. And the response from a lot of us on the event page was, “if all lives mattered Abdirahman Abdi would still be alive today.” The Somali-Canadian man was killed in Hintonburg last summer by a member of the Ottawa Police. Beaten to death with reinforced carbon gloves in fact, on the street in front of his apartment building. Daniel Montsion, the officer who did it, was released without facing a judge, will only face trial in 2019, and we like to think that all lives matter?
We just need to be honest. We have a persistent problem in Ottawa with police brutality, as they’ve had in other cities. That doesn’t mean every single police officer is out to brutalize black and brown people, but there is a constituency of police officers who are doing it with impunity. This is where I think xenophobia and racism, and transphobia, and some of the more vicious and pernicious forms of prejudice in our society…the only way to face them I think is just head on with human stories that humanize the impact for people.
This campaign is going to be a space for that. I’ve told the Justice for Abdirahman campaign that any time I have a platform and the family or a spokesperson wants to use it to talk, I will leave the stage and they can get up there and they can speak. They can tell Yasir Naqvi, they can tell one of the other NDP candidates how they feel, and what it feels like, and I think it’s going to be powerful. I’ve said as much to advocates for trans people in this city. That’s how we’re going to be more of a real fighting grassroots party.
If we earn the respect of hundreds of organizers in this city nobody will be able to stop us. The Liberals may have a great ground game. They may have flattered very influential people in certain communities. But if we unleash the power of hundreds of organizers in this city, nothing can stop us. We won’t just take back Ottawa-Centre. We’ll politicize the NDP and we’ll get people excited about politics.

What are the movements and political figures that inspire you today?

I’ve already talked about some of them, but I would like to end talking about someone like Sally Thomas who I mentioned before. The unknown folks. The grassroots people that are doing something. There’s people in this riding, and for the folks reading this, there’s people in your community that are not getting credit, but are daily in the trenches working for justice doing something. Those are my heroes. Those are the people who inspire me.
Am I impressed by Jeremy Corbyn? Sure. Am I impressed by various radical figures in history? Yeah. But the people who bowl me over the most are the people who with humility and passion make incredible things happen. My beef, a lifelong beef, is that a lot of us are working in silence. It’s just the necessity of our lives, dealing with our kids, dealing with our jobs, dealing with the stress of everything, that’s just how it happens, it’s not intentional. This campaign is an opportunity for all of us to get out of our silos, and not get around me as an ego or a brand but to see this as a chance where we can access resources to make our own organizing that much stronger. Then we get a whiff of our power. Then who knows where it’s going to go. I think the future is unwritten.

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