Leader-centred campaigns take spotlight away from strong local candidates like Avi Lewis

The NDP politician is hoping to pull off an upset victory in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country

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      There used to be a time when local candidates were an important part of federal election campaigns.

      Back then, nomination races mattered and routinely received significant coverage in the media.

      In the 1980s and 1990s, independent-minded MPs such as Svend Robinson or Garth Turner could express defiance without being kicked out of caucus.

      But over the years, the centralization of power in all three parties resulted in a more presidential style of politics in Canada. Leaders hold ultimate authority.

      This has been on display in the 21st century when Turner and later, Derek Sloan, were kicked out of the Conservative caucus, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott were bounced out of the Liberal caucus, and Erin Weir was ejected from the NDP caucus.

      In the case of Wilson-Raybould and Philpott, it was alleged that their expulsions were illegal under section 49(2) of the Parliament of Canada Act. That's because the Liberal Party of Canada caucus did not hold a recorded vote.

      Prime Minister Justin Trudeau simply told the media that "he made the difficult decision" to eject them.

      People can debate whether each of these former MPs deserved this treatment. That's not the point of this article. I merely mention this to drive home the point that politics isn't what it used to be in Canada.

      Through their parties, leaders came to control the nomination process when it suited them. Often, candidates were simply installed rather than having to win the support of local members to run.

      We're in a leadership-centred, top-down world in federal politics just as things have become less hierarchical in broader society, thanks to feminism.

      The Father Knows Best mindset in politics is obvious in the relentless media focus on the men heading Canada's three major political parties. This has come at the expense of learning more about local candidates.

      To paraphrase former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, most of these candidates are "nobodies" in the eyes of the public. 

      Before the pandemic, a former leader of the B.C. Green party, Stuart Parker, wrote a thoughtful essay explaining why we've entered an age of "obedient Canadian politicians".

      "Today we mistakenly think that an MP or MLA who votes against their party leader is the stuff of fiction or from legends of a murky, distant past," Parker stated. "That is because our political and media establishment are at work all the time to make us forget that acts of defiance within major political parties were part of our system of parliamentary democracy, not some force from outside."

      He pointed to changes in law, political institutions, and culture in the 21st century to demonstrate why potentially strong voices within parties are stifled.

      Parker argued that the desire to nominate "cowed toadies" is why large political parties in Canada refuse to advance policies to prevent a looming omnicide as a result of the climate crisis.

      "I am sure that, among these caucuses of ladder-climbers, professionals, and resumé-polishers, there are some who see themselves as a kind of social democratic Pope Francis, a true radical able to keep their powder dry for decades and rise, undetected through the ranks of a corrupt, nihilistic death machine until they can finally uncloak and set things right," Parker concluded. "Sadly, by then it will be too late."

      As Canadians go to the polls on Monday (September 20) and the media breathlessly report the results, Parker's observations are worth keeping in mind. 

      But there is one candidate in Metro Vancouver within one of the three major parties who has the potential to be a truly independent voice in Parliament to try to prevent a climate breakdown.

      If Avi Lewis, the NDP standard-bearer in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country, is elected, he is not likely to be restrained by his party's rather tepid climate proposals. They include a refusal to condemn fracking, a natural-gas pipeline, and LNG plants supported by the B.C. NDP government.

      Video: Leaders in Canada's environmental movement say that Avi Lewis will shake up the political establishment if he's elected.

      Unlike his leader, Jagmeet Singh, Lewis likely also won't shy away from calling for a halt in Parliament to the federally owned Trans Mountain pipeline-expansion project.

      That's because Lewis knows that annual carbon-dioxide-equivalent emissions from the diluted bitumen that runs through the pipeline will exceed annual emissions from his adopted province of B.C.

      Lewis's advocacy for climate action has spurred a group of high-profile environmentalists, including David Suzuki and Alexandra Morton, to join a campaign called #Greens4Avi.

      "If you believe we need to shake up the entire political establishment and tip the scales for people and the planet, lend Avi your support," they state in an open letter. "Send him to Ottawa as your representative in Canada’s 44th Parliament."  

      Morton, a former provincial Green candidate, describes Lewis as an "indisputable climate champion" and a "truth teller". Whistler filmmaker Mike Douglas calls Lewis a "seasoned climate activist".

      Suzuki's comments are particularly relevant in light of this age of obedient MPs.

      "We need to send Avi to Ottawa to shake up the entire political establishment—including his own party—and tip the scales in favour of people and the planet," Suzuki declares.

      The video only has only 556 views on YouTube as of this writing.

      This suggests that it's not being widely shared by New Democrats, whose blue-collar, private-sector union supporters tend to like pipeline projects and LNG plants.

      In the current NDP universe, the objectives of the United Steelworkers still trump the wishes of climate activists such as Lewis, Suzuki, and Morton.

      It helps explain why the leader, Jagmeet Singh, won't condemn the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. And it also offers insights into why Lewis's candidacy isn't galvanizing NDP politicians from across the country to come to his aid, notwithstanding the fact that his grandfather once led the party. 

      Lewis's father, former Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, is an icon to many within the party. But that doesn't count for much when Avi Lewis will push back hard against status quo climate policies that keep Canada on the road to omnicide.

      As Parker's essay pointed out, people like him don't fit the profile of modern politicians.

      "A strong leader, in current Canadian political culture, is someone who has managed to fill their caucus with automatons, reading from a set of head-office talking points in a 90-second loop," Parker wrote. "And, our pundit class insists, this horrifying reality of the past decade is how it has always been."


      After this article appeared, the Straight was told that the primary version of the video appeared on Twitter, where it received nearly 30,000 views. That video was shared by many New Democrats, including incumbents and other candidates.