OTTAWA CENTRE HAS STRONG SLATE VYING TO REPRESENT ONTARIO NDP
One of a well-briefed, thoughtful group will take on Liberal incumbent Yasir Naqvi
For Ontario’s New Democratic Party to get anywhere near power in next June’s election, they’ll have to win ridings like Ottawa Centre — which they haven’t done in 27 years.
But the governing Liberals are vulnerable. The political left is more energized than it’s been in a while thanks to Donald Trump. And the New Democrats have an eye-popping quartet of candidates seeking to carry the orange banner in the heart of Ontario’s second-biggest city.
“I think everyone in the Ontario NDP wants us to win back Ottawa Centre,” says Shawn Barber. He’s a diplomat — a former high commissioner to Mozambique and representative to the Palestinian Authority who’s also worked for Canada in Afghanistan — and a lifelong New Democrat whose dad was a steelworker.
He’s in some awe of his fellow competitors for the nomination, who include a senior economist for the Canadian Labour Congress (Angella MacEwen); a career community organizer, university lecturer and education researcher (that’s all one guy, Joel Harden); and a publicschool trustee and small-business owner (Erica Braunovan).
In the last campaign in 2014, the nomination fight was between former city councillor Alex Cullen and school-board chair Jennifer McKenzie. Cullen had lost his council seat and lost the nomination to McKenzie — an engineer and a fine candidate on paper, who ultimately drew the fewest votes of any New Democrat there since 1995.
Why is Barber, who’s spent his adult life in the foreign service, running for provincial office? Because his home base has been Ottawa for decades and he’s been dismayed by the Liberals recently. He read about the party’s cash-for-access fundraisers at his post in Mozambique, about the shocking conditions in Ontario’s jails and how the justice system apparently forgot about an inmate named Adam Capay, who stayed in solitary in Thunder Bay for years.
“I’ve worked in places where that happens. Not here. Not in my country,” he says.
Many of Ontario’s practical problems could be lessened with a stronger economy whose benefits were more widely shared, he believes. It’s the combination of rising prices — for hydro, for housing, for transportation — and stagnant incomes that’s deadly.
Barber says he’s not an ideologue, that “no slogan has ever worked” to solve a problem. He’s built a career by solving complicated problems pragmatically and he’ll bring those decades of experience to a campaign and ultimately government.
That’s one way of being a New Democrat. Joel Harden has another.
“I’m proud I’ve developed a reputation that people turn to me. When they say, ‘We need to mobilize hundreds of people, we need to get a message out to the media’, (they say), ‘Joel can you help us’,” he says. His campaign website photo shows him speaking into a megaphone.
Now a researcher for the Canadian Federation of Students, Harden has worked for the Canadian Labour Congress and lectured in Carleton University’s law program. He models himself explicitly on Britain’s Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Sen. Bernie Sanders of the United States. The “extreme centre” is not a winning place for the NDP, Harden argues. The party should think big.
He helped organize the post-Charlottesville anti-racism demonstration outside the American Embassy last month, for instance. There’s energy to be tapped. What gets people in the streets is what gets left-wing politicians votes.
“I’m sensing a shift in the winds for social-democratic parties,” he says. “People are willing to entertain a more ambitious shift in our politics.”
He was reluctant to run, he says, having been disappointed by the NDP’s centrist drift especially in the last election, and thinking there are already enough white guys in politics. But he thinks the party’s moving back his way and the young activists he works with convinced him.
“We have to get people excited about politics again. I find far too many people expect far too little of politics,” Harden says.
MacEwen, the Canadian Labour Congress economist, says she combines both Barber’s and Harden’s strengths. She used to be in the navy. Her job now is to provide policy heft to an activist organization.
“I do have a pretty good job and I like my job. But I’ve been working on making change from outside politics, through activism and writing policy, all of those avenues, and it just feels like the right time. Globally, we have this shift. You’ve got Bernie Sanders in the United States — (on Wednesday) introducing a bill on universal health care,” she says.
She wants provincial office because that’s where the exciting social policies are. The labour congress is a national group but very often when she writes recommendations for the federal government, they begin: “Work with the provinces to ...”
Saskatchewan pioneered medicare. Ontario under an NDP government could lead the way to universal pharmacare and dental coverage, MacEwen says. “There seems to be a real possibility that we can do this leap forward within government, to push some real groundbreaking policies.”
Braunovan, meanwhile, is the only one of the four who’s held public office. She co-owns Brown Van Brewing and represents the downtown Somerset and Kitchissippi wards on the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. In her three years on the board she’s become frustrated by the limits the provincial government puts on schools’ ability to meet obvious needs.
“I feel like there’s points in time when I’m asking questions and trying to do things and hearing, ‘The ministry won’t let you do that’ and it doesn’t seem like there’s any way to get a dialogue going,” she says. Something as basic as building an addition to Elmdale Public School, which has been on the school board’s to-do list for years, can’t get provincial funding.
It’s the same in health, in higher education, in social work, Braunovan says.
“I think that if being an elected school-board trustee has taught me anything, it’s that we need to listen to everybody. We need to have big ideas but we also need to have practical solutions,” she says. She’s done the gruelling work of campaigning for herself and is up to the fight, she says.
Together, they’re a fearsome group — all well-briefed and thoughtful. I’ve never seen such a strong set of would-be New Democrat candidates in any Eastern Ontario riding, which is surely part of the reason the party hasn’t won a seat here since 1990. There’s a cycle of hopelessness, made the worse when federal New Democrat MP Paul Dewar lost Ottawa Centre to a Liberal in 2015. The most senior New Democrat in office anywhere around here is Catherine McKenney, the city councillor for downtown Somerset.
“I think the circumstances have changed,” Barber says. “Not the least of it is this government is long in the tooth ... They’re going through these spasms of trying to throw everything on the table at the last minute.”
In 2014 the Liberals won an unexpected majority by hoovering up votes from the left and taking away even historical NDP strongholds and here we are again. They’re bringing in a $15 minimum wage, for instance, an idea the New Democrats have pushed for years. Public coverage for prescription drugs for people under 25. Financial machinations to cut electricity prices in the short term. More tuition aid for students.
“They’re masterful at marketing. I’ll give them that. In practice, they’re implementing a very piecemeal agenda,” Harden says.
“I spend my workday explaining the difference between superficial and substantial change on these issues,” MacEwen says. “Communicating with workers, in a substantive way, how what we want to do is different from the Liberals is one of my strengths.”
All four agree that their best shot at taking down Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi, beyond outworking him, is to hang the government’s failings around his neck.
“We have to hold him accountable for his record,” Barber says.
He’s an energetic retail politician, they all say, who keeps up a hectic schedule of community events and is easy to talk to. He won a flat-out majority in 2014 and he’s not the type to take reelection for granted.
Naqvi’s also been in office for 10 years, in increasingly senior jobs. He was the Liberal party president (responsible for the party’s habit of holding bigmoney fundraising dinners with lobbyists).
He was the minister for jails (answerable for overcrowding and Adam Capay) and policing (responsible for racism and lax oversight). Now he’s the attorney general (a top-tier cabinet post, where he’s on the hook for all that’s amiss in the courts). Those are rich veins for critics on his left to mine.
“I think that all four of us have the blessing of being in a riding like Ottawa Centre where there are a lot of engaged activists,” MacEwen says, a view all four would-be New Democrats share. “I think the key is getting those activists to believe that it’s possible to win, and then they’ll come out and work for us.”
The party’s nomination meeting is Oct. 29. email@example.com twitter.com/davidreevely
I’m sensing a shift in the winds for socialdemocratic parties. People are willing to entertain a more ambitious shift in our politics.
Joel Harden is one of four candidates for the Ontario NDP nomination in Ottawa Centre. He is a community organizer, university lecturer and education researcher.
Erica Braunovan is an Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustee representing the Somerset and Kitchissippi wards and is also co-owner of a local brewing company.
Angella MacEwen hopes to bring her social policy experience as Canadian Labour Congress senior economist to representing the provincial NDP in Ottawa Centre.
Shawn Barber, a diplomat whose roles have included high commissioner to Mozambique, is running for the Ontario NDP nomination in Ottawa Centre.