Young, smart, ethical, and leaderless
In the fall, in a dim Ottawa pub, I met a guy named Nathan Cullen. He seemed sincere and kind, and was impressively witty. He was a Member of Parliament from British Columbia, and he was going to run for the leadership of the New Democratic Party. I became interested in his leadership bid as soon as I met him.
Before I realized, I was supporting a political party. I was organizing a high-profile event and phoning members on a Sunday afternoon to chat about a guy called Nathan. As the NDP leadership campaign wore on and Nathan’s campaign gained momentum, our Ottawa contingent bonded over snacks and debate viewing. We anticipated the Leadership Convention like Christmas.
These were uncharted waters. As a concerned but historically non-partisan Canadian looking to have social justice issues formally represented in parliamentary leadership, I had surveyed the race from a distance in its early stages. But here I was, jumping into a campaign, joining the party.
There has been a new feeling about Canadian activism on the rise since the Occupy movement swept the globe. Contrary to prevailing critique of the disoriented movement, Canadians have an instinct, a story, and a call. We might not be called “activist” in the traditional sense, but we’re upset by the current imbalance of power. We’re environmentalist, feminist, well-informed, youthful (young and old), cross-partisan, and politically engaged. We’re talented. We’re spunky. We don’t like Harper’s Conservatives. We’re on Twitter. We’re you and me.
For us, the elusive but crescendoing activist chorus reared itself in the NDP leadership race and surged at the March Leadership Convention. I was caught up in the spirit, but I was new at partisanship and the rules of diplomacy that go along with it. I sheepishly pinned a button of Nathan Cullen’s face to my luggage and boarded the train to Toronto. By god, I was going to vote in real time.
Once in Hogtown, I riveted myself to #ndpldr and ignored the outside world for 36 focused hours. I wasn’t alone in single-mindedness. We all – delegates, observers, and journos alike –took the task of selecting an heir to the Layton throne personally. As the escalator poured newcomers down to the dungeon of egos and activists, buttons glistened, harpies cried, BlackBerries poked above crowds like hopeful spring buds, and feverish expectancy lit the faces of full-grown adults.
Day one featured each candidate’s display of how he or she mourned Jack’s passing and each campaign’s display of how enthusiastically it could wag signs. Not an excitable sign-wagger myself, getting up to the task to support Nathan, who spoke first, was challenging. (Yet a mere 24 hours later, I felt like I had been born with a Nathan sign fused to my hand. Amazing how strong the Kool-Aid tastes closer to the bottom.) With only a stool and single note card, Nathan spoke better than the others and installed a sense of pride in his followers, especially as the other candidates hosted overblown media shows and struggled with teleprompters and time shortages. As Nathan closed, I stormed the stage-left aisle as instructed and not-so-tentatively pumped my sign-bearing fist to our icon.
Following the presentations were the first vote, a Jack tribute, and a handful of chatty, chatty, chatty parties in hospitality suites and surrounding restaurants. Jack’s legacy hung thick in the air, but as a newcomer to the NDP who only knew his media personality through extensive coverage in the last election, I couldn’t empathize. This display felt cultish and transcendent, and I questioned whether my personality suited allegiance this strong to any one group, political or otherwise.
At Nathan’s gathering, I ordered a beer and liaised with journalists, who I found easier to talk to (read: listen to) than some party folk. We did not discuss Jack Layton, nor did we exchange niceties about candidates. With a pint-and-a-half in my otherwise empty stomach, I got excited to be among laypeople and, in a moment of overconfidence, told off a reporter from the National Post in front of his posse. To my relief, nobody seemed to mind this sort of temper. In fact, I think it made them trust me, and maybe Nathan by association. The parties, with new and old frenemies exchanging rounds of Mill Street Organic, bumped late into the night.
The next morning came quickly. When the results of the first ballot revealed low voter turnout, some delegates remained ignorant about the potential for anyone but Mulcair to win and so screamed louder and wagged more furiously for their respective candidates. That only added fun to the spectacle. Admittedly, I held onto a tiny but formidable kernel of hope that every British Columbian member might rise up and vote Cullen on the last ballot, which ignited my own chant leading and set of jig-style happy dances.
The day dragged on, giving folks more time than expected to mingle and remark about Jack’s legacy. The impact of losing Jack became more understandable when, awaiting the results of the final ballot in a near comatose state, I trolled the media booths, stopping to chat with a couple of longstanding (and well-liked by the left) MPs at the Rabble.ca table. In small talk, I commented on the energy of the convention, suggesting that no matter the outcome, the NDP will emerge from the weekend a more united front against Harper. Both, faces blank, responded by saying they missed Jack. They had placed their hope in him to forward their aims by attracting voters, and now the future of their movement was less certain.
Despite the shared solemnity and love across campaigns, some delegates, ornery and fatigued, aired ugly thoughts about their perceived opponents. One man insisted he’d step on the neck of a card-carrying Liberal. Another admitted his desire to swallow the Green Party whole. These people, horrifying and regressive, are not at all reflective of the movement that pulled me to party membership in the first place.
Yet eventually Mulcair accepted his victory, and we filed onto escalators with heavy eyelids and spinning hearts. When I rose from the cave into the night rain, breathing fresh air for the first time in 14 hours, I phoned my parents. They gave congratulations and remarked how Nathan looked most like Jack. I smirked.
Cullen offered us a sip from the cup for which we’ve been so desperately reaching. A man of oft-proclaimed pragmatism stood before us to encourage the celebration of ideas and the renewal of democratic process. My cynicism can barely stand to confess it, but for those two days, I felt what can only be named a smidgeon of hope for the first time since 2 May, 2011.
This is the first time our youthful spunk has been somewhat mainstreamed in formal politics. It has existed in YouTube videos and city parks, and for a second, it gathered behind an orange banner.
As I clambered up to the train car back to Ottawa, I knew the weekend had replenished my faith in the dynamism and flexibility of my cohort. If Nathan’s post-convention coverage is any indication, the NDP has tapped the youthful zeitgeist. How the party will capture Jack’s zeal and channel their new support under Mulcair remains to be seen. So does the next move for the rest of us.