A worried supporter writes

Dear Jack: I felt a sort of pride watching you on CPAC at the Jan. 25-26 NDP leadership convention. Pride and a renewed optimism — not confidence, mind you, but optimism — about the future of politics in Canada with you leading the charge from the left.

You may or may not remember the day in 1997 that you and I talked politics over a few pints at The Only Cafe on the Danforth. We discussed legalizing pot (you were in favour of it) and youth unemployment (you were against it) and the budget deficit the federal Liberal government was then fighting with curious vigour (you were against that, too, but not so emphatically).

I remember you bumming cigarettes from me and looking me in the eye and repeating my name often as you spoke: “It’s interesting that you bring that up, Ed”; “What’s your sense of that, Ed?” I was conscious of how polished your persona seemed, and conscious that if you were the genuine article, I should not be noticing the polish.

I was an idealistic 24-year-old who hoped he might become a political operator in the James Carville mold, looking for a vessel into which I could pour my frustrated hopes for the left. I left our conversation unconvinced that you were it. Still, I was sufficiently impressed with you and your ideas (and with the impression that you might be that rare NDP find: a candidate who could win) that I agreed to be your youth campaign manager in the federal election that year.

That, of course, ended in disappointment.

Afterwards, I became disenchanted with the New Democrats, for the usual list of reasons: they weren’t serious about winning elections, never mind governing; their ideas were stale dogma; they made policy demands without knowing how they might pay for them; their meetings got bogged down in internal nit-picking; and, not incidentally, when you work elbow-to-elbow with the unwashed masses, they turn out to be unpleasantly massive and unwashed. I’ve threatened to join the Liberals for the past few years, so that I might actually have some influence on government policy, but every time I get close to signing a membership card, they piss me off. So I’ve voted NDP all along, but I haven’t felt happy about it.

But that was then. I’m getting carried away with memories of missed opportunity at a time when congratulations are in order. You did it Jack. You won, and on the first ballot, too.

Your record on Toronto city council, and outside of it, these past 20 years offers hope that you may bring a new way of doing things to federal politics. Despite losing an election for mayor and two for a seat in federal Parliament, you have been a man who finds innovative ways of attracting attention and getting things done. You co-founded the White Ribbon Campaign to combat violence against women, you’ve made strides to make the city a little more bicycle-friendly, you’ve constantly pushed to ensure the issue of homelessnes stayed on the municipal agenda and you’ve been a fierce defender of the environment; partly because of your support we’ll soon begin experimenting with windmill-generated power. As president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, you also managed to get Paul Martin to call for a “new deal” for cities.

Two things are notable here. First, you have a fundamental understanding of what makes cities work and their importance to the country, a perspective that has been sadly lacking in Ottawa for as long as anyone can remember. Second, you understand how to speak to and work with people who are politically opposed to you and the NDP.

The NDP badly needs someone who can talk to ordinary Canadians, those who don’t call the U.S. the “evil empire,” who don’t think profit is a bad word, who don’t accept as gospel that trade unions are paragons of virtue. The NDP has fought too many elections preaching to the choir, and it’s time to start talking to those outside “the movement.”

New Democrats take pride in being the conscience of legislatures across the country. It’s a safe, self-righteous corner of the political debate, but let’s face it, the conscience is a depressing bore, always telling us what we should and shouldn’t do. It isn’t conscience that leads people to make bold departures from routine (which is what voting for the NDP and turning Canada leftward amounts to) — it’s imagination. Instead of moralizing about what we’re doing wrong, Jack, you need to start getting Canadians excited about what we could be doing right.

And I believe you can do it. You’ve got that vaunted charisma and media savvy, and, more importantly, at the city level you’ve been forced to think not just about ideals, but ways to turn those ideals into action, even when it means working with political opponents and compromising.

And that could mean recognizing that Canadians aren’t buying (or at least aren’t willing to pay for) the entire socialist utopian program, so you have to sell it to them piece by piece. That means raising taxes is off the table for the time being, but investing some of the surplus in small, achievable projects such as resident-owned low-income housing co-ops may be achievable. In opposing the Liberals’ pass-it-now-ignore-it-later approach to Kyoto, Canadians might get excited to hear about self-financing, job-creating programs to retrofit city buildings to save energy (and, incidentally, money). Or taking Chrétien’s highway-expansion legacy program and replacing it dollar-for-dollar with investment in urban mass transportation. Like bike lanes in a car-mad city, these are baby steps in the right direction, which is more than most of us on the left have allowed ourselves to hope for in a long time.

A friend of mine told me last week that he had the impression you were just skanky enough to make the sort of compromises other political parties have been making for years. You may not recognize that as a compliment, Jack, but for the sake of your party and political debate in this country, I hope it’s true. You’ve got a difficult job ahead of you. Good luck.


Edward Keenan

Originally published in Eye Weekly on January 30, 2003.