Published Aug. 28, 2015
NDP OTTAWA-VANIER NOMINATING CONVENTION
I’ve never attended any of the rituals that are part of electoral politics. I’ve never donned a bright tee shirt and held a balloon and chanted “Dumm-my! Dumm-my!” at the advent of some new Chosen One, nor have I hooted and hollered as the victorious candidate thanked wife, kiddies, mother and god for his triumph, nor have I shaken my fist and cried out “No! No! Never!” as defeat was accepted. Indeed, I’ve not even stuck a candidate’s sign in my lawn. There’s never seemed much point. During my lifetime, Canada has been ruled only by the Conservative or Liberal parties, and when Canadians have become dissatisfied with the state of their country they’ve marched off to the polls and voted in……the Conservative or Liberal Party. I do vote, however; citizenship is better honoured in the observance than the breach. And though electoral politics is a sound and fury signifying not very much (to mix plays if not quite metaphors) sometimes even that little can be important. Such is the case now. The current Conservative government, led by Stephen Harper, is stupid, cruel, and destructive. Another term for these people would be a national catastrophe. Besides, we may have reached a small point of historical inflexion. The New Democratic Party——Canada’s third party, centre left——is riding high in the polls. There is a real chance that they could form a government. This would be important in itself, but exceptionally so because it would mean that Canadians had not chosen the Liberals in the usual rotation. The Liberals and the Conservatives are in fact the same party; historically, they are drawn from the same tradition; socially, they’re organized and controlled by people from the same brokerage houses, national law firms, advertising agencies and corporate boardrooms. The ideological, even stylistic, differences between them are a sham because they share the same fundamental political assumption: only they can steer the ship of state, only their agenda can be considered——no other voice can be heard in the room. The NDP’s ideas are not dramatically different; but they are a different voice, speaking from different places——socially, historically——within the country. Their election would break the Conservative-Liberal monopoly, and mark the end of Canada as a one-party state.
I’m not sure if these large considerations quite explain my presence this Tuesday, August 25, at the nomination meeting for the NDP candidate in Ottawa-Vanier. I had a vote, but with camera in hand considered myself more as an observer, an anthropologist. I’ve actually lived in the riding most of my life. It is unique in the city of Ottawa, perhaps even the country. It encompasses one of Canada’s richest enclaves——Rockcliffe Park——but also some of Ottawa’s poorest neighbourhood’s: homelessness, and crack-on-the-street are real issues. It’s the centre of Ottawa’s large francophone community——but now some of those francophones are black, from French West Africa. Historically, it was built by Irish and French Catholics, with the richer protestants hanging out in New Edinburgh (whose alleys and lanes will remind you of the original.) I grew up there. I went to Crichton Street Public School; my Catholic friends turned off Crichton at Keefer St. and learned their catechism in St. Aloysius. The playground of my old school has long since been turned into condos; St. Aloysius, closed down, housed the municipal archives for a time. So the riding has changed. Politically, however, it’s stayed exactly the same——Liberal, since Confederation: probably since Champlain paddled up the Ottawa River and founded the place. Might the result be different in this October’s election? The sitting member for Ottawa-Vanier is Mauril Belanger, an intelligent and skilled politician, a committed Liberal——and also a decent man. But in the last election his plurality had shrunk to something like 4500 votes. With the NDP doing well in Quebec, the riding’s francophones——the traditional base of Liberal support——are finding it more and more “normal” to vote NDP.
With an outside chance of winning the riding, excitement in the NDP was high. Membership in the riding association had increased by a factor of five. The hall, nomination-night, was packed. There was a buzz in the air. Four candidates ran. Angela Rickman (who lives on my street) works in the NDP’s federal office as a policy researcher and was endorsed by several MPs. She had a sure grasp of the issues——but when she spoke, her French (crucial in this riding) was a little weak. Prosper M’Bemba Meka, a doctor from the African community, spoke only in French——interestingly, even touchingly: but this is not a unilingual riding. David Dyment, a professor from Carleton University——he’d previously run as a provincial candidate——presented a video highlighting his long-time connection to the riding. The last speaker was Emilie Taman, in some ways the most controversial of the four. She was something of a “star” candidate, recruited by the NDP’s federal leadership, endorsed by Ed Broadbent, once the NDP leader. And she is the daughter of Louise Arbour, formerly a Supreme Court Justice and UN Commissioner for Human Rights. Her speech was a polished performance. Her problem? She doesn’t live in the riding. She was a parachute candidate.
As the voting proceeded, the result, in a way, was less interesting than the room itself. The crowd was remarkable, especially in its diversity. It was equally divided, I would have said, between men and women; there were old people, but also quite a contingent of children; and the French-English split that has traditionally defined the riding was entirely absent. When M’Bemba Meka dropped off the ballot, it might have been assumed that the large number of black people in the audience would have gone home——and some did, but by no means all. The room was certainly representative of the riding, but only time will tell if Emilie Taman——who won in the end——can be equally so. French is clearly her mother tongue; she has poise and polish, and knows the issues. But she doesn’t live in the riding, or, I’d say, quite have a feel for it: she carries with her an air of privilege which won’t play well in Vanier and the riding’s poorer areas. As well, Mauril Belanger is warned and is running hard. Emilie can certainly win——but it’s still an outside chance.