A personal account of raging against the machine
There were promises I’d made to myself—I will not drink, I will not smoke, I will not do drugs, I will not sleep around and I will not run for public office. I have stayed true to all but the last of these, finally surrendering to run for the NDP in the last federal election, and this is what it got me: a worn-out pair of $11 shoes, months of lost earnings, a public smear campaign against me, a priceless circle of comrades and friends and the unshatterable conviction that a better Canada is possible.
Summer 2003. The U.S. invasion of Iraq is now an occupation. Our international peace movement of millions has shattered, demoralized. It’s a green-leaf-and-sunshining late August afternoon and I’m biking home from CJSR, Edmonton’s campus-community radio station, from which I’ve spent the last 14 years broadcasting Afrocentric, pro-democracy content. I spy Shannon Phillips bustling along, an activist I know. I tell her—I don’t know why—that an NDP headhunter has asked me to run against Deputy Premier Anne McLellan in the upcoming election. The offer is flattering, but I’ve been asked before, if more informally, and since I don’t live in McLellan’s riding and have no intention of being anybody’s sacrificial black sheep, I tell Phillips I refused the recruiter. I don’t decrypt the look on her face; I bike home. End of non-story, I think. No clue that that conversation is about to change my life.
A month later, Phillips, who it turns out is the federal NDP’s election organizer for Alberta, asks me to think about running in Edmonton-Strathcona, held by then-Alliance MP Rahim Jaffer. The riding overlaps provincial Edmonton-Strathcona, which is held by NDP Raj Pannu. Phillips unfolds her blueprint, details the gears and theories. The NDPs already hold a third of the riding, which contains the University of Alberta and a strong arts/environmentalist demographic. Add in my community work as activist/broadcaster, which puts me in front of audiences twice a week and has seen me in front of audiences of up to 20,000 at Edmonton labour and peace rallies—there was a chance. Not for a “moral victory,” not to “take one for the party,” but to take office, to serve Strathcona as its MP, to battle in Parliament against corporate shills and make some justice.
I tell her I need a month to think about it. A few days later I’m sitting in the café beneath Pannu’s office, downing a chicken sandwich and green tea while Pannu and Phillips try to convince me I should make my bid. Phillips smiles like she’s just found the tiny hooded doll in a box of Zapatista Cracker Jacks when I say, “I’ve already made up my mind. Yes.”
November 2003. I’m on stage at the myer horowitz theatre on the U of A campus, in front of a crowd of hip-hop heads and radical students, my heart pounding. Not just because I’m there to introduce the night’s speaker, the leader of the greatest political hip hop band ever, Chuck D of Public Enemy. My lungs are putting a chokehold on my heart because I’m about to publicly declare war on the Alliance. I know I’m on safe ground, but the crowd cheers me with greater force than I could’ve hoped. I tell the audience that I’ll be running a campaign “half-way between Ralph Nader and Michael Moore . . . maybe even in body type.” Everyone digs the joke, hungry to find out what it’ll actually mean. (My note to self: find out.)
January 6, 2004. Hundreds of phone calls to constituency members later, I’m at a hall packed with former students, former professors and a sizable number of seniors, including Raging Grannies. I’m explaining how “It takes an entire village . . . to raise a democracy,” how “You’ve heard of sweat shops? Well, Mr. Martin was the owner of sweat ships,” and how “The battle for Strathcona is on!” We rack up around $1,500 in pledges. By the end of the week Svend Robinson is in town speaking at a fundraiser for me. Phillips tells me that Robinson’s brief speech to introduce me is uncharacteristically low-energy; neither of us has any way of knowing that one of Canada’s most progressive and respected parliamentarians is delivering one of his final speeches of (this phase of) his career.
But unlike the wild cheers I get before introducing Chuck D or at my nomination, applause is less generous from this crowd, and I spot at least a half dozen arms-folded-over-chests topped by grim-set faces. They’d come for Svend, Phillips tells me, and hell, why shouldn’t they have when we’d billed the night as “Svend-cona”? Many of these folks wanted a longer Svend set, not an election appeal from some unknown. Apparently this isn’t my core audience. But while running an electoral campaign obviously means stepping well outside my core audience, it simply hadn’t occurred to me that so many NDP members might not be among them. I’m not under any illusion that I’m known much beyond Afrocentric/CJSR circle and the peace/antiwar movement, but I’m becoming increasingly surprised when being introduced to party members that they’d never heard of me. I’ve gone from addressing cheering thousands during an Iraq peace rally to a crowd dotted with angry “Who’s he?” glares. Here are large numbers of NDP folk who didn’t know me from Adam Clayton Powell and didn’t care. I’m stunned to discover that outside of the radical seniors and the radical youth, the middle age of our party seems largely disconnected from the local ethnocultural, ecological and social justice movements. No matter the outcome of the election, I decide then, I’m going to build this party in Strathcona. Bring activists in and bring the activity out.
Word is getting out that I’m running, and there begins to be, to use the cliché, a buzz. I’m asking for help, but folks are also e-mailing and phoning and buttonholing me, wanting to sign up. Team time: students and labourers and professionals, teens and seniors, refugees from Western-backed dictatorships and Vietnam-era Yankee conscientious objectors, longtime listeners and marchers from rallies. They are forged into our Election Planning Committee, whose steering committee I name the Bridge, given my love of the original Star Trek. And given that running for the NDP in Alberta is generally seen as a Kobayashi Maru—a no-win scenario—why not?
But this team, at least for a time, is nowhere near as harmonious as the colour-saturated crew of the Enterprise. No one’s on board for personal aggrandizement—given the missionary zeal of most progressives, that’s no surprise—but especially in the beginning, I find myself having to soothe clashes over images, wording and style, sometimes principled, sometimes idiosyncratic. In-group e-mail discussions flare into arguments, then arguments over too much e-mail. Do right-wing groups fight like this—money men versus fundamentalists, for instance? I already know how much the left is divided and subdivided by issues and identity politics and the rare but destructive tendency toward self-serving lefter-than-thou sanctimony. Pamphlets, websites or podium-thumping are a sad substitute for action designed to achieve real and measurable results in the world of 3-D people. But if we’re to advance as a progressive movement, we’ve got to galvanize people who, with completely legitimate grievances and anger, will mutually create the campaigns in which our full-spectrum legions can meet as human beings. People who can sit together, laugh together, work together and, if you’ll forgive the noun-to-verb mutation, who can potluck together.
And then it’s time for what I’d been dreading the most: doorknocking. As a kid, I’d sold chocolates and later newspaper subscriptions, enough to earn two Edmonton Journal carrier trips to Disneyland. I’d been good at it, but I hated its vulnerability. Uninvited on the doorstep as the pre-eminent symbol of the establishment—a “politician.” So I gear up, hit the streets, my socialist-sense tingling in anticipation of reactionary rage. But I’m completely wrong. For one thing, most people aren’t home, no matter what time of day I knock—only a third of the doors produce a human being; second, of those who are home, the overwhelming majority are polite, even kind; and third, a huge number of people are friendly, chatty, excited and, get this, grateful that I’ve come to their door. I’d always assumed everyone would be cynical about door-knocking candidates, seeing them as one step below used-carpet salesmen. Wrong. An astounding number of people tell me they’ll vote for me simply because no candidate had ever come to their door before.
This reaction affirms for me just how alienated Canadians are from their government, that the simple act of political self-salesmanship (yes, with the potential for meaningful contact, but salesmanship nonetheless) resounds so meaningfully. As adults, we’re as disconnected from centres of power, I come to see, as school kids are from school principals. And often as intimidated and resentful. As Ralph Nader said after the 2000 U.S. election: the Internet was great at informing, lousy at mobilizing. Victory demands face-to-face, handshakes, real conversation and door-mocracy.
May 2004. Since I’m the only NDP candidate in the province considered a possibility to win, media pick me as their go-to guy. I seize whatever seconds I can get, telling voters why I’m different from the guy they’ve got—and that no one can buy a man who wears $11 shoes. I end up on Rex Murphy’s Cross Country Checkup against my two main rivals, shot live for Newsworld at Edmonton’s city hall. But I’m stunned to witness what a sad contrivance the whole affair is. The topic—as if Canadians needed CBC to force one on them—is “Western alienation.” At least a dozen audience members submit questions on the environment, the controversial Cheviot mine outside Jasper National Park at the top of their concerns. Not one is allowed to get to the microphone. So Albertans who care about the biosphere, student debt, health care, peacekeeping and everything else the rest of the country does are slung into a pre-sliced slot. Backwater regionalists. Thanks, Rex, for turning two hours of democracy talk into cud for the myth-makers of Western alienation, for denying Albertans the chance to express ourselves on matters of national and planetary importance. We don’t need a tightly controlled charity boxing match. We need an Ultimate Fighting Championship on the policies that dictate our destiny, on the vision that inspires our action. CBC, why not just let us debate? A real debate among candidates, not a shouting match among party leaders, with questions from regular citizens. We don’t need pre-censored chat and we don’t need fake drama. You’ll get plenty of ratings from the real thing.
The CBC “debate” further proves to me that until we have a non-government, non-corporate mass media in this country—which thanks to Lib-Con-directed media concentration is now almost unthinkable—our democracy will die a little more every day. We must dilute the concentration of ownership, break up the oligopolies and build a system of worker- and union-owned media, whether it’s Edmonton’s once-striking A-Channel becoming a co-op or the CAW purchasing small-market papers or radio stations. But one thing’s clear—the Black/Asper-style empire under which we live is anathema to a free society. If journalism, as Israeli journalist Amira Hass says, is “monitoring the centres of power,” and if freedom, as Cicero says, is “participation in power,” what do we do when the media of the rich is the power? The next frontier—hell, the last stand for any lasting success for progressives in Canada—will have to be labour’s acquisition of a network of billboards and single-market media outlets run as attractively as their corporate analogues, but with smarter content on the issues that matter to us all. Without that change, the majority of public opinion will continue to be funnelled into two categories: the disinformed and the demoralized.
And then it’s June 7, and someone drops a bomb on us.
An old university nemesis who writes for the National Post, Colby Cosh, finds and blogs an Internet posting I made a decade before on an American-African usenet group in which we discussed, in language that celebrated intellectuals Cornel West and bell hooks still use, racial discrimination and exploitation. The term they and I used in 1994: “Whitesupremacy.” The debate was whether Jewish-Americans are part of that white power structure or not. Had my posting said only “white privilege,” it might never have been an issue. But folks getting the sound-byte-filtered version through sales-driven media don’t benefit from reporters making clear the distinction between 1) “Whitesupremacist,” meaning anyone benefiting knowingly or unknowingly from a vast, encompassing system of racial privilege; and 2) neo-Nazis or Klansmen. Media exploit the term to explosion.
It’s misery-meets-transformation. The story breaks like Bruce Lee. I lose sleep for three days; I lose six pounds; I fear at first I’m going to lose everything—the campaign, all our work, all my friends. We hold a press conference in which I apologize for hurting people through my decade-old remarks. By Thursday, June 10, while the Iraqi resistance is exploding and The Globe and Mail headlines that a senior Martin adviser is panicking that the Liberals are in free fall, Edmonton’s Journal and Sun plaster me on their covers as some sort of anti-Semite. Never mind that, unlike so many local armchair anti-anti-Semites, I’d literally placed my life on the line fighting against Nazi skinheads who drew guns on me in fall 1990. Never mind I’d been speaking and writing against bigotry for well over a decade. Journal columnist Paula Simons told me to my face that there was—get this—something anti-Semitic about an old posting of mine in which I said that there should be more Jewish characters on television. Huh?
Thankfully, most people continue to think for themselves, and the sad adage that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” comes true. A number of Jewish-Canadians join the campaign after the controversy. I’m greeted by name on the doorsteps, often consoled by the sympathetic, told by one Conservative that on the basis of the smear-job alone he’s going to vote for me. A few nasty notes aside, friends, strangers, former students rally to my defence with calls and letters by the hundreds. I’m stunned by an experience like attending my own funeral, but in a good way.
But we’ve lost more than a week of door-knocking and communication diverted to this attack instead of focused on our platform. And then it’s six days to go.
End of June. Hot days. Skies like sheets of blue steel and the welding torch sun not shutting down until 10 p.m. One of my final door-knocking destinations, and I later wish it had been one of my first, is the remains of a housing project in the north-east section of the riding. “Remains,” because, thanks to Liberal abandonment of social housing, this complex is one of thousands the government has delivered into the invisible hands of the all-knowing market. My first thoughts when I arrive aren’t my platform so much as my relief—row-house doors are easy to knock on because they’re all so close to each other, and my by-now proverbial $11 shoes are beginning to wear out.
But then doors are opening and I’m hearing the stories of soaring, privatized rents, of seniors’ services abandoned by Ottawa, of Never-Neverland tuition-tickets out of the projects, of the desperation for anyone to pay attention to their plight. Stunningly, the one thing no one ever mentions is the tallest creature on their horizon. Past the project’s southern boundary stands the refinery, its towers constantly flaming and exuding its unseen gases, blazing like the Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings. From what I can see, the housing project is a buffer zone between the refinery and the more affluent homes behind it. And here are people working low-wage jobs, some working two, ragged and exhausted and knowing somehow they’re getting a raw deal and yet totally accepting of—or resigned to—this ecological discrimination.
Don’t like the term? Find me an SUV neighbourhood or gated “community” anywhere in Alberta that has its own flaming gas tower. I tell mums, dads, grammas, door after door during the three days I spend at the complex, that if I’m elected, my first priority will be checking into their and their kids’ health. Here are people full of anger, sadness, dignity and joy, people that elitist wisdom says are all Edmonton Sun readers who vote Conservative. And yet home after home pledges to vote for me, and in many cases, before I can even begin my schpiel, folks said, “You’ve already got my vote. I always vote NDP.” These are the people, I realize, to whom we need to go first. Not to get their votes, but to offer our labour in solidarity, to organize with them to improve their neighbourhoods, their prospects, their children’s futures. Too many parties, ours included, are coming around like distant relatives only at dinner time.
FINAL DAY. even the thermometer is sweating. i vote in a church two blocks from home, and it seems like the whole room’s looking at me. I take my ballot behind the cardboard shield, muse aloud, “So tough to choose . . . .” It gets a laugh. The rest of my day is getting out the vote, just like any other volunteer—going to doors of committed voters, asking them if they’ve voted, encouraging them if they haven’t. By 7:20 p.m. I’m racing from door to door in the northeast housing project, checking on folks I’d just met in the previous few days. Most have gone, a few haven’t, and we’re damn near out of time. Because at 7:30 p.m. the country is frozen for the next four years. Or three. Or two.
Back at our HQ. Eight months of campaigning, castigating, cogitating and creating, recent months of debating without abating, recent weeks of anguish and an anxiety-shrunken waistline, and recent day-night-days of sweat and risk, all condensed into our crowded Situation Room. And the telephones start ringing, slinging the results of the polls while I watch the country’s outcome trickle through the CBC website. Surreal, indeed, this time-dilation perception of the last eight months all coming down to this half-hour. All that exhaustion, frustration and invigoration, the stoked hopes that we could win and deliver for thousands of people some justice—we’re winning a few polls handily, but too few; many are close; too many are far—within minutes it’s clear we’ve lost. The Conservative is back.
If I’m sad about anything, I’m sad that I’ve lost my chance to fight inside the House against the scoundrels who’ve been lying to us and selling away our country. I’m sad I won’t get my chance to work with a caucus of scrappers to scrape together some justice for folks who have the outrageous nerve to believe they deserve to live free from the fear of being downsmashed by the people they’ve made rich. I’m sad I’ve lost the opportunity to find parliamentarians across the spectrum who are ready to demand and create a long-overdue renovation for the democracy our sad old House and country represent.
I’m sad I’ve lost that chance. For now.
But personally I’m grateful. To have been transformed. The attack against me, as vicious as it was, brought out a reaction from friends and strangers I could never have anticipated—a bond of compassion and respect and, yes, from some, even love, which affirmed that there were thousands of people who believed in my character and the justice work I was sworn to do. No one, and nothing, will ever take away that awareness, or stop me from building that justice. And now, having worked with so many who are strong, who are committed, who are selfless, who oppose what I oppose and who love what I love, I am in a better place to build that justice. Colleagues and I are currently working on a Strathcona Democracy Centre, without the federal help, and a No Sweat/Fair Trade Edmonton campaign. And beyond that, much more. For the future. For democracy. What it is.
Malcolm Azania is an Edmonton writer, broadcaster and activist. His first novel, The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad, was published by Del Rey in 2004 under his pen name Minister Faust.
This article was originally published in March 2005.
You can find other articles that have resurfaced for the election here.
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