Having left the NDP more than once, I recently re-joined the party in order to support a leadership candidate who reflects the values and vision that inspire me and many others.
I started my political life from an NDP cradle. My parents, Alice and Dan (Don) Heap, were staunch grassroots activists long before Dad was elected to Parliament in 1981, where he served three terms as the NDP’s immigration critic. I seem to recall being covered by some sort of NDP family membership before I even became aware of party politics.
The Heaps, however, were never only New Democrats. Long before joining the party, they were active trade unionists and peace advocates (Mum was banned from traveling to the U.S. in 1950, likely because of her ongoing work in those areas).
Throughout their lives, my parents advocated for social justice causes including affordable housing, workers’ rights, the human rights of refugee and migrants, and international solidarity for building peace and opposing militarism.
Before, during, and after their years in electoral politics, they remained in comradely dialogue with many friends and other forces in the broad Left across Canada and around the world.
Movements (still) matter
All these movements mattered deeply to my parents and informed their politics. For them, electing more NDP politicians was never a goal in itself. It mattered only as a way of achieving broader political and social objectives. Even when thoroughly immersed in the mechanics of electoralism, they never lost sight of the fact that electing politicians only matters if they remain accountable to the people and movements that put them in their seats.
So when, as a teenager, I left the NDP for the first time, I remained involved in many of those same political movements: Latin American solidarity, the peace movement, trade unionism. As a public sector union member in Ontario during Bob Rae’s provincial NDP government, I was among the many who said, “We didn’t leave the NDP, the NDP left us.”
Years later, when I returned to the NDP fold, it was in large part because of another movement-related cause. I helped send resolutions to the 2011 policy convention in support of the Freedom Flotilla against Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Those resolutions garnered significant grassroots backing, only to be maneuvered off the convention agenda at the last minute by those who didn’t want to see them debated.
A friend who witnessed these procedural machinations confessed to feeling ashamed at being a New Democrat. By this time, I was already resigned to being “pre-disappointed” by the party, but that year’s membership lasted long enough for me to vote against Thomas Mulcair in the 2012 leadership race.
Over the years, I have come to understand myself as more of a “movement person” than a “party person,” and this is part of what inspires me about Ashton’s bid for the NDP leadership. Her vision of the party as part of many broader progressive social movements is welcomed by those of us who routinely support the NDP electorally, but do not want our support to be taken for granted.
Crucially, this is not an either/or choice between electoralism and movement building. As I learned from the memoirs of Kay Macpherson — a long-time activist with Voice of Women for Peace and the National Action Committee on the Status of Women — when in doubt, do both.
No easy path, but worth it
My parents’ steadfast work in the NDP over the decades showed that it is never easy to be a socialist in a social democratic party. But the challenge is worth the struggle when it advances real issues of principle.
This is why so many progressives are inspired by Niki Ashton and her vision for the NDP. In her, we can support a leader who unabashedly calls for expanded public ownership, for environmental justice, for an end to racist carding and Harper’s civil rights-limiting Bill C-51, for Indigenous rights, for postal banking and free post-secondary tuition. A candidate who, despite the vicious smears of right-wing lobbyists and sexist corporate media, is not bullied into silence in her calls for justice for Palestinians.
Ashton’s A+ rating from both Independent Jewish Voices and Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East underlines just how far the party establishment (like other political elites) is out of touch with Canadians on the issue of Palestinian human rights. EKOS polling from earlier this year indicates that most Canadians think boycotts (78 per cent) and sanctions (66 per cent) are reasonable, peaceful responses to Israel’s violations of international law. Those percentages are even higher among younger Canadians and among NDP supporters.
As physician and humanitarian Tarek Loubani pointed out after a successful fundraiser for Ashton in London, her principled steadfastness on this issue shows political courage: "A candidate who supports human rights for Palestinians shows that she understands the issues and is courageous enough to address them. If this litmus test is failed, be assured that your candidate will eventually disappoint on whatever issues matters to you." We’ve all had enough political disappointments on issues that matter to us.
My Mum had a regular reaction to the challenges we all face in life. She would meet everything from non-functioning machines to dysfunctional organizations with the same advice: Give it a rest and try again. Her stubborn resolve didn’t always work because sometimes, stuff just stays broken. But it is still worth heeding.
After a rest period, we may come back to a previously "broken" situation with different eyes and a new attitude, and what previously seemed broken may work again, though not necessarily in the way we thought it should before.
While none of us can tell which candidate Alice and Dan would’ve supported in the current leadership race, I am convinced I am following my parents’ footsteps when I get inspired by Ashton to rejoin the NDP and support her socialist vision of a party within broader movements. In doing so, I am of course also accompanying many other progressives who are either rejoining the party or joining for the first time. Importantly, these include many new activists half my age or less. Ashton’s connection with younger voters is genuine.
In addition to speaking French, English, Spanish and Greek, she communicates fluently in Millennial, as a native speaker. So after giving the party a rest, I’m trying it again.
There are only a few days left until the crucial August 17 deadline to join the NDP in support of Ashton’s campaign, so please act now and share the membership link widely.