The recent announcement of NDP MP Charlie Angus’s intended exit from federal politics drew a range of reactions from his fellow parliamentarians.

There have been numerous toasts and tributes to legislative victories spanning a 20-year career in politics. 

Then there was one from a convoy-loving colleague from across the aisle who had a few choice words upon learning he’d be retiring before the next federal election, expected some time before fall 2025.

The heated exchange started with a flippant comment from MP Stephanie Kusie: “I’d like to thank the member for Timmins-James Bay for relieving us of our misery and announcing his resignation.

“You know, we’re all going to really miss him on this side of the House. Not!” 

“Having some accountant from Calgary heckle me in the House? I don’t give a fuck. I opened for the Dead Kennedys.”

It’s no secret that Charlie Angus has collected a few frenemies over the years. Does it bother him?

“Having some accountant from Calgary heckle me in the House? I don’t give a fuck. I opened for the Dead Kennedys,” he says.

When he first started out, Angus had no interest in putting his name on a ballot. But the late great Jack Layton, who first encouraged Angus to run in 2004, was persistent.

Layton saw something in the scrappy gray-haired (these days, white-haired) Scotsman from the tough little mining town of Cobalt, Ontario. 

He’d caught wind of Angus’s grassroots organizing up in coal country and had heard about the good trouble he’d been getting up to on shoestring budgets with little more than a loud voice and a strong heart.

Charlie Angus with Jack Layton. (Photo via Angus’s Instagram)

The Adams’ Mine proposal — which would’ve dumped tonnes of toxic waste into the little rural region where the Angus family has called home for generations — was the first big issue to truly radicalize Charlie Angus. He was mad. Just mad enough, as it turned out, to take to the streets (or in his case, dirt roads) to fight for something.

Angus, his family, and community were sick of seeing their beautiful Northern Ontario region ecologically sacrificed for the benefit of Southern Ontario — so he set out to mobilize First Nations, Franco-Ontarians, farmers, and small-business owners from the region. Together, they successfully blockaded local roads, occupied the mine site, and confronted government officials at every level of public office.

“I’ve been here 20 years and I have never seen a time when I feel that our country and our planet is as at-risk as it is now.”

It was a true “David and Goliath” story, according to Charlie’s political thriller documenting the journey: Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine Dump War. And it was this fiery activism that caught Jack Layton’s attention — ultimately (and quite unexpectedly) catapulting the reformed-anarchist-turned-democratic-socialist all the way to Canada’s House of Commons for no less than two decades.

He hopes his final message serves as a warning to Canadians as they start to think about heading to the polls once again.

“Thank you, Mister Speaker. I’m honoured as always to rise in this House. I’ve been here 20 years and I have never seen a time when I feel that our country and our planet is as at-risk as it is now, a time when people should be looking to Parliamentarians to come together to deal with solutions. Instead, we are dealing with yet another Conservative motion, which shows that the Conservative Party leader’s entire economic plan could fit on a lapel button.”

“The Conservatives refuse to put forward a climate plan other than let the planet burn. At a time when our young people are facing a future that is increasingly unstable. That is the sum total of what I’ve heard from Conservatives for the last three years. Let the planet burn.”

Angus has always had some fire in his belly. He’s been called “angry” and “confrontational” by his political adversaries because (to be fair) his aggressive oration style in the House of Commons has always stood out. Angry? Maybe. Others might just say passionate — like the time he nearly broke down in tears on the floor of the House of Commons while speaking to the Indigenous youth suicide crisis. 

The Canadian Bernie Sanders

The night before our scheduled interview for this very story, I noticed an unmistakable head of messy white hair across a crowded pub. Moments later, a friendly lapsed Catholic from Northern Ontario, who some still call the Canadian answer to Bernie Sanders, was regaling my group of friends with his latest political stories. 

Angus was just popping into Brixton’s between votes (that’s the NDP’s choice watering hole in downtown Ottawa, just a stone’s throw away from Parliament Hill) and after enduring hours of partisan filibustering (“it’s such bullshit”) at committee over a bill he and his progressive colleagues were supporting, he needed a breather.

Charlie Angus playing guitar at a protest for First Nation education in Ottawa in 2013.

“I’m a high school dropout,” Angus told me the next morning over the phone from his West Block office in Ottawa.

“For years, the House of Commons human resources people have asked me to supply them with my educational credentials as a Member of Parliament. But unlike basically everybody else who works in Parliament, I don’t have any. I graduated from the school of punk rock.”

So there’s a school of hard knocks, but there’s also a school of punk rock apparently. For Charlie — whose lifelong passion (other than “the loves of his life,” his fierce feminist Irish wife Brit, and their three daughters) has always been music.

Charlie has represented one of the largest, most rural, most working class, and most Indigenous federal ridings in Canada since 2004. 

“I’m a high school dropout”

Timmins James Bay (which, for the sake of disclosure, is where much of my own family hails from and where I lived briefly as a kid) is way up in Northern Ontario. It’s a region rich with untouched, unceded, and fiercely protected sovereign Native homelands, with pristine waters for fishing and hunting, and a number of train and fly-in only First Nations reserves. There are thick boreal forests too, unlike any others in North America, and an incredible variety of wildlife living peacefully in the trees, waters, and skies thanks to the communities — and leaders — who’ve fought to protect and preserve them.

Angus has taken his responsibility as an MP representing this region seriously, because of the trust from the constituents who’ve re-elected him for seven consecutive federal elections over the course of two decades — and particularly because a large swath of those constituents are Indigenous.

Working class roots

Angus joined me on my podcast City and Nuuchimii recently. During our conversation, we learned that the elder Angus, Charlie’s grandfather, was sent to Canada from Scotland because his mother, who hated the British monarchy, “didn’t want him dying in a rich man’s war.” Soon after Charlie’s grandfather arrived here as an immigrant, he moved to Timmins and worked his way up as a machinist, until he died on the job in the Hollinger Gold Mine, just before his grandson Charlie was born.

“I never met my grandfather, but I got to know stories about him in Timmins, which was really wild.” 

“Like I met someone knocking on doors who was there when my grandfather got killed on the shop floor; and I met another woman who said ‘I remember your grandfather. He had this thick Scottish accent and he used to love to argue politics.’”

Throughout his political career, Charlie Angus has not stopped fighting for the rights of Indigenous communities. (Photo via Charlie Angus Instagram)

Niki Ashton is MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski in Northern Manitoba. It’s another enormous, largely Indigenous, and working-class riding. She’s been working alongside Angus since 2008. “I think it’s a huge loss to Canada that Charlie Angus is leaving, especially now,” she says. 

“He saw the value of being creative. There are very few people willing to go to the wall for Indigenous peoples and northerners the way he has.”

Shortly after she was first elected federally in her late 20s, Ashton found herself at the centre of a fight against a multinational mining company that was threatening to cut jobs in her riding.

“I was a new MP at the time, and really young. We put in a call to Michael Moore asking for his support. And not long after we did that, I remember bumping into Charlie on the Hill, and he just came up to me and said, ‘Congrats. that’s something I would do.’”

Charlie Angus speaks with residents of Attawapiskat in 2016. (Nathan Denette via Maclean’s)

He says his most memorable accomplishment came early on in his political career under the Harper government, fighting for Indigenous youth. 

In Attawapiskat, a Cree reserve community in the furthest and most remote northern region of Ontario, is among the most abjectly impoverished Native communities on all of Turtle Island. It’s also part of Angus’s federal riding, which meant his work as an MP quickly led him to discover the intentional and deadly racism Canada continues to inflict on the people of this region.

In one of the several books he’s written during his time in office, Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada’s Lost Promise and One Girl’s Dream, Charlie exposed the apartheid system that remains to this day in Canada, and that led to the largest youth-driven human rights movement in the country’s history: “all Shannen wanted was a decent education. She found an ally in Charlie Angus, who had no idea she was going to change his life and inspire others to change the country.” 

Today, thanks to the help of Angus, the late Shannen Koostachin is immortalized in bronze in Northern Ontario — and her work fighting for the basic human rights of First Nations kids in Canada continues.

First Nations education activist Shannen Koostachin and MP Charlie Angus are photographed in 2008. (Photo via Charlie Angus)

For Angus, the 2015 federal election was one of the most crushing electoral defeats in modern political history, and a turning point for Canada’s would-be labour party. 

Canadians opted to give the Trudeau Liberals a majority, while the New Democrats under then-leader Tom Mulcair were knocked down from Official Opposition — while some still say Mulcair served as the most effective opposition leader in Canadian history, going up against then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper — all the way down to fourth place in the House of Commons. It was a loss that stung.

The party spent a long time (perhaps too long) licking their wounds before Mulcair left and Jagmeet Singh came into the picture.

But just behind Singh, coming in a close second in the NDP’s leadership vote in 2017, was none other than Charlie Angus.

“I think it’s a huge loss to Canada that Charlie Angus is leaving, especially now.”

In the wake of the loss in 2015, Angus tweeted, then deleted, criticism of his party under new leader Singh — he wrote “when a party believes that better Instagram tricks or gala planning is the path to success, we lose touch.”

It’s hard to imagine anybody spending 20 years as a politician in a Westminster-style parliamentary democracy without kissing anybody’s ring. Canada is of course still part of the Commonwealth – and we do still have a Governor General who is technically the King of England’s proxy here in Canada.

But during our podcast chat, he told me: “You know, my protestant Granny raised me, and she was a feisty woman. She always used to say to me ‘don’t speak unless you know what you’re talkin’ about. And if you know what you’re talkin’ about, you don’t have to kiss anybody’s ring.’ That was the presbyterian in her. You don’t kiss the pope’s ring. You don’t kiss the King’s ring.”

“So, I got the music and the faith from one side of the family, and I got the brass knuckle politics from the other side.”