Like winning bingo on the Titanic

By Briony Penn, June 2011

A few thoughts on the lifeboats that pulled away from the wreck on May 2.

On the evening of May 2, along with the majority of Canadians, I was stunned. “Like winning bingo on the Titanic” was the saying that captured the mood of progressive islanders. Saanich–Gulf Islands had made history by electing the first Green Member of Parliament in Canada, while NDP undergrads fresh out of McGill were heading off to Ottawa as the official opposition. But as one of my friends remarked, it was a homeopathic remedy for a very serious illness—that of a Conservative majority. 

Now that the dust has settled, I have come to realize that young Canadians have been handed an opportunity—one that is larger than the tar sands and more exciting than being in a crowd with a cellphone in Cairo. First, a little bit of background.

Up until last month, especially if you were under 50 or a woman, it was daunting to get nominated, let alone elected in a conventional mainstream party riding. I know. I tried it and it was hard. 

Once the nomination was won, there was little appetite for the obvious question of how to coalesce the vote of the centre-left to counteract the voting strength of the merged right. Traditional party supporters, who had fought hard for their parties over the years and had witnessed many cycles of waning and waxing fortunes, dampened most of my enquiries about shifting from the status quo. Besides, there was never enough time—with all the other tasks of policy meetings, door knocking, and fundraising—to get any traction in that direction. 

For many others keen on political change, there was also a sense that Canadian federal politics moves too slowly and reforming energies would be better spent organizing at the local or personal level.

But everything changed on May 2. 

First, let’s consider the Liberals. The progressive MPs from the federal Liberals left standing—Justin Trudeau, Carolyn Bennett, Bob Rae, Stephane Dion, etc—won with solid margins. All of them share an interesting quality: they are biculturalists. By that I mean they are people who know what it is like to live, work and breathe in different cultures, whether it is political, cultural, generational or physical. They are also capable of bringing people together in a hostile partisan environment. I got to know these men and women and liked them—a lot. They were kind and recognized what I had to bring as an outsider and a neophyte to party politics. 

One piece of under-reported news from the election was that Stephane Dion won his seat with 43 percent of the vote. Sometimes good ideas and ethics just can’t be squashed no matter how many attack ads you throw at them. Remember that it was Stephane Dion who enabled Elizabeth May to participate in the televised leaders’ debate in the 2008 election and supported her in many other ways. And it was Stephane Dion who asked me to run in Saanich and the Gulf Islands and supported a platform that raised the possibility of bringing all three progressive voices—Green, NDP and Liberal—together in one candidate to beat the incumbent Tory. That attempt very nearly succeeded and created the foundation upon which Elizabeth May built her May 2 victory.

Of the fallen Liberal MPs and their riding associations, there’s an appetite now like never before to listen to and mentor a new generation of politicians. There’s nothing like failure to teach us a lesson. Michael Ignatieff is a teacher first and foremost, and he’s left politics for a position where he will help young Canadians learn about politics. The Conservatives might yet regret the day  they lost Ignatieff to the classroom, where his formidable intellect and experience will be unleashed on the next generation of young political aspirants. 

And it isn’t just Ignatieff who is open to sharing his experiences. In the riding associations, I met a generation of people highly committed to democracy who had entered politics during Trudeau’s time when they were fighting for multiculturalism and the rights of aboriginals and women. These are people who are passionate about their ideals, but who also know how to run an election, develop policy, canvas, and keep a democracy functioning. They, too, are ready to pass their skills on. A young person walking in the door of one of these riding associations now will probably be welcomed with open arms and get a free political education, as well as an opportunity to shape the party.

Of the NDP candidates, five undergraduates from McGill alone, as well as several other young people who won election, are now going through an ordeal by fire of political initiation. Their paths, documented through their own social media, will be a source of inspiration to young people considering running for parliament in the next election. As a seasoned NDP MP, francophone Denise Savoie of Victoria will undoubtedly be called on by Jack Layton to act as a mentor for these young, new parliamentarians. Savoie is a consummate biculturalist: tough enough to take on the role of speaker in the house and kind enough to keep young people grounded and on course.

With the Greens, Elizabeth May has proven  the young have an appetite for both engagement and real change and that they bring great new energy to politics. May will be walking the challenging path of critiquing partisan politics while having to participate in those politics. She’ll have to stay open to the ongoing discourse on whether Canada’s future lies with an integration of the social, environmental and economic strengths of the three centre-left parties—or in party diversity and coalitions. The testing ground might lie with the young Greens who will now have to decide between staying as a party that they just legitimized versus the practical necessity of joining forces with other like-minds in the opposition benches in order to defeat the Tories in the next election.

The Conservatives are now unleashed and will express their values with a cleaner precision than in the past five years. For young people wanting to be engaged in determining their future, there is less room in the Conservative party than anywhere else. There’s only one voice in that camp. It is Stephen Harper’s government, after all, and you are either for him or against him. That leaves a whole lot of young people with nowhere to go but this big, new fertile ground called Canada’s opposition. I predict the Conservatives will ignite indignation and reverse youthful apathy like never before as they continue to ignore the needs of the next generation on a range of issues: environment, education, child care, poverty, women’s rights, First Nations, and the arts.

A turning point has come. I first noticed it at an all candidates debate held at the high school where my 15-year-old son attends Grade 10. He’s a regular sort of kid who plays a lot of soccer, hangs out with his friends, and likes YouTube. A thousand people turned up for the debate, and amongst them was his soccer team. He and his friends queued in the long line-up to ask questions. They were great questions, covering all the issues. I had no idea they had even been listening for the last five years, let alone wanting to venture into an arena that was populated by those they likely saw as old, boring or angry people (my sons noticed the moustaches and penises drawn on their mother’s face during the previous federal election campaign). Politics changed last month. The fire is in their bellies and it will only grow. 

We are on the Titanic now, but as you may remember, there were some lifeboats and it was women and children first.

Briony Penn, PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. In 2008 she ran as a Liberal in Saanich Gulf-Islands and lost to the Conservatives’ Gary Lunn by 2625 votes.