The Conflicted New Democrat
It was the best of outcomes, it was the worst of outcomes. As the polls predicted, but no supporter could actually believe, the New Democrats doubled their last greatest seat count, decimated the Bloc Quebecois and, for the first time, became her Majesty’s Official Opposition.
But it came with a price: Stephen Harper got his long-sought-for majority, ensuring that he will be Prime Minister until I am thirty years old. The fact that he achieved this with only forty percent of the vote is further evidence that our first-passed-the-post electoral system fails the majority of voters.
But let’s start with the day of the election. After some soul-searching I had decided to pound the pavement for my local NDP candidate Andrew Cash. I had volunteered in campaign offices before (and, because my parents both worked for the party in the 1980’s and 1990’s, I was partially raised in them) but I had not gotten involved in an election since I was 19. Because I was never comfortable bothering people on the telephone or going door-to-door, despite the fact that I knew that those were still one of the surest ways to promote the candidate, I often ended up performing safe but uninspiring tasks, like photocopying and dropping leaflets.
This election I worried that if I didn’t get involved, if I was too afraid to be even a small part of the ‘orange tide’ I would regret it. Your values are only your values if you affirm them when it’s inconvenient. For me this meant waking up at 8.30 am, pinning on some vintage NDP buttons from my parents’ collection (don’t tell), and heading out in the rain to ‘pull the vote’: going door-to-door, reminding people who said they would support the candidate to go vote. If they say, as many do, that they plan on voting that afternoon or evening, you are to write it down and return later to make sure they do. You are to be, like a Jehovah’s Witness, friendly but persistent.
Luckily, my old friend Sarah Lewis was volunteering for the same campaign. Sarah is an incredibly sweet and unassuming young woman, and she feels just as uncomfortable knocking on doors and talking to strangers. But she is from a family that is even more invested in the party than mine (yes, she’s related to that Lewis) and volunteers in every election. Her commitment and ability to overcome her nerves was a powerful inspiration.
Even though she was given her own couple blocks (you are handed a map of streets along with a list of would-be supporters), she accompanied me on my first poll for moral support. She encouraged me to knock on doors even when I found reasons not to (“I don’t know, there’s no lights on… maybe no one’s home…”) and made me be the one to speak when people actually answered.
“You’re doing great!” she would said. “You’re a natural.” But my stomach still turned whenever I rang a doorbell, as if I expected people to yell and curse and reach for shotguns. Frankly, I have new-found respect for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After two blocks, like a parent teaching a kid to ride a bike, Sarah began to let go. “Okay, Max, I’m going to go off to do my own poll now. I know you can do this. You’ll be fine!”
“Alright…” I said, shaky as a toddler on training wheels.
I needn’t be afraid as, it being the middle of the day, most people were not home. There was one beautiful old renovated house (the porch was painted deep purple) where a small note was taped to the door asking visitors to not wake the baby by ringing the bell. But by the time I was close enough to read it, the dog was barking and a young mother sleepily came to the door.
“I’m sorry!” I said. “I’m from the Andrew Cash campaign, just reminding you today is election day.”
“I know,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t see the note in time. I didn’t ring the bell. Did the little one wake up?”
“It’s okay. My husband and I will vote tonight. And we’re supporting Cash.”
“Okay. Thanks! Bye!”
Other than that, and a talkative older woman who said she had to support us because she knew someone (potentially her son) who played in a band with the candidate and NDP MP Charlie Angus, my day passed without incident.
I was losing steam in the early afternoon, so I went back to the buzzing campaign office to wait for Sarah to grab some lunch. There were so many volunteers, the organizers barely seemed to know what to do with them. It’s ironic that people are more encouraged to get involved in a campaign that’s doing well when it’s winning campaigns that least need the support. I was feeling tuckered out and worried that I wasn’t helping in a substantive way. Then Andrew Cash waltzed in and came right up to introduce himself.
“How’s it going out there?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s great. Good response. How’s it going out there for you?”
“It’s fantastic.” Then he added, with touching sincerity, “Thanks so much for being here today and helping out. It means a lot.” And with that, he was off and I was revived.
Political buttons are an interesting thing. Especially when you’re wearing a lot of them and looking somewhat official (ie. walking around with paper and a pencil) strangers see you differently, as though you’re in a uniform. You’re no longer just some guy on a street, but a representative whom they feel secure in talking to. After I passed an older black man on the sidewalk, he called out,
“So who’s going to win tonight?”
“In this riding? I think we are.”
“And who’s going to be Prime Minister?”
Not sure what my official line should be as a NDP scrutineer, I paused. “Well, I think Stephen Harper probably will.”
“Really?! The man’s a bully. It’s Mulroney all over again. When’s this country gonna learn? Why can’t Layton be Prime Minister, with the support of the Liberals?”
“Well, that may be one option going forward…”
“Yeah. Alright. Good luck!”
Watching the results that night was both exciting and tense. Exhilarating as the NDP seats rose dramatically, towering over the Liberals, but scary as the Tories’ inched towards the 155 seat mark which would give them a majority. My friend and I played a not-very-strict drinking game in which we’d take a sip for every NDP win, but take several for every Conservative one. Tipsiness ensued.
And Cash walloped Liberal Mario Silva.
My parents, who dedicated large parts of their adult lives to the New Democratic Party, never dreamt that we could become the Official Opposition. But their pride was dampened by Harper’s supposed mandate.
“Perhaps it had to be this way,” my Dad said.
To people who blame the NDP for splitting the left by stealing voters from the Liberals, I’m going to quote Ralph Nader when he was asked after the American election in 2000 if he felt bad for potentially spoiling Al Gore’s win. “No. He spoiled mine.”
So in conclusion, happy about NDP opposition but sad about Tory majority; happy about the decline of the Bloc but sad about decline of the Liberals (for the country’s sake, even if it benefits my party); sad about four years of PM Harper but happy that the new NDP caucus gets the same about of time to provide a local progressive counter-narrative. Trepidatious about the next parliament but hopeful for the future of Canada and our democratic ability to remake our country. It’s a privilege that daily headlines about dictators and murdered protesters reminds us we’re lucky to have.