Avi Lewis on the ’ideological battle’ over the Leap Manifesto

Avi Lewis on the climate crisis, Naomi Klein, and how he didn’t mean to ‘blow up the NDP convention’
Avi Lewis. (Photograph by Michael Klein)
Avi Lewis. (Photograph by Michael Klein)

If there’s an NDP gene, Avi Lewis surely has it. His late grandfather, David, was once federal leader, while his father, Stephen, ran the Ontario branch and remains a party elder statesman. But it was the Leap Manifesto—a creation of the younger Lewis, his wife, author Naomi Klein, and a number of other prominent activists—that helped crystallize discontent over Tom Mulcair’s leadership this past weekend. The journalist and filmmaker spoke to Maclean’s about Leap’s role and where the party goes from here.

Q: The Leap Manifesto starts with the premise that Canada is experiencing its deepest crisis in recent memory. Can you define it for me?

A: What we face in Canada are multiple overlapping crises. We have the climate crisis, which is screaming down on us—all of the predictions are coming true even faster than the scientists thought. We have the inequality crisis, where the Panama Papers are a great reminder that the one per cent have actually created their own economy. We have lots of communities in crisis: First Nations, like Attawapiskat. The black community in Toronto, with structural racism and police violence. And refugees and immigrants, with deportations and deaths in custody. We still have the crisis of child poverty, which has never been dealt with despite decades of concerned words from politicians.

Q: So is the manifesto designed to be a blueprint for revolution or a conversation starter?

A: Both. I think revolution in the Bernie Sanders sense, where we need change in our political and economic systems if we are going to really deal with things like the climate crisis. But one thing that has been lost in the cascading series of mischaracterizations about this document is that it is profoundly hopeful. To come out of our understandable, daily denial, where such problems are too terrifying to even look at, we need a thread of hope that there is something we can do. The premise of the Leap Manifesto is that responding with urgency and ambition to all of these crises is actually the best chance we’ve ever had of building a better Canada.

Q: Leap calls for a massive 20-year shift to a country entirely powered by renewable energy: wind and solar farms in remote places, vast transmission networks, major transit expansions and green retrofits for homes and businesses. Won’t that be fantastically expensive?

A: Oh, yeah, absolutely. But you know what will cost even more money? The climate crisis. Catastrophic damage from climate-driven extreme weather is now an annual reality. The cost of not dealing with it will be much greater than if we try to pre-empt some of those disaster cleanups by actually investing in the shift now. Do we seize the opportunity and create great jobs and save our economy? Or do we stay on the oil roller-coaster, tied to a petrodollar?

Q: But people would like to know what all this is going to cost. Is there a price tag?

A: No. It’s an aspirational, high-level document that attempts to tell a story about where we are in history and what we need to do next. The next stage is to develop that granular policy approach, and the coalition of social groups behind this document would like to get there. It’s not designed to be a budget. It wasn’t written by economists. But we know the money is there.

Related: Where the NDP will land after the Leap

Q: When the manifesto was released in the middle of last fall’s election, critics branded it “utopian” and “anti-capitalist.” Were you surprised by the response?

A: We weren’t surprised in the slightest that pre-paleolithic climate-denying curmudgeons like Rex Murphy and Conrad Black would seize upon our radical and idealistic vision with glee. We know this is an ideological battle. What we did misjudge was how this would be used against the NDP. That was certainly not our intent. Maybe we were a bit naive. People have said it’s the NDP’s left flank attacking Mulcair. That’s not true, but we lost control of that narrative.

Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair waves to the crowd after his speech during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alta, on Sunday, April 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair waves to the crowd after his speech during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alta, on Sunday, April 10, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Q: It was pitched as non-partisan, but it does come from the left. Did you give Tom Mulcair or his people any input, or at least a heads up?

A: Absolutely not. They were in the middle of running an election campaign and we were a broad group of Canadians who felt that the absence of climate as a central issue, and the centrist, cautious tone of the campaign, was a massive disconnect from the way Canadians felt. We hoped to reach people and build some urgency for more ambitious policy. Indeed, we got 20,000 signatures in 10 days.

Q: Mulcair’s response seemed lukewarm. Did that concern you?

A: I didn’t read it that way. He said that he welcomed the debate, and he loved big ideas. He didn’t weigh in, but I don’t think he was lukewarm.

Q: Well, he said he’d follow the will of the party.

A: Tom was welcoming of the debate the Leap Manifesto brought to the party. Look, there’s been endless analysis of what the hell happened last weekend, but I think the Leap question and the leadership question are separate. They’re not unrelated, but there’s no causal relationship. Tom was asked about Leap a lot and he didn’t embrace it wholeheartedly, but he didn’t denounce it like the Alberta NDP are doing now.

Q: In the run-up to the convention you said that you weren’t out to get Mulcair. But now that he’s going as leader, are you happy?

A: No, I’m not. I was at the convention for Leap. I wasn’t really engaged in the leadership question, and like everyone else, I was stunned by the result. I gained a good deal of respect for Tom Mulcair over the weekend as I saw him try to navigate these very difficult issues and saw his real passion for the fight against climate change.

Related: What’s in the Leap Manifesto?

Q: Now that there’s a leadership race, what role should the manifesto play in it?

A: It’s clear that it has been explosively controversial for the Alberta NDP government, and that in other regions of the country, it has really resonated with those who are looking to reconnect with the social democratic roots of their party. Look, let’s zoom out. The political landscape in North America has dramatically shifted to the right over the past half-century. But as we see from the incendiary success of Bernie Sanders, so far—running as a socialist in America, my God!—there is a hunger for forthrightly left-wing political alternatives. Some portion of the NDP base is looking for a way to connect with a new wave of enthusiasm, youth and activism here in Canada. And the Leap Manifesto looks like it’s worth exploring.

Supporters applaud Alberta Premier Rachel Notley as she makes her speech during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 9, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean's Magazine.
Supporters applaud Alberta Premier Rachel Notley as she makes her speech during the 2016 NDP Federal Convention in Edmonton Alberta, April 9, 2016. Jason Franson for Maclean’s Magazine.

Q: You mentioned Alberta. Rachel Notley calls the manifesto “naïve and tone deaf,” while her environment minister says it’s a “betrayal.” Is there a way to bridge that gap?

A: I think what we’re seeing is more a reflection of Alberta politics than a schism on the left. Their gusto in attacking the manifesto suggests that it’s practical for them to do so at this moment. But there might be a danger in carrying it too far. Most of what’s in the document is already NDP policy. There’s one demand out of 15—that there be no new fossil fuel infrastructure—that has been a grenade. We get it: Alberta politics is brutal. It’s an oil province, and the government feels it needs a new pipeline. But there were lots of Albertans in the room when the Leap Manifesto was born. And there are many different economic interests in Alberta and Canada. The science says we’re past the point where we need to get off fossil fuels and our political debates are stuck in the 1970s.

Q: There’s a history of activists trying to take the NDP further left and party brass resisting. Like the Waffle movement in the early ’70s, which both your grandfather and father rejected as radical and impractical. Isn’t this the same?

A: It’s very different. The Waffle was an internal schism. The Leap Manifesto is a non-partisan cri de coeur which comes from outside the party. NDP members started passing resolutions to engage with it, but we had nothing to do with that. We want as many Canadians as possible to look at this document and debate its contents. We never intended it to blow up the NDP convention. Nobody saw this coming.

Q: What do you think the party should be looking for in its next leader?

A: I think Canada deserves a forthrightly left electoral alternative. I don’t see the advantage for our democracy in having a number of parties crowded in the centre. The Liberals are experts at co-opting left language and framings during campaigns, and historically, we know they don’t govern like that.

Q: Your name has already been raised as a possible candidate. Are you interested?

A: Not in the slightest. I grew up in a political family. My earliest memories are of committee rooms and conventions. But it was a defining moment for me when my dad left politics in 1978, because it was getting too personal and ugly, too difficult to speak about the important issues. And having been a journalist for the past 25 years, I know what we do to these people and I wouldn’t relish being on the other side.

Q: What about your wife, Naomi Klein? People have been bandying her name about, too.

A: Even less so. She’s a writer, she has that personality and disposition. And she doesn’t have even the faintest flicker of interest in that political role.

Q: In a strictly hypothetical world where you both run for leader, who would you vote for?

A: One of the things that could be exciting about this next phase of Canadian politics is if we could maybe have co-leaders.

Q: That sounds like weaselling.

A: No, no, I’m serious. If we could get proportional representation and open up roles for smaller parties in coalition governments, we could start intentionally breaking down the cult of personality that is one of the most distorting things about our electoral system. We had a constellation of social actors behind the Leap Manifesto. And we created something bigger than ourselves.