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Long-time MP Karygiannis: ‘This is not the same Liberal Party we knew’

Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis pauses as he announces he will step down as the Member of Parliament for Scarborough-Agincourt following Question Period in the House of Commons Tuesday April 1, 2014 in Ottawa.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jim Karygiannis is settled at a table at the back of a Greek restaurant on the Danforth in Toronto. After more than 25 years as a Liberal MP and as one of the few to avoid the Conservative sweep incursion into Toronto suburbs in 2011, Mr. Karygiannis retired earlier this month.

He is in an expansive mood, willing to discuss everything from the changing nature of the party to its leadership failings and his experience as a party point man for ethnic politics.

"I'm the last samurai," he says almost immediately.

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He explains that the samurai are the warriors, the organizers, the people who get things done. Once upon a time the Liberals had a whole clan of samurai, he says.

"Joe Volpe, Maurizio Bevilacqua, Sergio Marchi, myself and Denis Coderre," he says. "There are very few people who have the capability to organize and help others to get elected."

Mr. Karygiannis's Scarborough riding was always one of the most ethnically diverse in the House of Commons. As a result, he gained a certain profile in the party because of his links with some ethnic groups and his willingness to lobby on their behalf.

In recent years he had been the party's point man on ethnic politics and multiculturalism, a role he took great pride in. But that changed when Justin Trudeau became leader and he was reassigned to veterans affairs. It also happened to coincide with the period when he started to feel unhappy about life in Ottawa.

"When he became leader I had a white paper, a vision, the way forward to 2030. I spoke about it in caucus. I wanted to send it to him. Never got a response," Mr. Karygiannis said. "Ethnic politics is not about the food and the dance and 'It's great to be Greek.' It's about making sure that people from a community have a voice at the cabinet table and engaging the second generation."

Mr. Karygiannis expresses no hostility toward Mr. Trudeau, just a feeling that the lessons of the past are being ignored. Referring to the ugly nomination battle in Trinity-Spadina, in which one candidate was barred despite a promise to hold open contests, Mr. Karygiannis said "This is not the same Liberal Party we knew. The party has changed."

Politics in Canada in many cases is about communities, he said. You have to build relationships with those communities if you expect to win. He runs phone banks in 15 languages, prints brochures in 18 languages. He keeps a database that includes a category for ethnicity on everybody in his riding and a record of every interaction they've had with his office and every statement of voting intention during canvassing over 25 years. He has a database of 217 ethnic community celebrations, anniversaries and holidays on which to release statements.

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"If the Liberals are going to come back, we have to come back to basics. Unfortunately we lost touch," he said. "You can't take communities for granted. The Conservatives, to their benefit, Jason Kenney is able to understand the sense of community."

"Our party right now, although I tried very hard to move in that direction, we're moving away from it again."

The current Liberal thinking is more like "everybody under one pot," he said.

"The Conservatives saw the differences. To his credit Mr. Kenney used it. They issue press releases to send messages to the community and away they go," he said.

The decline of the Liberal party has been painful for Mr. Karygiannis, he said. There are so many reasons for it, but one important one is the neglect of the basic work of politics: listening to constituents.

"Unfortunately a lot of my colleagues do not link themselves to the voters," he said. "Remember when the Tamils were up on the bridges. I was the only guy that went to see them. I was the only guy that spoke to them. If I need something from the Tamils, they're there."

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The other reasons for the party's decline?

"Leadership certainly has something to do with it. [Stephane] Dion, a great individual, but not a political bone in his fricking body. [Michael] Ignatieff…He hijacked the party. Arrogant.

"If you wanted to speak to Ignatieff you had to write a letter to Peter Donolo, his chief of staff, saying why you wanted to speak to him. I said 'What, do you live in an ivory tower? I'm a Member of Parliament for the Liberal Party and I'm a member of your caucus.'"

After Mr. Ignatieff lost his own seat in the 2011 election Mr. Karygiannis made a point of reminding him that only one of them was returned by the voters. Mr. Ignatieff simply walked away, he said.

Mr. Karygiannis provided some insight, too, on the Liberal leadership battles that gripped the party during the Chretien-Martin years. Mr. Karygiannis had been a backbencher from 1993 to 2001 but had done a lot of the dirty work to get Jean Chretien elected leader in 1990. He recalled one of his great triumphs, signing up 20 Punjabi migrant workers on a farm near Lindsay, Ont., one night to seal a delegate nomination meeting at the very last second. They had to be living in Canada, not necessarily Canadian, he explained.

The trick in the nomination meetings was to ensure that if a riding was selecting 12 delegates, that your delegates were the first 12 names on the ballot, he explained. You had to get there very early to make sure. That way voters who knew nothing of what was going on, the instant Liberals that the organizers had signed up, could be told to simply mark the first 12 boxes, rather than having to worry about a dozen names scattered on a ballot. It took months for the Paul Martin camp to figure out a counter move, Mr. Karygiannis said.

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"Robocalls?" he laughs. "We were practising robocalls back in the 80s."

There may have been a few Martin supporters who got the wrong directions to the polls. And then there was an incident in which he was accused of putting chewing gum in a payphone coin slot, thus preventing his opponents from contacting their voters. Mr. Karygiannis won't talk about it on the record.

When it came time to collect a political reward, though, Mr. Chretien didn't come through for him.

"I went to Chretien in 2001 and I said 'Boss, I've been at this 13 years, do you think I could get something else? I mean I want a challenge.' He put his foot up on his desk and he said 'Jim, the boys don't think you're ready.' I said 'thank you,' and walked out. I met Martin the next week. He asked me a couple questions and I said I'm there," Mr. Karygiannis recalled.

In short order he signed up 5,000 families to back Mr. Martin's side in the leadership review. Then as the leadership battles intensified, Mr. Karygiannis told Mr. Chretien that he ought to resign "with grace and dignity." Shortly after, Mr. Chretien announced he would retire.

"I was looking for a parliamentary secretary, frankly, and [Chretien] had rotated everybody except one or two of us…What the hell am I? Chicken feed? The boys didn't think I was ready? The other boys thought I was ready.

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"One of the things I wanted to do was get the title Honourable in front of my name, so that at least when I drop dead the flag will go at half-mast and there'll be two Mounties at my funeral. That's good for my family."

Mr. Karygiannis will run for Toronto City Council in Ward 39, roughly half the size of his old Scarborough Agincourt riding. He hopes to be a diversity advocate on council.

Joe Friesen reports on demographics from Toronto.

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