A few days after the NDP convention, the first couple of the Canadian left held their version of a fireside chat, live streaming on Facebook. By Friday, more than 25,000 people had clicked to view Naomi Klein, the famed anti-capitalist author, and her husband, filmmaker Avi Lewis, give their take on a weekend in Edmonton that has left the country's third party both disoriented and fractured.
It is a cheerful back and forth – they break down Canadian politics for their U.S. audience, including not-so-subtle shots at the country's "yogi," panda-cuddling Prime Minister. At one point, Mr. Lewis lists the fresh roster of insults lobbed his way: "I have been called a downtown Toronto dilettante, betrayer, ivory tower…."
"... latte-swilling," Ms. Klein volunteers.
"And these were people I consider friends," Mr. Lewis adds.
As Ms. Klein observed: "It's been a big week for us in Canada."
That is an understatement from a couple not given to making them. Like it or not – and the pair have spent the past week playing down their role – Ms. Klein, 45, and Mr. Lewis, 48, have become the face of the faction that would yank the New Democrats, a party searching for purpose after a devastating election result, sharply to the left. The heart of the controversy is the Leap Manifesto, an "aspirational" document signed by some of Canada's biggest celebrities and public intellectuals that outlines a vision of a Canadian economy built on investments in social programs, respect for indigenous people, clean energy – and a moratorium on pipelines.
Cue the outrage. On the Sunday morning of last weekend's NDP convention, a few hours before a historic vote that effectively dumped leader Tom Mulcair, the party passed a resolution to study the Leap Manifesto. Many saw this as an endorsement of its contents. That it happened in Alberta, the engine of Canada's oil industry, in a city a few hours from the oil sands, at a time when the country's once wealthiest province is bleeding jobs, only added fuel to the fire. For Alberta's NDP government, which was about to land its second budget on Thursday, it was deemed tantamount to a political knife in the back.
The Leap Manifesto was written collaboratively at a meeting of environmental, indigenous, social justice and union groups in Toronto last May. But make no mistake: It is the brainchild of Ms. Klein and Mr. Lewis, a direct result of their most recent collaboration, the movie This Changes Everything, based on the book by Ms. Klein. But last weekend also represents an unprecedented leap directly into the political sphere, an arena both have long rejected as a place for radical change. Mr. Lewis, especially, is no longer a protester at the door; while Ms. Klein followed the convention from afar, he was the one sprinting to the microphone early Sunday morning to grab the first spot to speak in favour of the resolution.
The NDP has embarked on a fight over its soul, but the real shift may be this: Canada's most prominent activists have taken stock of the political climate, the urgency of their goal, the mood of the left, and made their move.
Mr. Lewis and Ms. Klein constitute that rare thing, an activist glamour couple. They first met in front of the cameras, when Ms. Klein, working freelance for the CBC, interviewed Mr. Lewis for a story during the 1993 election campaign. Ms. Klein was then the 23-year-old editor of the left-wing This magazine; Mr. Lewis was host of a politics show on MuchMusic. They started dating a few years later, not long after his mother, well-known journalist Michele Landsberg, says she suggested he submit some articles to the magazine. "Suddenly, I didn't hear from him for about 10 days, and then the phone rang, and he said, 'Ma, I'm in love!'"
For all their obvious private affection, theirs has been a partnership lived to an unusual degree in the public eye. Over the years, they occasionally chafed at their reputation. The Ottawa political consultant and former NDP staffer Ian Capstick remembers interviewing Ms. Klein when he was a student journalist and suggesting to her that she and Mr. Lewis were the left's answer to Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel.
"She looked visibly offended," Mr. Capstick recalled.
If the couple's brand of political celebrity makes them uneasy, it is also in many ways their inheritance.
Ms. Klein was born in Montreal, after her father, Michael Klein, a prominent physician, moved to Canada to avoid serving in the Vietnam War. Her mother is the feminist filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Klein, whose anti-pornography documentary Not a Love Story became a scandal and a hit in the early 1980s.
"Some of my earliest memories are people watching documentary films and crying and having arguments afterwards," Ms. Klein says. It is where she first learned that "film has a wonderful ability to get people in a room together and get conversations started."
Mr. Lewis descends from Canada's greatest left-wing dynasty – his grandfather David Lewis was a federal NDP leader in the early 1970s, and his father, Stephen, was a leader of the party's Ontario branch, and a highly regarded UN diplomat.
Not that either were keen to meekly follow their genetic blueprint. Mr. Lewis was a precocious middle son. By age 4, his parents say, he was reading The Globe and Mail, and, in a childhood marked by constant debate at the dinner table, a strict TV diet of CBC, TVO and PBS, and a front seat on the highs and lows of political life, declared that he was never going to be a politician – a position he has staunchly maintained.
In Ms. Klein's Montreal home, a similar divergence was under way. At age 10, Ms. Klein announced to her parents that she had attended her last "dreary" protest rally. "She made it very clear that she wasn't going to be dragged around as a 'prop' in our politics," says her mom, who fretted about her daughter's social apathy as a teenager. "I remember her saying, 'What's wrong with having a good time, wanting to have fun.'" But when Ms. Klein was 17, her mother suffered a debilitating stroke, and, as her father observes, she suddenly grew up, even taking a break from school to give care to her mom and support to her dad.
And then, while she was at the University of Toronto, the Montreal Massacre happened. Ms. Klein organized what amounted to a "therapy session" for 500 people. She called herself a feminist from that day forward, and has now attended more environmental rallies than she can count. In 1999, as the anti-globalization movement crested, Ms. Klein released No Logo, a diatribe against consumerism and the power of brands. It became a bestseller and vaulted her into the pantheon of international leftist superstars. Last fall, that star power earned an invitation to the Vatican.
Their work has been a team effort – her books and his movies, university lectures and community meetings – all invested in pushing for a grassroots, society-shifting response to climate change. They have a home in Toronto and a writing retreat in B.C., but travel widely typically with their 4-year-old son, Toma, in tow. As one long-time friend observed, their commitment to the issue is a deeply held calling. "This is who they are."
The Leap manifesto grew out of their work together; its intellectual roots lie in two of Ms. Klein's books. The collapsing price of oil was a spur; this was the type of cataclysm that formed the thesis of Ms. Klein's award-winning book Shock Doctrine. Instead of companies capitalizing on a disaster or economic collapse, as she argued in the book, here was a chance for climate-change activists to do the same.
Their research for This Changes Everything taught them a lesson, Mr. Lewis says: To turn a crisis into an opportunity, the left would have to unite.
In May, he and Ms. Klein organized a two-day conference in Toronto, inviting 60 representatives of indigenous communities, unions and environmental groups to work on a vision statement for a society-wide solution to climate change.
Ms. Klein and Mr. Lewis came to the meeting with an original draft of the manifesto, which the group proceeded to shred – not always kindly, she jokes – but it eventually produced, in the meeting and subsequent e-mail exchanges, the document that stands today. The manifesto calls for a more equal, "care-giving" economy that shifts to green energy, and an investment in non-carbon sectors such as education. In the NDP context, it is not even that radical – it supports a guaranteed annual income, and universal childcare, a central campaign promise under Mr. Mulcair. But it is unequivocal on no new pipelines, no more expansion of the oil sands.
With the manifesto written, the couple set about collecting signatures; celebrities such as Rachel McAdams and Leonard Cohen put their names to it. The Leap Manifesto was launched a few weeks into the 2015 election campaign, during the Toronto International Film Festival.
Smarting after being decimated at the polls in October, a group of NDP loyalists began blasting riding associations with e-mails urging them to endorse the Leap – a position adopted by 20 ridings before the convention. (Notably, none are in Alberta.) Mr. Lewis denied being involved in those efforts. But in fact, he and a pair of former New Democratic MPs from powerful ridings – Craig Scott in Bloor-Danforth in Toronto, and Libby Davies in Vancouver East – began working on how to get a motion on the manifesto to the floor of the convention.
At the same time, while his passion for the issues was not questioned, Mr. Lewis' sudden interest in party affairs was viewed with suspicion. (He got his NDP membership card only a few weeks ago.) Critics have questioned his long-term investment in the party, suggesting he was using his name and star power to push an agenda with no regard for the political fallout in Alberta. NDP premier Rachel Notley denounced the Leap faction; the province's Environment Minister, Shannon Phillips, who previously worked with Mr. Lewis, called it a "betrayal." Edmonton MP Linda Duncan, the only New Democrat elected to Ottawa from Alberta, deemed it "disrespectful" to the work being done in the party. "It's the height of arrogance," said Gil McGowan, head of the Alberta Labour Federation. "They drive up with the media in tow, they make their pronouncements in front of the lights and cameras, and once it's over, they leave the rest of us to pick up the pieces."
Mr. Lewis calls that assessment unfair: "I understand the resentment of people like me coming to this with a sense of entitlement," he says. "The problem is that's wrong. I came to this process with a great sense of humility."
Mr. Lewis denies he is seeking the NDP leadership, and he is still trying to determine what, if any role, he would play in guiding the riding debates about the manifesto. (Ms. Klein says she will not be involved.)
"My genuine, honest, human intention has been to try and play a constructive role," he says. If that spins somehow into a paying job advocating for the manifesto, he says, "I would love that."
Whatever they choose to do, their next move is sure to be watched – with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation – by a party in limbo. Once again, the Avi and Naomi show will take place under a spotlight.