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OPINION

The NDP's only hope

The party's policy convention in Ottawa showed the tension between transformative change and an entrenched status quo

NDP delegates vote on resolutions in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018.

Nora Loreto is an activist and writer based in Quebec City.

Joel Harden promises to do politics differently. The candidate for the Ontario NDP in the riding of Ottawa Centre is running a campaign that is audaciously progressive, both in the issues he focuses on but also in his strategy to win the provincial riding in June. Yasir Naqvi, a popular Ontario Liberal cabinet minister, has held this seat since 2007.

I've known Joel the Activist for almost a decade. I met Joel the Politician for the first time at last weekend's NDP policy convention in Ottawa. He tells me he was knocking on doors during much of the proceedings. Since he began campaigning last summer, Mr. Harden says his team of 200 volunteers have visited more than 4,000 riding residences.

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Mr. Harden is inspired by the organizing strategies of left-wing activists around the world – from Catalonia to Chile, from Corbyn to Sanders, as he tells me. His campaign embodies how decentralized organizing could work in Canada. He thinks it's the NDP's best hope to win both in June in Ontario, and federally in 2019.

I think it's their only hope.

If Mr. Harden's experience represents a microcosm of how parts of the NDP are changing, the convention was the macrocosm. With thousands of new members who joined the party to vote in the leadership race, the tension between transformative change and an entrenched status quo was not just visible in every debate on the convention floor but also when listening to delegates for whom the NDP, and partisan politics, is a new location for their activism.

Matthew Green is one of those new voices. Less interested in the political theatre of convention and more focused on how the NDP puts big promises into motion, the Hamilton city councillor was attracted to the party by Jagmeet Singh's leadership race.

He went from being a political orphan to taking out his first membership card with the party to vote for Mr. Singh.

A delegate gives a standing ovation to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh as he speaks during the Federal NDP Convention in Ottawa on Feb. 17, 2018.

Mr. Green is critical of what he feels is the dominant political culture in the NDP. If you didn't have the right arguments, the right supporters or look the right way, Mr. Green says, you'd be overlooked. The 37-year-old says even he ran against an NDP-affiliated candidate in the municipal election in 2014.

But Mr. Green isn't the outsider he was in 2014. He has been organizing to bring new members into the party. He came with 50 fellow Hamiltonians, mostly young, first-time delegates, to participate in this convention, the result of community-based organizing that Mr. Green thinks is key to the success of the NDP in 2019.

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"We are the new New Democrats," he says. "We're the people that a lot of the skeptics thought would not continue to engage in the party [after Mr. Singh's victory] and we're here claiming our space, running for leadership and participating in all aspects of the party."

As we're talking, he motions to Sukhdeep Dhillon, a first-time convention delegate who helped sign up more than 1,200 members during the leadership race. Dental hygienist by day, she was the Hamilton field director for Team Singh. "We got more people involved who had never been involved in politics before, including myself," she says.

Mr. Harden and Mr. Green are organizing on different sides of Ontario, but both see grassroots mobilizing as essential for the NDP. "That is the only path for victory. If they do not heed the input from their grassroots, they will not have a base large enough to form government," Mr. Green says.

To social-movement activists, none of this is new or surprising, but the Orange Wave of 2011 taught too many within the party the wrong lessons. While Jack Layton brought the NDP closer to federal power than they have ever been, his leadership also professionalized the party and prioritized fundraising and central control over grassroots organizing. With the majority of the caucus elected kind of by accident in Quebec, it obscured the reality that any success that doesn't have an engaged citizenry behind it is a matchstick structure that will collapse at the moment that any pressure is placed on it.

The pressure was clear in the 2015 federal election, says Pamela Grant, a delegate from the Toronto riding of Beaches-East York. In the 1990s, Ms. Grant worked for Bob Rae's NDP government to specifically, as she tells me, organize beyond the NDP cliquishness, to go to people who wouldn't normally vote for the party.

During the recent convention, Mathieu Vick was elected as the NDP's first francophone president. He's a union researcher and has worked in the climate-justice movement. I ask if he has a vision for how to bring social-movement organizing and demands closer to the leadership of the party. He switches back and forth using "we" to refer to both the NDP and to social-movement activists "We are going to be able to grow our movement, to bring people in our tent … social movements can do things outside of government as well. We can be influencers. When you have a party like the Liberals, who are so attuned to public opinion, we're going to have to bring public opinion to sell a vision of a more fair and more just Canada to them."

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NDP delegates gather on the party convention floor in Ottawa on Feb. 16, 2018.

But, it's not clear that the party brass is ready to offer the support required to do this. It's one thing to talk to Canadians about the NDP, but it's entirely another to change the way in which decisions are made such that members can hear and see themselves reflected in their party's policy and strategy.

The convention was evidence that the distance between talk and action is enormous. Motions that were likely to elicit more discussion were pushed down the policy-debate agendas so that there wouldn't be time to debate them. Of the hundreds of motions served to the convention, only two had the support of more than 25 riding associations: one that called for the NDP to adopt a policy to support free higher education, and one that called for economic sanctions on Israel to pressure the country to stop the settlement expansion in the Palestinian occupied territories. Both motions were met with intense resistance through bureaucratic positioning.

Yazan Khader first joined the NDP in 2013, but stepped away from the party as he saw it change under Tom Mulcair. At the convention, the 22-year-old Palestinian-Canadian was frustrated by what he thought was intense gatekeeping by the establishment to stop or to water down more contentious motions.

"[The NDP is] losing members because members don't feel like they're listened to, that we can influence policy," Mr. Khader says.

Hamiltonians Sabreina Dahab, 18, Batool Dahab, 17, and Gachi Issa, 18, were also disheartened with how this debate unrolled. Sabreina said the three young women saw Mr. Singh in the lobby after the vote on the Israel/Palestine motion, and they approached him to say that they were frustrated that the watered-down motion was the one to make it to the floor, and that it seemed that the leadership was trying to avoid the debate.

"We thought this party would be a conduit for change immediately, and we were wrong … what we're learning is that a party cannot change anything: It's the people within that party. It's the things that we commit to. I'm still conflicted as to if I work within the system or not," Ms. Issa says. But, she adds that it's through a combination of community-based work and more involvement in partisan politics that political culture changes. "That's something that can happen in our lifetimes."

There's no question that the two Dahabs and Ms. Issa represent what should be the future of the party. But there's a limit to how much space people can create for themselves. The establishment has to figure out how to decentralize their operations and strategy to make space for them, too. Critically, to make space for dissent and to do things a different way.

"If there's any learning from this weekend, it's that the party must, must work in lockstep with grassroots organizations," Mr. Green says. "People are drawn to this party for many different reasons, but they're seeking this party out … because the choice between Conservatives and Liberals end up with the same impacts on our communities."

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