By Stuart Parker
If Canada has a Jeremy Corbyn, it is Svend Robinson.
The former Burnaby-area MP was arrested twice in logging road blockades and did time in prison for protesting the logging of Clayoquot Sound.
He ran afoul of the law again by standing up for the rights of the disabled and participating in the struggle to legalize assisted suicide.
He also courageously defied authorities in his own party on a number of occasions.
Robinson refused to toe the NDP line on the Meech Lake Accord on the grounds it would undermine the power of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and exclude Indigenous Canadians from the status of founding people.
In the lead-up to the 1988 federal election, he came out as Canada’s first gay parliamentarian over the objections of his leader and caucus colleagues.
In 2019, fifteen years after he last held office, Robinson sought and won the NDP nomination in Burnaby North-Seymour.
But instead of being targeted as a potential NDP pick-up, the riding was largely starved of resources as the front bench of the Horgan government let it be known privately that the last thing it needed was to have an opponent of its LNG mega-projects representing the seat where the Trans Mountain Pipeline ends.
Worse yet for Robinson, the Green Party abandoned its longstanding policy of not running a candidate against him.
The Greens’ selection of a young non-binary candidate who is quick on the draw with “misgendering” accusations worsened matters further, as Amita Kuttner’s campaign sought to depict Robinson as a cisgender white male.
Somehow, the first out-gay MP in the Commonwealth was recast for a new generation of voters as a socially conservative choice because, in left Identitarianism, one’s authority to speak on a matter inheres in one’s self-defined identity rather than in one’s past and present acts.
Given that the combined NDP-Green vote in 2019 exceeded that of the Liberal victor, it makes some sense that the party brass would seek out the candidate who would present the lowest contrast to Kuttner, who will likely run again.
And so Markiel Simpson, a youthful party activist who sits on the NDP’s provincial BIPOC committee, seemed like an obvious choice.
A master of modern left Identitarian language and politics, Simpson launched his campaign through the Georgia Straight newspaper, Vancouver’s climate-conscious alternative paper of record. The article was accompanied by a photo of him posing with the nine-foot bronze statue of my uncle Harry Jerome on Vancouver’s seawall.
Although I love my late uncle very much, I have always eschewed the statue as a political prop because Harry loathed the NDP, whose agreement to support Pierre Trudeau’s minority government in 1972 forced the government to shut down his multi-million dollar, four-year project to promote youth amateur sport.
From 1972 until his death 10 years later, Harry was an organizer for B.C.’s right-wing populist Social Credit party and a close personal associate of Deputy Premier Grace McCarthy and North Vancouver MLA Gerry Strongman.
Simpson explained to the Straight that he admired Harry very much and saw in him a political role model. As one of the B.C. NDP’s longest-tenured Black activists told me, Simpson “talks as though being biracial is some kind of achievement.”
Simpson’s work on the NDP BIPOC committee has been similarly left Identitarian in character, emphasizing the idea that one’s political essence inheres in the identity category to which one voluntarily subscribes, rather than in one’s actions. In this way, the decision to portray my uncle, another biracial Black man, as his political inspiration is of a piece with his Kuttneresque focus on one’s identity rather than one’s record.
Of course, this approach to winning in Burnaby North-Seymour only sort of makes sense.
Last election saw the consolidation of the centre-right vote in the Liberal candidate with many Tories holding their noses and backing the Liberals in order to prevent the return to parliament of the most radical MP to have served in the chamber in the past 60 years.
But the biggest pool of votes the NDP has to draw from in the upcoming election is not the 9.6 per cent of the vote captured by Kuttner in 2019; it’s the 35.5 per cent garnered by the victorious Liberal incumbent, Terry Beech.
Enter Jim Hanson.
Since 2011, Hanson has been the only New Democrat to successfully hold a seat on the District of North Vancouver’s municipal council.
A trial lawyer focused on personal injury cases, Hanson already had a reputation as an activist for public auto insurance among adjusters, lawyers and mediators. He signed up many of his colleagues in the business, who joined the NDP (most for the first time) to support his campaign in the 2013 provincial election.
For Hanson and his allies in the personal injury sector, the election of the B.C. NDP in 2017 was a pyrrhic victory because no-fault auto insurance, something long opposed by Hanson and his colleagues, was introduced by attorney general David Eby.
No-fault auto insurance systems have been shown to consistently reduce the size of settlements to provide for the long-term care of accident victims. They shift more of the burden of that care onto the state and away from insurance companies and negligent drivers, shunting disabled people from their homes into multi-bed facilities.
More British Columbians — and younger British Columbians — would have died during the long-term care outbreaks of COVID-19 had no-fault auto insurance existed in B.C. for longer. And it is the for-profit long-term care sector that will chiefly benefit from no-fault auto insurance as the cash awards for injuries shrink.
So, it should surprise no one that Hanson announced his candidacy shortly after federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh tabled legislation in the House of Commons to prohibit for-profit corporations from providing long-term care. And it should surprise no one that Robinson, as both a political realist and a passionate opponent of contracting-out government services, should immediately offer his endorsement.
Naturally, young left Identitarians backing Simpson demanded to know why Robinson would choose Hanson, a white lawyer nearing retirement age, over their guy.
But they seemed genuinely stunned when Robinson graciously chose to answer their question on Twitter by stating that not only were there good things about Hanson; there were less-than-impressive things about Simpson, who seems only to have been active in the party for the past two to three years and who neither donated nor volunteered for Robinson in 2019.
As is typical in the intellectual race to the bottom that is Canadian NDP Twitter, great outrage was expressed by Robinson honestly stating his reasons for choosing Hanson over Simpson. How dare Robinson say anything less than complimentary about one of the contenders, even when that contender’s surrogates had asked him to do precisely that?
Special pleading was even offered in support of this asinine turn of events: Simpson supporters on Twitter emphasized that Simpson was “young” and “just a young person trying to engage and participate,” words more descriptive of the 14-year-old volunteer I was when I met Svend in 1986, than of a grown-ass man ready for elected office.
More ironic, and unobserved by the increasingly amnesia-ridden NDP activists, Simpson is the exact same age Robinson was when he underwent a bruising general election campaign and became an MP in 1979.
This, of course, points to another problem.
Robinson came of political age when Canadian nomination races were fought like U.S. primaries: candidates fought tooth and nail, trading barbs, criticisms and quips. The competitors rushed into the field to sign up members mobilized by the drama of the race. These sign-up efforts were the way most new party members were recruited and helped staff the kind of personnel-intensive campaign the NDP used to conduct when it relied primarily on volunteers.
Today, of course, the party is working to phase-out nomination meetings altogether and move to a system where the candidate is selected by the leader and appointed based on identity quotas that look like they have been designed by a human resources department.
Volunteers and active, opinionated members, have become anathema to a party that increasingly represents, and is represented by, the managerial class.
What once looked like democracy and vibrant debate is now understood to be insubordination and a lack of message discipline. Our collective amnesia is such that, when I attempted to defend Robinson in this Twitter spat, sincere long-time NDP members lamented to me that criticizing candidates for nomination was damaging to the party.
The Burnaby North-Seymour NDP nomination meeting is one to which all Canadians on the left should turn their attention. It will be a fight between the materialist, socialist, record-based politics represented by Hanson and the left Identitarian, aesthetic politics represented by Simpson.
The sad footnote to all of this is that Canada’s answer to Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, to whom we should be erecting a nine-foot bronze statue on the seawall today, will be but a minor actor, accorded none of the respect he or his politics deserve.
Stuart Parker is a scholar, writer, broadcaster and political activist based in Prince George, British Columbia. He is a former leader of the BC Greens and BC Ecosocialists and is the current president of the Los Altos Institute.