EDMONTON — A changing of the guard will take centre stage at the NDP convention Saturday, but it isn't focused on leader Thomas Mulcair.
UPDATE: Marit Stiles was elected the new president of the federal NDP Sunday.
Four people — party favourite Marit Stiles, former Quebec MPs Elaine Michaud and Djaouida Sellah, and socialist caucus chair Barry Weisleder — are competing for the job of NDP president, the party said. The role has been filled by Rebecca Blaikie since 2011, after previous president Brian Topp stepped down to run for party leader in the wake of Jack Layton's death. She’s trusted and well liked but told delegates she wants to retire for a little bit.
Saturday afternoon, the candidates will get about three to five minutes each to make their pitches to the 1,774 registered delegates.
Stiles, Michaud and Weisleder spoke with The Huffington Post Canada earlier this week. Each candidate offered a different vision of the party — Weisleder sits on the far left, Stiles closer to the centre and Michaud in between — but all three expressed a desire to see members play a more important role in the future of the NDP.
Sellah did not respond to interview requests.
Toronto District School Board trustee Marit Stiles. (Photo courtesy: Marit Stiles)
Toronto resident Marit Stiles is a frequent NDP pundit. A member for 25 years, she has never held an executive position in the party but participated in the working group led by Blaikie earlier this year that heard from disenchanted members about the disappointing election campaign.
The party was not as ready as it should have been for the election campaign, Stiles said, and her focus will be on election readiness.
"I heard from very few New Democrats who criticized the actual platform," she told HuffPost. "Most New Democrats supported the platform. The problem was, we weren't able to focus the attention of Canadians on the more innovative and the more significant and bold initiatives in there, because we had other elements that became the focus, like the balanced budget..."
"It's not like we haven't talked about balanced budgets before, but I think we misread the appetite for change that Canadians had. As New Democrats, I think that we had a lot of hope to offer."
"I became a New Democrat because I don't think the status quo is good enough.'"
— Marit Stiles
Stiles said the party will have to "go back to our roots," "start valuing our members," and "start engaging the grassroots in a different way" in order to attract a new generation of New Democrats."
"I became a New Democrat because I don't think the status quo is good enough," she told HuffPost.
New Democrats need to hold the Liberal government to account, she said, but also to continue to push for more and better policies.
"If we can do that in the next few years and really build a stronger movement, it's going to serve us well in the next election."
Born in Newfoundland and Labrador, Stiles said she's proficient in French but not bilingual.
Name? Marit Stiles
Age? I forget (okay, 46)
Occupation? I'm an elected Toronto District School Board Trustee and public relations/communications specialist with story|stiles
How long have you been a member? About 25 years
Why do you want to be president? We need to show that the NDP is not only a viable party to form government, but that an NDP government will mean fundamental, positive change in our country. To do that, I believe, we must revitalize our party, re-engage our members and activists in new and exciting ways, and reach out to the next generation of New Democrats. And we need to start planning today for electoral success in 2019. I am working with Hans Marotte (candidate for vice-president) because I believe we need a strong, experienced team to make this happen.
What's the first thing you would change about the party if you could? I would improve the communication and engagement between members/activists and the party. Our grassroots activists have such incredible skills, knowledge and connection to their communities. We need to value that and give them the tools they need, in turn, to do the kind of innovative organizing required to grow our movement.
Should Tom Mulcair stay or go? As a candidate for president, I don't think it's appropriate for me to disclose that. It's important for the successful candidate for NDP president to be able to work with the leader and to work with the policies and priorities set by the party at the convention. That's what these conventions are all about. And frankly, it's what is so great about the NDP.
Favourite quote? "My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we'll change the world." — Jack Layton (of course!)
Elaine Michaud rises during Question Period in the House of Commons, Sept. 29, 2014. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)
Elaine Michaud, a party member for 12 years, was elected to Parliament in the 2011 orange wave but defeated last October. In March, she made headlines after penning a letter with other former MPs, Jamie Nicholls and Hélène LeBlanc, saying the NDP had forgotten its reason for being and the values the party promoted were not represented in the electoral platform.
"We strayed a bit from the … true progressive values that represent us – and I really want to push to bring those back and really have progressive values front and centre in all our future campaigns and in all the positions that caucus members will take as well," she told HuffPost.
Michaud said there should be "less of a disconnect" between the views members express on the convention floor and the policy proposals that are presented in a platform and defended at the door by candidates and volunteers.
"We strayed a bit from the … true progressive values that represent us – and I really want to push to bring those back and really have progressive values front and centre in all our future campaigns."
— Elaine Michaud
She was especially troubled by the party's balanced budget pledge — which was made without consulting the membership, she said.
"Of course, we need to aim to balance public spending, but we also need to ensure that programs and services can be provided," she said. "We can't tie our hands. When we promise things to Canadians, we have to be in a position to deliver them."
Michaud also thinks the NDP didn't have a clear and coherent policy on pipelines that would have helped at the door.
"We need someone who can stand up, and have the courage of their convictions and can bring back to the forefront the place of the members in the party. That's what I want to do, and that's why I invite people to support my candidacy."
Michaud noted that she's bilingual and can speak with members in the official language of their choice.
"We are past the point in the party's history when we can justify having a unilingual president, even if we have an excellent francophone vice-president for the party, I feel we are past that point."
Name? Élaine Michaud
Occupation? Student for a master's degree in public administration
How long have you been a member? More than 12 years.
Why do you want to be president? I want to contribute to the renewal of the party and make sure that we really become a true progressive force on the Canadian political scene.
What's the first thing you would change about the party if you could? Put the members front and centre. I think one of the first things is online communications tools, so we can have feedback right away, and when we are shaping the platform, have more member involvement giving us ideas for the platform. They can take a look and give us feedback. We would start working on the platform and the campaign a lot earlier.
Should Tom Mulcair stay or go? The members should decide. One of the reasons I'm throwing my name in is to make the party more democratic and really validate the members opinions and I think that begins with this decision. If I'm elected to the presidency, I will work with whomever the membership decides they want as leader."
Favourite quote? I don't have one.
Barry Weisleder, the chair of the socialist caucus, has been a fixture of NDP conventions, demanding that the party adopt more left-wing policies and spend more time debating resolutions that have bubbled up to the convention floor from the grassroots. While Weisleder often grabs more media headlines than the size of the socialist caucus merits, this is his first time running for the presidency of the party.
He wants to bring back democracy in the party, he told HuffPost. "The leadership should not have the power to rescind or block candidates who are selected at the local level to be the NDP candidate." During the last campaign, Weisleder said there were three or four candidates who were blocked or barred from running because they spoke out against Israel in the Middle East conflict and took positions that could be seen to be pro-Palestinian.
He thinks the party should steeply tax big business and the super rich and use all the money from offshore banking accounts to pay for national childcare, national pharmacare, pensions, housing and rapid transit.
"Tom Mulcair ran perhaps the worst NDP federal election in living memory, lost 60 per cent of the MPs, one million votes on the basis of a completely misconceived political theme of balancing the budget at all costs."
— Barry Weisleder
"These are the positions of the socialist caucus, and they are gaining ascendancy in all section of the party," he said.
Weisleder was not in favour of Mulcair's candidacy during the 2012 leadership race, and he isn't shy about calling for the leader to be removed on Sunday.
While Mulcair is fluently bilingual and a good as a prosecutorial presence in the House of Commons, Weisleder said, he believes he doesn't "play well on the hustings" during a campaign.
"Tom Mulcair ran perhaps the worst NDP federal election in living memory, lost 60 per cent of the MPs, one million votes on the basis of a completely misconceived political theme of balancing the budget at all costs — to the total neglect of the NDP's historic stances in favour of augmenting social programs, increasing funding to meet social needs — and in the context of this prolonged recession, it is a prescription for austerity."
Name? Barry Weisleder
Age? 63 years young
Occupation? Secondary school substitute teacher (history, English and geography). I'm also a union organizer, writer, editor, film festival producer, conference planner and social justice activist. Those jobs are not very remunerative, but they provide the greatest personal satisfaction.
How long have you been a member? 47 years
Why do you want to be president? I'm running to give members a voice, to give delegates a choice, to keep hope alive. At a time when the NDP is at 12% per cent in the polls, and more NDP supporters say they'd vote for the Liberals than for the current NDP leader, we need a change of direction. We need to go back to the future – to the working class roots of the party. Together, we can put democracy and socialism back in the NDP, and build the co-operative commonwealth in our time.
strong>What's the first thing you would change about the party if you could? I would launch a democratic revolution in the party. It would consist of many steps forward, and in the concrete circumstances, we would see which would be first, second, and so on. I will work to ensure that NDP election campaigns reflect members' priorities. By devoting 80% per cent of convention time to policy debate, we can reason together. I will oppose any move to rescind or block a candidate's nomination for reasons of political differences within the frame of our principles. Candidates who have the courage to stand up for Palestinians and oppose the Zionist apartheid state and NATO should be praised, not punished.
NDP conventions must be more accessible to workers, women and the poor. Lower registration fees, and bigger subsidies for travel should be the rule. I see the NDP as the party of labour and social justice movements in the streets, not just in Parliament. I will push the party to invite more unions and community organizations to affiliate. More of the money raised should go to EDAs [electoral district associations] for year-round local organizing and direct participation in the class struggle. The huge economic barriers to running for NDP leader would be removed.
Many hard-working party supporters gave millions of dollars for a campaign they hoped would offer a real alternative to austerity and inequality. Now they want their money back. Much more discussion is needed at the local level about NDP aims and policies.
Members want real input, instead of daily dinner time donation calls, instead of seeing the resources of the party spent on lobbying members to give the leader one more chance, instead of so-called telephone 'town halls' where tough questions are filtered out.
Should Tom Mulcair stay or go? To ask the question is to answer it. The vote for leadership review will open the race for leader. It will foster a profound discussion about the future direction of the NDP and the working class movement. It will enable rank and file NDPers, labour and social justice activists to replace the liberal Mulcair with a socialist and democratic alternative. Can't wait.
Favourite quote? "It's better to fight for what you want, and not get it, than fight for what you don't want and get it." Eugene V. Debs
Weisleder also answered questions HuffPost didn't ask.
"Favourite colour: Red. Favourite song: "Imagine." Favourite food: Curried goat, with rice and veggies, Jamaican style."