POLITICS

NDP Leadership 2017: The Rebel Yell Of Charlie Angus

How the hell a former punk rocker ended up in federal politics

09/17/2017 10:10 EDT | Updated 09/18/2017 10:37 EDT
Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Charlie Angus officially announced his NDP leadership bid at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto on Feb. 26, 2017.

Their round faces and bright brown eyes dot the bookshelves of Charlie Angus' Parliament Hill office.

The Northern Ontario MP knows each of their names, where they were from, and how they died. Most are from his Timmins–James Bay riding.

Courtney Koostachin of Attawapiskat died of a rare cancer, probably from the benzenes that contaminate her school's grounds.

Sheridan Hookimaw, 13, died by suicide. She lived in a two-bedroom, mould-infested house with 20 relatives in Attawapiskat, suffered several health problems, and was being bullied at school.

Althia Raj/HuffPost Canada
Photos of young people who died in Northern Ontario sit on a bookshelf in Charlie Angus' office.

Sylvain Noel of Timmins died of cancer.

Trina Martin died in house fire in Kashechewan, a community that had no fire truck or fire-fighting equipment.

Christine Ellison of Wahgoshig First Nation died by suicide.

So did Chantel Fox and Jolynn Winter, both 12, from Wapekeka First Nation.

Months before the pair's January deaths, Ottawa had denied emergency funds for the Wapekeka First Nations to address a suicide pact it discovered among its youth. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal later found that the federal government had acted so slowly in responding to Indigenous health-care needs that it had squandered "any chance of preventing" the tragedy.

Then, there is Shannen Koostachin, who died after a car accident outside of New Liskeard where she was attending high school. Koostachin lived with Angus and his family for a year while she studied.

A passionate advocate for the right to quality education for First Nations children living on reserves, she began a campaign that drew national attention. After her death, Angus continued "Shannen's Dream" to end chronic underfunding of Indigenous education; it culminated in a parliamentary motion and a new school in Attawapiskat. Koostachin's fight is the subject of one of Angus' seven books: Children of the Broken Treaty: Canada's Lost Promise and One Girl's Dream.

These boys and girls are some of the people Angus is best known for fighting for. Their struggles and their communities' struggles for clean drinking water, safe housing conditions, and access to education are the images that come immediately to mind when Angus' name is mentioned, former MP Libby Davies noted Friday in endorsing him for the party's leadership.

"I landed with Charlie because, well, he has this common touch, and smile, and fierceness that draws me along the political path ahead of us," she said.

Chris Wattie / Reuters
NDP MP Charlie Angus reacts after singing a Stompin' Tom Connors song with former MPs Megan Leslie and Andrew Cash in tribute to the late Canadian singer on Parliament Hill on March 7, 2013.

Angus is not your typical MP. The former punk rocker-turned journalist-turned activist likes to note in his campaign material that he didn't own a suit until Jack Layton — the revered late leader of the NDP — asked him to join the party.

He bought one, for $100, and then ran and won a seat in 2004. That's when he became the voice of a blue-collar, rural, largely Indigenous riding that "had been abandoned by the insiders in Ottawa."

Having sat out the 2012 leadership contest to replace Layton (he backed a friend, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar), Angus said that he joined the race this time because the party needs an authentic voice.

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"To me, the fundamental issue of our time is that more and more people are tuned out of politics. They don't believe that politicians speak for them," he said in an interview on HuffPost Canada's politics podcast, Follow-Up. "More and more people feel they are being written off the political and economic map ...

"I really believe the 2019 [election] will be [fought] over the question of who is the authentic voice for Canada, and that's where New Democrats have to place ourselves."

Listen to Follow-Up podcast: The Rebel Yell Of Charlie Angus

Angus is known as that MP who vigorously defends his people and his positions. He is partisan and isn't afraid to throw barbs, from calling Trudeau "Trump's poodle" to telling New Democrats he would have no trouble defeating a Liberal government, even if it meant giving the Conservatives power.

"I didn't get into politics to carry the plates of the Liberal dinner," he told New Democrats at the party's Saskatoon debate this summer.

He is passionate. He speaks plainly. And instead of getting into the weeds of policy, he tells stories about the people he is fighting for.

Matt Dubé, a Quebec MP who is staying neutral in the race, said Angus brings something to the race that a lot of people can appreciate: "A more human side."

Angus' campaign prefers a simpler slogan: "I've got your back."

* * *

Charles Joseph Angus was born on Nov. 14, 1962, in Timmins, Ont. He was named after both his paternal grandfather, Charlie Angus, who died on the shop floor at the Hollinger gold mine six months before his birth, and his maternal grandfather, Joseph MacNeil, who broke his back underground at the McIntyre gold mine.

Angus was the second child. Kathleen, his oldest sister by a year, died this August. They have two younger siblings, Mary and Michael.

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus as a kid in Timmins, Ont.

They all shared a house with their parents and paternal grandmother.

"It was a typical dwelling in Timmins, Ontario — a cramped, poorly insulated house built for the families of miners. My parents were born into such housing and probably thought they would die in such housing," he recounted in an article in "Compass: A Jesuit Journal" in 1997.

Money was tight and, as children of miners, university had been out of reach for his parents. Angus' father, John, left school at 16 or 17, on the advice of a math teacher who believed he could be spared working in the mines. Instead, he joined a brokerage office selling penny stock — work that Angus compares to working the local lottery system.

His mother, Anne-Marie, left school at 15 to work as a telephone operator. She took correspondence courses at night and became a secretary.

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus as a dishwasher, aged 19. Before politics, he worked as dishwasher, carpenter, roofer, chimney sweep, drywaller, asbestos remover, journalist, and land negotiator.

In 1964, the Kidd Creek mine, the biggest base-metal deposit in the world, was established outside of town. As luck would have it, Angus wrote, his father was friends with the crew that mapped out the primarily copper and zinc ore body, and he invested what little savings the family had into the mine.

"It was a good move. To celebrate, we moved into a new split-level modern home."

His father invested the rest of his earnings in a university education. At age 40, he went back to school, and became an economics professor at Seneca College, giving the family a "legitimate toehold into the middle class." They moved to Toronto in 1973, when Angus was 11.

Musical childhood


Angus describes his childhood as one fuelled by traditional music and sing-alongs.

The Angus were Scottish. The MacNeils were from Cape Breton. Both sides of the family loved music and kitchen parties.

On Saturday nights, Joseph MacNeil would host ceilidhs at their house in the Italian "Moneta" district of Timmins. The neighbours — francophones, Italians, and countless Scots and Cape Bretoners — would come over with food, Angus recounted.

"The deal was, we could stay up as long as we could keep singing. I learned all the old Scottish, Irish and Cape Breton songs."

That tradition followed them to Toronto. "It still forms the central event of any family get-together. At my recent sister's funeral, we sang in the church, sang at the grave site and then went back to my brother's, where we sang a long list of Celtic songs."

His paternal grandmother also followed the family to Toronto. It was "Granny Angus" who took Angus under her wing and taught him everything about politics.

"[She] was radicalized and traumatized by the First World War. She told vivid stories of the trenches and the wholesale slaughter of the young men from her tenement neighbourhood. 'You must always watch out for politicians who send boys to die,' she used to lecture me.

"She was a gifted storyteller and had developed tough working-class politics. She liked a good scrap. She was so worried about me going to school in Timmins as a little boy that she taught me how to box. Her uncle had been a bare-fisted boxer on the docks of Dundee. Turns out I wasn't much for the physical fights of schoolyard existence, but I learned how to use my wit and facility with language to survive the school yard."

Clash album was 'ticket out'

Angus hated Toronto. He vividly recalls the 12-hour bus ride from their beautiful home in Timmins to a small row house in Scarborough where seven family members would now live on top of each other.

"For my parents, our new home was just a more modern version of the housing they had grown up in. For my siblings and me, however, it was a major shock."

It was very loud in the house and then, when Angus was 15, he discovered his first Clash album.

"That was my ticket out. Because [of] the punk movement, suddenly there was colour in the world of beige and black and white, and it made me think, you know, maybe it is possible to just do something completely different."

Louis Marmelo
Charlie Angus and Andrew Cash performing in their punk band L'étranger.

He formed a punk band with a neighbourhood friend, Andrew Cash, and made a plan to quit school and go on the road. At 18, one year shy of graduation, Angus and Cash began touring with their band, L'etranger, a tribute to Albert Camus' novella.

"We were young intellectuals," he explained. They toured with the Dead Kennedys, Billy Idol, Violent Femmes.

They organized youth movements, participated in projects such as "Rock Against Racism, speaking out against the neo-Nazi movement. They sang to protest against apartheid in South Africa. They were rockers with a social conscience.

At the end of August 1982, Angus met Brit Griffin, a university student from Edmonton who had come to one of his shows. Sparks flew. They moved in together three months later, and married three years after that. "We are best pals," he said of his wife of more than 30 years.

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Left to right: Jason Collett, Charlie Angus and his wife Brit Griffiths at Catholic Worker house for the homeless in Toronto, 1988.

Courtesy of Charlie Angus
Indie rocker Jason Collett and Charlie Angus at the Catholic Worker house for the homeless in Toronto, 1987.

In 1985, after three albums with L'etranger, Angus quit the band and opened a Catholic Worker house for the homeless in Toronto's east end.

He and Griffin were inspired by the story of Dorothy Day, a Catholic social justice advocate. "We dealt with men coming out of prison, runaways, refugees, drug and alcohol addictions. We had no background. No experience and no money. But we managed to raise the funds to put a down payment down and ran the house for five years until we moved up north."

In a Hill Times article soon after his first election, Angus recalled being robbed 10 times when he ran the house and having a man once threaten to murder him. "Every time we were robbed, the money would miraculously appear," he told the Canadian Catholic News.

While in Toronto, Angus joined another band, the Juno-nominated Grievous Angels, with whom he still performs occasionally today.

In 1990, Angus and Griffin moved to Cobalt in northern Ontario, "just as all the mines were shutting down, and the grocery store was shutting down, and the French school was shutting down, and everyone was saying it was a dying mining town, and said, 'Well, here we are.'"

By then, they had two daughters: Mariah, born in 1988, and Siobhan, who arrived that year. Lola followed in 1998.

THE CANADIAN PRESS
NDP MP Charlie Angus announces his NDP leadership run at a rally in Toronto on Feb. 26, 2016.

They moved up north for "an adventure," Angus told HuffPost. "To raise our kids in a different place. And we fell in love with Cobalt. It is a wild, different place."

First, he worked as a chimney sweep and a roofer, despite being terrified of heights. Then, he and Griffin built barns.

"Then I decided I didn't want to do that, so we started a magazine. And so we ran the magazine for about 10 years and I became a journalist."

In 1995, the couple started the bi-monthly HighGrader magazine, devoted to Northern Ontario stories. A year later, they wrote a book about the struggles of the working-class community they now called home: We Lived a Life and Then Some: The Life, Death and Life of a Mining Town.

Angus went to work as a freelance journalist for the CBC and TV Ontario. "And then I ran the blockade on the Adams mine, and that was it. I was done. I was done on TV. I was done on CBC. [They] fired me that day."

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus sings to protesters at a blockade of the Adams Mine mega project in October 2000.

In 1999, Angus started covering a proposal to dump Toronto's garbage and toxic waste in the closed-down Adams Mine near Kirkland Lake, Ont. He became a key organizer in stopping the project, which many feared would contaminate the area's groundwater.

The intense fight against the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris, who had amended environmental assessment legislation to help greenlight the project, taught him a number of "street lessons."

"I learned how to investigate. I learned how to study the opposition really well. We hired a private eye to follow Mike Harris to a meeting in a big Italian restaurant in North Toronto. Photographed all licence plates to find out who was at the meeting with him. And then we released it to the media," he said, laughing. He wrote about his experience in another book, the critically acclaimed Unlikely Radicals: The Story of the Adams Mine Dump War.

Blacklisted from traditional news outlets, Angus went to work with the Timiskaming First Nation on their land claim project. Then the Algonquins of Barriere Lake hired him as their negotiator in talks with Quebec's Parti Québécois government in their battles to protect their territory.

I learned how to study the opposition really well.Charlie Angus

All the while, he was leading protests, manning roadblocks, and using HighGrader to mount opposition to the Adams Mine project.

In 2004, the proposal was finally dropped and the garbage ended up going to Michigan.

"The lesson I learned," he said, "is that we won those battles because we built community. Bringing farmers and First Nation people together. Bringing blue-collar workers and urban environmentalists. Like, people who'd never work together .... I learned how to build on the smarts that ordinary people have."

It was during the Adams Mine protest that Angus met Layton.

"Jack kept asking me to run."

Eventually, Angus relented.

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus talks with NDP supporters in Montreal.

Angus has been frequently cited as one of the best and most effective members of Parliament. Soon after he was first elected, he helped expose the water crisis in Kashechewan First Nation. In 2005, he received national attention when, in the middle of the same-sex debate, the Roman Catholic diocese in Timmins threatened to deny him communion for supporting the Liberals' legislation.

"I never did go back to the parish ... but I have been welcome everywhere else," Angus told Power & Influence magazine earlier this year.

He won his seat in 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015. After the NDP's disappointing third-place finish in the last election, Angus was one of the first MPs calling for a rethink.

"We have to start a complete rebuilding of the party, the brand and our identity," he told The Globe and Mail back in 2015.

Now, Angus is running on a platform to do just that.

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus takes a selfie with supporters.

"I don't believe status quo is good enough with our party, and I think we really need to have a vision, to talk about why we exist and where we're going," he told HuffPost.

"If we made one huge mistake in 2015, it was a belief that that it was our time. It's never your time. It's only your time if you make it your time. I think we were a little too careful."

The party became very centralized in Ottawa, he said, and very bureaucratic.

"We lost touch with our grassroots, and if there's a difference between the social democratic party and the other parties, it's [that] we really have to always be very tuned in to the grassroots, to the ordinary members, and we lost that."

The 2016 election of Donald Trump in the United States was a wake-up call, he said. He doesn't want to cede ground to "political arsonists on the right," he added, but blue-collar workers and the working class need an advocate who is in tuned with their priorities.

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters
U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau following a family photo at the G7 summit in Taormina, Sicily, Italy on May 26, 2017.

"The danger for the New Democratic Party is, you know, we love our policy and we love the latest issues and that, but back home, people are struggling to get by, their kids can't pay for their university, people who once had secured work are being downsized to permanent part-time and permanent contract work, and they're saying 'yes, so what do you guys have to offer?'

"I think I'm the person who can bridge the gap between the northern blue collar, the industrial blue collar, plus a lot of urban young people who are almost creating their own economy because they don't have the possibility of permanent work ....

"I want to be a leader of a party that's fiery and feisty but also offering solutions to move us forward," he added.

Some of his key proposals include:

  • Reinvest a $4-billion surplus from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation into housing needs across the country (co-op projects, affordable housing rentals, new social housing)
  • A new national low-income housing benefit to provide low-income Canadians with financial assistance towards rent in non-subsidized buildings. He also pledges to end homelessness.
  • An Indigenous children's ombudsperson who can initiate investigations, respond to complaints and compel the federal government to act
  • A full audit of the Indigenous Affairs department and Health Canada's indigenous programs. Shift decision-making powers to Indigenous communities.
  • Legislative national caps on greenhouse gas emissions and a national carbon budget council that would advise the government on what those caps should be.
  • A new Crown corporation to help fund green infrastructure that would replace the Liberals' infrastructure bank.

During the leadership race, Angus has been criticized for not clearly stating where he stands on the Kinder Morgan pipeline. He has raised concerns about the approval of the project but hasn't said he opposes it. He told New Democrats at a debate in Vancouver that he is concerned about the transition away from heavy crude and what it means for those employed in the sector.

"How do we do that without just simply laying off 60,000 workers overnight, because that's not going to get us to our goal ... either," he said.

On another flash point, Quebec's Bill 62 — proposed legislation that would prevent women wearing the niqab or burqa from both providing and accessing government services — Angus has also walked a fine line.

He's "very wary of trusting politicians to tell women how to dress. Politicians will exploit these issues, exploit fears, exploit examples that are very, very rare to strike up fear." At the same time, he's sensitive to Quebec's experience of secularism arising from the province's Quiet Revolution.

"As national leader, I will certainly express my concern, but I also want to participate with progressive movements in Quebec," he said about any opposition that might build towards the legislation. "Let's see what these solutions are, and let's make sure that they are Charter-compliant," he said.

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus (second from right) with former NDP leader Ed Broadbent (left), Ottawa city Coun. Catherine McKenney (centre) at a campaign event in Ottawa.

Angus said he's unsure why challenger Guy Caron, the lone Quebec MP in the race, decided to make it a leadership issue.

"We do respect the jurisdiction of Quebec, but Quebec respects the jurisdiction of the courts, and all laws have to be compliant with the Bill of Rights and the Charter," he said.

Of course, the province can always decide to invoke the notwithstanding clause.

'Leaders have to be bridge builders'

This week, Quebec NDP MP Pierre Nantel wrote an open letter saying the new NDP leader needs to respect the will of the National Assembly. The proposition Layton made to social progressives in Quebec when he asked them to join the New Democrats was based on that understanding, he told reporters gathered in Hamilton, Ont. for the party caucus and leadership showcase.

"I think it's important to recognize [that,] yes, Quebec went through a lot of trauma under the church, and, hey, I know what that's like," Angus said, referring to his troubles with his local parish. "I'm hopeful that the conversation in Quebec will play out in a way that is respectful of minority rights. And not using minority women for blaming for fear, and now that's my one concern and that's where I'll speak up.

"... Leaders have to stand up, and leaders have to be bridge builders. That's a huge responsibility, and that's something I'm trying to do in my campaign."

Courtesy Charlie Angus
Charlie Angus at a national leadership debate in Montreal.