OTTAWA — New Democrats and others were presented with an unapologetically radical vision of Canadian politics Thursday, as they sought to tap into the magic that helped create the "insurgent campaigns" of Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn of Britain.
The vision was presented at an event organized by the same people who brought the Leap Manifesto, a controversial treatise that calls for a dramatic transformation of the Canadian economy — and which has caused deep rifts within the NDP.
While those behind the manifesto have insisted that they are non-partisan, they also readily admitted the decision to hold the event on the eve of the NDP's biennial convention, which starts in Ottawa on Friday, was no accident.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh opted to skip the Courage to Leap event at the Canadian Museum of Nature.
But about half of the 300 participants in the main room raised their hands when asked who was attending the convention, and were subsequently presented with a veritable call-to-arms in the name of breaking the status quo and mainstream politics.
"We are nothing if not unapologetically ambitious," documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis, one of the main leaders behind the manifesto, told the audience before rhyming off the many problems that he says Canada is struggling with today.
Top of the list was climate change and income inequality, along with crippling student debt and soaring daycare costs, all of which, he suggested, are making it harder and harder for Canadians today — and in the future — to make ends meet.
'Hurtling in the wrong direction'
"We are hurtling in the wrong direction," Lewis said. "Things are in crisis in Canada in multiple, overlapping fronts. And so we believe ... that taking little steps in the direction of progressive change seems about the most dangerous course of action."
The Leap Manifesto envisions "a country powered entirely by renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the jobs and opportunities of this transition are designed to systematically eliminate racial and gender inequality."
It specifically calls for overhauling the agricultural system, replacing the transportation network with high-speed rail, introducing a universal basic income, raising taxes on companies and the wealthy, curbing free trade and cutting the military.
"We believe people are ready for transformational change," Lewis said.
To illustrate the point, he enlisted the help of Becky Bond, an adviser to Sanders during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination in the U.S. in 2016, and Adam Klug, who has played a key role in support of British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
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While Sanders and Corbyn have been written off at various points as too extreme, Sanders nearly knocked off Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination while Corbyn led the Labour Party to a surprisingly strong showing in last year's British election.
Bond said the surprising amount of support for Sanders, which she described an "insurgent campaign" because of his status as a party and establishment outsider, was because of — not despite — his radical ideas.
"He was talking about solutions that are as radical as the problems that we face," she said. "And that in fact is the only practical thing you can do when we are on the edge of chaos."
Many New Democrats want the party to adopt the manifesto; several resolutions along those lines have been sponsored by different NDP riding associations and will be debated during the convention.
Yet one of the key planks of the manifesto is its opposition to any new non-renewable energy infrastructure, including pipelines, which is anathema to the NDP government in Alberta and its efforts to build the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
For that reason, the manifesto proved extremely controversial during the last NDP convention in 2016 and appears set to divide the party again this weekend as New Democrats seek to chart a course toward next year's election.
But Bond suggested that the movements that manifested behind Sanders and Corbyn and led to their surprise success are more common than most observers realize — and are set to break out in Canada if given the opportunity.
"There's something that's happening that's not about either of our candidates, but it's about the ideas and the values," she said.
"When you can actually vote for the things you really believe in, then that really changes everything."