05/30/2017 02:53 EDT | Updated 05/30/2017 05:13 EDT

How I Left B.C's Toxic Partisanship Behind

"The partisan, when he is engaged in a dispute, cares nothing about the rights of the question, but is anxious only to convince his hearers of his own assertions."
- Plato, Dialogues

Partisanship is something that came very easily to me. As someone who felt like a loner all throughout high school and university, I was looking for a group that I could cast my lot with. I was interested in politics at an early age, and social democracy was my banner, so the New Democratic Party was a natural fit. I found the party and the people within it accepting and encouraging, and I quickly grew in confidence and embraced the partisan nature of party politics with gusto.

That was 16 years ago. Now, coming out of an election in British Columbia that sees the NDP on the verge of overthrowing 16 years of B.C. Liberal government, I find myself retreating from a partisanship that was as familiar and comfortable as a warm bed.

How can this be? This change certainly didn't seem conscious; I stumbled upon the realization of my waning partisanship almost by accident.

As I analyze this evolution in my thinking, I will walk through the stages of my transformation below in the hopes that my journey is helpful for those who find themselves questioning their path in politics, and wondering what the future of a potential NDP/Green government holds for us.

Partisanship becomes toxic when otherwise intelligent people reject reason in favour of unflinching adherence.

The topic of partisanship conjures up many images, especially in the Trump era (though you could argue he's less of a partisan and more of a "make it up as I go along" politician). Partisanship itself isn't necessarily a terrible thing -- the dictionary definition is "holding a bias towards a cause." But partisanship becomes toxic when that bias results in otherwise thoughtful and intelligent people rejecting reason in favour of unflinching adherence.

I fell solidly in this camp for many years and made no apologies for it. The more engaged I became with the NDP, the more entrenched in my positions I became, going so far as to justify policies or issues I would have fundamentally disagreed with were I not so eager for acceptance by my political peer group.

Recently, my move to Vancouver Island saw my attention turn to the Green Party (provincially and nationally). It would be a lie to say my focus on them wasn't because I saw them as a threat -- it was. I was all too keen to ratchet up the rhetoric against anything that was said or could be easily misconstrued by the Green Party leader and/or a local candidate. This came to a head during the 2015 federal election when, at an all-candidates debate on Mayne Island, I found myself shouting down Green Party Leader Elizabeth May.

elizabeth may 2015

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May speaks during the French language leaders' debate in Montreal, Quebec September 24, 2015. (Photo: Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Heads in the hall turned to look at me. I stood there, surprised at my own outburst. I left the hall and didn't return until we had to leave for the ferry.

Why did I shout in a packed hallway at a candidate for public office? I contend it was almost entirely because of my decent into extreme partisanship, rather than disagreeing with a policy position or statement of the candidate. I felt after this event that I was starting to lose sight of rational debate and argument, and instead was descending into the pit of anger at people who espoused a different political ideology from myself. Certainly, not a healthy thing.

I found it increasingly difficult to hold my tongue while I was serving the public.

Fast forward to the summer of 2016 and my decision to leave my position as Constituency Assistant to an MLA, a job I had dreamed of having for many years. Part of this was burnout -- there were so many people coming into our office with issues and in need of assistance, many that we were unable to help. Such is the nature of social service work, and it can take a toll when you care about the conditions and circumstances that people are facing.

The other reason, and many people do not realize the nuance, was that as a public servant and employee of a local MLA, you are required during work hours to be non-partisan. Engaged as I was in NDP politics and organizing outside of office hours, I found it increasingly difficult to hold my tongue while I was serving the public. I am passionate about politics and was equally passionate about my political party. This blend when you are a public servant is a volatile mixture if you can not separate the two effectively.

The effort to keep this separate saw me take on another Green Party leader, this time Andrew Weaver of the B.C. Greens. Before work one morning I questioned MLA Weaver about his support for Christy Clark's $50,000 salary top-up, and the discordance this created vis-a-vis his reluctance to support raising the minimum wage for working people to $15 an hour. I made sure to tweet at him only during my off-work hours, but the ensuing back and forth we had resulted in him tweeting my MLA, and charging me with being partisan in a specifically non-partisan environment.

Seeing this tweet terrified me. I was being called out by the leader of a political party and elected official because of my social media criticism him (politics being what it is, this shouldn't have surprised me). I stepped back in a big way after this incident and took stock of myself and where I was in my life. It was a big moment when I decided to leave a job I so loved, but I had to do so for my health and my sanity.

If we cannot build bridges with whom we most deeply disagree, we will never be able to change this province.

The criticisms of Mr. Weaver continued in my post-MLA employee life, but I started to feel the negativity drain me. The attacks fanned out to include supporters, which is never OK. These people, like myself, are supporting a cause that they believe in; they should never be viewed as canon fodder, no matter how much you disagree with the views of their leader.

Therefore, following the May 9 provincial election I made a personal and public vow to stop the partisan diatribes on social media against those with different political views. I apologized to those who I had hurt, even attempting to reach out to some candidates who I had criticized prior to and during the election.

john horgan andrew weaver

B.C. Green Leader Andrew Weaver and B.C. New Democrat Leader John Horgan react outside the gates of the British Columbia legislature building in Victoria, British Columbia, May 29, 2017. (Photo: Kevin Light/Reuters)

What I had forgotten, and what I will endeavour to remember, is that behind the politics, the rhetoric, the spin and the muckraking, there are people. People of passion and who desire to fight for what they believe in. If we cannot build bridges and learn to understand those with whom we most deeply disagree, we will never be able to come together and change things in this province.

This brings me to the current cooperation agreement that has been reached between John Horgan of the B.C. NDP and Andrew Weaver of the B.C. Green Party. My deepest hope is that in this post-election period, a new spirit of collaboration and a commitment to public service can be embraced, and that partisanship can be put aside. We need to now, more than ever, focus on the job of bettering the lives of our citizens, fighting climate change, making sure political representation is fair, and making sure our economic success is inclusive in the long term.

After all, if we want to show the power of proportional representation, what better way than a stable and productive minority government over the next four years?

So much of this hope relies on people putting down their prejudices and ideological batons, and this includes me. Leading by example is a good way to look at this new challenge in front of B.C. I know we are up for it.

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