by Roberta Lexier
I am cynical about politics. I remember a time when I believed that politicians actually made a difference and could effect social change, but the current state of affairs in Canada – the attack ads, the sound bites, the lack of substantive policy discussions, the scandals, the contempt of Parliament and the constant bickering among politicians – has made me wonder whether real change can come through formal political structures and institutions. And I am definitely not alone. Studies, polls and statistics indicate that Canadians, especially young Canadians, are disengaged. Voter turnout dropped with each successive election until the slight increase in 2011 and interest in formal politics appears to be at an all-time low. Individuals who want to effect change have largely shifted their focus to other arenas, including NGOs, social movements and protests and demonstrations.
This helps to explain why I have been intrigued by recent examples of possible change within the political sphere. The first came in 2009 during the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign. I normally would have paid little attention to this event, especially since I had left the province. However, a friend and colleague, Erika Dyck, worked as campaign manager for one of the candidates and sparked my interest. The candidate, Ryan Meili, a relatively unknown young family doctor, took a different approach to political engagement throughout his campaign and, despite numerous barriers, garnered 45 per cent of the vote and nearly won the leadership of a party that has the potential to win the next provincial election and form the government.
The second came the following year with the 2010 mayoral election in Calgary. Out of nowhere, the traditionally conservative city elected a political progressive, shocking political pundits across the country. Again the candidate, Naheed Nenshi, practised a different type of politics, and it appealed to the city’s population.
These events made me wonder whether something was changing in Canada. Although I am a historian and purposefully focus on the past to avoid feeling anger and frustration about the present, I decided that I had to find out what was happening and whether there might, in fact, be hope for the future of politics.
The Saskatchewan NDP
The Ryan Meili campaign was of particular interest to me, in part because I followed it closely and had a personal connection to the events, and in part because of possible similarities to earlier challenges within the NDP (such as the Waffle movement in the early 1970s) that are the focus of my current historical research.
Meili entered the leadership campaign because he was increasingly convinced that substantive change could come only through formal political structures. Social movements, he concluded, can influence public opinion, but politicians ultimately make decisions and can therefore have a greater effect on society. He also saw an opportunity for change within the Saskatchewan NDP and received unofficial support and encouragement from individuals within the party. His strongest