How LeadNow plans to fight the "stunning erosion of Canada's democracy"
While most Members of Parliament are taking some time to relax in the summer sunshine before the fall session in the House of Commons, three young Canadians are working around the clock to lobby 13 Conservative MPs in their ridings to become 'pro-democracy indepents' to oppose the Harper government's next ombibus bill scheduled to be introduced in the fall.
On the search for 13 brave Conservative MPs in a fight against "the stunning erosion of Canada's democracy"
LeadNow, a non-profit for progressive politics in Canada, is setting its sights on the fall session in the House and beyond, to the 2015 federal election. Jamie Biggar, LeadNow's executive director, is working with two other full-time staff, Matthew Carroll and Maggie Knight to lobby 13 Conservative MPs in ridings where they barely won, with just over 50 per cent of the popular vote.
The organization is also hosting a series of conversations like its May 2011 Declaration for Change, but focused on electoral reform and key elements of MP accountability and government transparency.
Their final, most long term project is organizing a major national education campaign around Canada's democratic crisis, to piece together what Biggar called "the stunning erosion of Canada's democracy." The campaign will focus on underlying factors such as the first-past-the-post electoral system and how Parliament works.
Elizabeth May, the lone Green Party MP in the House of Commons, said that internal pressure from Canadians in Conservative ridings could have an even bigger impact than an external campaign such as the 13 heroes campaign.
"It's a tall order to some of them do that, but it isn't impossible for every Conservative MP from British Columbia to meet with constituents over the summer and get an earful about why it will not be acceptable and why people won't vote Conservative again if they bring forward another budget bill and refuse to improve it even by a handful of amendments," she said in a telephone interview with The Vancouver Observer.
However, Biggar and his team has a formidable army of motivated volunteers from two key groups with the time and energy it takes to launch national campaigns: university students and the recently retired.
An intergenerational coalition for progressive Canadian politics
Since its initial days as a grassroots community connected mostly by Facebook, LeadNow's membership has grown to over 150,000 participants, including supporters of the NDP, Conservative, Liberal and Green parties.
"There's a ton of people in their 20's to early 30's, and then plus 50, then there's a bit of a gap in the middle where people are busy with their kids and career," Biggar said in a recent interview with The Vancouver Observer.
Biggar recalled his early twenties as a graduate student at the University of Victoria, where he became very involved with campus sustainability initiatives.
One of his mentors was law professor and Eco-Research Chair in Environmental Law and Policy Michael M'Gonigle, who advocated a vision of universities and colleges as hubs of sustainability innovation.
Two examples of this are the UPass, he said, which has had a major impact on urban transit usage in the city, and university-operated agricultral projects, which have facilitated research and development about urban agriculture.
Jamie Biggar and Adam Shedletzky at a LeadNow meeting. Photo credit: Adam Shedletzky.
Community organizing 2.0: lean, mean, and online
Despite the momentum, LeadNow co-founder and board member Adam Shedletzky said that the organization had a life-or-death moment last winter, when funds were running low. However, after a highly successful campaign against the controversial crime bill, thousands of Canadians donated enough money to keep the organization and its campaigns running.
The organization's three full time staff members now work virtually, communicating and collaborating online.
"You make progress on initiatives and launch campaigns with very limited budgets," Shedletzky said. They're not in it for the money, he said. He knows: he worked full time at LeadNow for free before taking a step back to join the board of directors and go to law school.
Shedletzky had saved money from working as a management consultant for a few years after university, and planned to go to West Africa to learn French and do community development volunteering. He then intended to go to law school.
After the Copenhagen conference and subsequent long phone calls and email exchanges with Biggar, Shedletzky said he began to wonder if there was an even more important project to develop in Canada.
A few days before his trip, he canceled all his plans to help Biggar develop LeadNow.
He deferred law school for a year and went to work getting the organization get the funding it needed to launch officially.
High profile advisors offer mentorship and practical advice
The organization also depends on its pool of high-profile advisors, such as rabble.ca founder and publisher Judy Rebick, Canadian Auto Workers economist Jim Stanford, and Purpose.com director of strategy Alnoor Ladha, among others.
Rebick has been an advisor to Biggar since before he started LeadNow, back in 2008. She said she was struck by his collaborative leadership style.
"Jamie sees differences of opinion as a constructive and creative thing rather than as an attack on him, which is unusual in most left groups," she said. "I think he has a lot of integrity."
Rebick recalled going to a LeadNow demonstration in June at Courtenay BC, where about 150 people of all ages had gathered to lobby the Conservative MP.
She said that although the diversity in age groups is admirable, the organization still has room to develop, particularly in its cultural diversity. When asked how LeadNow is engaging with immigrant communities across Canada, Biggar said that the organization is still figuring it out. Engaging more ethnic communities is one of the organization's biggest priorities, he said.
"We don't yet have great answers to that, besides the importance of connecting with and organizing with people in those communities, and then working on a peer-to-peer basis," he said.
He admitted that the way forward in engaging as many Canadians as possible without losing focus is one of the organization's biggest challenges.
He cited a LeadNow demonstration at Vancouver-Kingsway Conservative MP Ray Leung's constituency office which involved young Asian Canadians as a hopeful sign that more 1.5 and 2nd generation Canadians are getting politically involved, in a marked difference from their parents' generation.