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How Courage Coalition members are preparing for the federal NDP convention

Activists discuss the possibilities, if any, for bold left moves from the NDP, and how they're engaging with the party

by David Gray-Donald

How Courage Coalition members are preparing for the federal NDP convention

The federal New Democratic Party (NDP) 2018 convention begins this Friday, February 16, in Ottawa. I caught up with Courage Coalition members Nav Kaur, Yazan Khader and Darrah Teitel by email to see what Courage is up to in the lead-up, and how they're engaging -- or not -- with the NDP these days.

What can we expect from the NDP convention next week? Based on the agenda, the keynote
speakers, and the proposed resolutions, what sort of tone and political framing do you expect?

Darrah Teitel: To be honest, I'm trying not to read too much into hints that the NDP is trying to float down the centrist stream again. I genuinely want to give them a chance to pick up our bold policy gifts and define themselves by them. Their choice of keynote speaker [Iain McNicol] is... unfortunate. But hey, maybe they didn't realize? I mean, why else would they do that? So, I'm not getting out the pitchforks... Yet. I really welcome Jagmeet and his team to our [Courage to Leap] event and I hope they take note of what activists can offer the Party. We are hoping that provincial leaders show up too. The stakes will be high in Ottawa. If they're wise they will accept what we're offering.

Nav Kaur: My expectations are measured – I’ve organized with Courage to attend as a collective, because I wouldn’t otherwise be motivated. In terms of convention itself, I’m happy to see Ian Campeau and Christiane Taubira on the speakers list, but in general it looks like the Federal NDP is trying to make everyone comfortable – which isn’t very inspiring. Organizers at the margins like me are interested in gauging whether or not the party is ready for us, which means accommodating ways of organizing and “traditional logics” to support innovative campaigns, grounded in bold policy values. Courage has taken a proactive stance – we are eager to support an NDP that clearly state anti-colonial, anti-poverty and anti-elitism moves, both internally and ultimately on the ground, in campaigns around the country.

Briefly, what is Courage, and what has the group been up to in preparation for the convention?

Teitel: Courage is a grassroots, decentralized and democratic movement of lefties, defined by our basis of unity. Some people have misrepresented it to be about strengthening the left from within the NDP, but tons of our members are not within the NDP, nor does our movement end with the NDP. It's about much more. It's a place to gather power from activists who are disengaged from electoral politics and those that do engage but feel repeatedly let down. We want to galvanize that base and use it to give conditional support to a party, specific candidates or anyone else who brings bold left policies and practices to electoral arenas.

Kaur: Courage is a national network of organizers grounded in their local communities. We are building capacity to mobilize for bold policy shifts across Canada, that reflect and support this generation with vision, and clarity for the generations to come. Recently, Courage Coalition has acted as conduit to engage in political education and activism, work that is highly elitist in Canada. Some members are interested in influencing the federal NDP and we have collectively supported that strategy, but we are made up of many kinds of shoulders. Organizing to influence resolutions at convention, among other efforts, are concrete examples of this support. It has been fun – there is no disciplining on how ‘things are supposed to be done’.

We’ve used convention as a project to build rapport within the party and for political education– but we are multi-faceted and have many fronts. We are tired of rhetoric and superficial calls to action; we insist on visionary and bold discourse. We are giving NDP members a chance to build relationships with us and we want opportunities to learn how to meaningfully engage with the Party that does not compromise our values.

Yazan Khader: Courage is mobilizing around a number of resolutions that we believe are key to moving the NDP leftward. Most prominent of those is our work around internal democracy. We are proposing a set of changes to the NDP Constitution to guarantee that local NDP chapters have a voice in decision making between Conventions. We are also working to support resolutions that would have the NDP call for Free Post Secondary Education, and solidarity with the Palestinians.

Courage is teaming up with The Leap to host an event, "Courage to Leap: How the Left can Win with Transformative Demands and Revolutionary Organizing" (which sold out and now has overflow tickets for sale) the evening before the convention officially starts. What's the rationale behind the event, and how does it relate to the convention?

Kaur: The rationale is to insist on an authentic dialogue around transformative mobilization. We guessed it wasn’t going to be on the forefront at convention – so we organized this space for this specific discussion. NDP and labour activists are welcome – but we’re not looking for any validation. I’m interested in gauging if party organizers are eager to interrogate elitism, racism and hierarchies in their organizing traditions. Teaming up with the Leap was a good fit at the visionary level; Courage members are mobilizing and are seeking meaningful engagement with all those who share our values throughout the process. This event, and our participation in convention are examples of more to come.

Teitel: I've often thought about the Courage to Leap event as a kind of workshop. It's a way for us to hear from organizational visionaries, who mobilized left wing takeovers of political parties in their respective countries and to consider en-masse, what that could look like in Canada. Of course, there is no one-size -fits-all strategy for taking over a country's parliament, but it's an historic opportunity for us to chat and engage across borders and dream big. It's intentionally timed for the eve of the NDP convention, but it's certainly not limited to dippers or conversations about the NDP. We do hope to set the tone for the convention, but plenty of people who are coming to the event aren't going to convention and we hope people tune in from across the country. We sold out within six days and are now wrangling an overflow room, so yeah, safe to say there's an appetite for this conversation. 

In the context of Trudeau being over halfway through his term and having broken most of his progressive promises (reconciliation, climate action, systemic racism, economic inequality, etc), or at the very least having not acted on his campaign rhetoric, what can you say of the politically opportunities for the left? What does this mean for engaging with electoral politics?

Kaur: Trudeau’s sleight of hand through misleading rhetoric is one explicit reason that loads of Courage activists have decided to engage with party politics at all. I find this approach of elitism in party politics may reproduce more of the same strategies from the past, but people are frustrated. Values and conviction matter, especially when confronting systems of traditional power. I’m not holding my breath – which is why I believe movements like Courage are conduits for masses, our neighbours, to engage with electoral politics in an accessible way.

If the NDP continues the timid centrist or even right-wing colonial and imperialist policy drift of recent years, how will Courage engage with the party, and what sort of organizing outside the party will Courage prioritize?

Kaur: We hope to build a relationship with the party and remind them that hedging and pandering to conservative masses is not aligned with who the party claims to represent. I know local Courage chapters are mobilizing and will have their own sets of priorities, based on their local contexts – which will mostly likely include involvement in municipal politics. Some priorities to expect include tangible demands for authentic reconciliation, centering the land, focus on supporting all workers and to uncover the contradictions of neoliberal policy moves. Our coalition is flexible enough to respond to local community demands and connect that with national policy discourse.

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David Gray-Donald (David Gray-Donald)
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