PEI Votes·Profile

NDP Leader Mike Redmond

Mike Redmond, the NDP's fifth leader in five elections, is looking to get the party back into the legislature.

NDP look to provide opportunity

Mike Redmond, the NDP's fifth leader in five elections, is looking to get the party back into the legislature. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

The sparsely-furnished office of Mike Redmond, leader of P.E.I.'s New Democratic Party, in a recently converted day care, is just a few blocks from where he grew up on Allen Street in Charlottetown.

"We didn't really realize it at the time but we lived in a very poor area," said Redmond.

"Everybody was poor, so how were we to know?"

There's been a huge gap in opportunity.- Mike Redmond

Allen Street is at the centre of Charlottetown now, but in the 1970s when Redmond was growing up it was still an area where people would keep livestock to help make ends meet. And while there was poverty, there was also a close-knit community.

"We had a stick and a ball of tape and we would play stickball and we thought it was the greatest thing," he said.

"We all had alcoholism in our families, we all had mental health issues in our families. We were uniquely bound by the same challenges I suppose, but we did enjoy our lives and our upbringing."

The memories of those challenges, and seeing others face them in his travels, prompted Redmond to launch the Sperenza Centre, which offers sport-focused after-school programs and summer camps, and they also helped shape his political ideology.

Sperenza is derived from an Italian word meaning hope and promise.

"Kids just like to play, regardless of their income," he said.

"[Sport] could, in that immediacy, provide children with an outlet and an opportunity to forget about what maybe they don't have."

A passion for coaching

Redmond has a lifelong interest in sport, one that moved him from athlete to coach when he blew out his knees while playing soccer at the university and college level.

Mike Redmond with two of his regular companions. (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

For decades, coaching was his principal passion. He remembers with a particular fondness biannual trips to Northern Ireland, where he participated in coaching camps for youth in Belfast.

In the late 1990s, he recognized there the abandon with which the children played in an area which, at that time, was still essentially a war zone.

"I couldn't help looking around and seeing here are armoured vehicles and soldiers with machine guns all around the field. That to me was remarkable to see, but more remarkable was the fact that the kids were oblivious to their surroundings," he said.

"I kind of equated it back to growing up and not knowing that you were poor."

It was about this same time that Redmond had his first involvement with the NDP. He was active in Herb Dickieson's 1996 campaign. Dickieson remains the only NDP member ever to sit in the P.E.I. legislature.

But Redmond's first trip to Belfast prompted him to rededicate himself to coaching, and he did not find a place for himself in the 2000 campaign, or in any of the provincial campaigns after that.

Redmond went on to coach soccer at the high school and university level. The Island's NDP, in the meantime, went into the first three elections of the century with three different leaders, all with disappointing results, never rising above four per cent of the popular vote.

A life changing event

In 2012, the NDP were looking for another leader and Redmond faced a life-threatening health crisis. He was disagnosed with four pulmonary embolisms in February of that year.

"It was dicey and there wasn't a lot of hope," he said of the first 24 hours after the diagnosis.

He had been growing increasingly unhappy with his coaching job at UPEI, and the health crisis was the catalyst for him to make a big life change. He recovered and began to move toward self-employment, founding the Sperenza Centre, and got involved in politics again.

In politics, as in coaching, Redmond sees his role as providing people with opportunity.

"There's been a huge gap in opportunity, and I think the greatest gift you can give anybody is an opportunity," he said.

Redmond believes there are too many children living in poverty on P.E.I. and too many seniors living in substandard housing.

He has spent the last two years working towards getting the NDP back into the legislature, travelling the province to talk to people, promoting NDP issues in the media, and assembling a diverse team of candidates for the 2015 election.

"I know what I don't know, and I think that's not something you hear from politicians," he said.

"I'm smart enough to know to talk to those individuals who have a great lens, on whether it be veterans' issues, indigenous issues or a person with disabilities and their challenges. If we're going to form a good government, a representative government, that's what you need and that's what we're putting together as a team."

Redmond has led the NDP to some great successes in between-election polling, in some instances with high popularity than the Progressive Conservatives, but he still has to face the challenge of the only poll that counts: the election.

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