Politics

Climate activist Avi Lewis aims to leave mark on NDP despite running in long-odds riding

NDP candidate Avi Lewis's campaign is focused on addressing the climate emergency and has the endorsement of Jane Fonda and David Suzuki. But Lewis's 'Green New Deal' messaging is absent from the federal campaign, and leader Jagmeet Singh has no plans to visit the riding.

Jagmeet Singh said he supports Lewis's 'Green New Deal', but it's absent from federal campaign. 

NDP West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country candidate Avi Lewis tries to get out the vote during one of the final days of the federal election campaign. (Andrew Lee/CBC)

On a sunny morning in West Vancouver, about a dozen people of all ages stand on a street corner waving big orange election signs with the name of documentary filmmaker and climate activist Avi Lewis written in big white letters, as cars and buses honk while they drive by.

Lewis and his supporters are making one of their final pushes to get out the vote for the NDP in one of the wealthiest ridings in the country, where the New Democrat pitch to tax the ultra-rich is a hard sell. 

The NDP has never had a seat in Liberal-held West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country, where incumbent Patrick Weiler is running for re-election, John Weston is the candidate for the Tories and Mike Simpson for the Greens.

But Lewis, who chose to campaign here, is not discouraged, even though pundits and senior members of his party don't expect him to win. 

"They say we can't win this riding," Lewis told his supporters on Wednesday.

"How have you found it in West Vancouver? It's been incredible!"

'Shake up the entire political establishment'

Lewis's campaign is focused on addressing the climate emergency as a way to tackle other crises, such as overdoses and a lack of affordable housing. 

After a summer of heat domes and wildfires that burned the town of Lytton, B.C., to the ground, Lewis said his climate policies are resonating with constituents.

His plan is backed by star wattage endorsements, from actress and climate activist Jane Fonda, to environmentalist David Suzuki.

"We need to send Avi to Ottawa to shake up the entire political establishment, including his own party," Suzuki said in a video advertisement for Lewis's campaign posted on Twitter. 

Lewis calls his pitch a Green New Deal — a catchphrase NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said he supports, but is absent from his federal campaign's messaging. 

Singh is not planning to visit Lewis's riding either, even though he will spend his last day campaigning in British Columbia. 

"For New Democrats, our vision is exactly that [a Green New Deal]," Singh said in a recent interview with CBC News. 

"I'm the leader of the party and I want to lay out my vision.… I'm going to invest in good jobs that reduce emissions."

There's speculation among New Democrats about Lewis's end game and if it involves leadership ambitions. Lewis is the grandson of former federal NDP leader David Lewis and son of former Ontario NDP Leader and diplomat Stephen Lewis. 

Committed to campaigning again

In his interview with CBC News, Lewis did not rule out leadership ambitions, but would only say he's concentrating on winning his seat at this time. 

"I've committed that if I don't make it on Monday, I will keep campaigning relentlessly because I'm here for at least two cycles," Lewis said. 

"We're in an uphill battle to pull off an upset of epic proportions. I think that's enough for me to take on personally." 

There's usually a two-way race in West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country between the Liberals and Conservatives. 

But if he unites the Green-left vote, Lewis said, he believes he can get to Ottawa.

He's banking on the electoral math from 2019, in which the combined Green-NDP vote would have beat the Liberals.

Lewis says his message has been resonating following a summer of intense heat and wildfires. (Eventbrite)

Mike Simpson, the Green candidate in the riding, said he came under pressure to step down and back Lewis. Simpson says Lewis simply could have run in a riding that had weaker Green support in 2019. He also said his party's internal disputes were playing a role in his race.

"I understand there are pressures, in light of internal Green Party politics, for me to be discouraged. These pressures are real. I cannot deny them," Simpson said, while maintaining  that the Greens still have a strong core offering.

Simpson told CBC News he would have been willing to step aside if the NDP had met a series of conditions, including a firm commitment to ban fracking, set an emissions target of 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and commit to killing the Trans Mountain expansion project, among other things.

"I encourage every voter to vote with their heart. To vote as if the future really is at stake," Simpson said. He said he remained confident in the Greens' future success and that they were already shifting the debate in Canada.

"The war we are in, as humanity, is not a four-year political election cycle … but one of survival, and survival with integrity," he said.

Mike Simpson, Green Party candidate for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, speaks during a news conference with local candidates, in Vancouver, on Thursday, September 2, 2021. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

Conservative candidate John Weston, who held the riding in 2015, said in a statement to CBC News that the Liberals had not met their commitments on climate change and that his party would tackle the crisis "while not doing it on the back of Canadian workers."

Incumbent Patrick Weiler, meanwhile, said he respects Lewis but said the NDP's plan did not live up to the standard demanded by experts.

"I'm an environmental lawyer, and I've got a lot of respect for Avi, but he has to be held to the same standard as the rest of us: does your plan clear the bar that climate scientists have set? For the Liberals, the answer is yes; for Avi and the NDP, the answer is no."

Past conflict over Leap Manifesto

Before a Green New Deal, Lewis introduced a similar proposal called the Leap Manifesto, which passed at the NDP convention in Edmonton in 2016. 

Lewis called it a sign of the party's grassroots wanting to turn more aggressively to viewing climate change as an emergency. 

Lewis was accused of creating divisions in the NDP by introducing the Leap Manifesto, but he said that's overblown. 

"The explosion around the Leap Manifesto in 2016 was conflated with a lot of other things that were going on. An NDP government in Alberta that had embraced fossil fuels, the departure of [former NDP leader] Tom Mulcair," said Lewis.

"But we're here now. We have an offer, which is reaching the vast majority of voters and I think our prospects are tremendous."

Lewis said he doesn't see any divisions in the NDP nor does he think his message is any different from the party's, even though his campaign is singularly focused on climate change.

"We need gigantic change, so yeah, I'm deeply impatient," he said.

"The entire political system is failing to confront the level of emergency that we have and embrace the level of opportunity in housing and health and transit and all the related systems that need changing."

Other candidates in the riding:

  • Doug Bebb for the People's Party of Canada.
  • Terry Grimwood as an Independent.
  • Gordon Jeffrey for the Rhinoceros Party.
  • Chris MacGregor as an Independent.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

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