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Noah Richler on Political Branding, Provincialism and White Male Candidates
Author and former NDP candidate Noah Richler tells Atlantic Books Today that due to the branding of parties, leaders and candidates, our electoral system is becoming Americanized
Noah Richler is an award-winning author, journalist and broadcaster. His book, This Is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada, won the British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-fiction in 2007, and appeared on many year-end “best-of” lists. In 2015 he ran for parliament as the New Democratic Party candidate in Toronto-St. Paul’s.
His most recent book, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, examines his foray into federal politics. Born in Montreal, he splits his time between homes in Toronto and Digby Neck, Nova Scotia.
Atlantic Books Today: You mention in the book that when you first decided to run for office you wanted to do so in Nova Scotia. What’s your connection with Nova Scotia?
Noah Richler: My wife and I have been going out to Nova Scotia for 15 years or so. She used to go out as a child. We have often visited a village called Sandy Cove and became very attached to the community in this working fishing village on the St. Mary’s Bay. I go out there and I like to think that I do my best writing out there. We are so committed to it, in fact, that we have bought an old abandoned inn that we would like to turn into what the Californians call a “creativity lab” and we have been inviting writers out there for some time. The whole premise of the Hillcot Centre is basically that if arts and culture and a sense of the past don’t matter in an economically challenged area, do they matter at all? So we’re basically testing ideas we’ve been abiding by our whole lives.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Nova Scotia over the years and the previous MP there, Greg Kerr, was completely absent as a figure, and I did think for a time, probably because of my love of the area, that it would be interesting to walk the tuning-fork shaped riding up the Digby Neck and down the French Shore and try and get elected that way.
But that wasn’t appealing to the party. They wanted me to run in Toronto where they felt most of the news and issues were going to be put forward and they were right about that. It’s not a Toronto-centric comment to understand that as the biggest, most important city in Canada a lot of the battles would be fought here. I didn’t mind that in the end because I think we all need what you might think of as a “safe place” and I have relationships in Nova Scotia that I decided I didn’t need to alter by putting myself forward as so evidently partisan. One day I will write about Nova Scotia and I didn’t want it sort-of tainted by having to plug a party position.
ABT: A point that comes up repeatedly in your book is that today’s politics is largely about brand. Does this come at the expense of individual creativity and initiative among candidates?
Richler: You’re right. Anybody that watches TV or goes to the movies sees countless stories about the individual entering politics and making a difference. Typically the individual is up against some party brass. The terrible thing about that is it’s true. [laughs] So I went in imagining that conversations at the door would be about Canada and about gleaning views and sharing views and having healthy debates. Of course it’s not about that. It’s about gathering data about who is most likely to vote for you.
I first heard that expression, “The Brand,” from Chrystia Freeland, now our Minister of Trade, and that was not interesting to me. I can still remember the sensation in the pit of my stomach. I remember thinking, “That’s not a reason to enter the fray.” One of the gifts of running for the NDP is it’s much more a collection of people, it’s much more of a grassroots party. It’s much more of a variety at the base than the other two principal parties, the Liberals and the Conservatives. It’s also less organized.
The irony, of course, is that I was putting forward a brand, calling myself “The Candidate” in my social media campaign videos that I put out and trying to be identified by some kind of shorthand. I know [that] in a more vigilant party, a more controlling party, I probably wouldn’t have been at liberty to do that. We would have had one of Gerald Butts’ minions calling, saying “You can’t do this, you’re running for the Liberals, you run on Liberal red,” and so on.
A number of the revelations [about politics] were ones that shouldn’t have been revelations at all, they were kind of banal in nature. One of them was realizing what a mannequin in the window you are at these rallies that are orchestrated for television.
At first I was hustled along to a room where part of me thought it might be for a chat with [Tom] Mulcair or the people next to him. Instead, you and the twenty candidates that show up are pushed into the background behind Mulcair to stand and look obedient as the press cameras record his answers to journalists. The press conference happens and you’re standing there. All parties demand that.
It actually infers one of the great paradoxes of Canadian politics, which is that we have a parliamentary democracy, which suggests that candidates are elected by constituents in individual ridings, advocating those ridings’ interests. But, and this was particularly evident in the end, as voters we are behaving more and more like our neighbours to the South, with their presidential system, and we vote for one leader or the other.
ABT: The book ends with you being recognized by a student at the Hart House gym as her former NDP candidate. She asks you whether you’re going to run again, and you leave the question unanswered. Is this a matter of you not being sure of your response, or was this a literary device?
Richler: It was a good way to end [the book] but it also made me smile because I’m sure that’s the question most every candidate faces.
I thought “no” for a long time and I wouldn’t do so without the support of my family. I also wouldn’t do so if I didn’t think I was bringing something particular to the table. Next time around I’d have to have a sense of what I was contributing and in truth I feel I’m a 56-year-old white guy and there are plenty of those in Ottawa already. I kind of hope it’s somebody else’s turn. I’d really like to see the NDP be the first [federal] party to have a leader who is not white.