By Maureen McEwan
There’s a direct line between British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s impressive grasp for power in the U.K. in June and the unexpected rise of the newly minted provincial NDP candidate Joel Harden in Ottawa Centre.
It’s a riding that — while held today by Liberal MPP Yasir Naqvi, Ontario’s attorney general — was once an NDP stronghold for high-profile social democrats such as Michael Cassidy and Evelyn Gigantes. The federal riding with the same name and boundaries, currently commanded by federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, was represented by NDP stalwarts Ed Broadbent and Paul Dewar from 2004 to 2015.
But Harden, a 45-year-old researcher with the Canadian Federation of Students, was inspired by Corbyn’s strong showing in this year’s snap election in Britain to make the leap from long-time NDP organizer to contender for the party’s nomination ahead of the June 2018 Ontario election.
On Oct. 29, the self-described community organizer secured the provincial NDP nomination in a packed house at the Ottawa Technical High School on Albert Street, where 650 people had gathered to choose the candidate to challenge Naqvi’s 10-year hold on Ottawa Centre.
Harden won the nomination on the third round of voting against Angella MacEwen, a senior economist with the Canadian Labour Congress. After a strong first ballot, Harden said that he felt upbeat about the outcome, but that the four-and-a-half hour long meeting was tense.
“We went into Sunday very confident that we’d done a lot of work,” Harden said. “But, I’ve got to tell you, so had Angella MacEwan, so had (school trustee) Erica Braunovan, so had (former Canadian ambassador) Shawn Barber. We were all knocking on doors. We were all picking up phones. We were all raising money.”
Harden is new to provincial politics but he’s been a lifelong NDP voter and supporter. He worked on Dewar’s campaigns and gave help to 2011 provincial Ottawa Centre candidate Anil Naidoo. But as an organizer, Harden has worked mainly behind the scenes. Earlier this year, some of his friends convinced him it was time to step up and run as a provincial candidate.
“And I was like, ‘Oh now, come on. Aren’t there enough over-educated white guys in politics, seriously? You can find someone else,’” Harden recalled.
Then came Corbyn’s hard-left push for power in Britain, and Harden’s friends pressed him again to enter the political arena.
In the June election in the U.K., which saw Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives reduced to a fragile minority, the Corbyn-led Labour Party recorded its highest popular vote — 40 per cent — since former prime minister Tony Blair took 40.7 per cent in 2001.
The U.K. result broke a mental “logjam” for Harden, he said. He said he has great respect for American political iconoclast Bernie Sanders and, especially, for Corbyn because their unapologetically left-wing, grassroots campaigns have engaged young voters and defied expectations.
Harden was exchanging emails with some of his friends in England about June’s election when he received a startling message from one. Years prior, Harden had told the friend that the “organizers’ role is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” When Corbyn’s party rebounded, that friend reminded Harden of the comment and asked if he might have become too comfortable as an NDP backroom player.
The email stunned Harden because, he said, he ultimately agreed: He was too comfortable. A few pensive walks and a few weeks later, he announced his candidacy for the provincial nomination.
Harden said his intention was to bring back “old, bolder” NDP politics.
“I’m doing it for my kids. I’m doing it for all the NDP members that build this town every day, day in and day out. I’m doing it for the elders’ generation that created the party that was bold. And we need that party to be bold again,” Harden said.
“We’re going boldly on the left.”
Harden is disarmingly down-to-earth. For the interview, he sported a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and black Chuck Taylors – wretling himself into a purple plaid shirt as he introduced himself with a wide smile.
Quick facts? Harden’s been an organizer for various causes – socio-political, economic, environmental — for over 20 years. In August, he helped organize an anti-racism demonstration outside of the U.S. embassy after the deadly Charlottesville clash between white supremacists and counter-protesters.
He’s got a PhD in political science from York University. He’s a middle-aged dad who still describes himself as fairly “punk-rock.” And he prefers to meet with his campaign team and volunteers over a meal – often, Harden will throw together a vegan chili in his Crockpot on Sundays.
The challenge Harden faces in Ottawa Centre is significant. In the 2014 election, Naqvi took steamrolled to victory with 52 per cent of the vote. Since first winning in 2007, Naqvi has been re-elected by larger margins each time.
The Liberal incumbent, a Pakistan-born lawyer who immigrated to Canada at age 15 in 1988, has also been responsible for major provincial cabinet portfolios, including Labour, Community Safety and Correctional Services, and now Attorney General.
He’s also Government House Leader at Queen’s Park.
But Harden’s chief criticism of Naqvi is the same one he recently levelled at himself: Too comfortable.
“Yasir’s a nice guy. I think anybody who has met him will say that,” Harden said.
He added that Naqvi makes an effort to get around the riding and engage with constituents. But while Harden said he’s not going to make the coming election fight personal, he thinks Naqvi has a lot to account for this time around
“We’re not going to be negative with Yasir. But he can expect, and he already has been, that he will be challenged on his record. For too many people here, the veneer of the niceness is wearing very thin.”
Justice is a central issue for Harden, he said, vowing to challenge Naqvi on the conditions of the Ottawa-Carleton detention centre, the incarceration rates for marginalized populations, and the conduct of Ottawa’s police.
Harden has promised an action plan for long-term elder care, a strategy to address crushing student debt and stronger steps to tackle the climate crisis. He has said he’ll work to ensure access to drug addiction services and to put an end to racial profiling by police forces.
Naqvi, said Harden, “needs a time out. We need a break. Ten years is enough — he’s had his go. Now Ottawa Centre can go orange and, in going orange, we can accomplish amazing things.”
In the last two elections, Rob Dekker ran for the Progressive Conservatives in Ottawa Centre. The provincial party, under leader Patrick Brown, has yet to name its 2018 candidate.
Aside from Corbyn and Sanders, Harden has some Canadian “femtors and mentors,” as he calls them. Years ago, when he was a graduate student at York University with “green hair and Doc Martens,” Olivia Chow and Jack Layton encouraged him to run for a school trustee position. They both liked his organizing style, Harden remembers. In turn, he appreciated their “humility” and “proximity” with people.
But Harden said no, insisting there was too much ego involved in the quest for public office.
Last month, Chow was in Ottawa as the keynote speaker for EcoFest. Harden attended and approached Chow, acknowledging that she had been right, eventually – he was running for office after all.
“She had this churlish smile on her face,” Harden said, laughing. “And she was like, ‘I heard! I heard! Took you awhile. Better late than never!’”
His experiences are diverse, Harden said, but one thing remains consistent: He’s been politically active since youth.
Harden led his first protest as a teenager in his hometown of Vankleek Hill, east of Ottawa. At 17, he spearheaded a walkout against the school board when it attempted to close the local high school’s bilingual program. Since then, he’s remained involved in politics at all levels, and once served as Ontario chair of the Canadian Federation of Students.
“I’m excited. I’m very excited,” he said. “I think we’ve had a government in this province for 15 years that talks left and governs right. They are great masters of marketing but people are hurting, they’re suffering. And we’ve got a chance. We’ve got a chance to really raise people’s expectations.”
The provincial election takes place on June 8, 2018.