Possible Saviour of Canadian Democracy? Independents

Sheldon Clare is fed up with the political system. While running solo, he's definitely not alone.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 24 Aug 2015 |

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

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Why Sheldon Clare is running as an independent: 'I'm tired of getting played.' Photo: Facebook.

On the surface, it's a bit of a head scratcher.

Sheldon Clare is the volunteer president of the National Firearms Association, a historian and college instructor who helped once organize two Reform ridings, before that party merged into the modern Conservative party.

"I took Preston Manning to meetings when you couldn't get 25 people in a room," Clare boasts.

Some would argue that such a resumé makes him a shoe-in for a Conservative party nomination today, but Clare doesn't want any part of it.

He said the Conservative government has intruded on civil rights via Bill C-51 (the Anti-Terrorism Act), let the economy rot and treated Canada's military veterans poorly.

That's not something a right-of-centre guy like him wants to support, he said.

Clare was involved with a group called "Principled Conservatives and Libertarians Against Bill C-51," which months ago warned the legislation would result in a fractured right in Canada.

Now, Clare has become that fracture. He is running as an independent candidate in Cariboo-Prince George -- and he's running to win.

It's not just the Tories that have Clare rolling his eyes. He's altogether tired of the party system.

"I'm fed up with it," he said. "I'm tired of getting played, I'm tired of getting lied to, and I'm tired of being taken advantage of."

So now what?

Uniting independents

Every election features independents like Clare, but one man is trying to make them more of a force in Canada.

Retired Col. Pat Stogran is the former Veterans ombudsman, and like Clare has lost his taste for Canada's current political climate.

Stogran has started what he describes as a project aimed at boosting the profile and viability of independent candidates, and growing a culture of politicians who represent their constituents above all else.

That's something he said the "corporate political parties" like the NDP, Conservatives and Liberals stopped long ago.

"The visible members of any party that forms the government are going to be very much beholden to their leader, much more so than their constituents," Stogran said. "That is truly a reflection of the culture of government up [on Parliament Hill]."

He charges that Canada's democracy has turned into an autocracy where the prime minister and bureaucrats hold too much power, and even the most well-intentioned candidate starts taking orders from their party once they get to Ottawa.

By lending his name to highlight independent candidates, Stogran hopes he can help elect more MPs who will represent their electors rather than a party. That's how the Westminster parliamentary system is meant to function, he said.

"Through leadership and creative thought and critical thought and courage, these independents can one day form a government," he said. "Or perhaps sooner hold the balance of power."

Stogran is promoting his vision for strong indie representation through talks to grassroots groups and students as well as through his website, The Rebel Gorilla.

Fighting the big three

So far, Stogran said he thinks some in the media may feel his idea is "lunatic ravings," but that isn't going to stop him.

"Our society has become so desperate for role models and icons that we hail anybody in a supervisory capacity as a leader, regardless of how morally depraved, selfish and inept they truly are," he said.

Stogran said his organizing could take the form of a trust or co-operative for independents to pool funds and resources to go up against Canada's big three parties.

Another right-of-centre independent that Stogran is supporting is Brent Rathgeber, who left the Conservatives in 2013 after the party insisted on changes to his private members bill on expense disclosure for high-level bureaucrats.

"I joined the Reform/Conservative movements because I thought we were somehow different, a band of Ottawa outsiders riding into town to clean the place up, promoting open government and accountability," Rathgeber wrote in a statement at the time.

"I barely recognize ourselves, and worse I fear that we have morphed into what we once mocked."

Rathgeber has sat as an independent for Edmonton-St. Albert since 2013, and is running as one this election.

He points out that he has name recognition in the riding, which helps when it comes to running solo, but it is tough sledding for those coming in cold.

"I'm not sure that an independent non-incumbent has been elected in recent history," Rathgeber said. "We don't have a brand, and we're not the beneficiaries of any national media campaign."

Most people prefer to vote for a party or a party leader, meaning candidates like Rathgeber have to work harder to get their message out and earn the support of the community, he said.

But he does see an upside in knowing he won't be the subject of attack ads.

"I'm not part of any team that can be slagged by a broad negative campaign," he said.

However, if a viable coalition of independents ever did form it would naturally become a target of the other parties, he said.

In the meantime, Stogran said, a group of strong, independent candidates who work to help their communities reconcile political differences may one day overcome the big spending of Canada's political parties.

He said such a movement could end up saving Canada from its own, long tampered with political system.

"I believe that these independent thinkers, if they are allowed to build on the courage they are bringing to this process, they could turn it around to reflect the values of democratic society," he said.  [Tyee]

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