Leah Gazan had an important choice to make when she decided to seek the federal NDP nomination in Winnipeg Centre.
Should she take the regular politician route, calibrating her tone and message so as to inspire, but not freak out, whatever constitutes a moderate, middle-of-the-road voter these days? Or should she run, as she put it, on a “fearlessly progressive agenda rooted in socialist values?”
Gazan chose the latter. And as the Indigenous activist and University of Winnipeg lecturer headed into the nomination race against long-time Manitoba MLA Andrew Swan, she figured, “I’ll either fail miserably or I’ll do well, but I need to be true to who I am.”
Gazan, from the Wood Mountain Lakota Nation, ended up clinching the nomination by signing up a record number of new party members, tripling the riding association’s membership.
She’s now taking her uncompromising style of grassroots politics into a federal election that could decide how aggressively Canada responds to the climate emergency, if progress will be made on human rights for Indigenous peoples, and whether we shut down or embolden a home-grown white nationalist movement. The riding was won by the Liberals in 2015, but had been held by the New Democrats for the previous 18 years.
The Tyee recently spoke with Gazan over the phone from Winnipeg. She laid out a revolutionary political vision and strategy that seems to have more in common with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez than the moderate restraint urged during the previous election by former NDP leader Tom Mulcair.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
On being described as “a super competent feminist socialist”:
“Well, I’m a proud socialist. I think we need to start looking at things differently. You know, the Liberal government bailed out a pipeline company for $4.5 billion. Why not invest that in something like a guaranteed annual liveable income, free tuition for postsecondary students? I think that we’re at a point where we are living in a growing corporate dictatorship where the value of human life and human beings and the value of the environment means less than the wealth and prestige and power of big multinational corporations.”
On throwing out the traditional rules for politicians:
“We put a lot of stakes in individual politicians, but very, very rarely do we talk about people power. On the day of the nomination there were actually a thousand people who showed up. I don’t want it just to be made about me. I want to make it about a movement and the power of people coming together. And I think that is what grassroots movements do. People forget about the massive social change that has happened throughout history. The civil rights movement, for example. So I see my role as a community voice directed and led by the community.”
On the power of knowing and owning your identity:
“It becomes your shield. Especially if you come from groups that have historically been oppressed, so that when you go out in the world and you have to deal with things like racism, stereotypes and prejudice, you know clearly who you are and you have a pride in who you are. And that’s one of the things that was really attacked for Indigenous people through things like residential schools and what happened during the Sixties Scoop. When you strip somebody of their identity, their culture and the ability to live out who they are, you take away that shield and you make people really vulnerable.”
“I was really blessed to be brought up by two very progressive parents who understood the importance of me having a really clear foundation in my identity. My father was a Holocaust survivor. My mom was a Lakota woman from Wood Mountain Lakota Nation. She grew up in the child welfare system. That’s something we had to journey through as a family. So I feel really fortunate that with the kind of deck of cards my parents were dealt that I was able to have a clear sense of who I was. That’s a real gift.”
On why she’s spent years fighting for Canada to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples:
“It’s a human rights document that was developed over 23 years at the United Nations with Indigenous people throughout the globe. And it’s the minimum human rights that any person, Indigenous or not, needs to have. Things like clean drinking water, access to housing, being able to speak your language. As we know with what’s going on in Attawapiskat where there is a growing crisis with clean drinking water, not everybody, particularly Indigenous Canadians, have been afforded basic human rights in this country.”
“I spent the last few years travelling across the country, meeting with thousands of Canadian from all walks of life. I have never met a Canadian who says, ‘I am opposed to children having access to clean drinking water.’”
On why Indigenous rights must be at the centre of any Green New Deal:
“It’s important to recognize that the people who are experiencing the most harsh impacts of climate change are people living in Indigenous communities. We know that there is a direct correlation between resource extraction companies and heightened levels of violence against Indigenous women and girls, right? So you can’t look at a Green New Deal in the absence of also human rights.”
“I’m glad that the NDP has stated that they will support the Green New Deal. I think it’s a good first step. But you also have to use the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as a framework for that deal, meaning that if you don’t honour the minimum human rights of Indigenous people in this discussion, then we have a long way to go. And I think in that sense it’s also really important to raise up Indigenous voices to be the spokespersons for our own land and not have that dictated in a colonial manner. That, I think, has really been one of the reasons why we have a climate crisis right now. Indigenous peoples’ traditional relationship with the land is rooted in sustainability.”
On similarities between her and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:
“I’ve been compared to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez many times and I know that I am my own person. But in terms of progressive politics and moving towards systems that put people first over profits, I would consider myself one of those politicians.”
“Poverty costs a lot of money. Poverty is an expensive activity to perpetuate, whether in increased crime rates or higher costs to health care systems as a result of people not having what they need to be healthy. There’s no shame in declaring that I believe that we should divest from corporate welfare and invest in human beings. I don’t think it’s a crazy statement to say that in the face of a climate crisis we need to divest from the fossil fuels in a way that brings people along, trains them in the green economy and moves towards green energy. I think many Canadians are on board.”
On her thoughts about the upcoming federal election:
“I think the Liberal government has been a big disappointment. They’ve had four years of broken promises, certainly with Indigenous people. I don’t think that there will be a Liberal wave this time. I also think there are other factors in play. We need to be acutely aware and cognizant of a growing white nationalist movement in this country and the kind of hateful rhetoric and tactics that are being used, particularly by the Conservative party. So I think because of all those dynamics, it’s really hard to call at this point. But I think one thing that I’ve heard on the ground is that most people agree that this is a critical time in history. And there is no time for silly political games. We need action.”
The Tyee’s federal election coverage is made possible by readers who pitched in to our election reporting fund. Read more about how The Tyee developed our reader-powered election reporting plan and see all of our stories here.
Read more: Election 2019, Indigenous, Rights + Justice
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