Former Halifax MP Megan Leslie gave a lecture to warm and sustained applause from a couple hundred Dalhousie University students last night. Her topic was “Civic Engagement: Why Activism, Politics and Community Matter more than ever,” and she delivered a blistering speech in response to an invitation that arrived six days after the election of Donald Trump as President.
“It seems that many of us are suffering from PTSD (Post Trump Stress Disorder) and need some advice on how best to move forward,” said the email to Leslie from Debra Ross, Manager of Outreach and Partnerships at Dal’s College of Sustainability, a co-sponsor-of last night’s public lecture with the Dal Student Union’s Sustainability Office.
Leslie — who signed up for the NDP after hearing former federal leader Jack Layton speak on campus in 2002 — admitted to “going into hiding” and “tuning out” all news and Facebook reports of Trump’s Inauguration and Cabinet picks in deliberate denial of his ascension to power. Last night, she voiced her concerns what happened there could also happen here.
“I think to an extent we do feel pretty smug,” said Leslie. “We didn’t elect an orange Cheeto our prime minister, so we feel pretty good about ourselves. But I’m sorry to say there are a lot of parallels between Trump’s election and Justin Trudeau’s election. Now I know there is a big difference between a prime minister who says he’s a feminist and a president who publicly brags about sexually assaulting women — I get that and I know that — but the common theme between the election of Donald Trump and Justin Trudeau is spectacle. Justin Trudeau is a master of the politics of spectacle, from his selfies to walking down the street with his family to Rideau Hall. So, are we doomed to elect reality TV stars and sons of former prime ministers?”
Leslie went on to answer her own question by moving to the Conservative leadership race, where Kevin O’Leary, a former panellist on CBC TV’s popular Dragon’s Den business show, has recently announced he wants the Boss job.
“I think it could happen,” Leslie told the attentive crowd. “He’s also famous. I think we have to be vigilant about the Kevin O’Learys and Kellie Leitchs because of the danger they pose.”
Paying attention is the only way to keep any politician accountable, she suggests — especially when you consider how delighted most Canadians were to replace Harper with Trudeau. Leslie, a former deputy house leader and environment critic for the NDP, lost Halifax to Liberal Andy Fillmore in the Trudeau Tide.
“‘Sour grapes’ is what people will label my views,” she tells the crowd, before taking a partisan shot at the Trudeau government for failing to deliver substantive change.
“So many things we despised about Stephen Harper: his authoritarian Bill C-51, his promotion of pipelines on indigenous lands, his refusal to reform the electoral system… in a year and a half with Trudeau as PM, none of these things have changed.”
Leslie told the largely student audience (the NDP’s former federal female leader, Alexa McDonough, was also present) that the best antidote “to electing bad people or slipping into fascism” is to standup against hateful language and refuse to “normalize” Trump-like behaviour. Join a group, sign a petition, show up at a meeting, Leslie urged, don’t stew alone.
Leslie credits the presence of so many people at last Saturday’s Women’s March in front of City Hall for waking her from her post-Trump funk.
“My dream of a Canada where everyone considers themselves an engaged citizen is not just a pipe-dream,” she said. “I don’t believe that we have to bow down to cult of personality spectacle politics. Being an activist isn’t the politics of selfies but a real connection with people and I have witnessed this kind of activism that results in political change.”
For example, Leslie told students it was pressure from citizens, environmental groups, and industry that allowed for unanimous consent in the House of Commons to “ban the bead” — an obscure environmental law she introduced to stops millions of tiny plastic particles found in cosmetics from contaminating fish and waterways.
This October, the federal NDP will choose a new leader to replace Tom Mulcair. Maclean’s magazine tagged 43-year-old Leslie as “a dream leader,” but the same woman urging students to become more involved in the world is sitting out the NDP Leadership race, despite urging from several quarters. A contradiction in terms? “I need a break,” she told the Halifax Examiner last night. “I love the work but not the politics, and the politics includes everything from what your hair looks like to what you forgot to say or what you did say that you didn’t mean to express that way. I’m not running now but I’m not saying never.”
Editor’s note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Alexa McDonough as the first female NDP leader. Audrey McLaughlin held that title before McDonough. The earlier version also referred to Debra Ross as a “director” at the College of Sustainability; she is a manager.