The political siren finally blares for Avi Lewis

Both his grandfather and father were enormous figures in the New Democratic Party. Now, a third generation dives in
By Steve Paikin - Published on May 21, 2021
On Saturday, Avi Lewis will be acclaimed as the NDP candidate in the federal riding of West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country. (Courtesy of Steve Paikin)

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Five years ago this month, Avi Lewis and I did an interview on The Agenda focused on a vision he was pitching to utterly transform our economy in hopes of doing something serious about climate change. It was called the Leap Manifesto. 

But when you’re sitting across the table from someone whose grandfather was federal NDP leader and whose father was Ontario NDP leader (at the same time, no less), well, let’s just say questions about when the third generation of Lewises intended to jump into politics could not have been much of a surprise. 

And, yet, Lewis seemed adamant that a political career was not on his immediate radar screen. 

“I don’t hear any siren song at the moment, but we are all in flux,” he said somewhat mysteriously. 

I couldn’t leave that alone. 

“When the draft movement comes, I will be interested to see how you respond to it because, Avi …” and here I leaned toward him somewhat mischievously, whispering, “guess what? It’s coming.”

Five years later, the moment has come. 

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Agenda With Steve Paikin, May 3, 2016: Avi Lewis on running to become NDP leader

Saturday night in a British Columbia riding with the second longest name in Parliament (West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast—Sea to Sky Country), Lewis will be acclaimed as the New Democratic Party’s candidate in the next federal election. In so many ways, Lewis could simply no longer avoid what has seemed like his destiny for decades. 

Earlier this week, Lewis and I had an hour-long Zoom call about a vast array of issues, starting with why a guy whose grandfather and father both represented Toronto ridings, and who grew up in Toronto, was running in B.C.  Did Lewis have some connection to the left coast I was unaware of? 

Turns out, yes. 

He came to B.C. to meet the parents of his future wife, Naomi Klein, “and we got married in their front yard,” he says. They bought a place there in 2005 but hadn’t spent a ton of time there, because the couple’s extraordinary political activism, writing, and documentary-filmmaking careers were taking them all over the place (although Naomi has written some of her books there, and the couple’s son Toma was also born there in 2012). 

A year ago, Klein and Lewis were living in New Jersey (she was teaching at Rutgers University) but decided, as Lewis puts it, to “flee the first wave of COVID under Trump.” They returned to B.C. and pondered their next move. But that next move never came. 

There was an industrial project not far from the couple’s home that would have seen a deep dock for tankers built. “It would have destroyed the coast and herring,” Lewis says. “I thought, ‘I’d lay down to prevent this from happening.’ So this is where I want to make my stand.”

The siren song was now apparently playing. A few months ago, Lewis quietly got his candidate application form organized and informed the NDP he wanted to seek a nomination. 

Lewis certainly deserves kudos for taking the hard road. A guy with his stature surely could have negotiated an easier entry into Canadian politics. After all, the NDP has never won the riding he’ll contest — it’s gone back and forth between the Liberals and Conservatives since its creation in 2004. 

“It will be an uphill battle,” he confesses. “But I thought, ‘I’m a middle-aged white guy. I should use my longstanding privilege to try to flip a riding based on my 30 years of public work’” rather than seek an easier riding. Not only that, Lewis staunchly backs the NDP’s policy of requiring riding associations to search out “equity-seeking groups,” and he just didn’t like the idea of possibly depriving someone from a minority community from contesting a more easily winnable seat. 

Interestingly enough, Lewis says that he and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh (whose Burnaby South riding is only half an hour away from Lewis’s) have yet to meet. But he expects them to get together today and for Singh to speak at his nomination meeting tomorrow. 

“I’m a big fan of Jagmeet’s,” Lewis says. “He’s played a fundamental role in the same way my grandfather did in 1972,” during the minority Parliament of the current prime minister’s father. Lewis points to a doubling of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and a perhaps seven-fold increase in the wage subsidy as achievements that would not have happened had Singh not championed them. 

Why, at age 54 (he celebrated his birthday last weekend) is Lewis finally taking his long-anticipated plunge into politics? 

“I’ve tried everything I can think of over 30 years to change the world,” he says, adding he can still remember, as a kid in the 1970s, working in the committee rooms for both his grandfather and father “with the smell of the silk-screen paint shop still in my nose.” 

He says his wife is “100 per cent behind me,” despite the fact that, if he wins, she’ll have to take over more of the parenting of their son, who has special needs. 

“Frankly, I don’t know how we’re going to navigate it,” he says. “But we got tired of logistics being a barrier to running. We don’t have time. We have to take on the staggering issues we face. This country’s in trouble. We’re facing disaster and need war-time rules of engagement.” 

He then tells me about the speech he gave a few years ago at a conference observing the 85th anniversary of the NDP’s precursor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation “in the room where the party was founded.” You can see him almost channelling the ghosts of party founders, J.S. Woodsworth and M.J. Coldwell, and, of course, his grandfather David. Then he dashes off camera for a moment to show me one of his most prized possessions — a book of his grandfather’s speeches called Make This Your Canada, first published in 1943.  

David Lewis was urging Canadians to use the same approach the country used to defeat fascism and win World War II, but this time, to defeat poverty. 

“The federal government simply told the captains of industry, ‘You’re going to make tanks. You’re going to make bullets. Here’s how much profit you can make,’” Avi Lewis says. “My grandfather was saying, ‘If we deployed that approach, we could defeat the scourge of poverty as well.’” 

Today, Avi Lewis wants to take the same approach to tackle the climate crisis and transform our economy. “How could we not marshal the powers of the government today?” he asks. “There’s some eerie overlaps and direct political inspiration there.” 

I am old enough to remember Lewis’s father, Stephen, as Ontario NDP leader from 1970 to 1978, and, in some ways, to watch the former United Nations ambassador’s son hold court is to be transported back in time. The younger Lewis has so many of his father’s mannerisms and speaking patterns, it’s uncanny.  His father didn’t have a particularly close relationship with his father, David, but Avi begins to choke up when speaking about “my dad.” 

Stephen Lewis is currently undergoing an experimental treatment for abdominal cancer. A column I wrote last month about that battle prompted more email and social-media responses than anything I have ever written before, in nearly 40 years of journalism. There is a lot of love out there for the elder Lewis, particularly from his son, and that almost prompted the younger Lewis not to seek political office at this time. 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again,” Lewis acknowledges, getting the words out with difficulty. Given the huge challenge and time commitment required to win the riding, Lewis isn’t sure he’ll make it back to Toronto any time soon. 

“I raised that with him,” Lewis says. “But my doing this has brought out in both my parents a high-school giddiness in their voices. I remember my dad talking to grandpa about politics. It was a precious experience. I’m enjoying replicating that a generation later.” 

Well, maybe not all the time. The younger Lewis was recently on CTV Power Play and caught heck from his father for interrupting too much. 

“He reminded me that overtalking was fine for a social activist but not for a candidate for office,” Lewis says. “People want to see someone calm and measured. And, of course, he’s right. I’m getting schooled.

“All he wants to do is knock on doors for me,” Lewis adds. “It’s an existential frustration that he’s not flying out here to canvas. But I have incredible access to his political brain. Whatever happens next, I’m so glad we’ve had this time together.” 

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