A wave of support for diversity in top party position shows provincial NDP on the cusp of major transformation. Photo by Sheryl Nadler/ CP Photo
You could feel the sense of generational change in the air last weekend, April 13-15, as 1,000 Ontario New Democrats gathered at the Hamilton Convention Centre to chart policy and elect a new party president.
The new winds were evident Friday night, for example, when K'naan took the stage to talk about his personal activism with MC MPP Jagmeet Singh. The crowd, many of them young Somalis, cheered when K'naan broke into their mother tongue.
It's an exciting time to be involved in the NDP because the party's makeup is changing. For the first time in years, many long-time members didn't recognize most of the faces, since a large number of delegates were young, from diverse backgrounds and first-timers.
Traditionally strong in the north and downtown urban centres, the ONDP at this convention showcased its new strength in the 905, typified by Singh's breakthrough win in Bramalea-Gore-Malton.
The meet, the first since Andrea Horwath was elected leader in 2009, was full of the energy of the newly recruited. And attendance set a new record, just like the federal leadership confab a few weeks back. In the halls of the Convention Centre, clutches of young people were everywhere, discussing policy resolutions, organizing for elections or just getting to know each other and enjoying being part of the process.
Despite the upbeat mood, things weren't all sunny; there was tension Friday when Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan argued strongly that raising welfare rates and corporate taxes, as well as opposition to an imposed wage freeze in the public service, ought to be a bigger part of Horwath's negotiation agenda with Dalton McGuinty. The convention split on his referral motion 218 to 200.
There were other kinds of strains, too, particularly over the new generation's efforts to win prominent administrative positions, especially when Tamil activist Neethan Shan won the ONDP presidency over long-time union activist Andrew Mackenzie. Shan, a former school trustee, came close to winning a seat in Scarborough-Rouge River in the last provincial election.
Shan brings new perspectives based on his experience as a 16-year-old Tamil refugee fleeing repression and war in Sri Lanka. He has long been a leader in his community, and it was evident from the number of young people in his entourage that he knows how to build a team.
His victory is likely to complement Horwath's push toward an updated, urban-aware party capable of picking up seats in the new-Canadian communities increasingly dominating the 905.
But these hard-fought elections pitted some older members, long-time labour-associated delegates, against a younger, diverse group aiming to contribute what they've learned in Tamil, Somali or Sikh community action as well as in student and grassroots movements.
The NDP has a long, strong history with unions, but that relationship is evolving, as it did when new federal laws cut the financial ties that had cemented the labour/party relationship. The new structure allowed the party to bring in new blood while still respecting its union legacy.
The ONDP's new leaders must ensure that these long-established links are protected and any bridges burned at the convention rebuilt. The newer constituency and the old guard share many of the same principles; the differences seem to be those of style.
Organizations need to reflect new realities and change. Such shifts can be difficult, but transformation is the only guarantee that the ONDP will be ready for a cross-province win.
Adam Giambrone is former federal NDP president and chaired parts of the 2012 ONDP convention.