- Interview by
- Luke Savage
Filmmaker and broadcaster Avi Lewis is widely known for his work on both Al Jazeera and Canada’s CBC. His recent projects, such as the 2015 documentary This Changes Everything and the 2019 short A Message From the Future, cowritten with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have sought to draw attention to planetary climate crisis and the urgent need for a rapid green transformation of the global economy. Having spent his career at the intersection of media and movement politics, Lewis recently announced his candidacy for Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) in the coastal riding of West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country.
In this interview with Jacobin’s Luke Savage, Lewis discusses the current political moment, his decision to enter electoral politics after a career in broadcasting, the NDP platform, and why Canada’s forthcoming federal election is a critical one for the climate — in British Columbia, across the country, and around the world.
Before we get into the specifics of the election and your own candidacy, I want to begin with an extremely, and perhaps unhelpfully, general question. Feel free to interpret it as you like. I’m curious how exactly you’d characterize the political moment we’re living in? Even in Canada, I think the defeat of the Bernie Sanders campaign has left many of us somewhat demoralized. Nevertheless, I also think there’s still an atmosphere of possibility and opportunity that perhaps didn’t exist a few years ago. How do you see it?
I think this is an exciting moment for the Canadian left. The number of new left candidates running for the NDP in the election is a sign. There are lots of great young eco-socialists running, lots of left politics in the air, and the NDP federally is expressing a connection to movement left politics and policies that I find really exciting. Canada does have a weird little sibling complex with the United States. And if you look at the last thirty years, some of the political trends are at a few years’ lag here: just as we were getting out of the Bush years in the United States, we started the Harper years in Canada, and there’s been that kind of knock-on effect. So I actually think the politics of Bernie and the Squad are just starting to lift off here in Canada, and the potential feels immense in this moment.
The pandemic has changed the political landscape in fundamental ways in Canada. There’s been $350 billion of public spending in a year, and the sky didn’t fall! There were no Weimar Republic scenes of hyperinflation where people wheeled wheelbarrows full of toonies to intersections and people took the wheelbarrows and left the money. None of that happened. It turns out that the toxic logic of austerity was always a lie just like we always said, and now nobody in the country can deny it. That’s a game changer. If that doesn’t change the political reality and the political possibilities of this moment, it’s on us — because the argument throughout decades of neoliberalism has just been shut down in our favor.
Even the performatively progressive Justin Trudeau Liberals are running on a promise to spend a hundred billion dollars in the next three years, which would be, proportionately, a trillion dollars in the United States. That’s a political opportunity to talk about what direction we’re going to take: to talk about universal public services, to talk about a Green New Deal, all in a way that feels tangible, and not idealistic or remote. So I think this is an immensely consequential moment, in the positive sense. Obviously, we’re in a historic period of cascading, overlapping emergencies on every front.
Not just the climate emergency, though that’s incredibly serious. We just had the first mass casualty event of the climate emergency era here in British Columbia, where 569 people died directly as a result of that heat dome — and it wasn’t our last heat wave of the summer. The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] report obviously underlines what we in the climate movement have been saying for a very long time. But there’s also a housing emergency, with the average house price going up $300,000 and rent doubling in large parts of the country in a very short period of time. There’s a toxic drug supply overdose crisis. There’s a transit crisis, especially given the Greyhound shut down of the past year. There’s actually no national transit strategy or intercity bus services.
So vulnerable populations — essential workers, migrant workers, all of the essential workers in the care sector, in eldercare — having been through the most punishing period, are now facing a deep, post-pandemic recession. We’re in the state of emergency on every front, yet the political possibilities are like never before. Standing at this juncture in history is why I have felt the need to get out of my comfort zone of thirty years in journalism, activism, and storytelling from a social movement point of view, and cross over into the electoral sphere. I think I might’ve lost my marbles, but it feels like a unique moment in history.
You’ve spent your professional life as a broadcaster and a documentary filmmaker. Why did you decide to run for the NDP in the upcoming federal election? Why this moment and why the NDP?
I think I was in diapers the first time someone asked me if I was going to run for the NDP, because my dad, Stephen Lewis, was leader of the NDP in Ontario in the 1970s, and my grandpa, David Lewis, one of the founders of the CCF, the predecessor of the NDP, was also leader of the federal party in 1970s (there was a time when my dad and grandpa were both leaders, provincially and federally, at the same time). I was maybe five years old and electoral politics were really the air that I breathed as a kid. My childhood memories are of leadership conventions and committee rooms; those sandwiches with amputated crusts and neon pickles; the smell of paint from the sign-painting workshop in the basement.
So that, really obviously, had a huge impact on my growing up. But it’s significant for me that I chose my mom’s career path. My mom was a groundbreaking feminist journalist and was Canada’s only feminist columnist for so many years in the big papers — the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail — and I followed her path. But it really is the climate emergency that has shoved me into this completely new line of attack, and I think we don’t have time anymore to just build power in movement space on the outside. Nor can we just place our faith in politicians and hope that they’ll do the right thing. I mean, we just absolutely need a movement-electoral coalition, and we need movement-grounded politicians who feel accountable to frontline organizers and don’t disappear when they go into the political bubble.
I launched my campaign video a couple of days ago, and it was written and directed by a young Sunrise activist — who’s Canadian and lives in Victoria, by the name of Hailey Asquin, a tremendously talented young political filmmaker — and she coined this term “people’s accomplice” (or maybe she looted it from some other brilliant movement mind!). The notion that I could somehow play a role in getting to the inside and holding the door open to the energy, the radicalism, the creativity, and the rabble on the outside is what this emergency moment requires. I feel called. I mean, it sounds really cheesy to say it, but I really do.
In your recent campaign ad, you make the case for an ambitious Green New Deal in Canada — one that draws inspiration and ideas from the 2015 Leap Manifesto. One you cite, for example, is turning Canada Post into a “publicly-owned engine of the Green economy.” The idea of a Green New Deal has become a shorthand for the sweeping green transformation of a national economy. But ultimately, we’re talking about a whole suite of policies across a wide variety of areas that would aim to do that. When you talk about a Green New Deal for Canada, what are some of the policies you envision?
That’s a great setup description. I feel like I’ve really given the last six years of my life to immersion in bringing the Green New Deal to life — first with the Leap Manifesto in 2015, and then in 2018 when the Green New Deal exploded onto the scene (and of course it has a much deeper history even beyond the US version that’s come along recently). But it is the manifestation of the 2018 IPCC report on keeping rising temperatures to 1.5 degrees, and that called for rapid, far-reaching, unprecedented changes in all aspects of society. I’m pretty sure that’s a verbatim quote, and that’s now a scientific reality, as much as it has been a social necessity for the centuries of capitalism that humanity has lived through.
The challenge with an idea this big is to make it real for people, to make it concrete, and to connect it to the material conditions of working people’s lives. I’ve made a number of attempts at those things over the years. The two signal ones for me are A Message From the Future, the film that I cowrote with AOC, and A Message from the Future 2: Years of Repair (the sequel) — which I cowrote with Opal Tometi, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter in the United States. Those films kind of sit on the fence between fiction and nonfiction. Think of them as documentary futurism: I cast the characters, the narrators, and imagine the future, looking back at how we won and what we won.
The specifics come to life in those films. They really are my political vision, in a way, that all of us who worked on them tried to communicate to a mass audience. I’m really pleased at the NDP platform this time around, which has channeled some signal Green New Deal demands without naming them as such. There’s a new emphasis on public ownership, which a lot of us on the Left had been looking to the NDP for many, many years. They’re talking about a public option for internet and data access, about internet access as a fundamental right. They’re talking about a nationwide electrified bus service.
We’re talking about the Civilian Climate Corps, which was an idea that has been floating around since the days of FDR in the thirties, and has been in climate-movement circles for years. AOC and I planted it in Message From the Future (she wanted to call it AmeriCorps climate, which . . . when you’re cowriting with AOC, you let most things go!). I’m happier with the NDP’s formulation, and it’s in the NDP’s federal election platform right now: a Civilian Climate Corps, a plan to put huge numbers of young people — not exclusively young people, but especially to address the youth unemployment crisis — with the government directly employing them to do habitat restoration, wetland restoration, stream remediation. I live on the west coast of the country in British Columbia where we are in a salmon crisis. There are all these stream-keeper groups up and down the coast in my riding who are doing this hard labor work of going into streams. Just the other weekend, the Squamish Streamkeepers in my riding went to this creek to scoop up salmon fry that were flopping around in a puddle where a stream used to be, because of the heat waves and the drought. They were gently lifting them out in nets and carrying them to a deeper river.
But all of that work — there are only six or ten of them — and there should be hundreds in each community. That’s the level of crisis response and emergently emergency public service that’s really required. So there are a number of policies floating around in the NDP platform, which I find immensely exciting. Another one that I put in a Message From the Future, the Years of Repair is the right to repair. Because there’s a huge part of the climate calculation that revolves around consumption. So many climate movement efforts from the mainstream have neglected this fundamental issue of the carrying capacity of Earth, and we cannot have long supply chains. We cannot have the Amazon economy, where all of the essential goods of our lives (and all of the luxury and frivolous goods as well) just make a brief stop in our home between a factory in China and a landfill.
That’s a fundamental fact of modern life that has to be changed. In living memory, our parents and grandparents remember a time when things were manufactured locally and they were valued for how long they lasted and how well they could be repaired and maintained rather than how cheap they were and how disposable. So the right to repair is a fundamental frame: people having the right to repair their phones and computers, cut through the bonds of intellectual property, and actually be able to repair these expensive devices that we carry around in our pockets. But it also really does extend to everything in the consumer economy. Circular economies need the right to repair.
Obviously, that’s not a ten-point plan of what a Green New Deal must look like. The short form is that we can create hundreds of thousands — millions — of jobs creating the new housing that we need — nonmarket housing, public co-ops, cohousing, nonprofit housing — to address the housing emergency in Canada., the transit system, the electrical grid, electricity generation, and every aspect of society, just like the IPCCs said.
The constituency you’re running in — West Vancouver–Sunshine Coast–Sea to Sky Country — is in many ways a tough one, something Jagmeet Singh and others acknowledged at your nomination meeting. It’s never had a New Democratic MP. How do you plan on overcoming the odds?
This election really is a climate election, particularly in British Columbia. As we speak there are hundreds of fires still raging in the interior. I’m looking across the Salish Sea right now at a fire in Ladysmith on Vancouver Island. There are so many people in this province right now with go-bags packed by the door. We’ve had scares here, where we live, on the Sunshine Coast. There’s nothing abstract about the climate emergency in British Columbia. Even in West Vancouver, which has some of the richest postal codes in Canada, people in coastal communities are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Not only that, but in West Vancouver they’re looking out at the inlet where there are all these tankers going by, and the Trudeau government, as you know, Luke, bought a pipeline: the first nationalization in recent Canadian political history.
Like you said, public ownership is coming back!
Right! They bought a pipeline. They spent more on the Trans Mountain Expansion Project than they have in their platform on climate commitments for the next ten years. And that wasn’t the only subsidy they’d given to oil and gas. So people in West Vancouver are looking out from their beautiful waterfront homes and they’re imagining dozens and dozens of tankers going past, and the prospect of an oil spill, which is not a matter of if but when. I’m finding, as I knock on doors and make phone calls, that climate is a top issue for the majority of voters. It’s really climate, climate, climate, and housing, in this riding. I think the basic offer of dealing with an emergency through solutions that solve multiple problems, and actually come at the speed and scale of the crises we face, and would actually solve them, is a populist offer — and if we on the populist left believe that our offer can win, we need to be able and make it anywhere.
This is a post-resource-extraction community where fishing and logging used to be the main industries. There’s only one pulp mill left on the Sunshine Coast. All of the mining and logging and fishing that sustained communities in the past is dwindling and a shadow of its former self. Tourism is really important in this part of the world because it’s so bloody beautiful that people from all over the world want to come here. It really is a place, coastal BC, where we are being shoved into the next economy whether we like it or not. And we should like it. It should be amazing, and it can be amazing.
That positive vision seems to be resonating with voters so far. It is a long shot, or I’m certainly an underdog in this riding. But there’s another component of it for me. I mean, this is where I live, and I really do believe that politics has to be place-based. There are ridings that are considered more winnable in Vancouver proper, but I don’t live in Vancouver, and I don’t have a deep connection to the city. The NDP has a really great equity policy where we’re serious about getting candidates from equity-seeking communities, and as a middle-aged white guy, with connections in movements and a national profile because of my work in television (or at least people of a certain age remember me from television), I need to use my privilege to put a new riding in play. That’s an appropriate use of my social location as someone going into politics in their mid-fifties after a long public career. It’s not my place to go and run a contested nomination against younger candidates of color who are the future of the party and who we need in big numbers.
Even here, where I ran uncontested because nobody else wanted the nomination, we did a really serious search and we were on the verge of having a great Indigenous candidate (who ultimately decided that they just weren’t ready). I think it’s part of being in this moment that someone like me run somewhere like this, but I definitely have chosen an uphill battle for my first fight.