A Q&A with Leah Gazan, the ‘fearlessly progressive’ Indigenous socialist running for the NDP this fall.
NDP candidate for Winnipeg Centre Leah Gazan: ‘I’ll either fail miserably or I’ll do well, but I need to be true to who I am.’
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.”
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.’” MORE