There was an awkward pause on the phone when the Toronto Star finally caught up with self-styled democracy reformer Dave Meslin last week, seeking to connect the dots to the latest surprise chapter in the saga of the banished Liberal parliamentarians Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott.
Meslin, a grassroots activist well known to politicos at Toronto’s city hall, was bursting with excitement. For the past several weeks, he’s been in the eye of the post-SNC-Lavalin hurricane alongside Philpott and Wilson-Raybould, offering hard-earned advice on the potentially transformative power of political independence.
Green was the colour Ottawa was expecting last Monday, when the former Trudeau cabinet heavyweights unveiled their futures in simultaneous news conferences — a move that would have doubled Elizabeth May’s standing in Parliament. Meslin was among a handful of people who knew otherwise — but he was not at liberty to speak.
The awkward telephone silence was broken by a timely “ping!” from Philpott. “I see no reason why you can’t say you’ve been informally providing advice based on your expertise in democratic studies,” Philpott wrote. “We didn’t hire you — but you are a friend and trusted adviser.”
Relieved, Meslin revealed his all-in commitment to a campaign to plant the flag of independence in Ottawa.
Meslin is the furthest thing imaginable from a backroom Svengali. For some 20 years, he has tirelessly plied the grassiest of grassroots activism in what many describe as a guileless bid to revive and reinspire what he sees as Canada’s faltering democracy. Readers of Now magazine and the now-defunct Eye Weekly may remember him for vibrant, guerrilla-style advocacy for public space and citizen involvement. His earliest activist gambits bordered on the absurd, including hanging pictures of Bill Clinton and Bill Cosby over “Post No Bills” signs. He went on to establish the city’s first member-based bicycle advocacy group and also the Toronto Public Space Committee, which in turn published the premier issue of what would ultimately become the award-winning Spacing magazine.
But one constant since the 1990s has been Meslin’s intense interest in democratic reform. In the run-up to last fall’s municipal elections, he led an all-volunteer campaign for ranked-balloting referendums in the cities of Kingston and Cambridge. There was no budget for anything other than campaign signs, so he and the team “couch-surfed” the entire effort — and won both referendums.
What Meslin brings to the table is ideas — bag loads of fresh, orthodoxy-busting ideas about snapping Canada out of its democratic malaise.
Philpott told the Star that he came to her out of the blue with a private message via Twitter some weeks ago, asking, “Have you ever considered running as an independent?”
“I had actually known about Dave for several years, circuitously through one of my sons, who is very interested in democratic reform and direct democracy,” Philpott said. “So when I saw his message on Twitter, I was reminded of that family connection and I was curious. The thought had already crossed my mind, but I was curious.”
That led to a phone conversation, and “you know, talking to Dave really fired up my imagination about the possibilities of an Independent run.”
Philpott said Wilson-Raybould was already keen on the Independent idea, “so after meeting Dave, I suggested to Jody that we all sit down together, and it led to another really great conservation about the possibilities and it all went from there.”
Philpott saw in Meslin the same guilelessness others have described. “He really doesn’t care about money or power — he just wants to help people, which is inspiring. Some of his ideas are counterintuitive — or at least counter to traditional electoral wisdom — and yet I think they make so much sense.”
As Meslin explains it, the goal is to win Independent seats in Ottawa and prove to Canadians something that is already happening elsewhere — the emergence of independent blocs, or “non-party parties,” in places like the Republic of Ireland.
“I’m not in Ottawa. I don’t travel in those circles. Most of my work on democratic reform has been local in nature and yes, it sometimes involves couch-surfing because there’s no money to waste on hotels,” Meslin said with a laugh.
“But the important thing here is to look beyond Canada and you see this wave all across the western world where traditional parties are being challenged. Yes, some of the winning challengers tend to be vacuous ideologues, whether it’s a comedian in Ukraine or Donald Trump in America.
“But there are other places where people who aren’t ideologues or reality-show stars (are) challenging the major parties. We’re seeing in some countries groups being formed that are non-party parties — Ireland is one example, but there are others — that are sharing in power as loose federation of independent legislators. And rather than being committed to a specific platform or allegiance to a leader, they are committed to a certain type of process — and that process is collaboration, evidence-based deliberative dialogue and no party whip telling them what to say or how to vote.
“In my view, the timing has never been better to make that happen in Canada. We are so ready for something new because so much trust has collapsed. Our major parties have proven themselves so centralized and so incapable of allowing even their own voices to be heard.”
Independence from the party system, Meslin argues, is one of the best ways to disrupt the toxic polarization that now passes for political discourse in Canada.
“All that hostility turns people away because at this point, most MPs don’t have a voice or any role at all, really. Their job is to show up and hit the button they are told to hit. And if someone on your side stands up and says something, you cheer, and if someone on the other side stands up, you jeer.
“It’s so sad — it’s such a mockery of what we’re capable of as a species. Because we know that humans can easily be drawn into divisive fights — it’s in our blood, we thrive on it — but under the right conditions humans can also be incredibly good listeners, they can have empathy, they can be humble, they can compromise.
“We’ve got these 338 people (in Parliament) who, under the right conditions, could be creating and implementing really important legislation that we desperately need, but it’ll never happen under our current partisan structures.
“So we need some kind of disruption — and the way to find out is by experimentation — and Jane and Jody just launched an experiment.”
As a democracy wonk, Meslin has spent years piling up provocative ideas for reform that resulted in his new book Teardown: Rebuilding Democracy From The Ground Up, which just crept into the Star’s bestseller list. He’s leaving for a speaking tour of Western Canada next week, but now expects to spend plenty of time in Markham-Stouffville, where Philpott holds her seat, through to the fall election.
“I just find it inspiring to be in the room with Jane and Jody. And to see some of the ideas in the book … actually being implemented is amazing.”
That implementation, says Philpott, begins this weekend. Most of her Liberal riding association’s 16 leaders have resigned and will be using one of Meslin’s counterintuitive approaches during the first door-knocking campaign. The technique is to speak to voters, door to door, without actually asking them which candidate they intend to support.
“It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?” acknowledged Philpott, who nevertheless embraced Meslin’s belief that the traditional partisan approach of gathering up lists of likely voters and then concentrating only on getting those voters — and nobody else — to the polls on election day is actually a cynical act of “voter suppression.”
As Meslin explains, “Like every major party, the irony is the NDP spends two months making this list just to make sure they don’t pull a Liberal on election day — but the Liberals and Conservatives are being pulled anyways with their own lists — and it all ends up being layers and layers of slapstick comedy. And I think the whole thing is a scam. There’s no benefit to this model; it’s an industry, and people make a lot of money on it.
“So this is going to be different — an experiment. Knocking on doors and saying, ‘This is our candidate, this is why she’s great, do you want a lawn sign, and do you want to volunteer?’ And then say thank you for your time and onward to the next door, without identifying voter intent.
“The point is not just to say this will be different but to show it. Jane, if she wins, is going to represent everyone in the riding, not just her voters. So why should she only focus on the people voting for her? We can reach out to everyone.”
Meslin acknowledges the risks — and he is well aware of critics who argue the entire enterprise is hopelessly naive and doomed to failure. He’s also mindful that even if one or both of Philpott and Wilson-Raybould actually win, they will still need to overcome structural impediments and a “cartel” of major parties inclined to relegate them to backbench obscurity.
Much will depend on the how the electoral math adds up. There remains the chance, however slim, that if October’s election ends in a near dead-heat, these two upstart Independents could actually hold the balance of power as kingmakers in a minority government.
“The only real answer is, time will tell. You know, maybe they’re both going to lose and everyone who is saying they’re naive is going to be proven right,” said Meslin.
“Obviously I think the opposite is true. I believe voters are desperate for something new and in two ridings, at least, they’ll have an option to vote for a person they believe in without it being connected to a brand they don’t trust.”
Mitch Potter is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites