Canada’s NDP Looks Like the US’s GOP: Voter Disenfranchisement in the Parkdale-High Park Riding

The west Toronto riding (electoral district) of Parkdale-High Park is one of the last places working people and the poor can access affordable housing in this very expensive city. Think of Parkdale-High Park in the shape of an L. The vertical line is High Park, where whiter, wealthier residents live. Queen West is the horizontal line at the bottom.  This is the main commercial street of Parkdale.  Grungier, poorer, and more diverse. A Tibetan community lives and works here. Some have shops along the always busy street. Some work at the Ontario Food Terminal a couple of miles out; the workers at the food terminal unionized over a year ago after dealing with racist harassment. Crossing Queen West is Jameson, a small street lined with apartment complexes and public housing that connect the parallel streets of Queen and King, where more of the poor and immigrants live. However, working class people in Parkdale are being displaced by gentrification.  Already astronomically housing prices continue to increase and it is at least $2200/month to rent a one bedroom apartment in downtown Toronto.

Although Parkdale is one of the strongest areas for the NDP in Toronto, the Parkdale-High Park NDP Riding Association has generally been aloof from its working class and immigrant communities, their membership is in the wealthier, more liberal High Park part of the riding. Currently, Parkdale-High Park has a Liberal Member of Parliament, Arif Virani. He was elected in 2015 when NDP leader, Tom Mulcair, on the verge of an NDP victory, shifted the narrative far to the right and talked about balanced budgets. This resulted in the NDP’s Parkdale-High Park MP, Peggy Nash losing her seat to Virani.

Now, the New Democratic Party (NDP) wants the MP seat back.  It is one of their targeted seats in the federal election on Monday, October 21.  NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has made multiple appearances in the riding with the cherry-picked candidate, NGO head Paul Taylor.

Three candidates entered the nomination race, which was officially launched on May 4 although all of the candidates were campaigning ‘unofficially’ before then. The exec picked Paul Taylor early on. Saron’s foot soldiers who were in the riding for months never saw him until the final couple of weeks. He was and is light on substance, but relied on heavy endorsements from various members of the Party old guard and a slick Twitter campaign with a few social democratic talking points that attracted a small core of Twitter millennials. He sailed through in the end with an endorsement from globetrotting leftist Naomi Klein. It just recently came out that years ago, he interned for Peggy Nash.

Running on Taylor’s political right was Tom Parkin, a longtime resident of Parkdale-High Park, something that he has told us time and time and time and time again in a riding where rich, poor, and in-between all live closely together, many of the poor are new Canadians who do not have a history here, but are building one. Parkin is such a partisan, he went with the rightward drift by supporting Mulcair to the bitter end.  Some left NDP activists have said that he helped turn the Party into the Orange Liberals.

To Taylor’s left was human rights lawyer Saron Gebresellassi, who ran a six month feet on the street in Parkdale-High Park and signed up nearly 400 new members to the Party, almost doubling the membership. She announced months before that she was running, and many believe that the establishment ran Taylor in order to stop her. An immigrant herself from Eritrea and a speaker of seven languages, Saron, along with her strong core of volunteers, was able to reach constituencies the PHP NDP has never bothered to engage.  Nearly all of her supporters lived in subsidized housing.  She also had strong appeal to the sizeable African immigrant community in Parkdale, of whose existence the NDP was barely aware of.

Saron opposes mass incarcerations of racialized and indigenous communities and made it one of her platform planks, despite the brass’s consternation. Saron’s campaign has an active wing of incarcerated voters who are able to vote in the federal election. She also is not afraid to talk about Palestine and her support for BDS. Among so many of the poor and working class are New Canadians, immigrants whose first language is not English and have no connection to the NDP’s social media culture, so most of Saron’s base did not know who Paul Taylor or Tom Parkin were. And Saron is not afraid of not being unpopular in the insiders’ club that is Toronto politics. She was mocked and derided for calling for free transportation in a debate when she ran for Toronto mayor in 2018. The federal NDP now includes a vague sop to the idea of free transit in its federal platform.

There were may ways in which the political differences of the above candidates played out amongst the membership: Paul Taylor, in working the phone to talk to members, promised at least one member that he would try to help her find childcare. This member got on Twitter and publicly declared support for him. However, while this was going on, Saron was behind the scenes fighting with the PHP exec for childcare for all voting NDP members, no matter who they supported as well as ASL interpreters and shuttle busses for all members who need transportation so TTC fares would not be a barrier. She was told that the exec doesn’t do that, and they reportedly were quite irritated by her making these requests to make the nomination meeting more accessible for everyone. These different approaches highlight that Taylor, a soft social democrat, was pandering for votes for himself in the moment, while Saron, a solid revolutionary, was pushing a stagnant party for sweeping change to make to make participation in the Party permanently more accessible for all.

While Saron’s campaign was based in laundromats and coffee shops and subsidized apartment buildings, while Taylor’s was largely the white latte left who are slowly being gentrified out of the riding by people wealthier than they are. As stated above, Taylor was hardly in the riding until about two weeks before June 23rd when he parachuted onto Jameson Ave to grab a photo-op for the rally put together by the wonderful activist group, “Parkdale Organize”. It is reported that Taylor grew up in PHP, but had it been so long since he truly had a presence in the riding that he had to stop and ask for directions to Jameson Ave for this Wednesday morning event? Those of us volunteering and pounding the pavement for Saron never saw Taylor at any of the Parkdale Organize meetings, we saw Tom Parkin, and while we were putting signs up on poles, we saw Janet Solberg, and wondered what she was doing on King and Jameson. Taylor was nowhere to be found until the rally. He had no presence in the immigrant communities except when his team, right before the 23rd put his flyers highlighting the Naomi Klein endorsement in a building populated mostly by African refugees.

Two-Tiered Sign Up System and Derailed Debate

Saron’s camp submitted the 391 registrations before the deadline. The provincial office congratulated her camp on the organizing, and sent them to the federal office in Ottawa, where the federal office was responsible for processing the registrations. Instead of the federal office being over the moon that so many new people were joining the Party, they complained that there were so many paper registrations that they had to enter into the system. Saron’s team collected the registrations from many people who do not have credit cards: new Canadians who just received their permanent immigration status and those who have never engaged in the process before. Saron and her campaign manager, Matt Fodor were reaching out to Ottawa and warning them that the paper voter registrations needed to be processed. “We are not in the business of turning away voters,” said NDP National President and former Hillary Clinton volunteer Melissa Bruno.

Melissa Bruno told Saron that only the people added to the voting list were those members they could reach on the phone and ‘confirm’ they wanted to join the NDP.  Only a handful of people made the final list.  Altogether 365 people were never added to the voting list. New Canadians, mostly African, many with limited English are not going to exactly be receptive to the federal NDP interrogating them by phone: this is a cruel intimidation tactic that one would normally see on the Right. With these Republican Party-type tactics, maybe Bruno should have spent her three weeks of paid vacation in the US shilling for Donald Trump instead of Hillary Clinton. To the best of our knowledge, no other candidate’s signups was screened in this way because Taylor and Parkin pulled from the Party’s current middle class base and they mostly used credit cards and signed up on-line. Economic has seemingly privilege shielded them from party brass scrutiny.

While Saron and her campaign team were at the time unaware that federal NDP had employed these tactics, Saron was still behind the scenes not only consistently pushing for childcare for all NDP voting members, but fighting for sign language interpreters, which were required by Ontario human rights law. She also continued to push for child care as a lot of her base were shift workers and transportation as many did not have cars and the TTC streetcars are $3.25 each way.

Meanwhile, as stated above community member not affiliated with the NDP tried to organize a community debate with all three NDP candidates. The first organizer was contacted by Charlotte Gick, a heavy in the Parkdale High Park NDP executive of the local riding association (PHP exec). She told the organizer that such a debate would be illegal and effectively shut it down. The organizer contacted Elections Canada and was told that this there was no law forbidding community members from holding candidate debates.

A second organizer went ahead with the debates, and held one the night before the June 23rd despite braying from the PHP exec, the debate went ahead. Taylor’s camp was contacted to participate. His campaign manager stated that they had to get permission from the PHP exec in order for Taylor to participate. Taylor never showed to the debate on June 22nd, but his campaign manager told the organizer that he could schedule a meet and greet for him “once” he won the nomination. There’s that NGO arrogance and entitlement, which dovetails finely with Taylor’s Twitter flash and lack of political depth. Why did retired Ontario Federation of Labour president Sid Ryan endorse this guy? Historically, labour leaders knew better than to endorse non-profit heads. They understood that NGOs were not good or healthy for peoples’ movements and often sold them out. Organizing until about the 1960s was a predominately a bottom-up dues model. Since then, NGOs, the top-down model that rely on tax-exempt donations from ultra-wealthy, have become the dominant paradigm for political organizing.

The Working Class Show Up to Vote and are Turned Away 

The next day, Myles and I show up to Lithuanian House as we are residents of Parkdale and registered NDP members. Like many of her supporters, we are wearing orange campaign shirts. Saron’s organizers had spent the day getting her voters to the location via shuttles and she rented out part of the locale, a bar with tables, so she can feed those who show up. Some are coming directly from work.

Matt is distressed because Crystal, a disabled woman on ODSP, has been turned away.  Crystal was sent back to the kitchen to argue with election judges and was turned away a second time. She is asked whether she paid her $5 membership fee.  Crystal responds that “someone else did. “ Myles and I go argue with the judges. Crystal paid her $5 fee in 2011 when Jack Layton was heading up the Party. Those who signed her up took her money and she never heard anything. When Saron’s team signed her up, they promised that this would not happen again and she would be able to vote.  The judge tells me that this is a violation of the Ontario NDP provincial constitution. “You all are polling at 12% and you are turning people away??!!” I ask. I tell them that this is classism.  Crystal asks to see proof of this. They can’t show it. Jill Marzetti walks by as I am arguing with the judge. She walks right in front of me and tells me that someone else paying Crystal’s $5 fee is “against the rules for Elections Canada”.  Later, Crystal refuses to leave and demands that she be reimbursed for her two-way transit fare.   One of the judges pulls $6 out of her pocket and gives it to Crystal.

These assertions from the judges about the illegality of someone else paying a new member’s fee all turn out to be lies. Very much like the PHP exec who shut down the first debate, we later call Elections Canada as well as look at the Ontario NDP Constitution and see that there is no rule at all whatsoever in either place that bans anyone else from paying a new member’s fee.

Jill Marzetti has apparently been muscling her way ‘round NDP circles for decades. Saron, months prior, had to meet with Marzetti and Gick in order to get cleared to pursue the nomination, which took a very long time. According to Saron, in this meeting, Jill Marzetti said that the current NDP Member of Provincial Parliament, Bhutila Karpoche, worked well in the Parkdale High Park riding as an MPP because Karpoche was, “exotic”. Marzetti felt empowered enough to openly echo this racism, so I guess we should not be too surprised when most of Saron’s base was literally not listed on the rolls and as a result, were literally sent back to the kitchen to make sure that they had properly registered. The lines became very long with the auditorium on one side of the wall filled with mostly white High Park NDP members who breezed though, and on the other side of the wall, almost all African members of Parkdale standing in line, some for as long as two hours.

We all started taking pictures of this visibly racist dynamic and were posting them online. I was not much of a Twitter user then, so I posted on Facebook trying to get the media to come down, which I knew was unlikely. Michael Laxer of the Left Chapter chimes in and offers to help. He sends out our pictures and alerts his audience that this was occurring.

Two of Saron’s supporters come through the door, one is registered to vote for her. His English is sparse. I just go ahead and suggest that he go wait at the line in the kitchen so he does not have to go through the indignity of waiting in the first line.

It is time for the candidates to get on the stage and address the crowd, even though some of Saron’s supporters are still waiting to talk to the election judges. Saron refuses to go onstage until her supporters are registered. Janet Solberg, who was in charge of overseeing the meeting, alerts the audience, they groan. Solberg comes comes back and Saron threatens to tell her supporters to walk out. “Look at this, it looks like Johnannesburg.”  We all start yelling at Solberg nonstop: Shame! Shame! Shame! I start screaming about the line. Solberg immediately orders the judges to give the rest of the folks in line ballots in order to shut us up. The judges do so. Lots of power to be able to override election judges, too bad that Solberg refused to use it in the beginning. Janet Solberg is a Lewis, something that she proudly declares on a regular basis. The Lewises have a long history of anti-leftism in the NDP. Solberg has killed BDS resolutions within the NDP. Her brother Stephen, as then-leader of the Ontario NDP threw out the Waffle, a left faction of the NDP in the 1970s. Janet was an early enthusiastic supporter of Paul Taylor. Not sure if she was part of the NDP clique that pulled him out of Vancouver and parachuted him into PHP before the nomination race, though it would make sense. Bringing on Paul Taylor, one who does slick photo-ops over any substance and one who ducks debates to stop a pro-BDS, anti-capitalist human rights lawyer who does not flinch under fire and who is will show up to any debate where she is invited. A win for the Lewises. Janet is also the aunt of Avi Lewis, the husband of Naomi Klein. Klein wrote Taylor a boilerplate endorsement. She backed a sanitized NGO liberal with no connections to the working class; no surprise.

Saron get up onstage and gives her speech. She is introduced by an important Toronto Black community leader.  Paul Taylor is next, he is introduced by several people and has teen girls get up on stage and do some kind of a chant for him. One of the many ways in which PHP has tilted this to Taylor. Hell, there were plenty of us to do that for Saron, even after those disenfranchised at the polls left early.  Taylor gives a speech about being Black, gay and growing up poor, which pleases the white latte left audience.  Parkin then speaks. Solsberg and other party hacks rush the voting process, tiling the doors. As an American who was new to the Canadian election system, I had a hard time following what was going on, but English being my first language, I kept up despite the warp speed in which this process was carried out so they could crown Paul the winner. People vote, they quickly collect the ballots and open the doors back up. I see the gentleman whom I escorted walking towards the back to where the votes are being carried. He is trying to vote. Jill Marzetti just coldly snaps at him: “No, you can’t vote now” and shuts the door to the area where the scrutineers are. Monster. If I do not write this here, people will still know that African-Canadian voters were humiliated and disenfranchised at the polls, they will find that out from other sources, but they will never know that this young man was on the wrong side of the quickly tiled doors and that Jill Marzetti barked at him on her way to the back. It is now written.

While the counting of the ballots is going on, a party hack comes out and does fundraising. Former MPP Cheri DiNovo donates $1600 to the Party despite her hearing us protesting and shouting just a few minutes before; and no, she didn’t bother to come back and see what was going on. A few weeks later, DiNovo as Reverend of Trinity St Paul’s Church on Bloor St would cheer with right-wingers on Twitter with glee as her board announced that the church was cancelling a Palestinian cultural event organized by the Palestinian Youth Movement a few days before it was supposed to take place. She stated that our criticisms of her were “misogyny”. Funny, as I a woman was one of the ones who asked her on Facebook why the cancelled the event, citing the influence of the JDL and the B’nai Brith. DiNovo states that the writer who was being honered at the event, the late Ghassan Kanafani, supported violence. I point out to her that the JDL is suspected in the 1985 murder of Palestinian-American head of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Alex Odeh. She immediately blocked me. She had a meeting with the youth organizers of the Palestinian event afterward and reportedly told them that criticism of her was “misogyny” and she took the issue of a whole people ethically cleansed from their own land since 1948 and made it about herself. At the time, I did not know that DiNovo had a very long history of anti-Palestinian activism and sentiment until Yves Engler publicly pointed it out after the church’s cancellation. For so long, DiNovo had it both ways.  Gallavanting with the Zionists and having the International Socialists of Canada GOTVing for her. Now, because of her anti-Palestinianism and her indifference to the June 23rd voter suppression have both become more public, those days of both ways will be no more.

The votes were counted and Taylor secured the nod. Most of us Saron supporters walked out. “This nomination meeting is a disgrace” was all I could say over and over. “This nomination meeting is a disgrace.” We got home and I just sat down, staring, still absorbing what had occurred. Myles is a good bit older than I and had been part of many elections since the 80s, he called it “a shitshow” and “the worst that [he] had ever seen”.

The brass saw our postings of the pictures on social media and immediately started to bully Saron, telling her to think about her political future. Initially overwhelmed, she backed off for a few days. The next week, she came charging back and had a press conference that the media did not attend. Saron soon told me what Jill Marzetti said about Bhutila Karpoche being “exotic” months earlier at her meeting with Jill and Charlotte and told me that I cite her as the source when I publicly report it.

Word immediately got out all over Canada and some parts of the US, people were very upset. This all happened around the time that the NDP overturned the nomination of Rana Zaman I Dartmouth-Cole, which added to the frustration of many NDPers at the top-down nature of the Party. However, there was not a large outcry inside of Toronto. NDP members in the West provinces have described Toronto’s NDP as an insular clique that is hostile to those they do not know and treat them like outsiders. Toronto had nothing really to say about the NDP’s nomination antics until Sid Ryan’s nomination was held up and he withdrew out of frustration. Ryan was able to use his race and class privilege to get the mainstream media like the Toronto Star as well as many Toronto NDPers to pay attention to his story. Others, like the African immigrants those who were forced to wait in long lines and were turned away at the polls on June 23rd at Lithuanian House, do not hold such sway with the press.

Between June 23 and the present, Taylor has said nothing about the voter disenfranchisement of poor and black immigrant voters. He hired an “equity consultant” who taught volunteers how to canvass. Nothing from her about the 23rd either. Taylor continues with photo-ops and boasting about his work at Foodshare at local candidates’ debates.  At one all-candidates’ debate where the fascist People’s Party of Canada candidate is invited, Taylor thanks all of the candidates onstage for presenting their vision of a better Canada.

If Paul Taylor dodges debates in the community, if he cannot take a stand on anything substantive on the campaign trail, how is he going to have enough backbone to stand up for the people in Parkdale-High Park as an MP? Sadly, despite its rich labour and anti-capitalist history, today’s NDP is a promotional vehicle for climbers who really do not believe in much of anything. A recipe of slick photo-ops with some social justice language to galvanize the urbanites. No, this definitely is not the NDP of old. Jagmeet Singh has proven this. While we can condemn any and all racism thrown his way, we can say that he is a weak leader who also does not really believe in anything. Myles and I wrote to Singh and warned him about the possibility that people could be turned away, yet we did not know that the 23rd would be as bad as it turned out to be. Matt Fodor met with Singh in person in Vancouver and showed him pictures of what transpired on the 23rd in August. Word has it that Singh was quite upset, but so far, nothing has been done. Even in a for-profit corporation if optics came out in the open of black employees or customers waiting in line while white people passed through and were immediately seated without a second thought, there would be people in the company who would lose their jobs. However, in the NDP, Melissa Bruno is still National Director of the NDP because she reportedly is close friends with Singh.

It is understandable why left activist groups avoid the NDP. Parkdale Organize, which has done wonderful work for tenants’ rights, immigrants’ and workers’ rights, doesn’t trust politicians and they are better off for it. Politicians are invited and like Taylor, will use the events as a photo-op. There is a great network of pro-Palestine activists who know better than to cast their fortunes on the NDP. The top-down nature of this party and its bureaucrats who only believe in personal glory and status has driven so many away. The community members who were disenfranchised on June 23 are taking the NDP before the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Saron may also go to the United Nations. Her advocacy for those who were so poorly treated has been ignored by the party brass. Ultra-partisans are saying that this is “sour grapes”.

The working class showed up to vote on June 23 and were turned away. In the words of political science professor David McNally: “this party has become so mainstream that they do not know who or what the working class is.”

Brandy Baker is a Green National Committee delegate for Maryland.