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Hub Dialogue: Karim Bardeesy on building a constituency for big ideas

In this Hub Dialogue, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Karim Bardeesy, the candidate for the Ontario Liberal nomination in Parkdale-High Park in anticipation of the next provincial election slated for June 2022.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

I’m pleased to be joined for today’s Hub Dialogue by Karim Bardeesy, a leading policy thinker and practitioner who has recently decided to pursue public office in next year’s Ontario election.

Karim’s resume is highly impressive. He’s currently the founder and executive director of the Ryerson Leadership Lab at Ryerson University. Before that, he was deputy principal security to Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and executive director of policy for Premier Dalton McGuinty. Karim also has experience as a journalist and a non-profit board member. He’s now pursuing an Ontario Liberal Party nomination in the Toronto-based riding of Parkdale-High Park.

We’ll talk about why he’s decided to run for public office, how we can build and mobilize movements for change, and how we must find ways to bridge culture, economic, and political divides in Ontario and the rest of Canada.

Karim, thank you so much for joining me.

Karim Bardeesy

Thank you for having me, Sean. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Sean Speer

You’ve had quite the vantage point into politics and the public policy process from various perspectives. As I mentioned, you’ve been a professor, a journalist, a senior adviser to elected officials and two premiers. Yet you’ve recently made the decision to put your own name on the ballot.

What does that say about the conventional wisdom which assumes power mostly resides with unelected advisors and that there’s not much scope for elected officials to influence and shape the policy agenda? Does your candidacy represent a direct challenge to that conventional wisdom?

Karim Bardeesy

I guess it does, but it’s a funny sort of conventional wisdom because it’s not the conventional wisdom that’s held by large parts of the electorate. The people who I’ve been talking to while canvassing assume that the people whose names are on the signs are the decision-makers. To the extent that they’re getting advice, it’s advice that is being received, considered, and then ultimately decided upon by the elected decision makers. So, for most people that I speak to, their view of politics and governance in Canada is that the decisions are made by the people that they elect and the people in the back rooms have a role that’s scoped and limited.

I’ve been very privileged to have some of the positions you’ve mentioned, and it’s always been in support of others and in support of a team. The great thing is about being in politics is how much of a team sport it is. But, at some point, you need to have an accountability for the things you stand for and believe.

For me, there’s something about being the person who is accountable that those in my position as a former advisor and now as a teacher shouldn’t necessarily shy away from. I’ve chosen with my family to make that decision to seek a higher level of accountability because it’s part of our system. It’s what I teach my students: that while leadership can come from anywhere in any position, it’s important who the people are that we choose to formally make these decisions on our behalf.

I’ll say two things about what’s kind of inspired me to run. One is that in elected life you can represent people and perspectives are that you are not yourself. So, in my case, the things that really got me off the sidelines and made me decide to run this time were the pandemic’s effects on young people such as my students. My students, in particular, were a real driving point because I kept coming back to the questions: who was giving them a voice? Who was helping bring their concerns around the caregiving responsibilities, deteriorating transportation options, and the sense of economic hopelessness that they had? I didn’t see those particular concerns being brought forward. So, I felt an accountability on their behalf, to bring their voice, even though I’m not a student nor have the caregiving responsibilities, the transportation concerns or the sense of economical helplessness that they had. But I felt an accountability to represent them.

The second reason is that while I’ve been lucky enough to work at a think tank developing ideas, I think there’s a tremendous opportunity to build a bigger constituency around those ideas. Some politicians use their platforms to build movements around their ideas, but maybe not enough of us take the ideas that we have, or the ideas that are inherent in our constituencies, and try to find a bigger platform for others who share their values or priorities. That’s another inspiration to running: I want to reach a larger constituency for the issues that matter to me and the people of Parkdale-High Park.

Sean Speer

That’s a good segue to my second question. You’ve just articulated an inclusive and aspirational vision of politics that aims to reach large segments of the population. But it’s fair to say that that’s not how politics typically functions. We see across the different political parties a tendency towards what might be described as a base mobilization politics. This may be good for winning elections but may not create the conditions for meaningful change. As someone who’s just entered the arena of elected politics, how do you balance your goal of inclusion and aspiration while accounting for the practicalities of getting yourself elected?

Karim Bardeesy

It’s a great question. In general, based mobilization isn’t a path to success for Liberals, unless you’re in Quebec perhaps, where anti-sovereigntist-based mobilization movements coalesces and in pre-Confederation Canada, where the reformist agenda would have consolidated around the Grits. Otherwise you need to appeal to and ultimately reach a large swath of voters.

There’s some scope for Liberals to mobilize their base by speaking to foundational questions of political values. However, we must be careful to avoid claiming (or appearing to claim) that the party’s values are synonymous with Canadian values. We can be guilty of that sometimes. I think it should be understood an aspiration rather than a one-to-one mapping.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m averse to highlighting where parties or politicians differentiate from their opponents. I think there’s some issues on which political parties of any stripe need to create those clear contrasts. For example, in the current context, I’d include issues like the extent to which vaccines should be mandatory in various professions or, issues concerning monopolies and oligopolies in our some of our regulated sectors. These are issues for Liberals to join other progressives and, frankly, people in all parties, to speak to the interests and concerns of voters.

It’s important for politicians to explain how they differ from their opponents. There’s a place for that because it helps clarify the work to be done to build the kind of society that we want. I don’t like it when it’s divisive though, and that’s why I think the question of vaccinations has to be done very intentionally. And I think, to identify two Liberals who have done this, Steven Del Duca, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party, and Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who you’ve previously had join for a Hub Dialogue.

A big part of this involves talking in complete sentences. When we say “we’re mobilizing this base”, it must be clear that it doesn’t mean “we’re against the people who aren’t in the base.” I think that’s a really important to remember. I’m running in Parkdale High-Park which is an incredibly diverse riding of a large number of microclimates. You have the Parkdale part of the riding, which is very different from the High Park part of the riding, or the condos near the lake. There’s social housing in different parts of the riding; there’s high rises in some parts of the riding; there’s older money and there’s some new money; there’s a lot of displacement of people who are being priced out of the riding, which is one of its key issues. It’s home to tremendous diversity and it’s incumbent upon its elected representative to find a way to be representative of this diversity of experience, backgrounds, and perspectives.

The riding is typically a two-way race between Liberals and New Democrats. The NDP in general seems to be better at base mobilization. But that is changing. For instance, when I was joining the Ontario Liberal Party, I was excited about it because the party promised to get rid of coal-fired electricity and establish full-day kindergarten. Today, the federal Liberal Party’s action on climate change and childcare similarly is exciting and bold. I think there’s a place for a bold vision in Liberal parties that can mobilize a base of support and then speak beyond it.

A couple of my mentors in grad school, and people whose work I teach at Ryerson, include thinkers of the activist left like Marshall Ganz, Hahrie Han, Jane McAlevey, whose have ideas about power and the generation of power on behalf of dispossessed people would be very familiar to people on the left. It represents a base mobilization approach that speaks about gaining and using power in the language of activists. Liberals don’t tend to be activists in the same way. And, in fact, the majority of the population are not activists. I see my part of my work, therefore, which comes from my work at Ryerson, to resolve the following question: How do I take this language of activism, rooted in ideas about power, and make it apply to people who don’t see themselves as activists? How do I make it apply to people who, when they hear the word power, don’t just think it’s about Liberals wanting to grab power? But that this is actually about gaining and using power for others to solve complex problems?

Which brings me to the issue of mass-based mobilization. It’s really important that politicians and parties aim to build larger coalitions for change. It’s ultimately how to achieve durable change.

This is particularly important in areas where there is not yet a policy consensus. Let me give one example: there are huge, new challenges facing young people’s economic future. Yet making progress on these issues requires building a base that is demanding better economic conditions in the short-term and more opportunity in the long-term. That requires the building of a base, including base mobilization — as well as conversations around power and the policies that we need to respond to this unprecedented situation around the relative lack of wealth among the newer generation.

Sean Speer

We’ve talked so far about building constituencies across differences. One of the one of the biggest fault lines in Ontario society is the urban-rural divide which is reflected in various economic, political, and socio-cultural differences between those who live in big cities and those in small towns.

You have an interesting perspective on this question. You’re a Torontonian and you’re running in a Toronto riding people, but you grew up in New Brunswick where you were exposed firsthand to some of the unique opportunities and challenges associated with living in rural areas. How do you think about this question of Canada’s urban-rural divide? How can your unique set of experiences and perspectives enable you to bridge that growing divide in Ontario politics?

Karim Bardeesy

So, I’m from Bathurst, New Brunswick, which is situated at the northeast coast of the province with a population of about 11,500-12,000. My family got there in 1976, when the population was closer to 16,000. But then the two major industries, mining and pulp and paper, subsequently faced challenges. They’re now largely gone. My high school was the only English-language high school for, I think, 60 kilometers in any direction. So, this question resonates with me in a couple of ways.

The pandemic is obviously showing this in a different way: the high degree of interdependence. My immediate reality may be Toronto but the larger reality is one of interdependence across places and communities.

This is very much the case even amongst my students. Ryerson is known to be an urban, commuter university, but like other universities in Ontario, it draws students from a variety of towns, mostly in Ontario, and they add to the richness of the campus life, just like people from other communities and even countries. Those are some basic observations that may seem kind of obvious, but they need to be said because when we start to narrowcast about who we are and what our identity is, we start to forget those interdependencies.

After I left New Brunswick, I did my undergraduate degree in Quebec and lived there for six years. That’s another set of relationships that we need to account for. I don’t think we fully appreciate its culture and politics and place in Canada; I don’t think we’re developing enough policy leaders or other forms of young leaders who have enough experience, not even only both official languages, but just in the province of Quebec compared to other regions of Canada. I think it’s really important. It’s something we need to find more ways to develop.

My observation on this general question is that there’s a lot that unites us. I would refer to some of the issues around climate and youth economic opportunity as things that appear to transcend regions, and it’s incumbent on political parties and policymakers to think about how those things impact different people and different regions. Let’s take the common set of interests or values and let’s just figure out the ways that they can be locally translated in the best way possible. The pandemic has illustrated something that people in rural Ontario and Canada often say, but is sometimes not heard in urban centres, which is they have a role to play in this sort of larger national economic story. And we’re seeing it play out in the pandemic, especially with the rise of real estate prices in provinces like New Brunswick.

As an illustration of this interdependence, the truth is if we can build greater economic futures outside Toronto, it can actually make housing in Toronto a little more affordable. I know the housing market is much more complicated than that, but one factor behind the exorbitant prices is most of the province’s economic activity and job growth is concentrated in a small number of places. If we could boost growth and opportunity in more places, it would reduce the pressure on the City of Toronto. It’s incumbent upon policymakers therefore to make decisions that show that interdependence or have an appreciation for that interdependence.

In the riding I’m running in for the nomination, there’s a number of different kinds of shared issues and concerns around transit. Now, the lived experience of a renter in high rise or someone in community housing may be quite different than one’s experience as a homeowner, but I think sometimes we also need to appreciate interdependence among different demographics, while still considering their respective interests and needs.

Sean Speer

One final question. Although you decided for stand for election in the province, we’re in the midst of a federal election campaign and I’d remiss if I didn’t about it.

One thing that I’ve been struck is the extent to which the various party promises touch on provincial and local jurisdiction. It’s not uncommon for the jurisdictional lines to be blurred in the context of the federal election campaign, but in this particular campaign it seems like it’s even more blurred than usual.

As an aspiring provincial politician, what do you think about that? Is it a good thing or is it a bad thing? How would you respond to the extent to which the federal campaign seems to be prioritizing issues for which lower orders of government are ultimately responsible?

Karim Bardeesy

If I may be a bit more partisan for a moment, I believe that if the provinces had been sufficiently competent in their areas of jurisdiction, the overall pandemic experience, especially in Ontario, would have been very different. There’s been a lack of accountability because we have yet to have elections in provinces like Ontario or Alberta. There hasn’t yet been an opportunity for true democratic accountability.

There is the occasional pushback on some of the really outrageous events like in April 2021, when the Ontario Premier announced the closure of the playgrounds and the reinstitution of carding for 24 hours. Until we finally have an election in which Ontarians can express themselves on the government’s performance on these specific decisions and others, there will be limit on accountability.

Second, although the federal government was more active than usual in provincial spheres during the pandemic, there were self-imposed limits: they still weren’t doing all the things.

There was, for example, an argument around the use of the Quarantine Act or the federal spending power in areas of provincial jurisdiction. But the Prime Minister stopped just short of calling out the areas in which provinces were not necessarily delivering. One exception is where he called in the army to help out in long-term care homes. To me, that was very dramatic. I used the first letter that was issued upon the report from the military on the conditions of nursing homes for my teaching. That letter that was issued when the federal army was investigating and helping the situation in long-term care homes.

That’s probably the ultimate display of federal involvement in an area of provincial jurisdiction. It was such a grave emergency and thank God they intervened. But at the same time, we didn’t have the language, accountability, or a way of illustrating who was responsible in those areas. This is of course a time for national mobilization and where the provinces weren’t able to use their tools, the national government has used more of its tools.

I’ll say another thing about this, though, which is why I’m running for provincial office. I don’t accept that it is the federal government’s job to do this work alone. I don’t accept that because the provincial government gets less media interest, or less more generally attention, makes it less important. The constituents of Parkdale-High Park definitely understand how important education, healthcare, and long-term care are for them and their families

In the context of the United States, the American media ecosystem privileging national politics over local and regional policy and politics kind of distorts their understanding of what matters, where the action needs to be, and citizens’ understanding of how things work. And to some extent, that might be happening in Canada. It risks distorting the role of a national politics, in terms of some of the issues that are affecting people on the ground. I worry that’s creating a path in turn where there’s less attention on what’s happening provincially. You compare the size of press galleries, for instance, nationally versus provincially, you’ll see some real dramatic change. The national press galleries are still quite substantial and the provincial ones have really shrunk.

So, we have some work to do. I don’t endorse widespread federal involvement in provincial issues. I think it’s incumbent on provincial governments to step up and, perhaps for people like me to step up, and try to show a better path towards more effective policy and governance at the provincial level.

Sean Speer

Well, in that vein, Karim, we were grateful for the chance to speak to you today. Thanks for your time, and good luck on the campaign trail.

Karim Bardeesy

Thanks so much. I really appreciate the time.

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