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Zahra Sultani: If you can’t handle the party nomination heat, get out of the kitchen

Commentary

Running a marathon is not for the weak. Running for political office is even more grueling.

As someone who has run marathons, I could not imagine becoming a candidate for a political party. It is like doing a full marathon at the pace of a 400-metre dash. 

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the old chestnut of party nomination race unfairness take centre stage once again. This time it was National Post columnist turned federal Conservative nominee contender in Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill Sabrina Maddeaux, who decried a “corrupted process” and “potential illegal actions taken by another campaign.” She said that the party had not responded to her concerns—though party officials later said what she alleged was not true. Maddeaux opted to pull out of the race as a result.

Becoming a party nominee typically requires a vast network of supporters, dozens of generous donors, and a large group of fully dedicated volunteers that not only are predisposed to your political party of choice, but are prepared to support you personally to become a general election candidate. 

Even if a candidate is able to secure this key foundation, he or she still needs to understand how the game is played. Navigating the inner politics of each party is often harder than competing with opponents from other parties—particularly in so-called “safe ridings” where the party nomination race is effectively deciding who will become the riding’s next representative.

As of the September 2021 federal election, there were 338 electoral districts across the country. If reports are correct, with five new districts now created, there will be 343 electoral districts for the 2025 federal election. Accounting for just the three major political parties and assuming there are roughly four candidates per party nomination (though in some cases there can be fewer or more), there are thousands of Canadians who stand for nomination elections each cycle.

The different political parties broadly rely on the same nomination process to select their local candidates. The way it works is that, while the particular rules differ for each party, basically anyone in each riding who is 14 years or older and has permanent residency can become a member of the party for a nominal fee. (It is now free for the Liberal Party of Canada.) The membership is typically closed at some point prior to the nomination vote and only those who are members of good-standing by a certain date can cast their vote for the candidate of their choice. 

This incentivizes candidates to both sell memberships at scale and then try to persuade those among the “closed membership” to vote for him or her. Some have argued that there shouldn’t be the option to sell memberships during a nomination race. That is to say, the selection should be limited to pre-existing members. The problem with this thinking is that precludes the kind of energy and growth that’s typically needed to win general elections. This is especially true in opposition-held ridings. Competitive nomination races can inject a lot of the people and resources that can ultimately help the winning candidate flip the riding in the subsequent election.

I have experience with a number of nomination races over the years during my time at the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party’s. There is not a single nomination race that concludes without some conflicts and disagreements. They usually stem from different factors, including claims that the rules established by the political party have preferenced one candidate or another. To be fair to political parties, this is not a system that they invented but is a dupe of how our general election works—with all the issues and shortcomings that come with it. 

Over the past few months, we’ve seen some nomination candidates chose to drop out of their respective nomination races claiming foreign interference, suspicious activities by opponents, character assassinations, or unfair access to party memberships. This has started a conversation online about how the political parties should address such allegations and what is the best way to hold nominations. There are even those who have argued that we ought to effectively nationalize political parties by subjecting their processes to Elections Canada’s oversight.

There are two main problems with this. First, although political parties are key institutional parts of our democracy, they’re still ultimately private institutions with their own preferences and values. The Reform Party’s approach to internal democracy was obviously different than the old Progressive Conservative Party. Standardizing political parties under the imposition of a narrow set of common rules would homogenize our politics.

Second, what most people are missing when it comes to issues like this is that candidates face the exact same problems, in a bigger magnitude, during the general election. Forget the rose-coloured concepts like democracy, transparency, and integrity. Elections in Canada are dog fights. And, for good reason. The issues are stake—including fundamental tensions between freedom and equality or liberty and order—ultimately matter.

A particular candidate might be a leader’s favourite or the campaign team’s favourite, just like Rana Sarkar, who was allegedly a close with top advisor Gerald Butts in a 2014 federal Liberal Party nomination at Don Valley North. Yet Geng Tan reportedly brought over a thousand people in buses to vote for him in that nomination race and ultimately won. Leading up to the 2018 election, Ontario PC nomination candidates would at times come and dump thousands of membership forms for a single nomination race, some of which were later reported to be bogus.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, right, speaks with Paul Pelletreau while door knocking for his byelection campaign, in Burnaby, B.C., on Saturday January 12, 2019. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

That is to say, no one would argue that the party nomination process is perfect. Identity politics and diaspora organizing create other big challenges to nominations as large groups in a community blindly sign up for memberships just because a leader or the head of the household, usually a father or grandfather, tells them to do so. In some ridings, you can have one set of voters show up on nomination day, one that does not necessarily vote in the general election. 

The issue with many “star” candidates who come from academia, media or business is that they can be out of touch with the realities of how elections are won in this country. There are exceptions of course. But the notion of the star candidate descending on a riding—particularly one that he or she has little connection to—often fails.

Which brings me to a key point: whatever the flaws of a party nomination race, it’s realistically speaking a good practice for what candidates have to face on election day. Winning a party nomination, in other words, is good battle testing for the general election. Foreign interference and smear campaigns are by no means the sole domain of party nominations, after all.

If you run for nomination for a political party, keep your head down and work hard. Most people in a riding do not really care about your impressive background in law, or journalism, or the corporate world, but they will care if they see you work hard. “Buzz” can only take you so far. Stay away from fancy events and panel talks with audiences that won’t contribute to membership sales or votes. Twitter is not the real world. Focus on tasks that matter: the thankless grunt work done in the political mud. 

That involves selling memberships and engaging with communities in your riding. Selling memberships is one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. You have to spend a lot of time on it. There is no shame in realizing you can not sell enough memberships and if you think the race is unfair, communicate with the party officials and just work harder.

When you choose to run for a political party, it ostensibly means you have enough faith and understanding of how that party works. If you choose to drop out instead of fighting to the end, and air party dirty laundry publicly, then you are probably not fit to be a candidate anyway. Instead, consider leaving gracefully with your head held high and your dignity intact.

Lisa Crawford: Loveship Griefship—What Alice Munro taught a generation of women about our lives

Commentary

Alice Munro, oracle of the lives of girls and women, master of Southern (Ontario) Gothic and the dispassionate literary gut punch, has left us.

Deeply sad for the literary community, it is a much deeper blow to my specific community—Canadian women who have always loved to write and who, thanks to Munro, believed that we could and even should. Women from Southern Ontario, who saw ourselves in the characters and the cadence of life and the place names, who believed the same. Who have carried love-worn copies of The Progress of Love or Hateship Friendship Courtship Loveship Marriage around for years, hoping to absorb the brilliance by osmosis. Or perhaps just to remember the feeling of being seen.

Munro didn’t wholly belong to us, of course. She was an international literary star, the subject of unrestrained critical praise and reverent academic study. Famous and yet not (I have spent the last few days explaining her significance to a host of Americans), she made writers everywhere understand how sparse, simple language could ring with the howl of human pain. She made us understand, frustratingly, that the nearly unreachable gold standard was to achieve the same. 

(I have debated whether she should be referred to as Alice or Munro and landed on Munro—Alice is too intimate, too familiar, for one who knew me intimately without knowing me at all.)

More than literary aspirants, Munro’s women were once young girls, eager acolytes, who learned what being a woman was and would be from Alice Munro’s stories. 

There was a darkness to this, you understand. There was nothing that you couldn’t read in Munro without discovering what was waiting for your adult self. Sometimes that was terrifying. 

Munro saw us. She taught us. She warned us.

She saw our desires and our frustrations and our limitations, our relationships with our lot in life, and our free will or lack thereof. She saw the inner wars that our ancestors, our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, fought with their own lots in life. And where we (erstwhile) newer women stood in this generational chain reaction.

Munro saw us in our weakness and our shame(s) and our strength.

She saw the relentlessness of women, our obligation to keep going no matter what, to keep others going no matter what. She saw the toll it took on us all. Munro understood epigenetics before it was a thing we talked about.

She taught us, also, that there was nothing to be done.

She taught us that the fix was in. Our responsibilities and our pain were to be borne, to be accepted. Sometimes cheerily, sometimes not. Underneath but never answered was the question of what it does to us to bear things, cheerily or not, but especially cheerily.

There was also the question of how the mundane could be sacred and stabilizing and also toxic. 

That was our cultural heritage, the lineage of hardscrabble Protestant settlers, of (usually) United Empire Loyalists who opposed manifest destiny and big ideas for the tradition of the Crown. Southern Ontario Gothic, indeed.

Munro taught us that our cultural and familial repression would save and sustain and scar us.

But that’s too cerebral. Munro got us in the gut. She warned us of what was coming.

She warned us that being a woman was an occasionally glorious, usually mundane, ripoff. That womanhood was a journey of physical gore, the painstaking management of unmanageable emotions, and the tiny but weighty (or giant) emotional betrayals of our loved ones—men, parents, children.

She warned us with the Lives of Girls and Women’s Del, Lichen’s Stella, and, my God, Dimensions’ Doree.

This is the darkness of which I speak.

For her trouble, she faced protest and the dreaded threat of book-banning—an experience in which she was (be still my heart) apparently supported and mentored by no less a literary gut puncher than Margaret Laurence, whose opus The Diviners titillated curious young minds (including and especially mine) with its naughty bits and then-radical presentation of a woman living freely and on her own terms.

Munro was supremely us and not of us at the same time.

A writer’s writer and Canadian’s Canadian, she was regarded by the world in a series of contradictions—even and especially in death. Her recognition was global, her work specific in location but universal in humanness. Though Munro was beloved by the Canadian cultural establishment, even its often self-hating gatekeepers, her stories were most often published as stand-alones in the New Yorker.

Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro attends a ceremony held by the Royal Canadian Mint to celebrate her win where they unveiled a 99.99% pure silver five-dollar coin at the Great Victoria Public Library in Victoria, B.C., Monday, March 24, 2014. Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press.

Better known in some quarters for the screen adaptations of her work (Sarah Polley’s dazzling film Away from Her, from The Bear Came Over the Mountain; the Kristen Wiig-starring Hateship Loveship from, well, the one with the long name), Munro was remembered by entertainment trade Variety with this headline: “Alice Munro, Nobel Prize-Winning Canadian Author of ‘Away From Her,’ Dies at 92.”

(A word of warning: if you haven’t seen Away from Her, don’t follow my example and watch it on a plane. You will find yourself blubbing uncontrollably before an audience of strangers, likely from the indignity of a middle seat.)

World-class but of a curious place unheralded to the rest of the world, the Munro depicted in the media (and in many an obituary) writes of a mostly poor constituency located in dusty small towns. That seems wrong to me. And her characters were no different in soul, I am sure, from those in Wisconsin or the Dakotas or Mississippi or several other places I could name. 

But Munro gave us a sense of place. She didn’t write for the big red push-pins on the map. She wrote for the places with a dot the size of a regular old period. 

I write this from my adopted Californian home, surrounded by the ubiquitous desert dust in the land of Joan Didion, with the dirt of Kent County still under my fingernails.

Munro gave us an emotional journey of ancestors and place and sense memory. When I read the description of Munro’s forebears, Protestant settlers in Huron County, which takes up fully a third of her official Nobel Prize bio, I wept. 

In Munro’s Gothic Ontario I saw my own ancestors—the Crawfords with their farmland in the Huron-adjacent Kent County (a few of them teachers, naturally), generations of men named Peter Roy, including my grandfather. The protagonist of a Munro-style story about my family would, rightfully, centre on the displacement felt by our matriarch, my grandfather’s hot-blooded Italian wife, whose Southern Ontario Gothic experience reverberated with an undercurrent of rage. 

In their lives, and all of our lives, there are potential Munro-style stories everywhere. But only she could execute in her way. Only she could see us, teach us, warn us about who we really are.

Alice Munro taught us how to see. We are ever in her emotional wake, Munro’s women and her writers both, and we are ever in her debt.