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From anarchic punk rocker to federal MP: The politicization of Charlie Angus

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Recently, rabble.ca's Meg Borthwick had the opportunity to speak with Charlie Angus, the federal NDP member for Timmins – James Bay. They talked about the Adams Mine campaign, how people became radicalized, and how that experience translates in how he does his job today.

Meg Borthwick: When you first moved from Toronto to the Timmins area, did you consider yourself an activist or political in any particular way?

Charlie Angus: I had been doing grassroots work in Toronto with the punk scene, I had been involved with the Catholic Worker movement, but none of it had been tied to a political party. I might have voted New Democrat a couple of times.

MB: So it's safe to say that as far as mainstream politics went you were pretty laissez-faire?

CA: The Catholic Worker movement was really grassroots, anarchist, DIY, very much like the punk movement. Organizing meetings, I avoided them like the plague. I was, like, let's just get out and do it, make change. The rest of the stuff, they were things I never, ever thought I'd be part of.

MB: How did the Adams Mine issue come to your attention after you left Toronto?

CA: When we first moved up, there were a number of environmental battles on the horizon. There was Temagami, the Red Squirrel blockade, so there were a number of actions. I hadn't been a part of any of that because most of the environmental battles were also class battles. I was living in a working class mining town. Local people were never encouraged to be part of that struggle. It always seemed to be part of the urban person's world. So I just went about my business. My wife and I started a magazine. We thought it would be good to publish a magazine that talked about resource issues, logging, class, culture, regional issues, and the Adams Mine struck me as a great story. You know, bringing a mega dump to the region, which was going through an economic downturn.

So I went to the first meeting and what I saw was this cauldron of emotion, and I thought it was a good idea to cover it. I think at the time I though the idea was so crazy, so bizarre, I just couldn't believe that anyone who wore a suit who sat behind a desk and read reports, could come up with this crazy idea and move it forward. The realization that people were willing to rubber-stamp it, because it was a big money project, that was a moment of radicalization for me. I realized that simply going to rallies, simply covering the story, wasn't good enough. The odds were already stacked against us and we realized that we were going to have to change the rules, or we were going to lose.

MB: Tell me about the local community at the beginning of that campaign. Were they politicized at all, radicalized at all, or was that a process that they went through?

CA: I think the process of radicalization happens when people suddenly realize that their voices don't count at all. So there were some interesting dynamics within the community. We did have some grassroots hippy environmentalists, back-to-the-land groups who worked together and had done some pretty radical stuff. The only issue was that they had never really worked with the blue collar people before.

MB: How did those groups get along at first?

CA: You see, this is what makes dump politics different from the usual environmental politics. Dump politics are always class-based. You know, middle class and rich people don't get incinerators in their backyards. Blue collar and poor people do, so the community could choose to go with the process, a process that screwed them over, or they could go with the grassroots environmentalists, and that was the beginning of radicalization. In the north there is an historic sense of grievance. The north sees itself as displaced, as defined by their land. The idea that all the wealth had left the north and was coming back as garbage, resonated deeply with people.

The interesting thing to watch were the mining belt farmers who had no experience with radical politics. The mining community had history with labour fights, they knew about organizing, but farmers are different. We had a bible belt in our region, and it was really interesting to watch the church people start organizing. There were really only two sides; you were either for the dump or against it.

MB: Was their any polarization within the community?

CA: There was enormous polarization, particularly in Kirkland Lake. It was very very rough. You have to remember that this was a time when the mines were closing. The farm belt people were already radicalized, but in Kirkland Lake, families were torn apart over the issue. It created huge divisions. The energy that should have gone towards building community went towards fighting each other. We saw doctors leaving, saying, 'I'm not staying here if there are going to be dumps,” people were leaving and we saw 60 years of development going down the drain.

MB: How did farmers, working people and First Nations, not traditional allies, come together?

CA: We had different leaders at different times. We had in our local First Nations extraordinary leadership. The bridge-building between urban and rural, farming and mining and First Nations was ground-breaking. In the farming community we had good leadership as well, good tacticians.

MB: This was a very long campaign, full of obstacles, frustrations, setbacks. How did people keep going?

CA: The longer it went on, the more drained we became, it became a matter of that old Steelworker saying, “One day longer. One day stronger.” There was no way we were going to allow these guys to win after all this time. We developed tactics like, nobody leaves a meeting without a job to do. When you have a meeting where everyone just complains, people leave feeling more demoralized because didn't make any decisions about what to do.

There were times when we were making up solutions on the spot, just to keep people engaged. Those engaging tasks were community-building in an extraordinary way. We'd make decisions like, this day all the farm women are going to get on the phone and tie up the phone lines at Toronto City Hall. We gave them a list of numbers to call and told them to call every 15 minutes. It drove the other side insane. We used to get calls from them, asking us to call our dogs off. Everyone left meetings with a task, and the more tasks they did, the more militant they became. They actually began enjoying the tasks. We always had to come up with funny ways to take the fight to the other side. It was like building the muscle of civil disobedience.

MB: Would it be fair to say that this anti-dump campaign and its result played a role in your decision to enter federal politics?

CA: My decision was entirely connected. I told Jack, I told the provincial NDP, that I couldn't run while the fight was on. We had everyone, Conservatives, Liberals, NDPers, and I knew that at that time my job was to keep people going, win the fight. Once the fight was over, I realized I'd gained some useful skills in community organizing, and I also realized that I never again wanted to be in a position where someone sitting behind a desk decided what was going to happen in my community, and that it was not in our best interests. I ran federally, and then John Vanthof, who was the leader of the farm organization, ran provincially and now we both represent the region.

MB: Now that you're one of those gray-haired guys in suits, how does it feel going into work every day and facing a government like Harper's?

CA: I'm appalled at the degradation of our system of government. These are the same thugs who tried to push the Adams Mine project through. They need people to stop them. We need to stop them, so on the days when I want nothing to do with parliament, I realize, they win. When people call their MP, they have a right to expect their MP to do due diligence. Sometimes their case isn't fixable. Sometimes they don't have a legitimate case, as angry as they might be. But sometimes I can say, “Yes, you're getting screwed and this is what we're going to do about it.”

What I learned from the Adams Mine is that sometimes you have to take the issue out of the Minister's office, take it to the people, come up with creative tactics. Those are pretty much the strategies and tactics I use. Actually, I don't think my tactics have changed at all. If anything, I'm more radical now.

Meg Borthwick is a freelance writer, activist, and moderates rabble's discussion forum, babble.


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