Charlie Angus's journey from punk rock to activism to politics

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Charlie Angus Got Your Back Tour 2017. Image: Facebook/Charlie Angus

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Charlie Angus was for many years an activist punk rocker with the bands "L'Étranger" (which took its name from the Camus novel) and the "Grievous Angels." As a musician, he was focused on social justice issues, such as South African apartheid and homelessness. In his own words, however, he was "peripheral to politics."

That changed in 1989 when Angus got involved in what he calls the Adams Mine War. (He wrote a book about it.) The nub of the dispute was the fact that the city of Toronto wanted to dump its garbage into an abandoned mine in Kirkland Lake, in northern Ontario.

"The project," he says, "would have had serious implications for the groundwater of our region and the people whose job it was to protect the public interest failed us."

Those "people" were elected officials. In response, Angus decided to get involved in party politics himself and took out an NDP membership. He remembers well the day he decided to take the next step and run for office.

"It was Thanksgiving night, 2000, when the police were storming on the road to come and arrest my neighbours who were farmers, First Nations people and miners," he recounts. "I made the decision that night that I would never, ever, be in a position again where a community would have to take the risk of forming a blockade to have their voice heard in a public process."

Angus says it was a wake-up call for him to see how lobbyists and corporate interests undermined the Adams Mine process. Jack Layton, then a member of the Toronto City Council, was a major ally of the northern Ontario protesters.

"That was not easy for a councillor from downtown Toronto," Angus says today, and it was Layton who convinced the northern Ontario activist to run for office in 2004. Angus won that election, in Timmins-James Bay, and the four elections since then.

A northerner who made a name for himself in Toronto

Charlie Angus is originally from northern Ontario -- his parents were both the children of gold miners -- but moved south when he was young. His dad taught at a community college in Toronto and took the family with him. Angus spent a good part of his youth in the Queen City, where he met Andrew Cash to form his first band.

It was his wife, Brit Griffin, who precipitated the move back north.

"She was from Alberta and did not want to live in Toronto," he says, "so in 1990 we moved to Cobalt just as all the mines were closing down."

Even the grocery store had just shut down. "It was not a town with a future," he laughs.

But there they were, and Charlie went to work as a chimney sweep and carpenter; and then became a journalist, founding a magazine, Highgrader, and working freelance for the CBC and others.

Angus did not run for the leadership last time, in the wake of Jack Layton's death, because he felt the NDP caucus, then the Official Opposition, needed some of its more experienced voices to stay focused on the work in the House. This time, he says, it was the election of Trump that prompted him to run.

"It shook us all," he explains, "that the progressive movement in the U.S could lose blue collar votes because they just did not bother talking to them. They felt they could speak for these communities without talking to them."

He sees the potential danger in Canada of the same, or at least a similar, phenomenon.

"Canadians are disconnecting from politics," he says frequently, "because they don't see politicians connecting to their reality."

When asked about concrete policies that would appeal to working-class voters, Angus tends to resort to general notions of establishing equilibrium in the economic order. As do other leadership candidates, he worries about the impact of the gig economy and precarious work, and points out that the working class, these days, includes white-collar professionals as well as blue-collar miners and factory workers.

Angus's main selling point to NDP members is mostly a matter of style, the fact that he comes from the working class and "can speak to people in their own language."

His specific policies include a tax break for the working poor and higher taxes, beyond the level to which the Trudeau government has raised them, on those who earn more than $250,000 per year. He also wants the federal government, as an employer, to set an example and hire more people full-time, rather than on term contracts. And he proposes extending employment insurance to "self-employed people in the gig economy."

In the course of the leadership campaign, Angus promises to unveil other tax policies, including a hike to the capital gains rate. The original intent of taxing capital gains at a rate lower than earned income, he argues, was to encourage industry to invest, especially in research and innovation. But industry is not doing that these days, Angus complains.

"There needs to be recognition that a great many corporations are not investing in research and have walked away from the benefits, such as health and defined benefit pensions, they used to provide to their workers. And so we're going to have to work on a revision of the tax code."

That's Angus's pledge, but we will have to wait for the details.  

Ending a colonial system

Charlie Angus is perhaps best known as a passionate and articulate advocate in Parliament for Indigenous people. His number 1 Indigenous policy priority is for the federal government to accept the ruling of the human rights tribunal that said child services for First Nations were dangerously and woefully inadequate.

He points out that this is a life and death situation, and evokes the case of the Wapekeka Reserve where two young girls, Chantel Fox and Jolynn Winter, took their own lives this past winter. They were both only 12 years old. When, in the wake of those deaths and fearing more, the community asked Health Canada for emergency funds to hire and train mental health workers, a federal official actually answered that it was an "awkward time" in the federal funding cycle.

The official was underscoring the absurd, archaic and unworkable contribution agreement system for funding basic services in First Nations communities. It is a system the Auditor General's office has condemned repeatedly, for more than a decade, and about which we have written much in this space.

The solution, Angus says, is that the federal government must provide assured, long-term block funding rather than grants. Further, he says, we must move away from the control of First Nations lives by the federal departments of Indigenous Affairs and Health. He characterizes the two as "colonial institutions." However, the northern Ontario MP recognizes that it would be wrong and foolish to simply transfer what are now the federal government's roles in education, health and other services to small, poorly resourced and isolated First Nations bands.

"You're going to have to work on economies of scale, whether by treaty or nation area," he explains. "How we will get there will come through negotiations. In my region, Treaty 9, it would be fairly straightforward to transfer education, health, housing and social services to the Treaty 9 Council. Enormous amounts of money are spent by Indigenous Affairs -- on consultants and bureaucracy, for example -- they are just spent on all kinds of things that do not reach the communities." 

Despite much rhetoric about reconciliation with First Nations and other Indigenous peoples in Canada, the Trudeau government has made little progress on the funding, management and, ultimately, self-government issues that are at the heart of the dreadful conditions among Indigenous peoples. There is a natural opening there for the NDP.

Appealing to diverse audiences

Of all the NDP leadership candidates, Angus is likely the one who has devoted the most time and energy to working, and fighting for, Indigenous Peoples. Just as going out on a limb in support of the Adams Mine protesters might not have been the best way for Toronto city councillor Jack Layton to curry favour with his urban constituents, one wonders how favourably non-Indigenous Canadians view Angus's preoccupation with Indigenous issues.

When asked what Canadians tell him about his preoccupation with Indigenous issues, Angus admits, a bit ominously: "I have heard it all."

He then adds, more hopefully, "I believe Canadians have moved dramatically forward. Canadians don't understand all the ins and outs of what went wrong on the treaties, for example. But they do understand that we need to move ahead and fix this. I think both blue-collar and middle-class Canadians want Canada to step up and do the right thing."

And that is the key to Charlie Angus's appeal.

He wants to plumb his own biography and grassroots experience to create a discourse that will appeal to people across the many natural and unavoidable lines of division in this country.

Can he succeed?

Well, this is a candidate who started his professional life playing the electric bass and performing politically aware punk rock on a stage. Whatever else you can say about Charlie Angus, he is almost certainly the only leadership candidate who knows what it means to put his political message to music.

This article is part of a series profiling candidates in the 2017 NDP leadership race. Read the full series here.

Image: Facebook/Charlie Angus

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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