Tapping Into Prairie Roots: An Engagement Challenge for the Federal NDP

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The New Democratic Party of Canada was born on the prairies.  Spun from soil, grain and sweat, the party we call the NDP came into being as a Western Canadian populist-party, steeped in social-democratic ideology. Despite proud roots and prairie pedigree (not to mention the staggering 103 seats in present Parliament) the federal NDP party only holds a total of three seats in their wellspring.

Nikki Ashton (Churchill, MB), Pat Martin (Winnipeg Centre, MB) and Linda Duncan (Edmonton – Strathcona, AB) are presently the only NDP MPs from the prairies planted in Ottawa.  Despite Saskatchewan being the source of political primordial ooze that the CCF evolved from, the NDP has a grand total of zero seats federally in that province. British Columbia has always been an NDP hotbed. Ontario experiences love for the NDP in waves. Quebec recently went for a ride on the Orange Wave that swept the country in 2011. Manitoba? Saskatchewan? Alberta? A giant voter desert, with several pockets of Tang colored voter oases.

Realizing that there is a persistent voter engagement problem in the prairies, the NDP is now on a grassroots mission to fortify their flock in the flat-lands, dig ideological wells and fill them with clean water for the faithful to sip from, and bring the stray sheep back into the fold. Behold: http://prairiebreakthrough.ca

As a part of that initiative, Tom Mulcair, Megan Leslie, Pat Martin and Rebecca Blaikie were out and about in Winnipeg yesterday, rallying the ground troops and preparing to map out the terrain for the 2015 battle.

In an unusual stroke of fate, my schedule allowed for me to participate in the Prairie Breakthrough event held in Winnipeg.  It was a fantastic opportunity to engage in discussion with other social democrats from around the city, listen to key leaders within the party, participate in in-depth discussions about hot topic issues/policy/future planning in the region. (Tom Mulcair even gave my eldest daughter a pat on the head, which she thought was pretty cool. )
Breakout discussions were focused on four major themes:

  1. Rural & Ag
  2. Urban
  3. Indigenous Rights
  4. National

The second half of the day was campaign skills training, and there was a significantly smaller group of participants on-hand for this portion of the event. The discussion targeted two major areas of concern: engagement and fundraising.
Despite being energized by the event, enjoying the networking and hands-on participation in the group discussions, by the end of the event, I was feeling frustrated, and even a little bit angry.  Why? The goals and desires being espoused were not matching up with the methodology.

  • The NDP has voiced a desire to engage and involve greater numbers of FNMI people, women, and new Canadians.
  • The NDP wants to raise funds and drive membership.

When I looked around the room, I was able to see a microcosm of the Party. The bulk of the participants were male. Nearly all were Caucasian and predominantly in the Baby Boomer demographic. There were a handful of Baby Boomer women, a smattering of Millennials (mostly male, several female) and several male GenXers. There were two individuals in the group that identified as Aboriginal (one a male Boomer, one a female Millennial) and then there was me.  I was the sole GenX female attending. Beyond the two people who identified as Aboriginal, there were no other visible minorities.

  • Where were the GenX women?
  • Where were the new Canadians?
  • Where were people of color, especially women?
  • Why were they not coming out to these events?

It comes back to the issue of how the NDP is going about targeting these demographics.

I had spent my afternoon listening to the youthful, bright and energetic facilitators discussing traditional methods of canvassing: phone, mail, door-knocking, email, forums.

Which is peachy…if you want to draw elderly white people.

I’m not an elderly white person. This does not engage me. This does not engage my peers.

a) I screen my phone calls

b) I don’t read bulk mail

c) I don’t answer my door to strangers/solicitations

d) I can rarely go out to a forum, especially on a week-night

e) I suffer from massive fundraising fatigue.
I’m not alone in this.
So I asked myself:

If the NDP were a corporate brand, and not a political party, how would they go to market, to reach out to these key groups, and drive loyalty?

I offered some solutions. Start with moving beyond the status quo forms of canvassing and recruitment on order to move beyond the tired “think outside the box” mantra.

Forget the box. Get rid of the box. Smash the box.

1 – Eliminate barriers to event access/training/information. Offer webcasts that people can tune into from the comfort of their homes, when they have time. Facilitate online training. Utilize tools like Skype & YouTube.

2 – Hold “tool box lunch” events in coffee shops and restaurants all over town, regularly. Offer quick snippets of training to people who want it, in a neutral atmosphere, and keep enthusiasm and commitment by making it a regular event, not just something to ramp up to an election.

3 – Offer childcare at events. Why were there so few 30 to 40 year old women (and men) in the crowd? Maybe it’s because they’re parents. Which is probably why the number of college students and grandparents are significantly higher than those of us in the middle of Breederland. This may also allow new Canadian women a chance to get out of the house and attend an event, without having to ask their husbands for his support.

4 – Social media can trump traditional canvassing/fundraising methods and jump over the spin of right wing media. Host Twitter parties like corporate brands do. Hold live interactive discussions with leaders.

5 – Everyone has their hands in our wallets, and if you want us to contribute to the NDP coffer, you need to make sure we can see a tangible ROI, or at least how handing over our money becomes a value-added benefit in our lives. Why should I sign up to give my $20/mo. to a political party that serves old white guys, when I could sock it away for braces for my kid or tithe it at church? Two reasons that are compelling – it can now go directly to your specific riding association rather than Big Fed and it’s a much needed tax deduction.

When I sat back down – head spinning, heart racing and palms sweating – I was met with a room full of table thumping, whistles, cheering and applause that rang in my ears.

You love me! You really love me! /inner Sally Field moment

You can engage with the folks working on the Prairie Breakthrough Campaign too, by following along via Twitter @PrairieNDP


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Tia is a mystery, wrapped in an enigma and covered in a crunchy candy coating of genuine British Columbian snark. She is currently exiled to Winnipeg for an unknown duration of time.

2 thoughts on “Tapping Into Prairie Roots: An Engagement Challenge for the Federal NDP”

  1. this is a fantastic piece!

    lots of good ideas here for how the party can get out of its box, but the party, like most parties is comfortable inside its box. i’m not sure how to get them to take a risk and get out.

    but after giving them the roadmap to engage with those who are harder to reach from inside the box, they can cheer and everything, but if they keep doing the same old box-bounded activities, you know that they’ve heard you but they just don’t care/agree.

    fingers crossed!

    1. One can hope that the time comes (soon) when they dare to stop toeing the line of convention, but I have very little faith. Pander, pander.

      As a lonely Red Tory trying to find a home, it is cold comfort. I don’t fit here. I don’t fit in with “Big C” cons, and the Libs? *sigh*
      Someone suggested the other day that all the “Small C” Tories band together and take back the political night, but when? Meh.

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