Angella MacEwen’s campaign office sits in a former yoga studio on a quiet street in Hintonburg, an historically working-class neighbourhood west of downtown Ottawa. 

A door splashed with orange signage with the NDP candidate’s name sits under the surviving awning promising wellness and meditation. Walking in, I’m greeted by the ringing of a string of bells on the door and a chorus of hellos from organizers seated behind tables, welcoming me in.

One of them is Samiha Rayeda, MacEwen’s campaign manager, who tells me that “we’re all here because we’re so inspired by how incredibly smart Angela is.”

MacEwen, a senior economist with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), “can actually back up ideas with the financial chops,” Rayeda says.

What makes the self-described feminist economist such an important candidate is that MacEwen’s ideas go beyond taxing the rich and other progressive policies. She wants to shift the structure of our economy to better serve working people.

“The whole reason we have an economy is just to distribute resources to people, and so the economy should work for us, not the other way,” MacEwen tells me by phone.

MacEwen lists affordable housing, climate action, and tax reform among her top priorities. 

But she also has a feminist and intersectional lens that connects the dots between issues—at the local level, for instance, linking the need for affordable housing to food insecurity in Ottawa, and linking funding for public transit to affordability and climate change.

For MacEwen, these issues aren’t just connected—they also have straightforward solutions. What they lack is power to make them a reality.

Building power with “big organizing

At the campaign headquarters, organizer Miles Krauter says that the MacEwen campaign’s goal is not just to win the election, but also to organize and expand the power of the left in the nation’s capital. 

“The organizing model is what I think sets us apart as an NDP campaign, and what informs our politics as well,” he explains. “If you’re going to campaign on really big, bold ideas, you need an organizing model to match it.”

That model is called “big organizing,” and its name comes from Bernie Sanders’ presidential run in 2016, which empowered and harnessed the power of volunteers more than traditional campaigns usually do.

That campaign built a massive volunteer organizing machine, putting volunteers into leadership roles, making seventy-five million calls, sending eight million text messages and winning primaries across the country.

This approach was adopted by left-wing NDP MPP Joel Harden’s successful campaign in Ottawa-Centre in Ontario’s 2018 provincial election—the provincial counterpart riding to MacEwen’s. 

Similar to Sanders’ campaign, Harden’s volunteer base, which counted as many as 1000 people at the height of the campaign, was largely decentralized, with 15-20 percent of volunteers never having met the campaign team. 

Some of those activists have gone on to support other campaigns—including at the municipal level where two progressive representatives were elected to Ottawa City Council in the fall of 2018—and are now working on MacEwen’s campaign.

“The whole reason we have an economy is to distribute resources to people,” says Angella MacEwen, left, “and so the economy should work for us, not the other way.” Submitted photo.

Adapting the strategy to MacEwen’s campaign, Krauter says that volunteers more successfully engage people based on ideas and persuasion, rather than just going door-to-door reiterating platform talking points. 

In the first two weeks of the campaign alone, canvassers made almost 20,000 phone calls and knocked on over 10,000 doors in Ottawa-Centre, Krauter says

Campaign organizers are also training volunteers and canvassers for efforts beyond the election, so that they are equipped to continue organizing and pushing for social change. 

“As soon as I get another person involved, we can invest in them and build organizers and leaders that are going to win, not just now, not just win an election, but win power for the left in Ottawa,” says Krauter.

“​Nothing is more effective than a person talking to a person in terms of shifting politics,” he says. “You can run great ads, but even if it wins the election, it might not build you enduring power.”

Bold policies more popular than ever

Recent polling has shown that Canadians urgently want to tackle growing wealth inequality, and that they support progressive policies like the ones MacEwen has been promoting for years.

“She’s not just talking about budgets and spreadsheets, she’s talking about the ideas that people care about,” Rayeda says, explaining the campaign is working to meet people where they’re at.

“There are lot of people who want to see the social change in our country but are a little worried about how we’re going to pay for it.”

Last weekend the NDP released fiscal projections for its platform based in part on the Parliamentary Budget Officer’s costing baselines. 

The party is committing $214 billion in new spending over the course of five years, paying for it by generating $166 billion in taxation of wealth and high-income.

MacEwen, a policy fellow at the Broadbent Institute, says it’s crucial to distinguish between income inequality and wealth inequality, and develop policies accordingly.

“Economic inequality is not random; rather, it’s part of a self-perpetuating cycle,” she and co-author Jonathan Gauvin write in an excerpt of their recent book Share the Wealth: How we can tax Canada’s super-rich and create a better country for everyone.

“If economic inequality were based on pure chance, we would not see the extreme concentration of wealth and privilege that we have today in a small group of bankers, family heirs, CEOs and media barons.” 

Canada’s top one percent has increased their share of net wealth from 15 percent in 1999 to 25.7 percent in 2019. In the past ten years alone, the richest Canadians have doubled their wealth, compared to virtually no change for the bottom 50 percent.

“[T]here are clear and concrete solutions that we can implement as a society—if we have the political will,” they write.

Elevating working class perspectives

MacEwen grew up in a farming community in rural Saskatchewan, an early life experience that “really shaped my values,” she tells The Breach, reflecting on ways residents of rural communities united “to support each other and take care of each other.”

To afford university, MacEwen later joined the Navy, which took her to Victoria, B.C., and then Nova Scotia. She then pursued a degree in International Development from St. Mary’s University in Halifax, which brought her to the subject of feminist economics, “which just really opened up my understanding of what was possible using economics,” she explains.  

“It gave me a vocabulary for experiences that I’ve had where women do so much unpaid labour, and support the paid economy, which, if you’re from a farming community, that’s exactly what happens, right? Women make everything work, but it’s the men that are called the farmers, the women are the wives.” 

Along with the role of unpaid labour, MacEwen explains that her studies helped her understand other aspects of the paid economy, and “how much the economy, what we call the private economy, rests on natural resources or the exploitation of the environment.”

Now at CUPE, MacEwen researches federal policy and market trends, and proposes solutions that support workers both in workplace organizing and broader labour movement advocacy. 

She has had a front-row seat to the Liberal government’s policy-making and a clear view of Trudeau’s strategy of making progressive promises and delivering a more conservative reality.

“You see the Liberal government saying the same things as the NDP, talking about these issues, but then the solutions that they propose, or that they end up putting through, are either half measures that won’t actually address the fundamental problems, or that actually make it worse, that tip the playing field in favour of the powerful,” she says. 

“And so I wanted to run to bring that working class perspective, that voice, that alternative understanding of the economy, to push for structural change.”

MacEwen says the response from Ottawa-Centre constituents to taxing the rich has been “overwhelmingly positive.”

“When you give money to low wage workers to meet their basic needs, it circulates around the economy,” she explains. “Instead of that capital being stored in tax havens, investments or luxury items, it can continue to support local economies.”

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh made a campaign tour stop in Ottawa on Sept. 5 to support MacEwen. Submitted photo.

Will Ottawa-Centre return to the NDP?

She hopes to follow the success of Harden’s 2018 provincial election win. 

Harden, the manager on his campaign, Jill O’Reilly, and a number of volunteers who helped Harden to victory against Liberal incumbent and former Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi just three years ago, have mobilized behind MacEwen in an effort to defeat Naqvi once again.

Naqvi was nominated as the federal Liberal candidate for Ottawa-Centre following former cabinet minister Catherine McKenna’s announcement in June that she would not be seeking reelection. McKenna took office in the 2015 election after narrowly defeating incumbent Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, who passed away in 2019. 

McKenna was part of the Liberal cabinet that decided to invest billions in buying the Trans Mountain Pipeline—money critics argue could have helped fund a Green New Deal and a just transition—tarnishing any reputation the Liberals might have had as climate champions.

MacEwen and the team of volunteers trying to get her elected believe meaningful climate action can only come from the bottom up.

“We’ve just been building this army of really good political actors: people who are good on the doors, people who know how to organize, people who know how to build a list and work a list, and that’s what organizing is all about at a very reductionist level,” Krauter explains.

“If you’re not building a list, working that list, and maintaining that list, you’re not organizing. You’re putting positive vibes into the air. You’re not getting any data, you’re not persuading people, you’re not getting the ideas out there. So there’s this organizational model that really dovetails well with bigger political asks, and that’s kind of the experiment we’re doing here.”

On top of the ambitious organizing, the message in MacEwen’s campaigns has to be clear to voters: it’s about moving forward a political agenda that serves the working class, in government, and growing the ranks of those who will take action on that agenda in their communities. 

“It’s not enough to elect someone,” says Krauter. “It’s not enough to get somebody to vote. We are demanding more from politics but we’re also demanding more of each other.”

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