How’d you get that job? Samara talks to the President of the NDP

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How'd You Get That Job? Wednesday, April 16, 2014 View Count = 2509

How’d you get that job? Samara talks to the President of the NDP

 Rebecca Blaikie hails from Winnipeg, Manitoba and is the current President of the New Democratic Party. Rebecca worked as executive director of the NDP’s Quebec wing in the lead-up to their historic wins in the 2011 federal election. She served as treasurer of the NDP from 2009-2011 and has run to be a Member of Parliament in two elections – once in the riding of LaSalle—Émard (2004) and most recently in Winnipeg North (2011). She has served as president of the NDP since 2011.

What made you want to get involved with politics?

I got involved with politics largely because of my desire to be engaged in the struggle for social justice. When I was in university I did a lot of work in the activist community and because I had grown up around electoral politics, I kept on coming back to that [Ed. note: Rebecca's father, Bill Blaikie, served as an MP from 1979-2008 and as a Manitoba MLA from 2009-2011]. I knew that the activism that I was, and am still, a part of was powerful stuff, but I also kept thinking about the electoral piece, and acknowledgement of that part of the system. I decided I would get engaged because I believe that electoral politics is one part of the struggle for social, political and economic justice, and I believe that some of us who care about those things need to engage with it.

How did you become President of the NDP? What path brought you to that specific role?

When I decided to engage more formally with the party I was living in Montreal. It was 2004 and I ran as a candidate against Paul Martin in LaSalle—Émard. That was, well, sometimes you run to win and sometimes you run to make a point.  I was running to make a point in that campaign. 

After that I was approached by Jack Layton to organize in Quebec.  He had been the one who originally convinced me to run and during my campaign I realized how much potential there was in the province, but people didn’t know the NDP. Given my history I thought I was in an interesting position to both organize and help Quebecers get to know the NDP. I became the NDP’s organizer in Quebec in the 2005 and 2006 elections and after that I become director in the Quebec section. That section was new at the time and I kept organizing through that role.

Eventually we got Thomas Mulcair elected and then I decided to move back to Winnipeg in part because  I decided I’d like to try and be an MP myself and that’s where I am from. So I went back there and worked for the provincial government and worked with two women Cabinet Ministers there. Eventually I decided that if I was going to be a candidate I had better return to working in community development, which is what I actually have my Masters in. I started working for the Community Education Development Association (CEDA) in Winnipeg’s north end and became the director there. It was good to get outside the political bubble, to get grounded.  Then in 2011 I ran for Parliament, I lost that election by 44 votes.

After 2011 Jack Layton called me, I was treasurer of the national party at the time and he said he wanted me to run for that position again. I don’t think I’m that great with numbers, but I did it. Shortly after that, Jack died. Brian Topp resigned his position as President of the NDP to run for leadership of the party. Usually you would elect a new president at a convention, but because of the circumstances that choice was left to the party’s executive and they chose me. I very quickly had to set up a leadership race and oversee that process. 

Last April we had a party convention where I ran for re-election as President and was voted in by the party membership.

What was your favourite moment in your position?

Well to be honest, the best thing that’s happened was that even though I lost in the 2011 election, a remarkably outstanding and record number of Aboriginal women voted. That is to this day the greatest honour ever bestowed on me. That was great.

What skills or experience are required for this job?

You need to have a pretty good sense of self so that you don’t let people get under your skin. I think that I’ve been able to avoid that because this has never been a personal thing for me. If I get frustrated with the details of politics I just remember why we do this. It’s hard sometimes because people are pretty cynical and there are reasons to be that way, so sometimes you have to resist the temptation to become cynical yourself. I think we have a proud history in our country of people who have been engaged in politics for the right reasons, so I feel called to keep proving that’s still possible.

Also, you can’t be shy. I guess you can in a way, I’m more shy in a small group than in front of 500 people, for example. You need to be able to think on your feet. The media side to politics has been a real learning curve for me. As a woman there are specific things you have to face that you might not anticipate. Particularly if you come from a privileged background where you think women and men are equal or where you’ve been told that as a woman you can do anything. When you get into politics you realize, wait a second, we’re not quite there. 

Can you tell us more about that?

I experienced a certain variety of sexism that was often masked by ageism.  I was 25 the first time I ran to be an MP. As a woman candidate you’ll encounter more than a young man would questions such as “don’t you think you’re a bit young for this business?” or “you’re a nice young girl, why get involved in this?” I really do think you hear more of that as a young woman in politics than as a young man.

You also have to deal with awkward situations in the media. When I first started doing panels I was on a panel with someone who referred to me as a “little girl” in the course of the debate. Because I had just finished campaigning I was immune to those words, I actually didn’t even register it as a serious problem until later when the moderator and the panelist wrote to apologize.

What exactly does the President of a party do?

In this role I chair conventions, I chair executive meetings and council meetings and I chair the election planning committee. You also participate in election-readiness working groups. I attend caucus meetings in Ottawa and meet regularly with the leader of the party. I’m basically the representative of the party’s membership to the senior political folks. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

I think it’s less about the job than it is about what it is you want to achieve. Figuring out why you want to have a job like this is more important than wanting it. For example, what is it about the world that you want to make better? What is it that inspires you to fight? What forms of injustice keep you up at night? When you can answer those questions then you can start by getting involved in fighting for those issues. One of the ways to do that is through electoral politics. 

To start getting involved with electoral politics it’s always helpful to join a riding association, help out in a campaign, take out a membership, and show up at conventions. You can also begin by working on a particular issue and reaching out to people in different parties to see what their take is on that issue and where you best fit.

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