The Dorchester Review talks to Noah Richler about the NDP, CanLit, the Prime Minister, and his own run for office
By Michael Czobit
When Noah Richler ran in the 2015 federal election as the NDP candidate for the St. Paul’s electoral district in Toronto, he wasn’t planning to write a book about his campaign. Even after losing to the Liberal incumbent, Carolyn Bennett, he still had no plans to write a book. At most, Richler told one editor, he had an article in him. “I said, ‘I’ll give you a six-thousand-word piece on running for office,’ and within three weeks I had written 20,000 words,” which forced him to phone the editor back up and say, “‘Look, sorry, it’s a book, not an article. Not just because it’s long, but because of what I have.’”
Published in 2016, The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. His subtitle channels Hunter S. Thompson not because The Candidate extols gonzo-happy drug use but because, like Thompson, Richler couldn’t stop writing. “It was a complete departure from my normal process,” he says. “It taught me how to write better in some ways — to write more simply.”
Unlike some political books, The Candidate reads briskly and blends analysis with humour. One doesn’t have to subscribe to Richler’s politics or live in his riding to be entertained and informed. “It’s a book just about political life from the ground,” Richler says. “Of course, the details are going to be local, because I ran in a particular riding, but the lessons are not.”
When I met Richler at his home in mid-January, he was a bit perturbed at the lack of response from politicians and reporters to The Candidate. “The funny thing about politicians not reading it is they make a point of reading all the s—t you write when you’re running [for office], because they want to take you down. As for reporters, you’d think at least the ones who trashed me might have read it. But they didn’t.”
He continues, “If I were in England and I had written a book about the Labour Party, the Labour Party would have read it, and I would have been challenged about a bunch of things. Here, I hear nothing from the NDP; I hear nothing from the Liberals; I hear nothing from the Conservatives. And it sounds kind of brazen, but that’s those people not doing their job. Somebody might say, ‘Well, maybe your book is just piece of s—t, and they don’t have to look at it.’ But they have to look at it to decide that. I’ve heard nothing from people I would have expected to read it as a matter of homework. The exception, funnily enough, is Tom Mulcair, who’s sophisticated and a reader.”
Richler’s point is hard to dismiss, just as some of his other opinions he shared about running for office, the Prime Minister, and the state of Canadian arts and literature.
DR: Let’s talk a bit more about writing The Candidate.
NR: One of the interesting things for me about writing that book — and I did not, this is absolutely true, enter the campaign to write about it — is I learned again how it was important to me to show that somebody who might have been thought of as natural Liberal was not. I wanted to show by example that for there to be authentic change we needed to consider a third party as viable and, in fact, the better thing. And so, I chose the NDP. My bad luck is that it was the only time in the last five or six elections in which pollsters were right and the NDP lost. But I have no regrets about that, it’s still the party I would support. But then I lost, and for the first time in my life I found myself experiencing something that other writers have described and I’ve tended to dismiss as cliché, which is that the act of writing the story was tremendously cathartic and helped provide, another cliché, “closure” to an event that was one of the best things I’ve done in my life, but also traumatic. I felt, irrationally, that not only voters in the riding I was trying to contest but from all the way across Canada had rejected me very personally. That was silly. That wasn’t the case. I just lost.
DR: How was this book different to write than your other ones?
NR: Typically, I spend a long time gathering notes and research and ideas and I kind of work from the base. I often explain to students when I go into high school or universities that if you’re writing a magazine article or a newspaper article, imagine a triangle, and invert the triangle — you’re beginning at this single point. And depending upon all of the decisions you make, determined largely by time and deadline and resources, you can end up anywhere on that base along the top and you’ve done your job. But for some reason when you write a book, the triangle is [up right] in its proper position and you can start anywhere along that fat base. You have only one point where you want to go to, which is the apex of your triangle up top, and making your way to that single point is a lot harder. It’s a completely different job. I also wrote the book very quickly. It was important to both the publisher and I that the book come out a year to the day of the election and so the experience was very intense and necessitated a completely different approach. Typically, I look at my notes in great detail. With this book, I ignored all of them until I had the story down in the shape that I liked. Almost like a Jackson Pollock painting, I just threw everything down. Everything I could remember. Every incident. Every bit of dialogue that struck me as funny. I had a name for the book, and I had in mind the titles of five chapters, and only after I had all that down did I then turn to my notes.
Because the other thing about that book, which I regret not putting in some sort of foreword note, is that everything is documented. All the conversations, they’re not made up. I didn’t record them because I was making a book. I recorded them because I’m naturally paranoid. The testimonies are all real. [With] people working on my campaign, I would have printed nothing without their permission and showed them what I was writing. To the participants in the campaign who provided me with first person soliloquies for the book, I showed the page before and the page after to provide context. As for certain people, up the food chain operating in Ottawa principally — I never signed a waiver of any kind — I believed I was in my rights to publish without their permission. Politicians talk a lot about transparency and I thought it was important for other people to understand the political process.
DR: You really build these scenes in the book. I was reading it and thinking, “Does this guy have an amazing memory?”
NR: If there’s another edition, I’ll put that note in. But all of those conversations, I have them on tape. I was actually worried about the opposite — that somebody might challenge the way I edited the conversations, rather than their veracity. Because inevitably you don’t print every word, but that’s a different issue. Perhaps you need an experience in radio to be concerned about that. But I should have put a note in, because I think a lot of people think I made stuff up.
DR: You leave an unanswered question in The Candidate: Would you run again?
NR: At first, I thought not, and I’ve answered differently not because I’m trying to confuse anybody or trying to be enigmatic, but because I change my mind from time to time. I probably won’t. I’m kind of relieved to be out of it.
DR: Were you worried that people would come after you when the book was published?
NR: I was ready for it. The CBC challenged me during the campaign, which as you know is in the book. Maybe that’s why the flagship CBC shows ignored the book — not the CBC Books website and not Shelagh Rogers, but “As It Happens,” “The Current,” Matt Galloway’s “Metro Morning,” and “The Sunday Edition” all did. “The Current” said it was “too local,” but apparently, it wasn’t local enough for Matt Galloway. That was amusing.
DR: In your book, you show a ridiculous side to the CBC after it reacted the way it did over your TV ad with clips of Peter Mansbridge.
NR: I was prepared for CBC to try and slap some sort of gag order on it though in truth, I’m not particularly nasty to anybody in the book. There’s nothing in the book that I could not speak to a person’s face, whether Peter Mansbridge of the CBC or James Pratt, who was the NDP’s national campaign organizer for the NDP, and that, to me, is the true test of a writer acting fairly. Ultimately, the barometer of whether you’ve behaved well as a writer or took a cheap shot is if you can actually sit down with somebody as I’m with you and say, “Yeah, but you did this.”
DR: [Laughs.] You said you still would support the NDP even if you hadn’t run. Is that still true?
NR: I think the NDP is the party that represents people that need representation the most. If Harper succeeded in worrying Canadians about security, then Trudeau did it more subtly by worrying Canadians about the economy. And the truth is the people whom [Trudeau] was appealing to — the people he was telling the economy wasn’t working well enough for them — are people who were doing pretty well by it anyway. Trudeau has learned the lessons of Thatcher. All that talk of the “middle class” means he’s not even bothering to appeal to people who aren’t in that stratum. The people who voted for him because of his position on deficit spending are by and large people who are doing fine anyway. So, what his strategy led to was a colossal passing of the buck and a situation, down the road, that young people especially will be faced with. To my mind, it’s the job of government to defend against business when it becomes too encroaching and to support people who need a hand. Trudeau is not even bothering with that, because those people are fundamentally poor and won’t vote Liberal. And these are the people that the NDP cares about.
DR: Trudeau ran on a “change” campaign. Is there any difference between him and Harper?
NR: A line provided to me by one of my canvassers was that the Liberals and the Conservatives are like Tweedledee and Tweedledum and as a result of that, I started saying at the doorstep, “The Liberals are basically the Conservatives without Harper.”
We live in a society that it is tremendously comfortable for most people, a society in which there’s an extraordinary consensus, and so, it’s not surprising Liberal and Conservative policies should be more or less alike — that the Liberal climate change proposes exactly the same targets as the Conservatives did and that their security bills are no different from Harper’s either. This doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with some aspects of the Liberal program. I think it is naïve, for example, to imagine you can shut the oil sands down tomorrow. You can’t. That’s not how Canadians are organized on the land. We will be able to eventually, and in the meantime fossil fuels offer a window in which to pay for a period of time allowing us to find other ways to be, though I’m not sure there’s not even the will for that.
So, yes, I think their policies are quite similar. That said, there’s a difference in tone. But that’s political. It’s not about policy. It’s about how to appeal. We’ve fallen for “Sunny Ways,” aided and abetted by the CBC, which as an organization is pretty well a lackey to Ottawa, a mouthpiece of government so timorous that for nearly 10 years of Harper they could not find enough places to send Don Cherry to in their jingoistic support of the war in Afghanistan. Their celebrating the military was a way of toadying up to Ottawa and now they have categorically stopped doing that and are finding other ways to cozy up to Trudeau and the Liberals. Now you see why I’m not a novelist. I just feel too much outrage.
All that said, it’s a far better place where we are now. But tone matters and I never cease to find reminders of why I ran for the NDP, flawed as it may be as a party. Really, the party’s troubles are very human and I admire them for that. They are human and not a machine. There are a lot internal arguments. It’s the most democratic party and I could not have done half the stuff I did during the campaign had I been running for the Liberals or Conservatives, because I would have been told to follow suit. I was in a party where independence is to a greater degree possible. And I was in a party that cares authentically for the disenfranchised.
DR: Would you characterize the NDP as being socialist?
NR: “Socialist” is a loaded word in North America. I don’t know if you’ve read Yuval Noah Harari, who wrote Sapiens? Smart people the world over are looking at Karl Marx for a lot of what he proposed, and he’s one of them. Marx was wrong in his estimation of the results, but many of the observations he made are fundamentally correct but that’s not a line anyone in politics is going to use. Still, what does being “socialist” mean? I don’t ever want to deprive people of their will. You can’t put policy into place that doesn’t recognize humans’ desire to better their situation or better the situation for their children and all policies that don’t take that into account, fail. Environmentalism? Nothing works out of charity. There has to be a social or financial interest to individuals if they are to pay a carbon tax or hand over more for toilet paper.
But without a doubt NDP is the party of the working person. And this is almost painful to recall because, in truth, in the last election the NDP sort of disappointed five core franchises that should have been their own. Those were: new Canadians; First Nations; Quebec; youth; and labour and unions. None of these relationships effectively came through.
I think the way forward for the NDP is to recognize that it’s our job to take care of people in so-called precarious work, whether they’re youth in voting or temporary farm workers without the right to vote. In the fair society, somebody needs to mind their interest. And that somebody is the NDP, even minding the fortunes of people not yet able to vote for the party. That’s good. I like that.
DR: This is how I read it in your book: the NDP didn’t run a good campaign.
NR: I think on a campaign you got to be nimble. I don’t suggest you change your mind constantly, [but] sometimes I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. We could have done that on a couple of questions, but on deficit spending in particular. Instead we proposed not just a balanced budget, but an implausible one with a surplus. That was not believable, and not just to voters but to people like myself running for the party.
And ironically, one of the worst things that happened was Rachel Notley’s victory in Alberta, because it gave the NDP in Ottawa an imminent sense of the possible, and convinced them to keep a steady, conservative, risk-averse course. We were a bit like a freighter that needs thirty miles to alter its direction, when really, we needed to be nimble as a sailboat. And the truth is we had no idea just how appealing was Trudeau’s celebrity. And that’s what the Canadian public has chosen, at least for the moment.
DR: What about after the election — how would you describe the public?
NR: In the period after the victory, Liberal voters were behaving every bit as much as ideologues as the Conservatives had done. The mark of an ideologue is that you can make no criticism whatsoever of any part of the enterprise because it’s regarded as a criticism of the whole. So, if I say, “There’s a problem with this policy or there’s a problem that you’re supporting free trade and not explaining it or supporting free trade at the same time promoting temporary foreign workers, so whatever jobs are increased are going to be paid without benefits, and are not helping the Canadian worker,” then I’m regarded as assailing the whole Liberal enterprise. We saw the same thing in so-called “Elbowgate.” The incontrovertible fact is that Trudeau behaved as no other prime minister in 149 years of Canadian nation statehood has done. He strutted like a peacock with the arrogance we’ve begun to see in other moments, and manhandled his way through MPs on the floor. But there was no point in saying it. To do so was an act of treason! People just deflected because nobody wanted any criticism of the Liberals whatsoever. But the fascinating thing about this extraordinary honeymoon period is that it’s entirely a reflection of just how badly Harper managed his public relations. But it’s also so extreme that in retrospect I find myself thinking about some of the better things Harper did.
DR: Like what?
NR: Well, he had no way of expressing himself reasonably, or with any human appeal, but some of the things he said about Syria and ISIL, if you choose to react less to the language, made sense. I was as revolted as the next person by the persistent tendency of the Conservatives of stoking fear, but Harper was right to point out that the conditions that have been leading to the migrant ships and migration into Europe had to do with a war that needed to be addressed at its source, if in different ways. So, there were moments of common sense. I also think that vis-à-vis Haiti, Harper behaved quite well. Even the way he retired from public service without drawing any particular drama to himself, was interesting and I certainly think a prime minister who goes out after slashing his own pension because he doesn’t want to dip into the coffers is behaving well. This is certainly different behaviour than a bunch of elated Liberals strutting into Ottawa and charging a hundred grand for moving there to take up a job in public service. That’s behaving badly. That’s the behaviour of a party that imagines, “We’re here for three elections. Not for one.” That’s cocksure behaviour, just as travelling to Aga Khan’s island and feeling no explanation is due, also is. This behaviour is the definition of entitlement. A little more modesty might be a good idea.
DR: Do you think the media and not just the Canadian media has fuelled that?
NR: No, I think what was interesting about the moving into Ottawa, Elbowgate, and even the Aga Khan holiday episode is that Canadians aren’t interested in any scandal. We’re so exhausted by a government that treated Canadians with contempt, a government that disregarded the press and saw denigration as a way to advance its agenda that people don’t want to hear anything bad about the government they have now. Voting for Trudeau was essentially voting for a fresh start.
And even as I make these complaints, I think it’s important to note — I’m repeating myself — that we are in a better place. But they’re behaving badly. This is an old Liberal problem. Paul Martin rode with Paul Desmarais, the Québec billionaire who was then the CEO of Power Corp., and when it was pointed out that as prime minister-elect he wasn’t meant to be on a jet with him, Martin said, we’re old family friends. Well, that’s exactly why you’re actually [not supposed to be on the jet with him]. It has to do with comportment and public confidence in the nature of political decision making.
DR: If Trudeau continues the way he’s acting, do you think it will eventually become a problem for him?
NR: They have a couple of problems up on the horizon. I don’t want anyone to fail, but the economy could turn dramatically. We’ve had rock-bottom interest rates that are unprecedented but it won’t take much to alter that. A few points up and a lot of people won’t be able to afford their homes.
And I don’t know how long it will take young people to discover there’s no particular promise in Liberal sunny ways, that the party is in too tight with business and even phenomena like Airbnb affect how new Canadians and young people are to afford homes. So, the combination of the fragile economy, of disintermediation ravaging ours, and the cost of climate change proposals unaddressed probably worry them. I understand one of the things making them anxious the most is whether Kevin O’Leary gets into the race. I myself am sceptical as I don’t think he can win Quebec without speaking French. But, on the other hand, Quebec did vote for Jack Layton because they disliked the alternative and it could be that Kevin O’Leary has appeal there. [But] I believe the next election is [the Liberals’] to lose. We’ll see what goes down, 2019 will come soon enough.
DR: If Trudeau were to lose in an election, do you think he’s the kind of politician who would be an actual force in the official opposition?
NR: That’s interesting because the result of the 2015 election was almost Greek in nature. It was like a Greek drama in which Mulcair, who didn’t know how to cope with Trudeau, focused on Harper and the two men wrestled themselves to the ground and exhausted themselves and in walked sprightly young Trudeau to take the prize. People didn’t want argumentative, older white guys and both Harper and Mulcair were that. And to come clean, I used to think Trudeau would not have coped in opposition, but it might well have been that the sight of Harper humiliating a younger person would have backfired.
There were all sorts of revelations in the Munk debate I attended and chronicle in my book. That was the night I realized that Mulcair was likely to lose, partly because the most powerful people in Canada, many of whom were at that debate, were baying for Mulcair’s defeat. I realized it didn’t matter to them whether Harper or Trudeau came out on top, because either way nothing would actually change for them though it would have done if Mulcair vanquished. And that’s the truth. It didn’t matter if it was Trudeau or Harper. It was all a game. A new government, Liberal or Conservative, was little more than a new social opportunity. And that night, I could see that Mulcair had made the mistake of being patronizing toward Trudeau and it came off badly, as maybe would have happened between Harper and Trudeau in Parliament.
But do I think there’s something fraudulent about Trudeau? No. I believe he’s not to be underestimated. I think he’s proven himself quite ruthless, that’s true, and it may well be a fiction that he is actually governing. It’s he and Gerald Butts and Katie Telford governing, and boy would I love to be a fly on the wall for those meetings because I just don’t think Trudeau is running them. That’s interesting for democracy, but there are some good people in the mix.
DR: Speaking of fiction and to switch from politics, do you think Canadians value fiction more than non-fiction?
NR: I think it’s valued more for a couple of reasons. Non-fiction at the moment just doesn’t have the audience, so it’s harder to produce. You tend to have to need to be attached to a university or in the grant system’s favour to put anything forward. So naturally an American was always more likely to write a biography of Champlain than we were, because they have the market. That’s a big first consideration.
The second is slightly more abstract, which is that — as the French Canadians have pointed out more than once — English Canada is an ongoing project. We’re still busy colonizing ourselves. This whole “Canada 150” exercise is part of the colonization effort of Canada by Canada. There’s a huge government purpose to all of this. So, in a funny way, because of that, and because we live in a nation where so much of history is not written down, it’s fallen upon novelists to do the job of explaining ourselves to ourselves. So often in Canada, the arguments about who we are come from the novels.
DR: So how would you rate the quality of Canadian fiction right now?
NR: Well, one of the things that happened after the election is it drove me back to reading and absorbing things that are really good and a lot of what I am reading or watching or otherwise consuming is not Canadian. I do worry a lot about Canadian cultural sovereignty. I’m one of those people who has argued that we need Canadians to tell our stories, and I subscribe to Canadian newspapers for that reason, but now, as the quality of papers has become really s—t, I’m ready to give up on that idea. I’m ready to subscribe to the New York Times, because the [Canadian] papers bore me. I’ll report back on what that means for my sense of Canadianness through experience.
DR: The New York Times is expanding its Canadian coverage.
NR: Deliberately. So is the BBC. Canadian novels are being disproportionately promoted for reasons that we understand, but the indigenous cultural scene is certainly exciting. Kent Monkman’s exhibition, “Shame and Resilience,” which is touring Canada for two years, is unquestionably profound, one of the best exhibitions I have ever seen in this country. And probably the most interesting and one of the best novels to have come out that I’ve read out of Canada last year was Katherena Vermette’s novel The Break, set in North Winnipeg. Truly affecting, disturbing, moving, and lasting in the memory. I can’t even remember who won the Giller Prize. Who won the Giller Prize this year?
DR: I’m blanking.
NR: Oh, it was Madeline Thien.
DR: Oh, yeah. You mentioned indigenous fiction. What’s your take on Joseph Boyden?
NR: Joseph Boyden is a friend and a colleague. We’ve travelled the same professional circles for a long time. He’s not my best friend, he’s not the person I would call up if I was in trouble, but he’s a very decent guy and I accept what he said, which is he says that indigenous is a small part of his provenance but a big part of who he is. And I think the thing that has not been commented on is how responsible the rest of us are for the phenomenon of the elevation of someone like Joseph Boyden, and then his effectively being defrocked. To the extent that Joseph has a rock star quality — he’s fantastically good looking, he’s appealing, he’s kind, and that’s what makes a rock star and a celebrity — well, we made him that. We wanted him to be that. Indigo wanted an indigenous person to win the Giller Prize and so pushed him. The CBC wanted him to win “Canada Reads.” We wanted an indigenous person to be a significant participant in our literary scene, we did that and it’s fantastically hypocritical of us, to now gloss over the contributions we made to the mess he’s in.
We do this all the time. Eleanor Catton won the Governor General’s Award [for fiction in 2013] and it’s preposterous to think of her as Canadian, but we want her to be that because it’s a way for the Governor General’s jury and the literary community to appropriate quality. But she’s not Canadian. Just like Rachel Cusk is not Canadian. Sure, Rachel Cusk was born in Canada, and Eleanor Catton was born in Canada during a fleeting visit by her parents, but she’s not Canadian in any meaningful sense. We made her that and it’s bulls--t. The same way we’ve made Joseph Boyden something he was not.
And Joseph Boyden probably didn’t know how to stop it. Just as Eleanor Catton wasn’t about to turn down the $50,000 of the Governor General’s Award and say, “Listen, it’s not actually right that it goes to me, because in truth I don’t think about Canada and it’s not a part of me.” She took it. That’s what happens. Celebrity foists privileges upon people they’re hard put to reject and that’s that.
The other thing, of course, is that one of the innumerable effects of the ratty behaviour of the Internet is that it assassinates friendship. Friendship and loyalty to friends is one of the worst things you can bring to the internet. Famously, E.M. Forster said (and I paraphrase) “If I should choose between betraying my country or my friends, I hope I have the courage to betray my country.” In the face of web trolls finding in the most insignificant actions, evidence of misogyny or the colonizing mind and worse, you have to be pretty courageous to stand up as a friend to anyone at all. But Joseph Boyden is a friend of mine, I don’t think he meant ill, and I think there are solutions to the errors he may have committed. If, for instance, he accepted an award and can’t prove he’s indigenous, then he should find a way to make reparation. But these errors of judgment don’t negate, for me, the sum total of all the good that he has brought.
DR: Last question. In terms of Canadian culture, is it in a good place now?
NR: I think it’s time to be bolder. I do think the CBC is doing a generally terrible job. The only thing the CBC is good at is protecting itself. It’s a corporation ruined by their survival instinct. All of their decisions have to do with perpetuating their own interests regardless of whether or not these decisions are good for the community. In truth, I feel we’re getting to the point where we’re just not telling our stories well enough to continue to warrant the kind of protectionism the CBC enjoys, and actually it might be better for us to wake up to the international standards and to meet those. And the truth is that we don’t excel at a lot. Film in English Canada is by and large not good enough. Now, French Canadian film is particularly good because it has been very, very well resourced by the Quebecois governments, but it’s still likely that the entire sector needs to be more rigorously tested. It’s not that I don’t believe Canadian culture exists, or that I don’t believe we have our own stories to tell. I want them to be told, but it maybe the time for us to be more robust in attitude and execution, because we’re just not good enough in a lot of things right now. Maybe I’ll write about that next, what do you think? •
This interview has been condensed and edited by Michael Czobit, and appears in the current print edition of The Dorchester Review.