- Interview by
- Alex Cosh
In western Canada, British Columbia (BC) is about to get a new premier. Since 2017, the nominally center-left New Democratic Party (NDP) has ruled the province, first as a minority government that was kept in power through an agreement with the Green Party, then as a majority government following the NDP’s landslide election victory in 2020. The current premier, John Horgan, announced in June he was stepping down after undergoing treatment for throat cancer, triggering a BC NDP, leadership race whose winner will take over the premier’s office in December.
For several weeks, former attorney general and minister responsible for housing David Eby was the contest’s sole candidate. A lawyer who was considered by some to represent the party’s progressive wing, Eby has run a campaign carrying the banner of the status quo, essentially pledging that the government’s direction will not fundamentally change if he wins. He has the support of forty-eight of the NDP’s fifty-seven members of the provincial legislative assembly.
Then in August, climate justice activist Anjali Appadurai, who previously ran for the NDP in Vancouver in the 2021 federal election, threw her hat into the ring — much to Eby’s annoyance.
Appadurai represents a constituency of mostly young activists and voters who are angry about the BC NDP government’s record to date. While the Horgan government has passed some commendable changes — such as progressive real estate taxes and modest labor reforms — many outside the party, and in the NDP grassroots, say it has failed on a number of key issues. In particular, the party has failed to properly address the climate emergency, indigenous sovereignty, the province’s drug-poisoning crisis, lackluster investment in public services, and the increasing influence of for-profit health care in the public health system, among other major issues.
Last month, we caught up with Appadurai to talk about her campaign and what she sees as the BC NDP government’s biggest failures.
There was speculation about you potentially running for leader in the days and weeks leading up to your official announcement. What gave you the final push to throw your hat into the ring?
I was very reluctant, mostly for personal reasons, not wanting to step into a high-profile race like this. But the final push was a couple of different things: I was up on Wet’suwet’en and Gitxsan territory (in the north of the province) for the Peace and Unity Summit that they hosted in July. Being on the land and seeing the cost of prioritizing industry, and hearing from a lot of the folks up there, including the hereditary chiefs, who had expressly not consented to the Coastal GasLink liquefied natural gas pipeline (authorized by the BC NDP government) going through their territory.
And then also hearing from a lot of young people across the province during that same week who were just really wanting a candidate to step forward who would tell the truth and give them a reason to organize, to feel represented once again by the party and by elected officials in general. There’s a whole generation of young people who don’t feel a lot of hope in the electoral process right now.
I called for a community meeting and everybody jumped on Zoom, and the energy was palpable. There was so much excitement, energy, and hope. We ended up raising the entry fee of $40,000 in about five minutes.
You ran a strong campaign in the 2021 federal election and lost only narrowly to the Liberal candidate in the Vancouver Granville riding. What were some of your key takeaways from that campaign?
The type of insurgent campaign that I ran has a much bigger impact when you’re able to build up the community infrastructure. When there are more of us running, the impact will be even more powerful.
I really committed myself to building up the Vancouver Granville riding association and providing capacity and coordinating with other riding associations wherever possible.
That’s equally important at the provincial level. The race for the leadership is one thing, but building up a hopeful generation of new energy to start taking on those riding-level battles and enter caucus themselves — that’s equally if not more important.
It’s no secret that you have a tough pathway to victory in this leadership contest, facing an establishment candidate who has the backing of the majority of the BC NDP Caucus. What are your broader hopes for this campaign if you don’t win?
It’s now a democratic race, and the people in the province get to be a part of these conversations about the direction of the party and put uncomfortable questions and truths into the public discourse.
This is giving a tremendous amount of hope to people who were not ready to be involved in the party or had renounced their membership. Hopefully, the energy and momentum that’s generated from this campaign can then be channeled into those riding-level battles.
There are amazing social movements across the province to tackle a lot of these issues that we’ll be talking about during the campaign, and so taking some of the energy and hope that people put in this campaign and channeling that into community work is what I hope will come out of this. I think this is also an opportunity to remind the party membership and those outside of it of New Democratic values and what those actually look like in practice.
I think there are a lot of people who are very dissatisfied with the direction that the party is going in. Sometimes you need to jam the gears a little bit so that people are reminded that there is another way; it’s not business as usual.
The Climate Emergency
What are some of the key changes that the BC NDP government needs to implement that your campaign will be calling for?
I’d like to see a reprioritization of how the government approaches decision-making around industry in the province. I come out of the climate movement, and we are seeing large industrial projects that have a much greater cost when you apply the values of looking at future generations.
It is enormously important to consider indigenous free, prior, and informed consent; ecological sustainability; and ecological health in industrial development. The government’s decisions to approve some of these large projects that lock us into a certain level of emissions for years to come become far more costly than they are beneficial.
We’re in a place where decades of policy decisions have led us to an economy that’s entirely dependent on extractive industries, so there’s no easy policy prescription that I can speak to. What I can say is that we urgently need a strong government commitment to a deep investment in an immediate transition to a renewable energy economy. That means a jobs training program, new jobs created in the renewable energy sector, and mandating a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry in the province.
The fossil fuel industry is in the ear of decision-makers through lobbying dozens of times more often than those who are most affected by these issues. There needs to be the political will and courage to put real mandates on the industry rather than incentives and rewards.
Your campaign has also applied these same principles to addressing other crises as well. Tell me about those.
The same principle of reprioritization and mandates on industry applies across the board. We are getting gouged at the gas pumps, and we have grocery bills going through the roof. And yet, in the same year, you’ve seen large Canadian and foreign corporations operating within Canada experiencing their highest profits in Canadian history.
What we’re allowing is a system of wealth accumulation that’s actually drawing money away from regular people, and it’s putting our most vulnerable people at acute risk.
When you make people more vulnerable through a lack of public services, and a climate disaster comes along like last year, when there was a heatwave that killed more than six hundred people in BC, all of that comes to bear and it creates deadly consequences. Over 90 percent of those who died in the heatwave died in their homes, which means those homes are totally inadequate to meet the challenge of the climate crisis in the years to come. It’s only going to get worse.
Rejecting Technocratic Tinkering
These big-picture changes that you’re proposing are in stark contrast to the more technocratic tinkering-around-the-edges policies being offered by David Eby, who has been a key minister in the current government. What do you see as some of the BC NDP government’s biggest failures to date?
From a health care perspective, there are professionals who are really not happy with this government for its handling of the pandemic and for leaving them out to dry, as evidenced by the current family-doctor shortage and lack of support for health workers.
As a preface to all of this, I’ve never held elected office, so it’s very easy for me to give some of these policy prescriptions. But what governance entails is the set of values and the set of priorities and the framework that you’re bringing to it, and there are a lot of experts across this province, within and outside of government right now, who are equipped to tackle these problems through the lens of the different values I’ve talked about.
This government has failed on climate, affordability, and on stopping the wealth accumulation that’s drawing money away from the working class and from the most vulnerable. It has failed on investing in the public services that are necessary to buffer us when inflation goes out of control, or when there are shocks in the economic system due to war or the pandemic. People don’t have the basics that they need for a good life, and that’s the job of the government.
Rather than specific policies, it’s a result of an accumulation of policies based on priorities that are backward.
The odds are clearly stacked against you, but we have seen major upsets in the past several years with insurgent progressive campaigns scoring important victories against centrist establishment figures in the UK and United States. If you win the BC NDP leadership race and become premier, are you concerned about leading a caucus in Victoria that might be hostile to what you’re proposing?
I’m coming in as an outsider candidate, and so the support that I have sought has not been party support. It’s not been from within the caucus.
I know that there are excellent people within the caucus who agree with my values, and I’m confident that there would be support if we were to take government.
I’m thinking one step at a time in this campaign and am focused on telling the story of why this campaign is necessary, and what a truly progressive vision for the party and for the province would look like. I would very much look forward to working with caucus members who are aligned with that vision. I’m under no illusions that this would be something that would not be welcomed by a lot of people, and maybe the majority of people within the party.
Part of what you represent is a growing group of progressive activists and voters who are very much disillusioned with the BC NDP based not only on its record in government over the past five years but also in previous administrations. What gives you hope that the NDP can be changed, and why are you committed to the NDP rather than a different or new political formation?
What gives me hope in the NDP is the fact that the values of this party are about redistribution to the most vulnerable, investing in people, and investing in the public good. It’s about putting in place checks and balances to ensure that it is people’s interests that come before corporate interests.
That’s the party at its best. It’s a workers’ party. It’s a people’s party. We’ve strayed very, very far from that, but that’s what the party was founded on, and I still believe that it’s the best home for those values.