May 24th, 2024

Charlie Angus, Parliament’s ‘punk-rock politician,’ joins federal NDP exodus

By Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press on April 4, 2024.

NDP MP Charlie Angus makes his way to the podium for a news conference, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023 in Ottawa. Angus has announced he will not run in next federal election, marking the end of a 20-year career in Parliament.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA – Charlie Angus felt so much love Thursday, he joked that it felt like his funeral.

The outspoken, often combative New Democrat MP triggered the outpouring when he declared he would not be seeking re-election after two decades representing his far-flung northern Ontario riding.

The news – fellow NDP stalwarts Carol Hughes and Rachel Blaney are also standing down – will come as a body blow to the federal party, which faces a stout electoral challenge from Pierre Poilievre’s resurgent Conservatives.

But Angus is making one thing clear: he hasn’t left quite yet.

“I’m sure they’re all gonna be popping corks and champagne at Poilievre’s Stornoway mansion tonight,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“But I do have one message from here: I’m not going anywhere and I will be taking him on.”

Long known on the Hill as the “punk-rock politician,” the longtime activist, agitator and musician-turned-MP carved out a niche championing Indigenous causes and rights while rejecting the elitist trappings of the Ottawa bubble.

Though the 61-year-old Angus hasn’t played punk music since he was 18, the sensibilities of that era have long suited his political style, “even though I wear a suit,” he said.

“Punk taught me a way of seeing the world,” Angus said. “You don’t have to buy the crap that they’re selling. You don’t have to kiss anybody’s ring.”

Angus was first elected in 2004 after running under the NDP banner at the urging of the party’s new leader, Jack Layton. He represented the riding of Timmins – James Bay, calling it a “real honour” to be a voice for a large Indigenous population – people “who’ve been written off the political map of the nation,” in his words.

But he decided it’s time for renewal – and he’s not alone.

Hughes, another northern Ontario MP who also serves as deputy Speaker in the House of Commons, and NDP whip Rachel Blaney both opted against running again.

Angus and Hughes both cited changes in their riding boundaries as a factor in their decision, although nearly a quarter of sitting NDP MPs have announced plans to step down, if they haven’t already.

Longtime British Columbia MPs Randall Garrison and Richard Cannings have said they won’t run again. Winnipeg MP Daniel Blaikie quit his seat to work with Manitoba Premier Wab Kinew.

Whatever his true motives, Angus, too, is unenthusiastic about the legwork required to navigate a large expansion of his already-sprawling riding, which borders the shores of James Bay.

“I’ve lived on these highways, I’ve almost been killed on these highways,” he said. “I’ve been a part-time dad, a part-time husband and the idea of now such a vast new region pretty much made the decision for me.”

For Angus, his political focal point has always been the people in Ontario’s north, a commitment that has forged him into a longtime advocate of reconciliation and Indigenous issues, especially youth.

A trip to poverty-racked Kashechewan First Nation early in his political career cemented that mission, he said – an eye-opening experience for the man who grew up in a Toronto suburb before moving to the mining town of Cobalt, Ont., in the 1990s.

“I said to people, ‘What does your MP think?'” Angus recalled. “They laughed, saying, ‘Our MP has never been here.'”

It was also around the time he met a 13-year-old girl named Shannen Koostachin, a budding activist from Attawapiskat First Nation members whose school was closed due to ground contamination from diesel fuel.

“I watched that girl take Canada on and transform the fight for Indigenous rights. It was started there in that moment, and I was a witness.”

He later co-founded a campaign called Shannen’s Dream, aimed at convincing the federal government to properly fund First Nations schools. There isn’t a day that goes by, he said, that he doesn’t think about Koostachin, who died in a car accident in 2010.

Angus has also raised awareness about First Nations suicides, and has worked with child welfare advocate Cindy Blackstock on ensuring First Nations children have access to the products, services and supports they need.

“Those moments to me are a fundamental obligation to be a better country,” Angus said.

“And I see it more than ever – the need for politicians to step aside from the dumbed-down rhetoric, and say, ‘How do we serve? How do we make people believe that this is a country worth believing in?'”

Angus said he will continue to be a New Democrat, and help the party campaign during future elections.

The next one will be interesting, to be sure. Despite policy gains through a political pact with Justin Trudeau’s minority Liberals, the NDP and leader Jagmeet Singh have so far struggled to turn policy priorities like national pharmacare and dental care plans into progress in the polls.

The Conservatives, meanwhile, are eyeing NDP seats in British Columbia and northern Ontario, places where their relentless campaigning on cost-of-living issues and the Liberal price on pollution are resonating.

Indeed, Poilievre couldn’t help himself Thursday, using social media to remind prospective voters of the allegiances between the New Democrats and the governing Liberals.

“NDP MPs jumping off Jagmeet’s ship before going down in defeat for voting to hike carbon taxes, free violent criminals, ban hunting rifles and double housing costs,” the Conservative leader posted.

Angus isn’t so sure.

The current lineup, he said, is “the most effective caucus” he’s been in, citing wins like a national food lunch program, which the Conservatives opposed in the past, as well as providing Canadians with free birth control and diabetes medicine.

“Every time I ran, they told me it was my end,” he said. “It’s all about those relationships that you build.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 5, 2024.

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