A Leader Of Their Own

Charlie Angus could become the first leader of a major political party to represent Northern Ontario since Lester B. Pearson. What would it mean for the region?

A lack of political power is a frequent complaint in Northern Ontario. The region has just five per cent of Ontario’s population, spread out across vast rural areas. But now the region has a chance to gain representation at the top of one of Canada’s federal political parties. Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus became the front-runner to lead the NDP after declaring his candidacy in late February.

Charlie Angus was born in Northern Ontario in Timmins in 1962. After spending the 1980s in Toronto as a punk rocker and community organizer, he moved back to the small Northern Ontario town of Cobalt in 1990. He got his start in organized politics fighting against the Adams Mine dump that would have brought Toronto’s garbage north to Kirkland Lake. He entered the federal political landscape as the NDP candidate for Timmins-James Bay in 2004. He won that election and has represented the riding ever since.

Now Charlie Angus could become the first person representing a Northern Ontario riding to lead a major federal party since Lester B. Pearson. He says that being from the north is a big part of his personality. “I’m very much defined by my life in Northern Ontario because we really see so clearly the connection between the work and the land and the jobs and the local economy,” he says. Mill closures and environmental protection are the sorts of issues he points to where the connection between northerners and the political battles in Ottawa become apparent.

Angus says being from Northern Ontario has made him a different kind of politician. “When you’re from Northern Ontario, you’re very very grounded in issues. Politicians represent Northern Ontario because we’re the ones who can talk to and understand the issues of everyday people.”

His connection to his constituents is different from politicians in other ridings says Angus because of the nature of northerners. “Their BS metres, you can’t pull a fast one on most people in Northern Ontario. They’ll call you on it. That’s helped me creating policy over the years,” he says.

Fellow Northern Ontario MP Carol Hughes (Algoma-Manitoulin-Kapuskasing) agrees that Angus is a good politician because he’s from the north. She says, “I think that Charlie has proven over the years how dedicated he is fighting for the issues in Northern Ontario.” She stresses that she feels it’s his northern roots that have given Angus a history of “fighting for what’s right.”

In his riding, Angus has survived as MP precisely because he’s not like southern politicians says NDP riding association vice-president Lynn Festarini-Jones. “You often hear people say ‘Oh all politicians are the same, they’re lying, thieving, you-know-whats.’ That’s not Charlie. Charlie is one of the exceptions as a politician. He’s honest, his heart’s in it, his soul’s in it and I just think he’s a great guy.”

She says she believes the reason Angus is such a good politician is because he’s from Northern Ontario and he has a Northern Ontario worldview.

The chance to have a federal party leader from Northern Ontario isn’t just exciting to members of his own party says Angus. “People from across political lines have been calling me and saying ‘We want you to step up. We want you to do this because you’ll be speaking for us on a much larger scale than anything we’ve had before,’ ” he says.

Timmins Mayor Steve Black, a former provincial Progressive-Conservative candidate, is one of the people from the political right who says he wants Angus to win. “I think the residents are fully aware that I’m not an NDP supporter normally,” he says, “I wish Charlie all the best in his leadership campaign because I think it would be very beneficial to the north to have a federal party leader from our region.”

Of course, the leader of a federal party has to have a national outlook and has a lot more on their plate than the average MP. Angus promises that his attention to the riding won’t waver if he becomes the leader. “Everything I do in Ottawa I always think of how it’s going to feel to people back home,” he says, “I always think when I make a decision in Ottawa, what does it mean for someone in Cochrane or Timmins or Englehart. And those kind of roots have made it very clear in terms of what issues I pick up on and what issues I should not be wasting my time on.”

Having the leader forget about his home riding hasn’t been the case with current NDP leader Tom Mulcair says Marianne Côté, the NDP riding association president for Mulcair’s riding of Outremont. “If you’re a good MP then you’re good to go. If you become leader you’re still going to be a good MP, it doesn’t matter,” she says.

Côté says the riding has seen benefits to having their MP as the federal leader. Lynn Festarini-Jones in Timmins-James Bay says they’re hoping to see a similar boost in Angus’ riding. She says the riding association is prepared if Angus is chosen as the leader.

Angus would become only the second leader of major federal party to represent a Northern Ontario riding. The first was Lester B. Pearson, who represented the former riding of Algoma East from 1948 to 1968. He led the Liberal Party from 1958 and became the Prime Minister in 1963.

But Pearson was not from the north. In fact, according to journalist Andrew Cohen who wrote a biography of Pearson, “He certainly did not know where Algoma East was because they apparently had to bring out a map to show him.” But Cohen says despite Pearson’s lack of familiarity with the region, they still benefited from having an MP who was also the leader of a federal party.

Angus says he’ll be more hands-on in the riding than Pearson was in Algoma East. “I’ve always respected Pearson’s work internationally, but I don’t know how you can get elected in a region where you don’t know where it is. But hey, that’s a different kind of politics,” says Angus, while promising he won’t forget his northern roots.

No matter where this race takes him, Angus says he will always remain grounded in Northern Ontario. “I’m bringing forward an offer to Canadians and New Democrats,” says Angus, “A vision of where I think our country should go and I hope it will be accepted going forward. But, if not, I will be very happy to remain as the voice for our region and doing the work that I’ve always done.”

Just by running for a federal leadership he has brought a voice to Northern Ontario that most in the region aren’t used to. Whether he becomes the leader or simply stays as the MP for Timmins-James Bay, his Northern Ontario roots will always be one of the defining features of Charlie Angus.