Charlie Angus comes in from the cold

Charlie Angus might be NDP leader. He's also been a punk rocker, homeless advocate and Aboriginal rights activist.

Charlie Angus (left) and Andrew Cash performing with L'EŽtranger circa 1983. (Luis Maremlo)

Charlie Angus (left) and Andrew Cash performing with L’EŽtranger circa 1983. (Luis Marmelo)

In a TV interview from MuchMusic back in 1983, members of the punk band L’Etranger talk earnestly, on the front porch of a downtown Toronto house, about the left-wing causes they champion in their songs. “The question always comes up: ‘Why do you sing about apartheid? Why do you sing about this, why do you sing about that?’ ” says the skinny bass player. “I don’t really think it’s political so much; it’s about how we see ourselves in the community.”

Actually, it turned out it was political. That bass player was Charlie Angus, then a 21-year-old punk proselytizer, now a 54-year-old NDP MP who has represented the northern Ontario riding of Timmins–James Bay since 2004. Slouched beside him on the porch was Andrew Cash, the band’s lead singer, who won a Toronto seat for the NDP in 2011, but lost it in the 2015 election, cutting the party’s L’Etranger caucus in half.

It isn’t far-fetched to suggest that Angus has the most unusual resumé of any plausible potential candidate to replace Tom Mulcair as NDP leader. He is fully expected to run for the job, after quitting his positions as NDP caucus chair and Indigenous affairs critic in late November to consider a leadership bid. Perhaps even more tellingly, Angus, whose French is only passable, used the year-end break to attend intensive French classes in Quebec City. “French is certainly going to be, if I run, a huge issue,” he told Maclean’s. “To be able to speak in both languages in Canada is just the bottom line.”

Indeed, doubts about Angus’s French proficiency came up repeatedly in leadership chatter last April at the NDP convention in Edmonton where party delegates voted to dump Mulcair. In the initial wave of speculation about the next leader, the two top names on the lists of many NDP insiders were Megan Leslie, the popular Nova Scotia MP who lost her seat in last year’s election, and the high-profile B.C. MP Nathan Cullen. Both speak adequate French. But both also soon ruled themselves out. Their absence from the race left a palpable lack of excitement surrounding Mulcair’s possible successors.

The MPs still in the mix include B.C.’s Peter Julien, 54, a stolid veteran who has stepped down as NDP House leader to explore his leadership potential, and Manitoba’s Niki Ashton, 34, who placed seventh in the 2012 leadership contest won by Mulcair. Angus would bring to the race a distinctive flare for championing causes, rather than merely attacking the government over policy, and a knack for attracting attention, although he might not put it that way. “I think the search for an authentic voice is at the root of many of the seemingly contradictory movements in politics today,” he says. “People want to feel that their voice is heard and that people are speaking to them.”

NDP MP Ashton. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

NDP MP Niki Ashton is expected to run for NDP leadership for a second time. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Angus was born in 1962 in the mining town of Timmins, Ont. Both his parents were the children of miners. His early memories include boisterous kitchen parties in their Timmins home, with plenty of music inflected by his mother’s Cape Breton Island roots. Neither of his parents had pursued post-secondary education. However, when his father was 40, he went back to school, eventually earning a master’s degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, and then landing a job teaching at Seneca College in Toronto. “So you could say that’s when our family joined the middle class,” Angus says.

They moved from Timmins to a townhouse in Toronto’s Scarborough suburb. Angus describes it as a bustling home filled with “very loud people”—his parents, three siblings, and his grandmother. Neighbours tended to congregate there. In his early teens, Charlie helped start a garage band. Andrew Cash says the first song they tried to play was Neil Young’s three-chord folk standard “Helpless.” But they quickly gravitated toward the politicized punk coming out of England in the late 1970s. “That first Clash album was like a road map out of a world of black and white; [it] said you could take control of your life, you can do things different,” Angus says. “There were a lot of oddball kids who were attracted to it because it said you can make change.”

But the left-wing politics that clicked with those Scarborough punk rockers wasn’t only calling from London. Both Angus and Cash were influenced by Catholic activist sentiment that was in the local air. Angus recalls a parish priest who sermonized about Cesar Chavez, the Mexican-American labour leader who drew wide attention to the plight of farm workers in California and Florida. His Catholic school teachers talked about political struggles in Nicaragua and Brazil. “There was there was a very strong Catholic left at that time,” Angus says. “So we just we grew up in that context.”

After high school, Angus and Cash tried to make a living as touring and recording rock musicians, rather than heading off to university. Angus says his parents were, perhaps surprisingly, quite supportive. In the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and eventually Brian Mulroney, L’Etranger’s left-wing anthems felt like part of a resistance movement. Angus says touring and recording also instilled a work ethic. “It’s actually a hell of a hard way to make a living, believe me,” he says.

In the mid-1980s, Angus and his wife, Brit Griffin, bought a house in downtown Toronto, and ran it for a few years as a sort of homeless shelter for, as Angus puts it, “guys coming out of prison and homeless alcoholics.” In 1990, they moved to little Cobalt, Ont., a down-on-its-luck mining town. “My wife really wanted to live outside the city,” Angus says. “We had a young family so we decided that we would try start to start something new.”

Angus made money however he could. He worked as a chimney sweep one winter and in construction as a drywaller. But he and Griffin also founded a magazine called HighGrader, devoted to stories about northern Ontario, and Angus worked as a freelance journalist for newspapers, as well as for TVOntario and CBC. He had also shifted from punk rock to an equally political brand of alternative country with the band Grievous Angels. His life changed after he reported on a plan to dump Toronto’s garbage into the huge open pit of the closed-down Adams Mine near Kirkland Lake, Ont.

Angus took on opposing the dump concept as his first signature cause. He organized farmers and First Nations against the plan, arguing the garbage threatened to contaminate ground water. “This was a really, long, tiring and intensive and ugly battle,” he says.

He won. The experience, he says, convinced him that he was good at organizing demonstrations and blockades, and building a grassroots movement. He also met Jack Layton, a supportive Toronto city councillor who would, of course, go on to lead the NDP.

Federal NDP MPP Charlie Angus, left, shows his support for Stephanie Hookimaw, right, who lost her daughter to suicide last year in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Monday, April 16, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

NDP MP Charlie Angus, left, shows his support for Stephanie Hookimaw, right, who lost her daughter to suicide in the northern Ontario First Nations reserve in Attawapiskat, Ont., on Monday, April 16, 2016. Nathan Denette/CP

Building on his Adams Lake reputation, Angus went to work for two Algonquin First Nations, handling everything from land claims research to trying to improve on-reserve schools. “It was a real apprenticeship working in communities where there always seems to be such a straightforward, easy solution,” he says. “And yet there was always a government policy that stood in the way.”

In 2004, he ran in the federal election as a long-shot NDP candidate in Timmins–James Bay and won by 613 votes. In 2006, he held the riding by a margin almost 10 times greater. He quickly made a reputation in Ottawa. In 2007, his fellow MPs voted him the best constituency representative in the annual Maclean’s Parliamentarians of the Year Awards.

His growing profile on Aboriginal issues, however, drew a backlash from the targets of his aggressive question period style. By 2007, Angus was spearheading a campaign to have a new school built in Attawapiskat, a remote Cree community near James Bay, where the squalor and poor public services had drawn national attention. He accused B.C. MP Chuck Strahl, then Aboriginal affairs minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, of “walking away” from the issue. “This member of Parliament,” Strahl shot back, “is a shameless self-promoter who will take publicity . . . on the backs of needy Aboriginal people.”

Despite Strahl’s anger, the government eventually relented, and a new school opened in Attawapiskat in 2014. Angus drew wide attention to the community’s water and housing crises, too, and supported its then-chief, Theresa Spence, in a nationally publicized hunger strike. He wrote a book, Children of the Broken Treaty, focusing on a teenaged girl from Attawapiskat named Shannen Koostachin, who emerged as a face of the struggle for a new school.

She was killed in a car accident before her 16th birthday in 2010, but the campaign for Indigenous education, named Shannen’s Dream in her honour, continued. Chelsea Edwards, now 21, was among the Attawapiskat teenagers who got a taste of political activism through the fight for a school. “He is loyal, honest and committed,” Edwards says of Angus.

And he provided practical tips. For instance, after Edwards froze up in an early encounter with the media, Angus coached her before a Canada AM interview to think of four specific things she wanted to say, and then tap her foot once for each point made—like checking off boxes on a to-do list. It worked so well on the TV show that Edwards says she used the trick when she spoke at the United Nations in Geneva, too.

If Angus is seen by some Liberals and Tories as a grandstander, he’s also respected outside NDP circles. In his riding, for instance, the Tory mayor of Timmins, Steve Black, says Angus “puts partisanship aside” between election campaigns. Angus’s heavy emphasis on First Nations problems, according to Black, isn’t viewed by non-Indigenous voters in the region as distracting their MP from other priorities. “When you’re passionate about an issue, and it’s a focus for you, that doesn’t mean you’ve stopped working on other issues,” Black says.

Angus has proven himself a winning regional politician and an adept advocate for narrowly focused causes. The question, as he contemplates a leadership bid, is whether he can translate those qualities into a vision for a party that has suffered bruising disappointments. Jack Layton’s 2011 breakthrough, especially in Quebec, put the NDP in second place in the House. Even Layton’s death from cancer less than three months later didn’t extinguish the party’s optimism. It went into the 2015 campaign with Mulcair running first in the polls—only to tumble to third by election day.

At the Edmonton convention last spring where Mulcair was ousted, the mood decisively favoured a shift to the left. Many in the party contend that Mulcair and his strategists blundered by running on a balanced-budget platform, allowing Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to outflank them on the left by promising to run deficits. The convention delegates voted to study the so-called Leap Manifesto, which calls for a sharp leftward shift—including a ban on new pipelines—as the basis for two years of policy discussion.

NDP leadership hopeful Charlie Angus in a snow storm, with the shadow Parliament Hill behind him, in Gatineau December 17, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

NDP leadership hopeful Charlie Angus in a snow storm, with the shadow Parliament Hill behind him, in Gatineau on Dec. 17, 2016. (Photograph by Blair Gable)

Angus is cautious about laying out precise policy ideas. He says the party was so focused on removing Harper in 2015 that it forgot to offer something compelling in his place. In contrast, he adds, “Justin Trudeau offered a very clear progressive vision.” He argues that the NDP has a chance to be better positioned by the time the 2019 election rolls around. “But we have to stop apologizing for being New Democrats,” he says. His emphasis on the legacies of Tommy Douglas, father of universal health care, and Layton, the more recent beacon of NDP aspirations, won’t set him apart from any leadership rivals.

What might distinguish him is his unusual path to politics, and his unabashedly scene-stealing, populist style. Especially among younger New Democrats, the example of Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly strong run for the U.S. Democratic presidential nomination against Hillary Clinton stands out as an example of what can happen if an unconventional left-wing voice catches the ear of younger voters. On his best days, Angus offers a hint of that potential.

Cash says the key to his old bandmate’s appeal might not be his punk rock back story, or even his work on behalf of First Nations. It might be the fact that before politics he cobbled together a living without ever having a conventional career. “It’s given him a deep understanding of how precarious people’s livelihoods and people’s lives can get, just from his own lived experience,” Cash says. “I think that’s a really important element to who he is.”

Indeed, Angus talks a lot about the rise of anxiety over the way many Canadians—especially younger Canadians—work. In the first nine months of 2016, the number of full-time jobs in Canada actually declined, while the entire increase in employment was made up of part-time jobs. While his parents had to work hard, he says, they trusted that doing so meant they could afford a house and would earn a pension. That bargain isn’t taken for granted by Millennials entering the workforce now. “There is a growing uncertainty, a growing economic disquiet, out there,” Angus says.

That disquiet obviously played a large part in Donald Trump’s triumph in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and in Britain’s referendum vote to exit the European Union. Angus says the answer to those right-wing populist breakthroughs can’t be equivalent sloganeering from the left. “I don’t think an authentic voice is about saying something outrageous and crazy, and pressing hot-button issues on Twitter,” he says. “What Canadians are going to want is that authentic voice to be someone who has a clear vision that doesn’t over-promise, and actually has a moral compass.” He may not yet have decided to try for the leadership, but it’s clear whose voice Angus has in mind.

Correction, Jan. 10, 2017: A previous version of this post included incorrect information in the caption of a photo featuring Angus and Cash in the band L’Etranger. The photo was supplied by Luis Marmelo.