Stephen Lewis at the NDP Convention 2016

Stephen Lewis is a national treasure. Not for his illustrious career as a politician and diplomat. Nor for his ongoing contributions to the cause of HIV/AIDS in Africa. But for his oratory. He is Canada’s most outstanding speaker, spectacularly skilled in his cadence, supremely gifted in his use of words, with a rapier-sharp wit, and a great sense of humour. You may not agree with what he says, but no one can deny his ability to make a compelling case. Even the most cynical have been known to succumb to the power of his rhetoric.

See for yourself on the YouTube video of his speech at the NDP Convention 2016 in Edmonton on Saturday. In what he called his “last hurrah,” he was vintage Lewis: passionate, pointed, precise, partisan, replete with colourful language and memorable phrases. Very succinctly, he made the case for how the NDP differs from the Liberals. In so doing, he set an agenda of seven issues the NDP must pursue in the years ahead:

  1. On feminism, Lewis said that, although it is a “huge pleasure to have PM who calls himself a feminist… feminism is a vacant construct without a childcare program across Canada.”
  2. On electoral reform, “whose time has come” and “should consume our collective energies”: the obvious unprincipled cloud emerging ranked ballots has the inner track in mind of the government and is “like the first past the post system on steroids.”
  3. On Bill-C51: the Prime Minister ” is retreating into incrementalism… [and] only the most cosmetic… reform… the Liberals never disappoint.”
  4.  On health care (the NDP’s issue): there is no provision in the budget for health care in the future and we must pursue the goals of home care and pharmacare “because life depends on it.”
  5. On the TransPacific Trade Pact, Lewis denounced the loss of jobs, the investor state dispute provisions which allow foreign corporations to bypass Canadian laws and secure compensation from an international trade tribunal with no possibility of appeal, and the “bonanza of… patent privileges accorded International brand name drug companies” that will limit access to generic drugs by poorer countries and raise drug costs in Canada.
  6. On the sale of light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia, he attacked the Liberals for failing to release their human rights assessment on the Saudi regime with its “astonishing contempt for human rights… whose slaughter of civilians in Yemen and beheadings of dissidents rivals the madness of ISIS, a regime [with] hands drenched in blood… a persistent record of violations of human rights of their citizens… [and]…steeped in misogyny.” When they say they can’t break the contract, “what [they] mean is that [they] won’t break the contract.” As for “the elephant in the room,” the 2000-3000 jobs dependent on the contract, a “serious progressive government” would “pull out all the stops to create the same jobs in another sector…. It is not beyond our capacity to say no to Saudis and yes to employment.” He went on to attack the “pathetic” Budget allocation for foreign aid as “a travesty… the same as the Tories… at .024% of GDP, far short of the 7% set by Liberal icon Lester Pearson.”
  7. On climate change: “the current position of the federal government [is] no position at all…. Paris was a failure (it is all voluntary)… our lack of progress “a monumental crime against humanity.” He touted the LEAP manifesto as “worthy of discussion… ” which “could reanimate a social democratic party looking to a new vision.” He noted that last year was the first year world expenditures on renewables exceeded that on fossil fuels and amounted to “a renewable energy boom.” He called “the move to renewables… the greatest job creation program on the planet, the Marshall Plan for employment… ”

Lewis said that he was “irrepressibly filled with optimism.… For all [Trudeau’s] sunny ways and sunny days, we know what is coming. When it comes to the Liberals, we live in a target-rich environment. There is so much to fire at [and] we fire at it from a determinedly left-wing perspective.” He went on to say that “I hate being a member of the geriatric class. I hate being in my dotage and over the hill. …I would love to be in the House of Commons hounding this government whose flimsy veneer of progressive politics will flounder before the next election.” And so, he fired up the militants with the rhetorical flourish they craved. Watch his speech. It is a tour de force.

Just to refresh our collective memory: labour leader David Lewis, Stephen’s father, was one of the founders of the National Democratic Party in 1961, was elected a Member of Parliament for York South in 1962, and leader of the federal NDP from 1971-1975. Stephen Lewis was elected as an Ontario MPP for Scarborough West in 1963, became leader of the Ontario NDP in 1970, and Leader of the Opposition at Queen’s Park 1975-1977. During the minority government of Conservative Premier Bill Davis, the NDP opposition was credited with pressuring the Tories to adopt both Occupational Health and Safety Legislation and rent controls in Ontario. Years later, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Stephen Lewis the Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations (1984-1988). From 2001-2006, he was the United Nations Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

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One comment

  1. Bob

    Great, he fired up the crowd – and they followed his son in the great LEAP backwards into electoral oblivion. Being a great orator is good. Being a great orator with intelligent ideas is much better.

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