Last night, my friend Evan and I had the pleasure of seeing Nobel Peace Prize winners Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman speak at the University of Alberta’s Festival of Ideas. Gbowee is famous for her work leading a women’s movement that helped end the civil war in Liberia, but she’s based in Ghana these days. The first thing she said on stage was that she was thankful to the organizers for coordinating a trip that was as long and complicated “as going to space.”
Karman is renowned now for her work rallying Yemenis out on the streets to fight for their right to free expression, free speech, and to eventually to end the rule of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. As a journalist, activist, and mother of three she’s taken extraordinary risks to fight for civil rights in Yemen. She said even after the lives of her children were threatened, she took courage knowing that millions more youths would take to the streets if they were harmed. Incredible change is possible, she said, if you are willing to take on a cause and pursue it to the very end. Have a goal in mind, and make a path towards it.
Moreover, she said women need to take on the responsibility for finding a just place for themselves in Yemeni society.
“Women must be the leaders, not ask for leadership from anyone,” she said. “We don’t want gifts from anyone. We want what we deserve.”
Similarly, Gbowee’s life seems to be a story of recognizing a responsibility to step up to the plate when no one else can. After 2000, ten years after the Liberian civil war began, a movement of Christian and Muslim women was building around the country to call for peace. She had convinced many of them that this was their fight, and they wanted her to lead them. Gbowee said she must have quit fifty times, and each time she’d find 200 hundred women waiting outside her house, telling her it was time to go back to work.
It makes me wonder — how seriously do most of us take the idea that we’re the ones who need to step up to the plate to solve our big crises, and we must follow our work to the very end? That, as the Hopi poem (or maybe prophecy) goes, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”?
I have an uncomfortable sense that many of us engaged in environmental and social justice work find our milestones more in our efforts than our accomplishments.
Last week, I had a chance to interview Dr James Orbinski for The CJSR Edition, our freshly-minted local news show. The former international head of Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders was at the University of Alberta to accept an honourary degree. I met a few folks who saw his convocation speech, and they seemed kind of shell-shocked at how persuasively he had convinced them to do the hard thing and take some responsibility to make things better.
What struck me when we spoke was this comment about whether vocal civil society groups should risk taking federal funding or charitable status these days:
“The most important and powerful tool that any citizen has is his or her voice. The free and public expression using that voice is very much in my view a duty and a responsibility of citizenship. And if government — in this particular case, the Harper government — chooses to use tools of government, funding for example, in an effort to quell expression, and voice, and public engagement and public criticism, then citizens and citizen organizations should just simply refuse that funding.”
Tomorrow is the big election, and I’m finishing this profile series with the ultimate underdog: Meagen LaFave, Wildrose candidate for Edmonton-Strathcona. She’s running for a party that’s climbed to the top of the provincial polls, but in a district that’s still very tough.
Seeing what makes a libertarian like LaFave want to run in a safe NDP riding was probably the most interesting experience I had working on this series. I talked to her about how her experience in health services affects her views on health care reform, what a libertarian thinks about recognizing rights for transgender Albertans, and why she chose Strathcona over any other part of the city.
As Meagen LaFave’s team watches a wind storm die down from her campaign office window, she coughs and finishes writing a stack of “Sorry I missed you” post-its. At 23, she’s the youngest Wildrose candidate in the province, and she’s still getting over a cold from pulling out all the stops campaigning.
On the wall, a whiteboard shows polling results from April 3rd. LaFave’s campaign manager tells me they stopped updating it once it got busy and they realized provincial numbers don’t mean much in what they wryly call the “People’s Republic of Strathcona.”
The NDP’s Rachel Notley is the current MLA for this riding, and their party has held it for most of the last 26 years. Notley’s predecessor Raj Pannu was popular enough to earn the nickname “Raj Against the Machine”. It doesn’t get much safer for the NDP in Alberta, but LaFave says Strathcona’s the part of the city that fits her best.
“I’ve lived in this riding, I love this riding,” she says. This is where she long-boards, shops, and watches theatre. It’s also where she works for a research group and bio-specimen business within the U of A.
There are a lot of conservatives in this area looking for an alternative, she says, and she thinks it helps that she’s a libertarian but not a hard-line social conservative.
LaFave says she couldn’t disagree more with Allan “lake of fire” Hunsperger about condemning gay relationships, for example. She believes it’s his right to say what he thinks, though.
Getting your hands dirty, starting work at 14
What made LaFave want to run, knowing the odds?
“I’m a pretty type-A person,” she says. “I went from being a bookkeeper to the business manager of my company.” So looking at the challenges, she figured if you’re going to get your hands dirty, you might as well get them really dirty.
“The libertarian values, frankly,” were what LaFave says attracted her to Wildrose. She had watched their development for years while studying political science and history at the U of A, and finally joined the party in 2011.
Like many Wildrose members, she used to be a PC supporter. Eventually stories of doctor intimidation, seemingly ever-increasing hospital wait times and accountability issues convinced her the party was broken. She didn’t expect Wildrose to take off so much, though.
Born and raised in Edmonton, LaFave says she has “quite a bit of blue collar” in her. She credits her entrepreneurial father and accountant mother with teaching her to be fiscally responsible. The day she turned 14, she started her first job.
The Wildrose Party has been criticized for fielding so many candidates like LaFave without experience holding public office. There are parallels to the flood of MPs elected in Quebec from the NDP just last year, many of whom were mocked at first but have proven to be capable politicians.
LaFave admits she doesn’t follow federal politics much, but thinks she has weight from her work experience, and is privileged to see dysfunction in our health care system through her work with Alberta Health Services and the U of A.
“Everybody getting involved in politics starts from ground zero.”
The relief valve of more private health care
Health care questions are definitely LaFave’s favourite to answer at the door. One woman she meets is encouraged by Wildrose’s promise to increase funding for home care, but wary of a two-tier system emerging. LaFave emphasises that they’re only proposing publicly funding more private delivery if a wait-time guarantee isn’t met.
“But what happens when that door opens?” the woman asks.
It’s a question LaFave doesn’t mind answering. Her experiences working with Alberta Health Services have made her adamant that big changes need to be made to the province’s health care system.
There’s a huge amount of waste in the bureaucracy, she says. Because her company is a not a for-profit entity connected to AHS and the University, it has to pay a large chunk of any funding it gets directly to their joint research centre NACTRC. LaFave says over the years NACTRC has stopped providing even basic clinic space in exchange for that money, and concludes the money is now just boosting bureaucrats’ salaries.
I ask LaFave why not spend her energy reforming the bureaucracy within the public system if she has these insights. There’s a lot of evidence that private delivery of health care is more expensive than public delivery. For example, Canadian Doctors for Medicare has published a report showing the “pac man” analogy of health care continually eating up more of provincial budgets is mostly due to shrinking revenues and rising costs of private services like drug and dental insurance.
LaFave also works directly with billing, so I point out that a lot of research shows the exorbitant costs of the US system are partly pushed up by the amount of private health care providers they have trying to untangle a web of who pays for which patients to use what services (This American Life has a great special called More is Less that explains this in more detail).
LaFave is firm that she sees so many superfluous people working in health care billing in Alberta that cutting their jobs would balance that out. And the wait-time guarantee would just be a relief valve, she says, until more front-line doctors and nurses are hired.
What seems fuzzy is how a Wildrose government would gauge when they cross that finish line.
Those contentious moral issues
Even in the People’s Republic, the Wildrose name gets a lot of people excited about change. One man wants to meet LaFave at the door just to tell her, “We need new leadership. Big time.”
But she tells me that questions about homophobia, racism and other bigotry among Wildrose candidates have outgrown most of the policy questions people pose.
“My opinions are not the same [as those views],” she says. “That’s where the libertarian thing fits me so well.”
So I ask her what the libertarian response would be if a gay constituent said a marriage commissioner had denied their right to that public service, by declaring it violated their conscience rights. She pauses.
“I haven’t really considered whether someone should be forced to offer marriage,” LaFave answers honestly, “because I wouldn’t want to force someone to do something they disagree with.”
It’s an obvious tension in her desire to champion individual rights, and she doesn’t have an answer yet on how to negotiate them when they compete. She’d probably want to help both sides resolve the issue through the courts, she says.
Finally, I ask Lafave about the Wildrose pledge not to legislate on contentious moral issues. This has mostly been framed as a way to reassure voters they won’t try to do something like de-list abortion. The flip side is it implies they won’t work on expanding legal protections for groups like trans people.