When I was a young activist eager to take on all the dragons who were resisting the closure of institutions in British Columbia, I got the 'bright' idea to intervene in a provincial by-election.  I had studied tactics of the civil rights movement and thought it was possible to influence the election result in Kamloops, a city where Tranquille, one of three big BC institutions for people with intellectual disabilities was located. I calculated the Government party would not close Tranquille, because it would mean job loss. So we needed to make institutional closure an election issue and defeat their candidate.

With nothing more than the idea, we headed up to Kamloops to venture into election politics. We were getting a little media interest and had started speaking to a variety of disability groups to persuade them to join us.  Out of the blue, I was invited to a meeting with Dave Barret, the former Premier of British Columbia who was once again Leader of the Opposition.  He questioned me on our plans, listening quietly as I huffed and puffed.  Then he pulled his chair close to mine and even though there were several others in the room looked me in the eye and gave me some advice I have never forgotten.

Listen, young man I loved being Premier.  I want the job back more than you will ever know. And winning this by-election is a major step in that direction.  And maybe what you are doing will help me. But you are making a big mistake. Leave the partisanship to me.  Your job is to articulate the issues, critique government decisions and propose solutions.  My job is to decide how to use that information, to attack and hopefully defeat the Government.  You do your job and I'll do mine.

If your advocacy message is seen as anti-government it will not be heard, let alone heeded. If you want to become partisan don't use your organization as the vehicle.  You can exercise that right in other ways.

It is admittedly a tough line to walk but don't drift into partisan politics. If a government, either right, left or centre, hears your message as an attack on them as governing party, it will treat your concerns and solutions as partisan.  They will dismiss them, you and your organization and usually not the one time but for years.  Politicians have long memories.

It's tough enough to get your advocacy message heard, without giving the governing party an easy reason to ignore you.  If you need to criticize, critique the decision not the person or party.  Try to be constructive. And make sure you propose a solution.


3 Comments

  1. David Roche

    This is so true, Al! I learned a similar lesson in my years of community organizing. Partisanship, especially when combined with moral indignation, only serves to feed that desire to be right and pure and to vent anger. So unproductive! Such a waste of time.

  2. Geraldine

    Thanks for this article Al. It’s a balancing act for sure. It’s difficult at times to put away your anger or frustration over an injustice so that you can gather political support. Sometimes I believe it cannot be argued that you should. However, I think you are right in general if you want to be effective.
    I have spent many years yelling at the closed door of politics, rather than spending time trying to work with the people inside. As I continue with my work, I see the fruits of doing the latter and am convinced that the politicians I once regarded as one big mob, are actually all people who want to do the right thing.
    They too have inherited the system of their predecessors and must work to try and change long-entrenched beliefs and processes. We must work together if we want to make lasting change. We have the benefit in Canada of living without fear of persecution for our beliefs. We should take advantage of our freedom and create a lasting culture of inclusion and collaboration.

  3. Sean moore

    Excellent advice, Al. Unfortunately, it’s the exact opposite of the approach taken by most advocacy groups. They would do well to follow your advice – and that of Davy Barrett.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>