Still far back in the polls, Communist Party says Hamilton membership has increased 4-fold

·6 min read
Nigel Cheriyan is the Hamilton Centre candidate for the Communist Party of Canada in the 2021 federal election. (Submitted by Brandon Canning - image credit)
Nigel Cheriyan is the Hamilton Centre candidate for the Communist Party of Canada in the 2021 federal election. (Submitted by Brandon Canning - image credit)

Before discovering the Communist Party of Canada at a rally in support of Palestinian rights earlier this year, Spencer Nosella didn't think she aligned with any political parties.

The 32-year-old freelance baker had tried volunteering for the NDP, but was disappointed to be tasked with helping fundraise instead of "doing anything to benefit the community."

Nosella, a resident of Burlington, Ont., also feels strongly about Indigenous issues, labour rights and reducing military spending. She says she's found her people in the Communist Party.

Nosella joined in May, among new party members over that past year, growing from a Hamilton "club" of about five people to more than 20, says the party's organizer for the city, Mike Oldfield, who joined just last year.

The total may seem small, but that kind of rapid growth is happening in clubs across Canada, according to the party, citing a growing belief during the pandemic that capitalism isn't sufficient to solve our biggest problems.

The party is one of a handful of smaller, alternative groups that appear on the ballot box every federal election, a reminder of the diversity of political affiliations that fall outside the more mainstream parties.

In the last election, in 2019, according to Elections Canada, the Communist Party received less than one per cent of the vote, with 3,905 (1,776 of them in Ontario). Parties such as the Veterans Coalition Party of Canada received 6,300 votes, the Animal Protection Party of Canada had 4,408 and Parti Rhinocéros 9,538.

"We have grown by more than 50 per cent in the past year," Communist Party of Canada leader Elizabeth Rowley told CBC Hamilton, while declining to give total number of members that now exist. "We are deluged with interest and [membership] applications. What more could a party want?

"We think it's a reflection of the times we're living in. Capitalism isn't working for a lot of working people."

Rowley will be in Hamilton on Sunday to help launch the campaign of Hamilton Centre candidate Nigel Cheriyan, at 1 p.m. ET at Beasley Park.

Cheriyan, who joined the party last fall, identifies as trans, and says the death in the U.S. of George Floyd and racial justice more generally motivated them to get involved in politics, as did seeing the growth of homelessness and encampments — especially among the transgender community.

"None of the politics people have advocated for have changed anything for the people I care about," Cheriyan told CBC Hamilton on Wednesday, noting their local constituencies seem divided between older unionists and younger workers, job seekers and first-time parents. "It's a lot of people who show a fair amount of insecurity about their future.

"There isn't a single [mainstream] party that doesn't have a vested interest in the economy opening back up and evictions starting again."

Cheriyan has worked as a line cook in several local restaurants, but now divides their time between Hamilton and Toronto. They're also the president of a housing co-op and an astrophysics student at the University of Toronto.

"We're all being told everything is OK when nothing is OK."

Founded in secret in 1921

The Communist Party of Canada formed in secret in Guelph, Ont., in 1921. That meeting was supposed to be held in Hamilton until "they were found out" and had to switch locations, said Oldfield.

It was inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, said Drew Garvie, a member of the party's executive committee.

The party claims to have had two MPs in the House of Commons, both in the 1940s.

Although Communist Party members, both Saskatchewan MP Dorise Nielsen and Montreal MP Fred Rose ran under different party names, as the Communist Party itself was banned.

Nielsen was elected for the Unity Party in 1940, while Rose was elected as part of the Labour-Progressive Party in 1943. Rose was later removed from office after being convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

Today, the party is organized around a "program" that focuses strongly on social justice, including for Indigenous Peoples, and says it aspires toward the "unity of the working class." Its election platform includes the expansion of social programs, building a million public housing units, a foreign policy based on peace and disarmament, and abolishing the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the RCMP.

The party's ties to Russia now are largely historical, said Garvie.

"Since Russia became capitalist in the 1990s, we no longer take any inspiration from their government or social system."

Politics expert weighs in on party's goals

The party is also not connected to the similarly named Communist Party of Canada (Marxist–Leninist). That party, which appears on ballots as the Marxist-Leninist Party of Canada, was founded in British Columbia in 1970, and initially aligned with China before pursuing a version of communism inspired by Albania.

CBC contacted the Marxist-Leninists to ask whether they have seen an increase in interest, but did not hear back.

The last time the Communist Party ran a candidate in Hamilton Centre was 2008, when Ryan Sparrow earned 125 votes, or 0.3 per cent.

While Cheriyan says members hope to be elected, the party may also have some other goals for its campaign, says Peter Graefe, a McMaster University political scientist.

Graefe notes people are more receptive to hearing political ideas during an election campaign, so any group that can organize as a party and run candidates has an easier platform on which to share its beliefs.

"You can show up on the doorsteps and they don't [get slammed] as quickly as they might otherwise," he told CBC Hamilton on Thursday, saying the Communist Party could see this as part of a longer-term effort to educate the working class.

Graefe said another strategy for small parties is to organize a voting bloc around a particular issue, in order to push larger parties to incorporate it in their platforms to gain votes.

"The impact of moving the other parties will be small, but their strategy [could be] developing a sense of working-class consciousness by making these issues central."

Taking 'power' an option to anarchy

Graefe said the stigma of being labelled a Communist has been reduced significantly since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and it may be filling a void in communities where anarchism has fallen out of favour.

"We are maybe in a moment where the state becomes more important," he said. "For example, if you want to deal with climate change, you have to contest state power … What has [anarchy] accomplished? People are saying, 'The world is burning, we need to take power, and change how we produce and what we're consuming.'"

He added the 2018 storming of Hamilton's Locke Street by people found to be tied to an anarchist book fair may have made the community less appealing to locals considering with whom to align.

"Local anarchists were discredited with what happened on Locke Street," Graefe said. "If the extent of their politics is to smash windows, [people are likely saying], 'Maybe we need to have a more serious way to engage with the state.'"

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