Published May 29, 2011No one gave Andrew Cash much of a chance in the recent federal election. It was the first time that the singer/songwriter and long-time social activist had run as a New Democratic Party candidate in his downtown Toronto riding of Davenport, a safe Liberal seat since 1962. However, bolstered by the endorsement of several high profile friends such as the Tragically Hip's Gord Downie and Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy ― along with the late surge in popularity of the NDP nationally ― Cash won handily.
Someone not surprised was Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmins-James Bay, who retained the seat he first won in 2004. As childhood friends in Scarborough, ON, Cash and Angus shared the same beliefs in equality and justice and used them as the foundation for their first band, L'Etranger, one of the seminal Toronto post-punk acts of the early '80s. Now together again in Ottawa, they are shining examples of how the NDP has decisively become the party of young, centre/left-leaning voters. Cash, for his part, is sure to join Angus as one of the most outspoken voices within Jack Layton's Official Opposition.
"Based on my background as a musician, I've never taken anything on unless I've felt I could really do it," Cash says. "I went into this knowing I was the underdog, but I got a strong sense, the more doors I knocked on, that the riding was under-served. That made me cautiously optimistic, and my entire team ran an incredible campaign."
Although Angus wasn't taking anything for granted with his own campaign, he was naturally keeping a close eye on Davenport. "I don't think it's any accident that Andrew and I will be in the House," he says. "We both ran very similar campaigns, and I was invigorated to watch what he was doing. It was very grassroots and DIY; just getting out and engaging people, and I believe that's how I won for the first time in 2004."
Angus goes on to describe putting together his campaign team as he would put together a band, and neither he nor Cash plan on giving up their individual music careers anytime soon. In fact, earlier this year Cash helped Angus record the song "Diamonds In The Snow," a tribute to Shannen Koostachin, the 15-year-old from Angus's riding who fought for Native students' rights, but was sadly killed in a 2010 car accident. At the time, Angus maintained that a song would have a greater impact than a speech, and Cash agrees that more artists in Canada are becoming inclined to take a larger role on the political stage.
"I think a lot of musicians came out in a partisan way for the first time to support me," Cash says. "It made me recall when Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies publicly supported Jack Layton's nomination as NDP leader, which was a watershed moment for me. What we might be seeing, although this speaks more to my personal journey, is that at a certain point artists of all disciplines who believe the neo-conservatives are taking us down the wrong path have to realize it's not enough to just vote against that. We need something to vote for."
While Cash maintains that his focus will be on serving his constituents and forwarding the overall NDP agenda, Angus says he will continue his ongoing battle to amend the Copyright Act. The recent dissolution of Parliament effectively killed Bill C-32, which proposed making it a criminal offence to transfer any digital rights management (DRM) protected material to other digital media platforms. The U.S. has had such a law in place since 1998, and Angus has made it one of his goals to find a uniquely Canadian solution that is fair to both artists and consumers. He went so far as to introduce a private member's bill in 2010 that wanted to add MP3 players to items covered by the "blank media tax," which gives copyright holders a portion of CD-R sales, rather than criminalizing those who copy material for, in some cases, strictly personal use.
Bill C-32 will likely be reintroduced during the upcoming Parliamentary session, and with the Conservative majority, could be rubber-stamped. However, Angus is hopeful that, along with Cash, other new NDP MPs with experience in cultural industries, such as Pierre Nantel (former artistic director for Cirque du Soleil), and Tyrone Benskin (former vice-president of ACTRA), will help put pressure on the government to take a balanced approach with copyright legislation, as well as make the needs of those who work in the creative sector a priority.
"We'll be paying close attention to a few things," Angus says. "We don't want to see any politically-motivated attacks to further undermine CBC funding, and we want Canada Council funding increased. I'd like to see the money that was cut from international touring replaced. I don't think the government had a clue about what a huge impact that would have on the industry. In terms of copyright reform, I spoke with Conservatives before the election and said that we need to get this sorted out, and we're certainly prepared to do that."
On May 17, Angus, flanked by Cash, Nantel and Benskin, formally got this message out to the Ottawa press corps, adding during the news conference that he would like to see the Canadian Pension Plan amended to help provide full-time artists with more financial security. While reporters were less than impressed by a lack of hard numbers, Angus remained dogged in saying that the NDP will not let arts and culture fall off the Conservatives' radar.
At the same time, Angus believes it's up to artists to continue speaking out as well, and that Cash's victory is a prime example of how doing so can produce real results. "I think Andrew's run made a lot of [musicians] say, 'Why shouldn't we have a voice in Parliament?' Artists don't have pensions or security. It's a sector that's bigger than the auto industry, but in terms of job stability, it's brutal. My hope is that English Canada starts taking some lessons from Quebec where the artistic community is very active politically, and is a force to be reckoned with."