Jacob Kearey-Moreland on food justice, party politics, and strategic voting

Regular readers of The Alfalfafield will know that I’ve been pretty disenchanted with the level of discourse spouted by most candidates in the ongoing federal election.

There’s an artificiality to the talking points and carefully calibrated messages rolled out by each of the major parties which is positively grating, regardless of how much I may agree or disagree with the policies that are being advocated.

And far too often, I’m left wondering why we’re spending so much time talking about such narrow issues that matter to so few people.

Which is why I’ve taken so much enjoyment in keeping tabs on the campaign of Jacob Kearey-Moreland, an unlikely Independent candidate in Simcoe North.

I first met Jacob at Occupy Toronto in 2011. (I can’t bring myself to follow the journalistic convention and refer to Jacob by his last name – he’s very much a first-name kind of guy. Even his election lawn signs say “Vote Jacob”!) I remember hearing him strumming his ukulele and singing a song about gardens, and going on to talk about his plans to create an organization called Occupy Gardens, which would take public gardens and use them to grow free food for their communities, and I remember being skeptical.

But sure enough, Occupy Gardens was a big success in the growing season of 2012. In 2013, I sat on the organizing committee for Toronto’s May Day rally, and so did Jacob, on behalf of Occupy Gardens. They were planning their most ambitious planting to date: a People’s Garden on the north lawn of Queen’s Park, just outside of the Ontario legislative building. It was, for me at least, the high point of that year’s May Day festivities. The planting was a rousing success; a large section of the lawn was dug up and several kinds of seeds were sowed. Jacob led everybody in a song with his then-omnipresent ukulele.

(For those curious about the fate of the project: The organization carefully tended the garden over the summer and fall. Then, just days before a long-planned and well-publicized harvest party, Parliamentary officers destroyed the garden and threw away the entire crop. It was hard to see their actions as anything but deliberately spiteful.)

Since I first met Jacob, he’s become a regular columnist for the Orillia Packet and Times, his hometown newspaper, on issues related to food justice and activism. Though our paths don’t often cross, I’ve found his online commentary on issues to be insightful and on-point.

I caught up with Jacob over the phone earlier this week to talk about his candidacy, and he did a lot to reinforce my positive perceptions of his candidacy when he started out our conversations by saying, “There’s a number of issues that aren’t really being talked about because these issues affect people who are unlikely to vote.”

“I usually talk about food and water – the basic biological human life needs that everybody can understand and can get behind,” he continued. “I have a pretty consistent message which I deliver to most people, which is cooperation among all people and parties to focus on addressing core human needs.”

Core human needs – there’s a subject which was completely absent from, for instance, the federal leaders’ debates, which have placed far greater importance on niqabs and budgetary deficits. I don’t think I’ve heard one single word out of Thomas Mulcair or Justin Trudeau on the subject of food insecurity during this entire campaign – and that despite the fact that forty percent of Canadians say that food insecurity is an issue that matters to them personally in this election. So it was refreshing to talk to a candidate who not only was eager to talk about food, but who had a coherent platform on the subject.

“I’ve been working with Food Secure Canada, which is a national coalition, on the Eat Think Vote campaign, to raise food as an election issue and to stimulate discussion and discourse around food and agriculture,” Jacob told me. “And my position on food is pretty simple: I think that food should be universally accessible to all people – healthy food – regardless of income or geography or status or who you are or what you’re doing. I think everyone should have access to food. And starting in particular with children, young people, in regards to a national student nutrition program.

“This is something that’s been called for by Food Secure Canada, as well as other partners, as a strategic priority, in making sure that young people are growing up with all the nutrients they need to fully form as biological beings. This is something I’ve been saying on the campaign trail and in the debates, that personally I think it’s a crime against humanity the way in which we’re deliberately malnourishing our children when we know better, and we have the resources, the money, and the food, especially, to provide to these people, but instead we choose to throw it out, to maintain the private, for-profit food complex.”

And, as Jacob quite correctly pointed out, food insecurity is not some kind of abstract or far-away issue.

“A lot of people I’m talking to campaigning in downtown Orillia – I’m out there all day and all night sometimes, and a lot of the people out walking the streets, around the bus terminal, these are people who food security isn’t an academic study for them. It’s a real lived daily experience.

“I was just on a panel last night with the director of operations at the largest food bank in the community here and she said there’s between 1200 and 1400 people a month visiting the food bank in a city of 30 000 people. And that’s just one food bank – we have a number of them. And a third of them are children under the age of 18. And so there’s a huge portion of the population in the community that are at the food bank. That’s not to mention all the other people who just are lacking food, or healthy food.”

In other words, issues surrounding poverty and food security are incredibly important to many people in Simcoe North – and furthermore, to people across Canada. And yet we hear virtually nothing on these subjects from the major parties.

Similarly, Jacob has emphasized issues like access to clean drinking water, safe and affordable housing, and implementing the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in his campaign – all issues on which the federal leaders have been virtually silent. And, as Jacob sees it, there’s a straightforward reason for this: “Housing, for instance, isn’t a major election issue because people who don’t have housing, or are struggling to find housing, or are living in substandard housing aren’t likely to vote. And in fact the voter laws have just been changed to make it harder for them to vote.”

By his presence in the race locally, Jacob has been able to force the other candidates to address these central issues in all-candidates debates, and he finds that, when pushed to express their positions on these topics, they more often than not agree with his platform – whether in deference to his popular appeal with the crowds, and especially younger voters, or because, on these subjects at least, they aren’t bound by party orthodoxy and are free to speak their minds.

“When you have an additional voice in those debates, a dissenting voice against the status quo, it creates space for the other candidates, and I challenge them to have to acknowledge these issues, because when I bring up these issues, they kind of have to respond,” Jacob said. “And I’ve found that a lot of things that I’m saying are being echoed by the other candidates.”

And, as he likes to point out, as he is by far the youngest candidate in the running in this election, he’s the one who’s going to have to live with the decisions that we make today about how to deal with the crises facing our society. It’s a line that he says “really resonates with a lot of young people who don’t feel represented by the political parties, or the political process we have currently.”

But if things had gone according to Jacob’s initial plan, however, he would be up on those debate stages representing the NDP.

His candidacy for the NDP ended abruptly literally hours before a meeting of the party’s local riding association to nominate their candidate for this year’s election. Disqualified on the basis of comments on a private Facebook group advocating cooperation between the political parties, Jacob wasn’t given any time to appeal the decision before the NDP moved ahead with nominating Richard Banigan, its candidate in 2008 and 2011.

The experience didn’t deter Jacob from moving ahead with running for Parliament as an Independent – though he insists that he sees himself as a Cooperative Interdependent – although it certainly altered the way he sees the party system. And ironically, it likely allowed him to be far more open about his opinions and his priorities as a candidate.

There’s no room for cooperation between party partisans, he complains, and this partisanship is especially ridiculous when the parties’ positions are often barely distinguishable from each other. “I can’t speak necessarily for what’s happening in other ridings across the country, but I think generally speaking most people are non-partisan, and I think partisan politics most people find kind of divisive, combative, and toxic, and don’t really want to participate in it,” he told me. “They just want to see progress in their own lives and on all these major issues.

“I think that those who are involved in the political parties need to either stop being involved in those parties or get those parties to work together,” he continued. “Because right now those parties have too much power and that power is concentrated at the top – just like most other institutions. And they’re abusing that power, and there’s not many ways to hold them to account. So that’s what I’m trying to do – I’m trying to hold those in power to account.”

Ultimately, for Jacob this campaign is not about winning or losing. It’s a platform that allows him to bring issues which he’s passionate about to the forefront of public attention, to engage with people in a way which isn’t always possible.

Electoral politics, he says, isn’t going to be sufficient to deal with the issues facing us by itself: “What I’m also advocating is popular people’s assemblies, and community councils based on different themes. I’m imagining a more participatory democracy, where people are actually participating in the decisions that affect them and the laws that govern them. Because right now I think we’re governed by a radical minority representing corporations and corporate interests, or other private interests, rather than representing people’s interests and the public.”

Which, refreshing as it is to hear, is probably not something he could have got away with saying as an NDP candidate.

Jacob’s campaign is in many ways a subversion of the electoral process. Take the very premise of the campaign – that of interdependence and cooperation. If there’s one thing that political parties are loathe to do, it’s cooperation. And yet that’s just what Jacob is encouraging them to do, and on issues which they typically ignore because of their lack of impact on the average voter.

By insistently pointing out that the needs of the average voter are not even remotely the same as the needs of the average person, Jacob is drawing attention to the fundamental inequalities that are masked by our electoral system. By emphasizing the need to work together, in our communities and outside of the political process, to resolve major issues facing our society, Jacob is undermining the traditional narrative of the political campaign, which insists that like-minded people must unite behind a candidate willing to champion their cause.

In fact, Jacob told me that he would love nothing more than to see a hundred people running in his riding under the banner of interdependent cooperation, all of them putting forward the issues which they felt were the most important.

It’s an idea which at first boggles the mind – what would be gained by this? How could such a strategy be a winner?

But, at least for Jacob, this whole process isn’t about winning. It’s about bringing forth his vision for what his riding – and this country – needs to be prioritizing, and discussing those ideas with people everywhere he goes. It’s an opportunity he’s shocked more people don’t take advantage of.

“In our riding there’s 85 000 eligible voters, and only six of them are on the ballot. And across the country of 35 000 000 people, there’s only about 1700 or something. That seems pretty extreme, right?”

As appealing as the idea of a massive chorus of dissenting voices in an election campaign may be, it also conjures up visions of Conservative candidates coasting to easy victories. I brought up the issue of vote splitting, and the ever-present arguments surrounding the need to vote strategically in this election to stop Harper (arguments of which I’ve been pretty dismissive in the past). Jacob conceded that these arguments may be sensible in extremely close ridings, but Simcoe North went heavily Conservative in 2011 – well over half of voters went for the Tory candidate, who remains the odds-on favourite to win this time around, regardless of any strategic voting efforts.

Which doesn’t stop some candidates from dreaming. 

“When I first brought up the fact that I was gonna run as an independent to the Liberal candidate,” Jacob recalled, “she responded immediately with, ‘Well you know, the problem with that, Jacob, is splitting the vote.’ And I responded to her by saying, ‘Well, you know, Liz, we could say the same thing about your campaign.'”

The Liberals came third in Simcoe North last time.

“I don’t think that there is a strategic vote in this riding,” Jacob continued. “The Liberals would argue that they’re the strategic vote, and they argue that every election. What happens is a lot of people who’d rather vote Green or NDP or Independent don’t, and they vote Liberal, and it skews the results and it skews any future discussion around who to support.”

Besides, Jacob’s position is that, regardless of who wins, community engagement with the process is going to be vital for the success of any reforms or changes.

“Regardless of who wins this election – even if it was an NDP majority – I don’t think they have the power, the capacity to even begin to address the issues we face, because they’re global and so complex,” he insisted. “And given the state of our world society, the level of inequality – I think we need millions of representatives.”

In other words, democracy is a dynamic process, one which demands our engagement far beyond the act of voting. We must all be representatives of our interests and the interests of our communities.

And in that sense, Jacob Kearey-Moreland’s candidacy is an exemplification of the best of the democratic process.

For more information on Jacob’s candidacy, see votejacob.ca.

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