At 70, Stephen Lewis shows no sign of slowing down.
Whether it’s the potential closure of Insite, Vancouver’s safe-injection clinic, or the Conservative government’s lack of action on aboriginal health, education and community ills, Lewis remains an optimistic and outspoken crusader for social progress.
This is nothing new.
Lewis was Ontario’s New Democratic Party leader from 1970 through 1978, was appointed the UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, where he distinguished himself by his candour, even when it came to criticism of the UN.
That honesty remains one of his hallmarks.
In a wide-ranging interview with News reporter Genesee Keevil, Lewis discussed AIDS in the native community, Stephen Harper and Stephane Dion’s future job prospects and advice about how, in the face of global conservatism, a lifelong social democrat can remain optimistic.
Q: Have you been to the Yukon before?
A: I worked with the Council for Yukon Indians, after I left the United Nations in the early part of the ‘90s.
So I was in Whitehorse on a number of occasions.
And I have had occasion to be in Whitehorse a couple of times subsequently on speaking engagements, so it is by no means the first time.
Q: I know you’ve given plenty of talks in your career, presumably to raise awareness on the issues at hand and to educate. And one of your focuses is AIDS in Africa (which you discussed in Race Against Time for the CBC). You have a foundation that also does a lot of practical work to help Africans struggling with AIDS.
So, how do you weigh the importance of the speeches compared to your practical work plugging away at the problems.
That is, how effective is raising awareness? Does it have lasting implications, or does it get people momentarily riled up before they forget about it again?
A: I think the work of the foundation on a long-term ongoing basis is undoubtedly of huge importance, and Canadians have been amazingly generous toward the foundation.
We raised $12 million last year and it’s almost all in individual contributions from close to 70,000 Canadians.
So I don’t depreciate that side of it at all, but I have learned the advocacy side, as it were, the raising of consciousness and raising of awareness at these various community meetings is often, not equally important, but of some importance.
You never reach your entire audience, but even if a few people are engaged it really means something in the long run.
And whether they create a grandmothers’ group in the Yukon, or whether they talk to their neighbours and friends about it or whether they raise it in church, in the schools — all of this consciousness-raising is important to get people focused on the issues.
Q: And it lasts?
A: In my experience it has lasted in Canada. It’s been much tougher in the United States where the audiences tend to be much more insular, much more focused on the United States to the exclusion of much of the rest of the world.
It’s a very different take on things when you’re a superpower.
In Canada, people do care about the rest of the world.
And my experience is, certainly, that it has been ongoing, judging from our own foundation, but judging generally the way in which people talk about international issues in Canada.
It does have longevity.
Q: Time, in 2005, called you one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and even with that status it’s hard to affect change because you still talk about how there’s this ongoing failure to help.
Why is that?
A: I have no illusions about one person influencing international change.
Q: They can though, or at least Margaret Mead thinks so.
A: Yeah, Margaret Mead thinks so, and there are many examples. And when I was in the envoy role, I often felt that by focusing on individual issues, like treatment, like orphans, like a vaccine, you were both encouraging governments to get more deeply involved and you were continually raising consciousness and this is the way social progress is made, in increments.
So I don’t disparage that, or diminish it at all, nor do I overstate what can be achieved.
You learn in life that you just have to keep plugging away — you grit your teeth, you be tenacious and one day the pendulum swings. You’ve got to wait for it.
Q: But you do still feel there’s an ongoing failure to help?
A: Yes I do.
A: I do not know. I do not understand, internationally, why the G8 countries in particular have been so reluctant to provide the resources and the technical assistance that’s required.
I regard it as an act of astonishing international delinquency.
And I think if (Barack) Obama wins the presidency and if Gordon Brown holds on in the United Kingdom then there will be a much different feel to the G8 than there was under George Bush and Tony Blair.
And that will mean a great deal on international issues of poverty, disease, environment and conflict.
Q: Didn’t the Bushes undermine the AIDS campaign in Africa in a lot of ways?
A: A number of their initiatives on abstinence did undermine it, but, on the other hand, they did apportion more money than was anticipated.
Q: You’ve worked for the UN, you run a foundation and working through organizations can be quite effective.
But, solving problems can also involve jumping through hoops — conducting studies and setting targets.
We’re watching this play out up here, in the creation of a youth shelter.
One organization has been known to just get a place and open its doors to youth, bucking the two-year process because winter’s coming and youth are on the street.
Whereas another organization is getting all the money, but hasn’t really done much to help youth.
So, is it better to work at a grassroots level, or to toe the bureaucratic line when it comes to aid work?
A: I think it is a mistake to toe the bureaucratic line. I think that the world has been paralyzed by bureaucratic lines, particularly around international aid.
I’m not speaking now merely of HIV, AIDS or tuberculosis, or malaria, or poverty or any of the grand issues.
I think we’ve been deeply frustrated by these encrusted bureaucracies and I am much more given to getting things done.
What has been happening in the world is a succession of conferences and meetings and studies and evaluations and documents piling on documents and declarations on declarations and words on words and it all turns out to be a substitute for action.
So the focus has to be on action, it has to be on implementation.
My heart pounds much more directly in concert with someone who just opens up the doors and brings youth in than it does with people who are observing the protocols — because you lose people along the way.
It takes so long to get something done that people get lost in the process.
Q: But because bureaucracy is so strong, often someone who opens their doors gets thumped on.
So what’s the best approach?
A: I think the best approach is to push the outer limits as far as possible.
Stop just short of getting into trouble.
The problem with so many agencies and institutions is they think they’re going to get into trouble the moment they’re critical — the moment they seem to bite the hand that feeds them — the moment they rely unduly on the people that feed them.
But the truth is you can say a lot and do a lot without incurring the wrath of your funders, or of the bureaucracy or of the establishment, and you should push as hard as you can, and go as far as you can before worrying about it.
Q: It is a big fear up here, people are often unwilling to say anything for fear of losing their funding and then it’s hard to affect change.
A: And that’s true not just of the Yukon, it’s true of the world.
When I did the Massey Lectures, when I did Race Against Time, everybody was telling me, “Stephen your criticisms of the UN, you’re going too far, you can’t do that sort of thing.” But in truth not a word was said to me. Not a single word.
And I knew they were irritated, but I also knew you can take more liberties than people think you can take in the service of a good cause.
In the service of a lousy cause, you’re in trouble.
Q: You’ve witnessed many catastrophes in the world, with your AIDS work and your experiences in Rwanda.
And some suggest it is easier to look to crisis overseas than to address the ones at home.
Take, the many issues with aboriginal people — gas sniffing and the long-lasting affects of residential school, and, in the Yukon, there are many children with fetal alcohol syndrome and the issue of violence against women.
So, how did you come to champion the causes you did rather than homegrown issues in your own country?
A: It was a matter of accident.
I was in provincial politics for more than 15 years, certainly pursuing the causes in my own backyard. And frequently those causes were associated with aboriginal communities, in Treaty 3 and Treaty 9 and all of the activities that, as leader of the NDP in Ontario, I pursued and pursued as a private member as well.
I think probably if life had worked differently for me, I would have continued in that way. But suddenly, out of the blue, I got appointed to the United Nations, by Brian Mulroney, unexpectedly.
There’s no reason in the world to think it would happen and it changed my entire life, I really owe a lot to him when all is said and done, because when I got to the UN in 1984, I’d always been interested in international issues.
But of course that became obsessive and I was so fascinated by the UN and how it worked, and what it did at the level of the agencies, like UNICEF, that I continued to do international work from 1984 to today — and even though, from time to time, my heart yearns for the politics of Canada, particularly when there’s an election.
And when I see what’s happening in my own country, my sort of ethos shifted, the ground shifted and it was unexpected, and it’s just the way one lives life, I guess.
So, suddenly, I went from being preoccupied with what was happening in Canada to international issues and I found myself really happy to be a part of that.
It’s hard to do both.
I feel very strongly that the aboriginal community and what is happening, particularly around HIV and AIDS, is something I must address as a matter of conscience here in Canada. And I’m aiming for that.
I am going to be in Prince George, BC, in the middle of October and I want to deal with the Tory determination to close down the Insite centre and I want to deal with HIV and AIDS in many of our aboriginal communities and I’ve been gathering research and speaking to a number of people and when I’m in the Yukon I hope to learn more, but apart from that I think my direction will be on international stuff.
Q: Do you think that there’s a general trend though, especially with Canadians, to focus overseas.
I feel there are less people discussing what’s going on in all the northern reserves.
A: That’s a function of the political process. In truth, I don’t think people are more focused overseas than they used to be, or that there are more people focused overseas.
I think the political system has so ground down — the liberals were moving toward the Kelowna Accord, which would have given some profile to these issues. But that was after many years of neglect. And then in come the Conservatives and they abandon Kelowna and they show complete indifference, except for the apology on the residential schools.
But in terms of dealing with the struggle at a community level, they’re just not interested.
And the same tends to be true generally in the Parliament of Canada, and that’s where you have to focus these issues, that’s where they come alive for the people of Canada.
Q: So is it just a lack of political will?
A: Yes, I believe that, I believe that very strongly.
Q: Given your background in politics, what’s your take on the upcoming election? Why was it called now? How has Harper maintained his popularity despite the scandals and cuts?
And what you foresee happening in the political landscape?
A: It’s too early; we’re right at the outset of the campaign and one never knows what goes wrong, or what happens in a campaign that changes all the assumptions.
At the moment, obviously, Harper’s running well, the Liberals are running deplorably; I think they’re in real trouble.
I think the NDP is doing very well, it’s holding it’s own, and apparently increasing in various areas of the country.
Q: Is that where your political affiliation still lies?
A: Oh, God yes, they’ll lay me in my grave a social democrat.
I’m a democratic socialist, I always will be.
I don’t know about the Greens, I think the Greens are a real question mark, where they will take votes from, whether they will elect anyone, how it will work out.
I think it’s appalling that Elizabeth May will not be in the leader’s debate. I just think that is outrageous — outrageous on the part of the television consortium in particular.
The arrogance and the stupidity in combination leave me astonished and I regret deeply that the political leaders are running from the proposition of having her in the debate, I think she has every right to be there, and should be there.
I myself would never vote for the Greens, I have profound differences with their policies, other than environment stuff, but I will always vote for the NDP, but think in principal this was a real mistake.
(Editor’s note: Since the interview, May has been allowed into the debate.)
Q: Are you surprised by Harper’s standing?
A: I’m surprised and not surprised. It’s the way it is largely because of the official Opposition. Because the Liberals are so weak, and Dion is so out of favour, it leaves the field open for the prime minister. And the prime minister can be aloof and distant and impetuous and arbitrary and it doesn’t offend Canadians, because when they look at the alternative, they are completely uninterested.
So Stephen Harper is being sustained by Dion, I think it’s as straightforward as that and I don’t know how the Liberals are going to turn it around in this campaign.
I think they’re in trouble and I think they’ll probably continue to drop.
When something sets in deeply, in the political psyche of a country, it’s very hard to turn it around.
And I think the political psyche of Canada says Dion is not up to the job. And I’m not even making pronouncements about whether he really is, or he isn’t.
It’s just there.
So I think, in a sense, he’s just opened the door for the Tories to walk through. And it will take a Herculean effort, and when the Liberals say, as they will say in this election campaign, we’ve got to stop the Tories, vote for the Liberals, what is fascinating is that this time, people will be reluctant to do that, because they simply don’t have confidence in the leadership.
And that’s what gives the NDP a very significant opportunity, because it may be in a number of ridings, people who do not want to have a Conservative majority government will turn to the NDP.
Because Jack (Layton), as is shown in all the surveys, is considered much more warmly as a leader than is Dion.
It’s interesting that this has happened, I mean they have some strong personalities, like Ignatieff and Ray, but they are saddled with a leader who is simply not impressive. And he may be the most genuine guy there is, but I think within the Liberal party and within his own group of loyalists, I think he may have been overestimated.
Q: I understand you don’t want to talk about the talk you’re giving in Whitehorse?
A: My problem is, I never decide on what I want to cover until I’m virtually walking to the platform, because that’s the way I’m most comfortable speaking.
I’m much more comfortable speaking with rough notes, or no notes than I am from a text, or having given something a lot of thought.
I mean if I make a speech on aboriginal communities and HIV, I will have given it a lot of thought and read a tremendous amount of material and when you’re giving a speech on things you’re really absorbing, if not for the first time, at least very early on, I work at it very hard.
But if I’m covering international issues or areas with which I’m broadly familiar, I feel that it’s more useful to be spontaneous, because you communicate better with your audience.
Q: But it does have to do with gender equity?
A: I don’t think I’ve ever made a speech in the last 20 years where I haven’t discussed issues relating to gender equality and the Yukon will be no different.
Q: If you could elaborate a little on what you’ve discovered about aboriginal communities and HIV?
A: Discovered, I think would be a little presumptuous. I know that the infection rates are disproportionately high amongst aboriginal communities.
I know that there’s very little attention being paid by the government to the dilemma.
I know that the closing of the Insite centre will be calamitous for aboriginal communities, since there will be even higher levels of HIV if the needle exchange is not available.
And I know that something has to be done, this is the crisis area around HIV in Canada, and that’s what I hope to address.
Q: How will you look into that while you’re here?
A: I hope to meet with some people when I’m there who are familiar with these issues and part of the sponsorship of my being there are people who are familiar with the issues, and I’ll collect what I can.
And I’ve done a little work in advance, I have someone who has already spoken to people and assembled some material.
I’m not sure to what extent if at all, I’ll deal with these issues when I’m there, because I don’t feel absolutely in command of the material as of yet, but I’ve set myself a target for the middle of October.
Q: Many people feel gender equity is no longer really an issue in Canada. Why do you think it’s important?
A: Inevitably I will be focused on international issues. And believe me it’s a problem outside.
Q: And do you think it’s a problem here as well?
A: Yes, because there’s no such thing as gender equality anywhere in the world.
And in those societies where we come closest, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Canada there’s still tremendous difference in income for jobs of similar experience and tenure and background, and the numbers of women, whether it’s in the corporate world, or the academic world etc, there’s still very significant areas to be made up.
And all you have to do is look at the limited number of women in parliament to realize the very significant gains we have to make.
After all, we have a former NDP leader in the Yukon who’s a woman, and we followed by Alexa McDonough, so for the NDP that’s not a problem. But for everybody there’s an insufficient number of women.
Q: People will argue there’re more women going to university now than men?
A: In some courses, not all courses.
Q: I understand you have children, and growing up in this world — I’m in my 30s — there’s not a lot of hope for where the world is headed and whether there is any chance of saving it?
A: I think the big question is the environmental question, that’s the biggest threat to the world.
And I don’t know what to think about that. There are more and more and more people aware, and more and more people fighting for change and I sense as I travel around the country, and I also teach at McMaster.
I think there’s a kind of renaissance amongst young people, particularly young women, an extraordinary engagement in major international issues, and wanting to be a part of it and wanting to change things.
So, I don’t lose hope I just feel that it’s a tough slog, it always is when you want to have a decent international community and you just keep at it, you don’t allow yourself to embrace futility, it doesn’t get you anywhere.