While this blog is still finding its feet, I figured I’d reach out to an old friend that’s been on the organizing team and campaign trail with me a dozen times over to find some inspiration.
I wanted to share the highlights of that conversation, and to introduce folks who may not know him to a great activist, campaigner, and leader: Tony Bui.
Q: Hi Tony, how are you?
A: I’m doing really good! Super excited for the next couple of weeks with everything being planned and to get ready for, it’s kind of overwhelming! But I’m super excited to catch up with some good friends and to catch up with great activists, and to have a good drink by the end of it!
Q: Awesome, and thanks for taking my call today. Have you ever been interviewed about yourself before?
A: Not really, to be honest. I’ve done an interview here and there about politics, including one I did way back when I was 18 and still had a bowl haircut about how I was planning on voting during the 2011 election. I’ve definitely have changed a lot since then! (Link: https://www.thespec.com/news-story/2201533-why-i-m-voting/). But for the most part, any interviews I’ve done have been more about politics or campaigns.
Q: Nice, I’m going to need a link to that article by the way. Now, when I originally started this blog, I wanted to mainly use it to talk about all the stuff I did and learned with the University of Ottawa NDP (UONDP), and you were a huge part of that. So I figured, why not talk to someone else that was there for all of it, and has been a major organizer in the NDP and in Labour circles for a long time, and get your perspective. Why don’t you start by telling me a bit about your political history, and how you got involved in all this stuff.
A: Oof, where do I start? Honestly, my political career and history isn’t that long, even though it feels like I’ve been in it forever. I think my interest and start in politics happened through a program called the Minister’s Student Advisory Council (MSAC) back when I was in Grade 11, which is a group of students who advise the Ontario Minister of Education about youth initiatives and youth leadership. It was an incredible experience that opened my eyes to politics and activism.
My start with the NDP was with the UONDP, where I met the first MP I ever interned for, Isabelle Morin, at a UONDP pub night. That’s what’s really launched my NDP career, because it has led to me working for the party during the 2015 election, working on numerous riding campaigns, working in the Constituency Office for Scott Duvall (NDP MP for Hamilton Mountain), and also led me to be on the Young New Democrats firstly as Participation of Visible Minorities Director, and then as its current Outreach Director. And that’s not even mentioning my involvement in the UONDP, where I almost kind of feel like the grandpa around here!
All that’s only happened in the past 4-5 years, but it honestly feels like I’ve been in this for a long time.
Q: We’ve done a lot of campus organizing together. What do you think has been your favourite event or campaign that you’ve done so far? With the UONDP, or with anything.
A: That’s a tough question. I think, really, the two best experiences that I’ve had as part of the UONDP was being able to go to two different Conventions with the UONDP team, both of which you went to as well! The Federal NDP Convention in Edmonton was such an incredible time, and to hang out with you and our colleagues and so many other young NDPers was incredible. And to see so many New Democrats from across the country? That was another eye-opening experience. And then of course we did the Ontario Convention together last year where we were pretty much glued by the hip for the entire time!
I think the big thing for me with any campus organizing, whether it’s a canvass or an event or going to something as huge as Convention, is the energy we all have and dedicate towards it. We’re all super excited about the possibilities and things that come from these events, and to know others are as enthusiastic as me almost makes me giddy with excitement!
Q: Now, I’m sure a lot of people don’t know this, but every young political person in Ottawa seems to know your name. There’s this quasi-cult following around you, that I feel like you owe a little bit to the Tories that created the “Draft Tony Bui for NDP Leader” page. I even noticed recently the UONDP playing with it in their most recent “Breakfast with Tony” event too. How do you think all that started, and do you ever get weirded out by it, or is it mostly funny?
A: Oh gosh, I have so many feelings about all of this! There are times where I freak out or have a small panic attacking thinking that I’m eventually going to become a meme! It’s extremely entertaining through my take of it, and let’s just say there were an astonishing amount of people that messaged me asking if I was going to be wearing pearls to the “Breakfast With Tony” event.
But honestly, being able to have some fun with yourself and with others is such an important part of politics, and fostering a welcoming and collegial environment despite the inherent divisive nature of it. And whether that comes at my expense through different memes or events with puns or whatever else, I’m all for it! If it brings people together, and opens up the space for those who are a bit apprehensive about politics because all they’ve heard about it is all the yelling and screaming in the House, then I’m willing to take one for the team.
Q: Being in Ottawa, we had a real privilege of meeting people coming in from all over the country. What’s the most valuable thing you learned from a fellow New Democrat, or activist, whose not from Ontario?
A: We really have, haven’t we? Hmm. I think the best piece of advice I’ve heard from someone was from an activist, not actually from the NDP or even originally from Canada. What they told me that has stuck with me, is that politics at the end of the day isn’t about the legislation, or titles, or about debates, or even about ideology. It’s about people, and that the decisions that we make and the work that we do impacts the lives of others, and that we can’t take for granted the opportunities that we have to make a difference, because we do have that opportunity here, and peacefully so. People overseas put their lives on the line to fight for what they believe in, and continue to do that despite ever-increasing pressures from their governments to stop them, and do it willingly. So when you continue with your work, continue with it in a way that acknowledges that power that you have, and commits yourself to do the best you can, because it can mean the world to someone else.
We say all the time that we do work for the people, and that our work is important, but I think talking to this activist was what drove the point home for me.
Q: The last Federal convention was held in Alberta, and it was a pretty big deal. We were there together, and I’m wondering if, like me, you’re reflecting on how different everything is as we approach this year’s Federal convention next month. What do you think our party and the left-wing movement in Canada has learned since then?
A: Absolutely, yeah there’s a lot I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks in the lead-up to Convention next month. I think a lot of what the NDP has been doing is finding our feet again, and finding our space in this new political climate. I think a lot of what we’ve been doing is focusing on renewal and reviving the energy in our party, and having a lot of discussions about what the path of the party should be. The Leadership race was a crucial part of re-organizing and re-motivating party members, and bringing in that youth voice that we so desperately need. My hope is that this Convention is what jump-starts our work leading to the 2019 election, and gives people reasons to hit the ground running. And I think what we’ve learned is that we need to do is a much better job of getting our message across to people, and we’ve got to stop thinking that having the best arguments and moral high-ground is all we need to get elected, because it isn’t. And we learned that lesson the hard way.
Unfortunately, I think there’s also been a lot of infighting within the party between factions, and especially within the left-wing movement. We’ve seen from the election of Donald Trump, for example, how the infighting within the Democratic Party, among other factors, can bring down a party, and manifest and result in a way that can be catastrophic. We have to stop cannibalizing each other and shooting each other down, because at the end of the day, that energy is being spent tearing us apart instead of focusing on those we need to fight back against. We’re seeing it now for example in the Canadian labour movement, which is a whole other topic on its own.
We also have to make sure that we make the fight for equity and left-wing policy less academic, and more accessible to everyone. We don’t bring a single parent scraping by with two minimum-wage jobs into our party by talking about the pitfalls of capitalism; we bring them in by saying how we will fight for better childcare, for fair wages, and for better social services so we can build a better community for their children.
Q: I agree, and I think what I remember most about the last Federal convention, is how much momentum it gave everyone. Towards the end of the election, and after it, our club, like many NDP branches across the country, were really feeling the hit. I’ll never forget how instrumental you were in getting us out of that initial slump. You jumped to lead the club, in an unofficial manner, and keep the ball rolling when we most needed it. What lessons and skills did you learn out of that period of our lives, that you feel have prepared you to take on even larger challenges politically?
A: Oh gosh, where do I start? I think the most important thing is, don’t give up and be resilient, and remember that there will always be elections that you lose, but there will always be elections you win. Like many others, I felt very hopeless after the election was over because that outcome hurt, and hurt a lot. But overcoming those losses and getting ready to hit the ground running again for the next campaign is incredibly important. It’s super tough to be motivated after a loss like that, but I knew that if I wasn’t going to be motivated myself, who else would?
But one thing that I’ve learned that I would say is the most important thing, not just through my own experiences but from many others, is that it is okay to take a break when you need it. It is incredibly healthy to take a break when things get overwhelming. It is okay to take that time away from your work to decompress, reorient yourself, and get back to making a difference. You can’t do that when you’re burned out and on the ground especially when people need you most, because if you can’t help yourself to take care of yourself first, then you won’t be able to help others. I’ve taken that time between campaigns, holidays, and other work to recharge because I know that the best way for me to lead, is to make sure that I myself am ready and able to do it.
Q: The last thing I just want to ask is, is a hot dog a sandwich? Or is it just a hot dog?
A: Oh god. Jerry Zhao, is that you? I swear I can hear him screaming his answer all the way from his office.
But it’s just a hot dog, full stop. But if the bun tears into two, then you’re looking at a sandwich.
Q: Thanks for taking my call Tony, and for everything you do. I’m looking forward to seeing you in Ottawa for convention next month!
A: I can’t wait! We’re gonna have an awesome time, and I can’t wait to have the legendary uOttawa team back together!