International Expert Spotlight: Jennifer Hollett, Canada

“It’s funny to be interviewed by a political and organizing magazine when you’ve lost a campaign. But there were many victories in the loss and it comes from what we built. It comes from relationships, especially with people who traditionally aren’t involved in campaigns or politics. It includes issues that we are campaigning for that are still issues today that we will continue campaigning for. And it includes the long game. Politics is a long game. It’s not just one campaign, it’s not just one term. It’s a life’s work.”

Jennifer Hollett, former broadcast journalist turned digital activist and political activist, may have recently lost her campaign as a federal New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament candidate in the University-Rosedale district of Toronto, Ontario, but the positive effects of her ongoing work will have a lasting legacy in Canadian progressive politics.

After over a decade of experience as a TV reporter and producer, for many years serving as a MuchMusic VJ (very similar to an MTV VJ in the U.S.), Jennifer decided to leave her extensive career in journalism so she could actively participate in changing Canadian politics. Constantly covering stories about conservative leadership, Jennifer was exposed to a government she wanted to influence. She did what all great organizers do: she took action.

Stepping into the political movement, Jennifer first went back to school to study public policy at Harvard University with Marshall Ganz, the legendary community organizer. While earning her Masters in Public Administration, Jennifer also learned from Ganz the power of organizing, the power of public narrative, and the power of relationships.

Through each of her steps since, as the digital director on Olivia Chow’s 2014 Toronto mayoral campaign, as a co- founder of a startup that developed the “Super PAC App,” as a Broadbent Institute leadership fellow, and as a candidate, Jennifer has used this organizing framework to not only pursue her political goals, but more importantly to make an impact on her community and her country. Knowing that politics is more than one campaign or one race, Jennifer organizes to connect inspired people to the campaigns and causes they believe in, building a network of active citizens who fight together to accomplish change.

During her three-month long campaign (long for Canadian campaigns, but short for U.S. races), Jennifer and her team were able to build an organization of 400 volunteers. In this riding (i.e. Canadian equivalent of a small congressional district), 400 local people actively organized to elect Jennifer to speak for them; which is no small organizing feat!

Still wrapping up one-on-ones with volunteers months after election day, Jennifer is rightfully proud of her team and what they were able to accomplish.

Looking at her 2015 race as one chapter in a very long fight, Jennifer is ready to face 2016 and the next chapter ahead.  We spoke with Jennifer to learn from her organizing experience, to hear about the challenges facing Canadian progressives, and to understand the lessons Canadian activists can teach U.S. organizers. Check out our conversation below.


AM: What can U.S. organizers and campaigners learn from Canadian campaigns?

JH: A big lesson is you can do a lot with a little. Our campaign finance laws are completely different in Canada and as a result, we have a different political culture when it comes to campaign budgets and spending.

We don’t spend as much money on TV advertising and communications in general.

There aren’t as many paid positions on a campaign team. My campaign was three months long; normally Canadian federal campaigns are officially five weeks, but this time it was longer due to some changes in the law. That campaign, in the end, spent $165,000 which is more than a typical campaign of its type. For the equivalent race in the U.S., the campaign would be at least a million dollars.

It always shocks people that I speak to in the U.S. how small our budgets are. I think it is great. The U.S. is in need of big campaign finance reform and I applaud Bernie Sanders for shining the spotlight on that.  In comparison to the U.S., we have a totally different relationship between money and politics.

As a result, you have to be creative. You have to really stretch that dollar. I think that’s a great thing actually. I think we need to take the money out of politics and it’s an opportunity to focus on what it means to volunteer and some creative ways on how you can reach people with your messages.

AM: I know the huge role Jack Layton (former Canadian politician and leader of the official opposition) played in the rise of the NDP and how iconic of a figure he is to your party. I’m interested in how, moving forward, a lot of Democrats are going to be able to harness the energy and excitement young people have felt for Obama, after he’s no longer President. Have you learned any lessons from the loss of Jack Layton that we can learn from?

JH: So I was working at MuchMusic (which is like MTV) as a VJ and I got to cover the 2014 federal Canadian election. This gave me an incredible access to the party leaders as well as the current Prime Minister at the time, Paul Martin, and the future Prime Minister, Steven Harper.

Of all the leaders I met and interviewed, Jack Layton really stood out to me and at that point in my life, as a private citizen, I wasn’t connected to one political party. Jack really stood out for me because he was passionate, he was accessible, he was talking about issues that the other candidates weren’t—from the environment, to getting women and young people involved in politics, to education. And he made the time for youth. That always stuck with me.

Politics is personal. It’s personal to people’s lives.

I think the best politicians are personal. They can connect something that feels at times abstract and far removed from our lives—whether that is in our case the House of Commons or in the U.S., the White House—and make it real.

I know on my campaign, we attracted a lot of people who had never been involved in a political campaign and who didn’t identify as NDP voters, but they said they liked me, or a friend invited them. It was that personal connection.

At our campaign office, we had two t-shirts. One was a Jennifer Hollett t-shirt that people were encouraged to sign as a souvenir; but it also reminded people that we were all Team Jennifer Hollett—we were the campaign.

Our second shirt that someone brought in said, “I am the Layton Legacy.” This was a t-shirt that was handed out at the NDP Convention a year after Jack Layton died and that’s ultimately what Jack left behind, which is a generation of leaders, of activists, of change makers. I see myself as part of the Jack Layton generation in terms of my style and my approach and why I’m even doing this.

When someone dies tragically, it really pushes you to think about legacy; but I think even when someone leaves office, which Barack Obama will do later this year, it’s worth reflecting on the legacy of everyone who’s been connected to the Obama campaign.

Legacy is really what you can do with any type of loss.

It’s something that our campaign’s processing as well. I lost last year and we had 400 active volunteers on our campaign in our local race.

What comes next? It’s building on that work. We’re figuring that out at the moment, but it’s making sure that all those people who were inspired, giving them a home and connected them to other campaigns and causes that we all believe in. Because I think politics is much larger than any one campaign or race.

AM: In what ways are Canadian campaigns similar to U.S. campaigns? In what ways are they different?

JH: One of the things that’s very similar and we really saw it in our recent federal race: polling. The obsession with polling. People become obsessed with the numbers.

A lot of people will tell you at the door, like, “You seem great, I like the NDP, but I want Steven Harper out so I’m going to go to  this website and however it tells me to vote, that’s how I’m going to vote.” In Canada, since we have a multi-party system, we have what a lot of people call “strategic voting” so people might be voting for someone [who is not their first choice] to vote out someone else [who is even less desirable].

In the U.S., if you’re in a swing state, these polls are similarly so important.

The other thing that I really saw here in the last federal campaign is despite the rise of social media and the opportunity that creates to organize, to fundraise, to get your message out, the mainstream media is still really controlling the narrative and the sound bite. Mainstream media is really still shifting the election in so many ways. We need to be aware of that and that relationship between the polls and momentum because they all go hand-in- hand.

Often the story is the polls—that’s the story, rather than the issues. We should always be talking about the issues and what we want from our elected representatives, not talking about “can you win?” Because what’s the point of winning? What do you stand for, what are the issues?

AM: What is the next challenge facing the Canadian progressive movement that if overcome, will propel your work forward?

JH: There’s no shortage of pressing issues, but I would say electoral reform is at top of the list.

In Canada, depending on where you live, if you vote for the candidate or the party or the leader you believe in, if you vote your heart, you might not see that reflected in the popular vote because we have a “first- pass-the-post” system. The NDP and the Green Party have been committed to electoral reform through mixed member representation or proportional representation—similar to what you would find in Germany or New Zealand.

This would be a game changer for smaller parties because it would mean that how you see the votes come in across the country would actually be represented in the government. You wouldn’t have to worry about where you live and how your riding (i.e. district) is voting. You would know your vote would matter and would be represented.

In countries that have proportional representation, that system easily translates to not just stronger representation of the population, but greater diversity.

Electoral reform would be a way to help people feel like their vote matters. There are a lot of people who don’t vote because it feels like, “Well, I’m just one person and it doesn’t make a difference.” I’ve heard that from people, especially knocking on doors, especially from young people.

If everyone could feel like their vote matters, if they could see that their vote matters, I think that would be great for civic engagement at large and for people really participating in the electoral process in a way that they feel they are represented and that they can see it.

The other challenge with electoral reform and proportional representation is that these things don’t translate easily at the door. Luckily, there are people who are very passionate about this issue. We have an organization called Fair Vote Canada and they are doing great work.

Our opportunity this year with the new government is considering possible electoral reform. In Canada, we’re  going to start seeing some campaigns and calls to action in terms of better explaining proportional representation and how it would really change the game and make politics more fair.