My favourite photo of the Edmonton-Riverview NDP volunteers shows a group of them around my dining room table in 2019 intently studying our constituency’s new poll map. It’s clear these people are planning a strategy for a successful campaign—in this case to make sure voters keep Lori Sigurdson as their MLA.
It was a long road to 2015, when Lori was first elected in Rachel Notley’s orange wave. I was elected as the first president of the newly formed constituency of Edmonton-Riverview in the lead-up to the 1997 election. In the subsequent 23 years I’ve been president, vice-president, member-at-large, campaign manager—and once even the candidate! I’m pleased to say that some of the people on that first executive are still serving. They’ve been joined by others of all ages and backgrounds. It hasn’t been our experience that young people aren’t interested in politics. Our current president and vice-president are in their 20s.
Constituency associations are the basic building blocks of political parties. They are represented in provincial and federal politics and are key to decision-making, including policy development, which in the NDP comes from the grassroots. Constituency association members also help with the candidate selection process and with on-the-ground campaigning.
While leaders and central campaigns are the most visible part of elections, local campaigns are vitally important to electing MLAs. Local volunteers ensure voters hear about your candidate and why they should vote for them and their party. It is immensely rewarding work, even when you don’t win. You are part of a team with shared goals, you are instrumental in making change happen and you develop a personal connection with the candidate, her organizers and the other volunteers.
Knocking on a stranger’s door to talk about politics isn’t so bad once you’ve been out a few times.
In Edmonton-Riverview we aim to keep things casual and inclusive. Very importantly we always have food at everything. We have some great bakers on our team. We share the work so that no-one feels overburdened or burnt out. The size of our executive is determined by the number of people who want to be involved. We keep formality to a minimum, while meeting our obligations to hold AGMs and file financial reports with Elections Alberta. Our focus has always been elections. For us, the next campaign starts as soon as the last one finishes (with appropriate time for rest and recuperation).
The primary volunteer task for our activists is going door-to-door to talk to voters about what’s important to citizens, while promoting NDP policies and candidates. Naturally some volunteers shudder at the idea of knocking on a stranger’s door and talking to them about politics. A surprising number also find it’s not so bad once they’ve been out a few times with experienced canvassers. It’s not much more complicated than any other chat with one’s neighbours.
Raising money to fund campaigns is the next priority. Our calendar includes at least one annual fundraiser, plus year-end membership drives and requests for donations. Asking people for money can at first seem like it will be a challenge, but it’s surprisingly easy after the first couple of calls. And there are plenty of other volunteer opportunities, including mail outs, preparing refreshments and setting up events.
The most rewarding part of volunteering with a constituency association is the sense of community it brings. We all want to make a difference. We share a desire to make the world, our country, our province and our neighbourhood a better place to live. What could be more essential than ensuring those who represent us in our legislatures and parliaments have the same goals?
Erica Bullwinkle is a long-time NDP organizer, provincially and federally.