Politics

In New Brunswick, being leader of the struggling NDP is a fourth job for 22-year-old

Before he goes to bed, six nights a week, between 5 and 7 p.m., Mackenzie Thomason sets two alarm clocks in the bedroom of his small apartment in uptown Fredericton. The first, the conventional, old-fashioned kind, goes off with a standard, grating beep at 12:55 a.m. The second, on his iPhone, starts chiming five minutes later. Thomason, who turned 22 at the end of July and lives alone, is terrified of oversleeping. He’s terrified of missing work, of showing up late, of not getting everything done.

By 2:30 a.m., every Monday through Saturday, Thomason is usually sitting in the driver’s seat of his silver Ford Escape at the yard outside the old Daily Gleaner building on Prospect Street. Depending on the day, he’ll pick up somewhere between 250 and 350 newspapers there. He’ll spend the next four hours driving out to New Maryland and back, dropping papers on doorsteps and in mailboxes before continuing on to one of his three other jobs.

Thomason has bright, rosy cheeks. In pictures, he’s always smiling. He looks even younger than he actually is. Still, it’s rare he gets recognized when he’s out delivering. Part of that is the hour. Not many customers are awake before 6 a.m. But part of it is the incongruity of it all, too. People see what they expect to see. And few expect to see the interim leader of the New Brunswick NDP tossing their Telegraph-Journal across the grass several hours before dawn.


Mackenzie Thomason, interim leader of the New Brunswick NDP , says he wishes the 14 members who left his party on Tuesday well.

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On Tuesday, 14 prominent members of the NDP in New Brunswick publicly abandoned the party to join the federal Greens. Nationally, the story was played as a sign of federal leader Jagmeet Singh’s organizational weakness in the Maritimes. And it was that, to an extent. But the New Brunswick NDP has its own peculiar history and flaws, too. Organizers, ex-candidates, and even one former leader have been fleeing the party for years. So what happened Tuesday wasn’t much of an aberration; it was the acceleration of a long trend, one that helps explain how a 22-year-old newspaper delivery man ended up running the party in his spare time.

“What we’re seeing right now is the party coming apart at the seams,” said Mario Levesque, an associate professor of political science at Mount Allison University. “They can’t get along right now.”

New Brunswick, more so than almost any other province, has always been a two-party state. “There’s not a lot of folks in New Brunswick who are genetic New Democrats the way you get Liberals and Tories who pass on party affiliation between generations,” said Dominic Cardy, who led the provincial NDP from 2011 to 2017.

For years, the NDP had one provincial seat in New Brunswick — under popular former leader Elizabeth Weir. Since her retirement from politics, in 2005, the party has had none at all.

What we’re seeing right now is the party coming apart at the seams

In the post-Weir era, the NDP has seesawed from far-left activism to pragmatic centrism and back again, said Levesque. Cardy, an avowed centrist, steered the party toward the middle in the 2014 campaign. He brought the NDP’s share of the popular vote up to 13% — an all-time high — but failed to win a single seat. Afterward, party organizers pushed him out.

Cardy said union activists in the party refused to recognize a core reality of the province: most New Brunswickers are politically in the middle. He said the division in the party boiled down to those, like himself, who believed Canadian society and government were strong and could be improved and those “who kept on looking for the revolution: ‘What’s the next big thing we can fight about to say everything is terrible.’”

When Cardy realized he was never going to win that fight, he left the party. He’s now the education minister in a provincial Progressive Conservative government led by Premier Blaine Higgs.


Mackenzie Thomason with then New Brunswick NDP leader Jennifer McKenzie during the 2019 provincial election.

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Cardy sees parallels between the struggles of the NDP in New Brunswick — and of the weakness of the federal party — and the decline of social democratic parties around the world. Frank Graves, the president of Ekos Research, a public opinion firm, agrees. Self-identified working-class voters and voters without university degrees, he said, once the base of pro-union parties, now overwhelmingly identify as conservatives. Without them, pro-union parties have no natural constituency any more.

Green parties, meanwhile, have moved in to siphon off environment-first voters. In 2018, New Brunswick’s two-party dominance began to show cracks for the first time. But the NDP was again left out in the cold. Under leader Jennifer McKenzie, the party failed to win any seats and fell to just 5% of the popular vote. The Greens and the populist People’s Alliance won three seats each.

McKenzie, like Cardy before her, was pushed out. At a meeting of the party’s provincial council in March, Thomason, a New Brunswick native who spent his teens in Fort McMurray, Alta., put his name forward as interim leader. He won, he said, by a vote of nine to four, with two abstentions. The party tried to elect a permanent leader this summer, but the only candidate failed the vetting process. Thomason said they hope to try again, with more candidates, next year.

When he first spoke to the National Post two weeks ago, Thomason was already working two jobs in addition to his duties with the NDP. After he finished his paper route, he usually delivered packages for several hours before driving into the party office, where he’d work from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Since then, though, he’s picked up another gig.

Thomason called in Thursday from his fourth job, selling furniture at Leon’s four days a week. “I’m still getting up at 1 o’clock in the morning, still going to bed between five and seven o’clock in the evening,” he said. “Personal time? Not a whole bunch,” he continued. “But I really enjoy working… I don’t feel like a need a whole bunch of free time.”

Thomason said he wished the 14 members who left his party Tuesday well. “They’re amazing people, and I do hope they find themselves in a positive spot,” he said.

Levesque, the political scientist, said the NDP’s only path to relevance in New Brunswick was to compete for the centre. But Thomason disagrees. The Greens, he believe, have already staked out the centre-left. “I would like us to occupy the left.”

“In the past we’ve had policies and platforms that kind of got lost in the shuffle,” he said. “But going forward we’re going to make sure we’re different from everybody else.”

• Email: rwarnica@nationalpost.com | Twitter: richardwarnica

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