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Outside In: A Political Memoir

by Libby Davies

A Grander Vision: My Life in the Labour Movement

by Sid Ryan

Libby Davies and Sid Ryan are high-profile figures who for decades have been on the front lines, calling out governments on social service cutbacks, environmental outrages, wars, and discrimination. While they share similar life trajectories – first-generation immigrants who took early to righting wrongs and continue to staff the barricades for economic and climate justice – these memoirs are nonetheless very different in tone and style.

Davies, who served almost two decades as an NDP MP following 10 years in Vancouver municipal politics, comes off as a truly rare quantity: a likeable person who tries to walk her ethical talk while working the corridors of power. Her accessible, well-balanced mix of the personal and political suppresses any hint of ego in favour of a journey full of the nuance and reflection that makes for an insightful life story.

As someone who spent her political career with one foot in the world of creative community organizing and the other in the staid confines of a federal NDP caucus where she did not agree with every policy decision, Davies nonetheless finds her way to a bridge-building role as she ascends to House leader. 

Davies recounts jousting with some of the best-known names in Canadian politics over the past 20 years; she also provides plenty of space to the community voices of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, who fight daily battles to survive. It’s their stories that lend Davies the fuel to keep going.

Having never forgotten the lessons of grassroots organizing, Davies often finds herself outside the House and on the road, organizing national tours to address issues like homelessness. She also leverages her position as an MP to take part in high-profile actions like a citizens’ weapons inspection of a U.S. nuclear facility in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War.

Though she was sometimes treated harshly by NDP leaders Jack Layton and Thomas Mulcair – especially during a painful period in which the two tried to get her to resign as House leader because of her pro-Palestine statements – Davies elegantly shares how she remained unrepentant while simultaneously seeking the empathy to understand the position of those causing her dismay. The willingness to think and feel deeply combined with her refusal to demonize her foes make this a perceptive and hopeful work that will appeal to those who are tired of a political default to cynicism.

While Ryan shares Davies’s outrage, his is a far less personal autobiography. Instead, much of A Grander Vision takes readers through the internecine union battles and convention floor blowouts that marked Ryan’s time as the head of Canadian Union of Public Employees Ontario and the Ontario Federation of Labour. While the often byzantine minutiae of union fights will interest a limited audience, it’s difficult getting to know Ryan as a person beyond the image he projects of himself as a selfless leader.

Ironically, the strongest and most accessible sections of the book are those not focused on union politics. Indeed, the first third is an engaging look at Ryan’s experience growing up poor and working as a plumber in Ireland during the Troubles. His raconteur’s flair comes alive when he goes overseas as part of observer missions to Palestine and Ireland. His love of history and fine sense of the absurd – his tale of a stressful night expecting a petrol bomb to come through his bedroom window while billeting in Ireland expertly builds to a memorable conclusion – could have benefited the rest of his story.

Instead, much of what we get is an angry and bitter Ryan who feels betrayed at every turn in the labour movement. While his frustration is understandable, it is hard for the reader to build empathy as the writing careens off in a combination of political cant and settling scores (dismissing opponents as morons and traitors).

While Ryan talks constantly of the working class, their voices are remarkably scarce. Rather, most of the figures in this book are fellow union bureaucrats who attend conventions at fine hotels, draw up angry press releases, and jockey for position in the hierarchy.

The grand vision of Ryan’s title refers to a socially engaged unionism working in tandem with fossil-free advocates to create a green economy. It shares much in common with Davies’s own prescriptions for a more sustainable and accountable democratic system. It is the contrasting tone of these two works that makes the one more congenial and the other more off-putting.