Megan Leslie was the kind of MP who received the fandom usually reserved for celebrities. In 2011, I worked a low-level part-time job on her campaign. Knocking on door after door quickly felt pointless: so many people said they’d already voted for Leslie in the advance polls. The campaign got so much support, I guess, that the party decided we were wasting our time and moved us to knock on doors on a more contentious riding nearby.
As the votes rolled in at an NDP supporters’ event, and the NDP took its first-ever role as Official Opposition, there were mixed feelings from progressives in the room. A Conservative majority was scary. But in a few years, it seemed, the NDP could be on the cusp of forming new government. And Megan Leslie would be there to help lead the way.
Four years later, that election came. The Liberals roared by the NDP on the left to sweep Atlantic Canada and form a majority government. The NDP dropped to third, and Halifax’s most popular politician was suddenly without a job.
Raised in the Northern Ontario mining town of Kirkland Lake, Megan Leslie headed to York University in Toronto and went on to law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax. After graduating, she stayed, working for a legal aid office, and fighting for affordable electricity for the poor.
Leslie was also getting more involved in the NDP (a “low-level NDP worker bee” she once told Maclean’s). Then a candidate search committee asked her to run after the previous MP for the seat, Alexa McDonough, retired.
She garnered respect for her work as an MP, a nine-year run where she would critique the Harper government’s stance on health, the environment, and women’s rights. She landed the “Best Rookie” award in Maclean’s, and in a weirder move, a U.S. State Department official wrote a glowing report about her.
“Leslie is very approachable and, as a recent magazine interviewer noted, she has a laid back style that conveys the feeling that you are ‘chatting with a neighbour on her front porch,’” says the diplomatic cable, later posted on Wikileaks. “Politics…is not Leslie’s main focus in life. Rather, her focus is on helping, and now representing, those in need.”
But as the 2015 campaign, rumours were circulating that with the Liberals already in power provincially, it would be a hard race. “I do have a situation in Halifax where we have Liberal MLAs in the riding that I represent,” Leslie told the Chronicle Herald. “I know that they have people on the ground. So it means we’re going to have to work hard.”
NDP campaign insiders remained confident. Early polls showed the NDP leading nationally in August, giving the local campaign a boost. The party seemed to be successfully positioning itself as the only viable alternative to a Conservative government.
Andy Fillmore of the Liberal Party had been pushing hard for the Halifax seat, though, campaigning before the election was called. Once the race started, the Liberals pursued a savvy marketing strategy with bus posters and numerous ads on YouTube, capping it with a visit from Justin Trudeau on the eve of the election.
It was her toughest race yet: Leslie says she barely had time to read a newspaper over the 11 weeks. Midway through the campaign, her mother fell ill, sending Leslie home to Ontario.
The final tally wasn’t close. Riding a 62-per-cent voter turnout, Fillmore won the Halifax riding. Even though Leslie still had a similar number of votes to her 2008 win, Fillmore still had earned far more votes. The numbers suggest an impressive Liberal campaign that chose not to try to chip in to Leslie’s base, but rather, pulled out an entirely new contingent of usually apathetic or ambivalent non-voters.
Ian McKay is a Canadian history professor at Queens University. To make sense of the loss of local leaders like Leslie, he looks at why Canada is suddenly bathing in a sea of red. “The NDP set out the kind of subliminal message that we’re not that different than Harper…the impression that the NDP was a status quo party,” says McKay. “I don’t think Canadians wanted to have something in the middle.”
McKay points to Leslie. “The tragedy is some of the most innovative NDP thinkers were caught in this wave,” he says “I liked her. She was terrific. It’s a terrible loss.”
In Halifax, Leslie’s said she’s “made peace” with losing the riding.
Her constituents are another story.
After Leslie’s loss, online media lit up with proclamations of grief: open letters, a Facebook fan group, op-eds, and more. “I didn’t make it through my first class today—I had to leave because I couldn’t stop weeping,” says one. “You have been a…lighthouse,” says another.
“It’s a little bit like attending your own funeral,” Leslie jokes. “People say these really nice things about you after you’re gone… [People] have talked a lot about feeling stronger knowing that I was representing them.”
She feels the same way about other representatives of the city. “I feel good knowing Jennifer Watts and Waye Mason are on city council, not as a politician but as a community member,” she says. “Like, ‘OK! we can do some stuff here, they’ve got our backs!’ So I understand when people feel that way about me.”
It’s a week after Leslie lost the election, and she’s calling me from Ottawa, where she’s in town to pack up her office. Nine years of inventory, stuff that’s all technically owned by the House of Commons, now has to find its proper place in a parliamentary office, ready for the next MP.
That office will get filled with the team and stuff of her Liberal opponent, Andy Fillmore.
Leslie’s not sure what comes next. Her partner had just finished his PhD in Nova Scotia, she says, and he’d picked up a short research contract in Ottawa to be closer to her work. “I have a house in Halifax,” she says. “That’s where my friends are. Life is big and there are lots of opportunities to figure out.”
Since the election, Leslie’s supporters have filled Twitter and Facebook with hopeful rumours that she would run for mayor next fall or jump in to the next NDP leadership position.
But Leslie has more pressing plans at the moment. “I need to get some rest,” she says. “Which I’m starting to see, is very different from sleep.”
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