How Two Canadian Musicians Helped Oust the Conservative Regime

Post Author: Geoff Nelson
Canada 2015 election results

Many revolutions, even soft ones, begin with a manifesto, but few manifestos incite revolution. Last summer, channeling disgust with then-Conservative Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, songwriter Dan Mangan sat down in his kitchen, threw caution to the wind, and penned one such impassioned and urgent document. It would prove idealistic, but not quixotic. His friend and collaborator Torquil Campbell considers it the founding moment for the Imagine October 20th movement, a groundswell of musicians and artists intent on ousting Harper’s Conservative Party. Lyrical and inflamed, Mangan wrote, “Imagine a Canada beyond Harper. Talk to your friends about it. Speak it out loud. Write a haiku on a napkin and leave it behind in a restaurant.”

Mangan is a writer and celebrated solo artist; Campbell, a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, is a member of Broken Social Scene and a cofounder of Stars. Tour-mates and two of the more prominent indie musicians in Canada, they harbored mutual revulsion towards Stephen Harper. And with an election looming on October 19, the two hatched a plan to rally their constituencies to vote. The vision was broad and decentralized: Imagine October 20th would be strictly democratic, no hierarchy or bureaucracy, just a blog and hashtag, allowing artists and musicians to build their own events and concerts under the organization’s umbrella.

Imagine October 20th eventually encompassed dozens of events across Canada and beyond in the weeks and months leading up to the election. Stephen Harper was defeated, though the preferred candidate of Campbell and Mangan—the left-wing Tom Mulair of the New Democratic Party—ceded victory to the telegenic Liberal Party candidate Justin Trudeau, whose politics run down the middle of the center left. 68% of eligible Canadians voted in 2015, the highest turnout in more than twenty years. Mangan and Campbell’s overall impact is difficult to gauge. However, Imagine October 20th proved formidable enough that the entrenched Conservative Party formally struck back—to little avail. How did it happen? And what are the two singers and organizers to do with a middling liberal reformist in office?


Maybe it started with the ISIS beheading clip. With our degraded political discourse, it can be hard to tell when generally despicable politicians do something especially despicable in the same way it can be hard to spot the drunks in a room full of drinkers. When Stephen Harper used a clip of an ISIS beheading video in an ad against his opponent Justin Trudeau past summer, perhaps something shifted. In a recent interview, Mangan muses about moments like these. “There were so many points at which what they were doing seemed so egregious,” he says. “I could hardly believe they were continuing to get away with it.”

There has been this dark, apathetic, sinister, menacing, manipulative, bully shadow my entire voting life.

I ask Mangan for specifics. “Just the policies: The environmental degradation, the subsidies for fossil fuels, the Islamophobia, the blatant use of racism to rally a sort of patriotism. His unwillingness to even meet First Nations people of Canada.” In his methodical baritone, it seems like Mangan could enumerate the Harper government’s ills for the rest of our conservation.

Imagine October 20th really began with a tweet. Like any modern origin story, the tweet was the culmination of a longer history. Campbell frequently raged against the Harper government on Twitter, often directing missives laden with personal invective directly to @stephenharper. Campbell says his wife finally interceded, telling him, “Dude, I can’t live with your rage about this guy anymore. You need to do something or shut up about it.”

Mangan harbored his own version of Campbell’s anger at the Harper government. The first election in which he was legally eligible to vote was the election where the Conservatives won their first government. By October 19, 2015, the Conservative Party had run the Canadian government since 2000. As he reflects, “There has been this dark, apathetic, sinister, menacing, manipulative, bully shadow my entire voting life.”

One of Campbell’s more tempered terms for the former Prime Minister is, “dead-eyed psychopath.”

Harper played the part of the right-wing villain well, with salt-and-pepper hair, light eyes, and a hint of facial pudginess connoting the same friendly, creepy quality of a cult leader. He often unleashed dog-whistle racial politics in the name of national security, including a high-profile campaign against Muslim women wearing the niqab, or facial veil, while taking the Canadian oath of citizenship. Visually, Harper could be the twin brother of the Diamonds Are Forever Bond villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, only missing a bloated, white cat to furtively stroke as the Conservative Party advanced its platform in Canada. One of Campbell’s more tempered terms for the former Prime Minister is, “dead-eyed psychopath.”

Campbell’s vitriol and Mangan’s more muted outrage coalesced last summer. The two artists harnessed their divergent tone and practice. Campbell describes their different roles as, “So I had, as usual, a very basic, polemical, gimmicky idea, and someone else came in and filled it up with actual thought and nuance.” Mangan says of Campbell, “I’m a bit more reserved when it comes to social media. He was wielding digital machetes. I’d say, ‘Ok, you know, you should tone it down there.’”

But, first Campbell tweeted the hashtag: #ImagineOctober20th.

The artists designed the movement to be democratic for reasons of philosophy and practicality. They couldn’t own the idea; it had to bigger than even two well-known musicians. Campbell says, “No one took ownership, no one took power. Egos were left out.” Mangan affirms democracy as the movement’s core. “The best thing we could do was just basically be a concept, a blog, an idea, and a hashtag, and allow other people to make of it what they will.”

From an initial tweet and email chain, Imagine October 20th took off. Bands and activists began planning events independently of Campbell and Mangan, who would list the meetings on the website for the movement but little else. The groundswell drew personalities as diverse as Brighid Fry, a 12-year old singer and activist who, Campbell tells me, had already gotten in trouble at her school for organizing an anti-pipeline rally, and Leslie Feist, Canada’s most famous singer.

[Canada] had never really encountered something that was actually, truly grassroots.

The movement’s growing popularity brought trouble. Elections Canada began to investigate after receiving what Campbell calls “hundreds of complaints from Conservatives.” Compared to the United States, Canadian election law is less permissive of outside influence and money in politics. Think of it as an anti-Citizens United political arena. Imagine October 20th appeared to its conservative critics to violate these statutes. Despite the potential for 30 to 50 thousand dollar fines and jail time, Mangan says, “It’s a good law. It’s so the Koch brothers can’t spend 60 million dollars in a Canadian election.”

The movement’s philosophical democracy proved to be its practical salvation. Campbell says Elections Canada marveled they had never seen anything like Imagine October 20. “They had never really encountered something that was actually, truly grassroots. There was always a puppet master behind it all.” Mangan says of the movement’s inception, “There’s no leader. Even taking this interview now is a little counterintuitive to that idea.” The decentralized movement was never charged with election fraud.

Potential criminality wasn’t the only worry for artists engaging in political activism. Some of the bigger names involved in Imagine October 20th had to carefully consider the impact their outspokenness would have on the bottom line of their band. Talking about the involvement of Leslie Feist, who’d previously refrained from public comment on politics, Campbell says, “That was stressful for her. She had people in her record company and her management company calling up and saying, ‘What the hell is this? What are you doing?’ And she had to put herself out on a limb and do something she wasn’t comfortable with because she believed in it.” (Feist, through her representatives, declined comment for this story.)

Mangan similarly balanced ethical and commercial considerations. “I felt like the election was more important than my career,” he says. “I felt willing to sacrifice some of my audience.” It was, perhaps, easier for Mangan, a solo artist, than Campbell, who had to think of his equal share partner in Stars, Amy Millan. Campbell says, “There’s no doubt that Stars has suffered for my big mouth.” Later, he adds a caveat, “Pop music should be a motivational, provocative, disturbing thing—not just something that helps you buy a latte.”

With Harper gone, of course, it gets complicated. Both men identify with Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party, roughly the Bernie Sanders equivalent to Barack Obama’s Justin Trudeau. The NDP finished third in the recent Federal Election. Electing Trudeau represented a victory over Harper’s Conservatives and a loss for the NDP—an election roughly comparable to the American presidential election of 2008.

I felt like the election was more important than my career. I felt willing to sacrifice some of my audience.

In the United States, 2008’s “Hope” and “Change” slipped into familiar neoliberal coddling of corporations, surreptitious drone strikes as foreign policy, and enthusiastic state surveillance. The Obama administration asked for a trade: progressive rhetoric on guns, gay marriage, immigration and the environment in return for maintenance of the War on Terror Industrial Complex, no action on economic inequality, and continuation of the corporate malfeasance that both helped write US law and destroyed the global economy. Victories like these for the far political left may as well be defeats. Quite simply, it was easier to rally voters to defeat McCain in 2008 or Stephen Harper in 2015 than it is to continue the struggle with and against the liberal politicians who replaced them.

Campbell is predictably glib about the future. “Quite apart from ideology, my problem with Stephen Harper, and with the Conservative Party under his leadership, was that they were shitty human beings. It wasn’t about being a free-market capitalist; it was about being an asshole. Justin Trudeau isn’t an asshole.” When I ask him if he will take on Trudeau’s potential neoliberalism with the same vigor as Harper’s conservatism, he quips, “Will I ever call him a dead-eyed psychopath? No, because he isn’t a dead-eyed psychopath. I will probably stick to the issues. But when someone is a fucking dead-eyed psychopath, I think it’s worth pointing out.”

Mangan sees his relationship to Trudeau similarly. “I definitely want to hold Trudeau accountable in the same fashion,” he says. Mangan approvingly mentions Trudeau’s insistence that half his cabinet be composed of women and the fact that the new Justice Minister is First Nations, the Canadian indigenous community. Both Mangan and Campbell say that reconciling Canada’s history of violence and marginalization of indigenous peoples is their number one issue moving forward. Both artists independently mention the unsolved disappearances of 1400 First Nations women in the past five years, a story underreported in Canada and practically ignored below the border. Neither artist seems clear about how to instigate the next wave of change. The enemies are more ethereal. They’re structurally enshrined, rather than one detestable mug.

In hindsight, Mangan says, “I have no illusion that we handed this election to the liberals. I think we were one small gust of wind pushing change in Canada…I don’t feel like the arts are a sacred place for politics, where artists have an insight that other people don’t have.” However, he continues, “I do think that sometimes through art you can communicate things that language fails to.”