In 2006, at a small village in Nepal up towards the Tibetan border, Dominic Cardy was faced with an ultimatum: either flee the country in 48 hours or risk being killed. As the Maoists planted a pistol down on a table in front of him, Cardy didn’t budge.
“Ah, 48 hours? You’d give me 24 hours if you’re really serious,” he told them. Looking back on it now, Cardy admits he may have been a little too cavalier for his own good. But it was after returning from experiences like that in countries like Nepal and Cambodia that the provincial NDP leader knew he needed to try to change New Brunswick.
“When I come back home and see that we’re in worse shape than Cambodia, it makes me angry and made me want to do something about it, which is why I’m here and doing what I’m doing now.”
In just the past week, Cardy started doing something about it. He made a media splash by convincing the Tory government to support his new anti-patronage bills and former Liberal cabinet minister Kelly Lamrock to change parties.
“My parties belief, my belief, is that patronage is about the most damaging and dangerous thing that faces New Brunswick,” said Cardy. “People who get promoted and get jobs based on who they know and who’s in their family, as opposed to the work that they do and their abilities, have been killing us for a long time.”
And with the public eye turning towards Cardy and his party, students may want to start paying attention.
“One of the ideas that we’ve had is actually getting rid of university tuition,” said Cardy.
During high school in Fredericton, Cardy was a self-described horrible student, spending too much time working in politics.
“I’ve worn suits since I was far too young,” said Cardy. “My mother thought there was something wrong with me.”
Thursday night, as he stood in front of a journalism class in his fashionable suit with a colourful red and orange striped tie, he looked like any other politician. But what makes the 42 year old different from most is his broad international experience.
“I’ve spent years working overseas in places ranging from Afghanistan to Nepal to Cambodia to the South of Sedan…trying to straighten out parties, and working with people like former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.”
As well as being a co-founder of NDProgress, a group dedicated to reforming the federal NDP here at home, he joined an American democracy building organization and has lived in Bangladesh, Nepal and Cambodia during the past decade.
On top of his love for travelling, Cardy has been flying ultra-light planes since the age of 16. He had the privilege of gliding over the Himalayas on his business trips and viewing the world from many angles.
“[Flying] is the best way you can really understand how beautiful the world is,” he said. “I try to recruit people to flying more than the NDP.”
The new party leader says he understands the difficulty that comes with finding a job after university and the idea of no tuition up front may just be the answer.
“We spend huge amounts of money on administration and on educating students that leave the province and don’t come back,” said Cardy.
“One of the things we can do is offer no tuition up front. Or a mix of tax credits for those who stay.”
Although it is not yet NDP policy, it is something the provincial party is “kicking around at the moment.”
An election is not expected until 2014.
Cardy and the NDP are also trying to develop a balanced environmental policy for New Brunswick, one that’s sceptical of shale gas but supports a pipeline to bring tar sands petroleum to Saint John.
“As much as it might be difficult to talk about how to keep the province going for the next few years, shale gas, I think, is too dangerous,” said Cardy. “The pipeline is on the other side of the divide.”
He’d also like to see the province refocus on renewable energy, especially tidal power research, in which the province is needlessly falling behind Scandinavian countries and Nova Scotia.
During his informative and, at times, humorous discussion with the class, one brave student put up her hand and asked, “I don’t really like politics that much, but obviously it’s something that’s super important. What can you say to make me really care?”
Cardy’s quick-witted response: “If you vote for the wrong person, they might send someone to kill you.”
The class erupted in laughter, but Cardy was serious.
“Look around you everyday; be thankful no one’s shooting at you and give a few minutes of time to public life to make sure it doesn’t happen to your kids.”
Stable political systems can fall apart quickly, he said, and the only way you can stop them from doing so is by making sure you have your politicians on the tightest leash possible.
“The second you stop caring about what they do you’re screwed, and what’s happened to people who stop caring about the politician?” he asks, “They get George Bush.”
Later in class, it became clear what Cardy meant when he said you’d be shot at for voting for the wrong party. He seemed shaken for a moment as he told a story that will stay with him forever.
“I went to Afghanistan within a few months of 9/11 to convince a lot of people to come out of hiding and re-engage in active politics, and then I got to watch as most of the people who I’d met and worked with were slowly killed over the course of the following years for doing exactly what I told them.”
We are very lucky, said Cardy, to be living in a free country of endless opportunities.
“Think a lot about what makes you excited and then take advantage of the fact that you’re not a serf born a hundred and fifty years ago, you’re not a woman born a hundred years ago, you’ve got freedom, the ability to travel and do what you really want to do.”