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The NDP’s ‘punk-rock politician,’ Charlie Angus, is leaving Parliament soon to focus on his music. Here’s why that matters

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Charlie Angus leads Grievous Angels at a 2023 gig at the Horseshoe Tavern.



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His political career may be coming to a close, but his band plays on.

As Charlie Angus eases out of his role as MP for Timmins-James Bay — he serves until the next federal election — his Canadiana outfit Grievous Angels will continue to be one of his passions.

“I’ve started to do the music more,” Angus recently told the Star from Ottawa. “If I was running again, I wouldn’t be playing any of these (upcoming) shows, because my new riding is so massive that I’d be on the road every single weekend. And I decided after 20 years — I’ve already been a dad and part-time husband for two decades — I don’t want to continue giving up other parts of my life to service a riding that is so massive now.”

The 61-year-old Timmins-born, Scarborough-raised legislator appears Sunday at the Horseshoe Tavern for a rare 1 p.m. matinee performance to introduce “Last Call for Cinderella,” his septet’s seventh album of blues, folk and country songs.

“This is an album that’s really trying to make sense of the dystopian and disorienting times we’re in,” Angus said. “I play a funny role between my politics — which is usually very in-your-face — and the politics in my songs, where I let the story tell itself and you see the politics.

No one’s more surprised than Angus that he’s been a member of the House of Commons for two decades. “Being a politician was not on my bingo card,” he said. “I didn’t vote when I was younger. I was pretty much an anarchist.

“When I got drawn into politics, it was in Northern Ontario with the battle of the Adams Mine garbage dump, realizing how corrupt the system was and how it was set up against the interests, in my region, of the blue-collar, working-class, rural and Indigenous people. So much power and money was on the government side and they were going to push through a project that was really dangerous.

“I became more active.”

Before entering politics, a teenage Angus had formed the punk band L’Étranger in Toronto with future MP Andrew Cash. “Our influence was the Clash,” Angus recalled. “At that time, we had also grown up in the Catholic parish system, which was then teaching a lot about liberation theology and social justice movements, so we were a band who tried to put words into practice.

“We were doing peace rallies and organizing young people to join Rock Against Racism. That led me to start working literally with people on the street.” (Angus and his wife, Brit Griffin, established a homeless shelter for men in Toronto before relocating to Cobalt, Ont.)

“I haven’t played punk music in decades, but that DIY attitude — there’s more urgency for that now than ever.”

After leaving L’Étranger, Angus formed Grievous Angels (which early on featured Jason Collett) as a lark. “Grievous Angels literally started as a street busking band when I was working with the homeless,” he said. “It was meant for fun. The next thing I knew, we were getting offers to tour across the country.

“So Grievous Angels was, to me, the great adventure to discover Canada. We played mine camps north of Wawa, played up in the Arctic and played a lot of punch-out country bars. They were fascinating places.”

Two Juno nominations and five albums in, the band took a back seat when Angus entered politics in 2004 with the encouragement of then-New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton.

“Jack said, ‘We need people like you in politics,’” Angus recalled. “And I began to think that it was important to have people at the table who were rooted in community and who were not going to kiss the rings of the lobbyists and the insiders. … And I decided to run.

“Nobody thought I was going to win. … People were joking, ‘Oh, it’s so funny that the punk rocker’s running, you must be doing it as a joke.’ And I was, ‘No, I’m dead serious.’”

Bringing his punk attitude to Parliament made Angus a warrior for Indigenous justice, including fighting to end the 2005 Kashechewan water crisis, when high E. coli levels were discovered in the Cree First Nations reserve’s drinking water.

“My attitude to politics was to go where the problem was and to force change,” Angus said. “What I heard from politicians about kids being exposed to E. coli in the water was just bulls—t: ‘This is Canada, where Indigenous people and kids getting sick from bad water was too bad, but we’ll do a study.’ And I said, ‘No, you’re going to evacuate this community and you’re going to fix the problem.’”

Kashechewan community members were evacuated to Timmins, Sudbury, Cochrane and Ottawa at an estimated cost of $16 million.

Substandard drinking water at every Canadian reserve remains a problem, and Angus points his finger at the Feds.

“The fundamental issue is the systemic refusal of the government to put in place the same rights and standards and investments that exist in non-Indigenous communities,” Angus said. “You see it in health care. You see it in education. You see it in substandard housing.”

But he applauds the Indigenous movement that is raising its voice.

“What I’ve seen change in 20 years is the growing confidence and power of the Indigenous people to speak and take the issues on themselves,” he said. ”When I was elected, I was often called by media on all manner of things, because they saw me as one of the few voices. I hardly ever get called now, because there’s a great young generation of Indigenous leaders coming up.

“The one thing I feel positive about in Canada is that the Indigenous communities are going to continue to deconstruct that colonial wall that was built to keep them down.”

Despite the 24/7 nature of politics, Angus — who has also written eight books — continued to resurrect Grievous Angels from time to time.

“One of the things I’ve found is that I need something that nourishes the soul. Whether it’s a book project or the band, I’m always finding time to tune out and think about other things,’” he admitted. “And sometimes, with the absolute dumbass toxicity in Parliament, I do put in my earphone through my iPhone and check in on some of the band’s practices.

“It’s been a safety line to hold onto when politics gets too toxic.”’

When Shannen Koostachin, a 15-year-old activist campaigning for a new elementary school to be established in her Attawapiskat First Nation, died in a car accident in 2009, a distraught Angus — who had fought beside her — turned to music for solace.

“I wrote a song called ‘Diamonds in the Snow’ in 2011 about the death of Shannen, and I was just devastated. I found myself writing a song because I couldn’t articulate what I felt,” said Angus, who co-founded the campaign Shannen’s Dream in her honour, to continue the fight to end the underfunding of Canadian First Nations schools.

“That song became the anthem of the Indigenous youth movement, and so I began to think that songs can actually do stuff political speeches can’t.

“So, the band started to play again.”

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Charlie Angus started Grievous Angels as a lark after leaving a punk band.

Today, Grievous Angels — which includes original members Tim Hadley on bass and Peter Jellard on harmonica, accordion and fiddle, plus Janet Mercier on vocals, Alexandra Bell on piano, Ian McKendry on guitar and Nathan Mahaffy on drums — is serving as Angus’ full-on muse as he continues to write such topical songs as “I Could Tell” (about misinformation and disorientation) and “Barcelona (I’ll Be Free)” (about economic realities), tunes that grace “Last Call for Cinderella.”

“I just love playing with this group,” said Angus. “I love the people in it, and they inspire me to write good stuff.

“I also feel that after 20 years, I want to play music. Political language is so debased now, and discourse is so toxic in Canada, I still find that being able to sing and tell stories brings people into a different place than politics seems to be right now.”

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