At 29 years old, Joe Cressy speaks with a statesman-like passion and eloquence that’s evidence of a wealth of experience and activism well beyond his young age.
Cressy is seeking the NDP nomination for the upcoming by-election in Trinity-Spadina to replace Olivia Chow, who resigned as federal MP to run for mayor of Toronto. So far, he’s the only declared candidate, and with a well-orchestrated campaign launch and a strong NDP organization in the riding, he may soon be Toronto’s newest and youngest MP.
And because of his activist work in LGBT and HIV issues in Ghana, he may be the only politician in Canada whose backstory includes an episode of smuggling condoms and dildos into Africa. It was for an LGBT organization he’d contacted that he wanted to volunteer for while studying abroad in Accra.
“They said, ‘We’ll meet when you get here, but could you bring over our materials?’” Cressy explains. “This was materials for MSM around safe-sex practices. I was bringing over 10,000 condoms, sexual health materials, dildos, all sorts of things. The lawyers instructed me before going on what to say when I was going through customs, because these were materials I was not allowed to bring in [unless] they were for personal use.
“I arrived at Kotoka airport in Accra, I was 21 years old, and I had two giant suitcases. One had my stuff for the year, the other had the materials I was bringing over. And they opened it up and, sure enough, there are 10,000 condoms and books and toys and all the rest. And they said, ‘What is this?’ and I said, ‘It’s for personal use.’ And they asked me again, and I said, ‘It’s for personal use.’ I was going to be busy that year, apparently.”
While he did manage to get the goods to the organization, his year there opened his eyes to the dangerous reality for LGBT Ghanaians. The centre’s offices were vandalized, and workers were attacked. One of his colleagues fled the country.
Those experiences on the ground give Cressy credibility when he talks about the need for Canada to stand up for human rights abroad.
“We need to champion human rights at home and abroad when it comes to our LGBT community. The important piece around that, though, is always to listen and take our guidance from the local activists,” he says. But he equivocates when asked about the NDP’s call last autumn for a visa ban against legislators who passed anti-gay laws in Russia.
“At the federal government’s disposal are a range of options and sanctions that can be used as a form of leverage and influence, and we should explore any and all of them, because the cause is so important and the fight so great,” he says. “But to me, change only happens, always, when the local community is mobilized and has the support it needs.”
Cressy’s social-justice work has taken him to work on anti-poverty campaigns in South Africa, literacy programs with First Nations communities in Northern Ontario, and more locally, work with The Stop Community Food Centre and Social Planning Toronto. Until resigning to run for office, he worked with the Stephen Lewis Foundation.
Cressy says his inspiration to work in social justice comes from his parents, both of whom served on city council — his father, Gordon Cressy, spoke out against the 1981 bathhouse raids as an alderman. He got involved with the NDP as a teenager, after returning from spending a year of high school in South Africa.
“I came home, as an 18-year-old — I was an OAC year — and suddenly, sports and parties weren’t as important,” he says. “The war in Iraq was coming. I became an antiwar activist. I joined the NDP to support Jack [Layton]’s leadership [bid] because he was the antiwar candidate.”
But Cressy isn’t planning to run for office by waving around his international resumé. He says he wants to be a champion for downtown Toronto in Parliament and push for strategies to deal with public transit, housing, child care and immigration services.
“What we need is real leadership to promote a progressive vision for cities,” he says. “Cities are now the engine of the national economy.”