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Interview: Niki Ashton on running for NDP leader


May 15, 2017

Niki Ashton, NDP MP in Manitoba, held a meet and greet event at Shoxs Billiards Lounge in Toronto on May 9 to promote her run for the federal NDP. She was introduced by outspoken socialist and veteran NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo, who has been a longtime representative of Parkdale-High Park. Ashton's speech largely focused on precarious work, the Liberal governments' broken promises, economic inequality, and the need for a principled left alternative to the two right wing parties in Canada. The following is an interview with Niki Ashton conducted the next day.

Kevin Taghabon:

We set targets for no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius [at COP 21 in Paris], which was fought pretty hard for at the grassroots level. It doesn't really seem like the current government is serious about following through on that. What would the New Democratic Party under your leadership do to make sure that that happens, while considering just transition? The fact that workers in the oil [industry] need to have jobs after the fact.

Niki Ashton:

Absolutely. What we've said up to this point with respect to policy is that, absolutely, the creation of good jobs is really key. That includes the need for value-added jobs, that includes the need for diversification … I was out West just a couple of weeks ago, and there are people that want to work towards a green transition, that want to be part of a green transition. There definitely needs to be federal leadership on that front. We will be releasing an environmental justice platform in the weeks to come, so there will be more details specifically on that.

But the one thing we have said is, with respect to new developments like pipelines or new resource developments, the NDP must have a principled position. So, clear opposition if there is no consent from Indigenous communities through whose territory the project would be going through. It can't go forward if it does not meet environmental regulations and our climate change commitments, and if there's no social license. It's not the 1950s anymore where government can just run roughshod over the rights of Indigenous people and environmental rights. I think the struggle at Standing Rock, which was just south of my province, many people from where I'm from were very involved in that and followed it very closely. Some went down. To me it's clear that this is a sign of where things are at today. The NDP needs to have a principled position, without question.

KT:

That's a good segue to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. So you're supporting full implementation of UNDRIP into Canadian law as it exists. The current government has said that there were challenges in implementing that, and they abandoned the promise. Why do you think that this is possible to do, and what does that look like?

Niki Ashton:

Yeah, absolutely. Interestingly enough, Justin Trudeau's government has used UNDRIP, has referred to UNDRIP as a way of symbolically indicating their support for the nation-to-nation relationship. And yet, when you scratch the surface, they don't actually mean adoption and implementation. Minister [of Indigenous and Northern Affairs] Bennett in New York mentioned it, then when she comes back to Canada, she doesn't. And absolutely, I support the adoption and implementation.

It's been an honour to second the bill put forward by my colleague Romeo Saganash which is coming up for vote in the fall, Bill 262. This is also core to what it means to be a New Democrat. In order to move forward in terms of that nation-to-nation relationship UNDRIP is the most comprehensive and substantive framework. It's been developed by Indigenous peoples. Within our own party, people like Romeo helped develop it. It's very much in line with our NDP principles and it has to be part of who we are going forward.

KT:

Okay, so the free prior and informed consent aspect would definitely be a centrepiece of that. If any new pipeline developments conflict with that, the Indigenous nation would have a veto over that right? If they say “it's not okay in my backyard” then it's not okay.

Niki Ashton:

Yes.

KT:

There's been a lot of emerging, pretty exciting movements like Occupy, Idle No More, the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter. What does your candidacy offer the people in these movements, who are obviously very politically engaged, that other candidates and parties don't offer?

Niki Ashton:

I would say that I'm deeply inspired by all the movements that you mentioned. Idle No More for example has been extremely active where I'm from out West. I've been a big supporter of the Fight for 15, for a while now. Particularly in our work on precarious work we worked with activists on this front who are on the front lines of fighting precarity and fighting for good jobs for young people. I find the Black Lives Matter movement to be incredibly inspiring as well. It's very intersectional in its work and it's taking on the policing system, the justice system, and it speaks to the overall criminalization of not just racialized communities, but Indigenous communities and queer communities. Of course I support it. Occupy as well, when everything was happening a few years back.

I would say that, in terms of our campaign, I've made it clear that the way for the NDP to move forward is by, number one, being principled. Reconnecting with those core principles that we have and standing up for what we believe in, but also engaging with movements. Many of the movements that you just mentioned share similar values, are fighting for similar things that we believe in. While we might feel that there's different ways of getting at that goal, I do believe that there's ways of working together in solidarity along the way. It's also very clear to me that a number of young people involved with all of these movements, while we usually have not been involved in politics, in the last election our voter participation did go up.

But most young people voted Liberal. I don't know that that will happen again in the same way because Trudeau has broken a lot of his promises that mattered a lot to young people. I do think that's why it's so important for the NDP to work with movements, work with activists, work with young people and advance the issues that these movements are bringing forward and the overall calls for justice that bring us all together.

KT:

You've mentioned many times that you want to nationalize some key industries. Which would those be, which institutions would those be, and how does that relate to the just transition and labour aspects of what we want Canada to look like going forward?

Niki Ashton:

First off I would say that we are the campaign that has talked very clearly about the need to stand up for public ownership and nationalization. Neoliberalism has pushed privatization mantra for decades and I think the left has often been engaged in a rear-guard action. So we're fighting against privatization, but we don't necessarily propose public ownership. I think we're seeing a shift on that front, but definitely I'm proud that our campaign is very upfront about this. In our economic justice platform for yesterday we talked about the need to bring in postal banking. We also talked about –well something I've talked about in the past – an agency for the distribution of pharmaceuticals. This would go together with pharmacare so that we own some of the means of production related to benefits that we require. Regardless of pharmacare I think there's capacity to do some work on that front. In conjunction with pharmacare it would be really powerful.

We're also proposed a public entity around the green transition, that could be at the federal level. Obviously provinces and other jurisdictions are engaged in those kinds of investments already, but federally, the federal government is doing very little on that front. We certainly see the need to step it up, but why not have a public entity directing these investments and playing a leadership role when it comes to the green transition.

KT:

What is your position on the Leap Manifesto considering these initiatives?

Niki Ashton:

I support the principles of Leap. I do believe it's a great source of discussion. I do also believe that it's incumbent on the NDP to develop a vision that is rooted in those principles. But a vision that comes about through a process like the leadership, where we're engaging New Democrats, progressives, people across the country in terms of a vision of how to tackle inequality, how to tackle climate change. 

KT:

If riding associations on a national level, the majority of them, do end up endorsing or supporting the Leap Manifesto publicly, will you adopt that in your candidacy?

Niki Ashton:

I think what's happening right now is there's a lot of those kind of discussions. Some are very active, some are not. I certainly am looking forward to hearing back. And obviously if a directive is given at convention then that would have to be respected by the leader. But what I am hearing right now is a lot of people are having very good discussions about the broader issues of inequality, climate change, jobs. I think that's part of it. For too long we haven't had discussions on the ground about policy, about the big issues that we're facing. Certainly for the last few years the push has been government, from official opposition to government, and I think that's unfortunately pushed a lot of bigger picture discussions off to the side. People have been discouraged from having them. I think we're now fully into that space. I think the leadership is an excellent opportunity to develop an NDP, a left vision for our country when it comes to tackling inequality and climate change.

KT:

One of the things that Justin Trudeau has recently said that he's supportive of is journalists protecting their sources. He has not publicly espoused support for Bill S231 [the Journalistic Sources Protection Act], which was unanimously voted through by the Senate. It was a Conservative bill, both sides were completely in favour of it, and he hasn't supported it publicly. Is that something that you would support? And if this bill doesn't make it through, would you propose a similar kind of bill, a press shield law for Canada, one of the only developed countries that doesn't have a press shield law?

Niki Ashton:

I'm not familiar with the specific bill so I'd rather not comment on that one specifically. Sometimes things that Conservatives propose have some loopholes. But absolutely, protecting freedom of the press, especially at the time where we're seeing [attacks] from Trump, or in Russia, around the world. The attack on not just the freedom of the press but frankly the safety and security of members of the press is frightening. I would certainly support not just legislation but also, very importantly, enforcement and respect for that law. For such a law.

KT:

The mass surveillance apparatus in this country has gotten really out of hand. In November, Federal Court Judge Simon Noelle said something [in a ruling against CSIS] along the lines of “the advances of technology are no reason to flaunt the federal court,” because CSIS had been engaging in mass surveillance on people across Canada for 10 years without telling the Federal Court. In light of all the Snowden revelations and how closely we cooperate with the US' Five Eyes network around the world, what would you do to reign that in?

Niki Ashton:

I would say right off the bat, I'm really proud that our party has been vociferously opposed to C51. We remain the only party in the house opposed to it. Despite the fact that the Liberals promised to make some changes, they've yet to do anything, which really speaks first of all they way in which they're similar to Harper. And second of all the way they support increased surveillance and the targeting of people's privacy. We need to continue to fight C51. I mean it is in law, and it needs to be repealed. And obviously continue the fight to protect people's privacy. Especially in this day and age where we know, whether it's the authorities or corporations, having increased access to what we do online and in general.

KT:

The NDP under your tenure would be a party fighting for the repeal of C51, not some middle of the road amendment to it?

Niki Ashton:

Yes.

KT:

There have been organized far-right extremists in Canada growing a lot. Just this weekend at Nathan Phillip's Square there were about 40 of them [opposed] by maybe 200 people from labour unions, teachers, activists. They were in the minority, but they're growing. They're wearing things like 3% patches [referencing] the far-right militias in the United States, they're wearing military gear. What would the NDP do under your tenure to fight that kind of hate and whatever anxieties lie below that that allow these kinds of organizations to fester and gain allies?

Niki Ashton:

First of all I think we have to make it very clear that we don't tolerate fascism in whatever form it manifests itself. It's clear to me that while there may have been these points of view before, but as a result of the Trump presidency and the dynamics we're seeing to the south of us people have become emboldened in making those views public. It's unacceptable. I believe we need to speak out very clearly against hate and bigotry, discrimination. I think it requires a broader conversation in terms of legal tools at our disposal in terms of hate laws. There are jurisdictions that have stronger hate laws than we do in Canada. There is room for strengthening, but that's certainly not the only thing. It's a question as well of enforcement. We know that the targeting of Islamic extremism is talked about a lot more [by] the authorities. But you don't hear about white supremacy. The need for us to recognize this as a real threat to the safety and security of our communities is really critical. Just as I'm saying it Trump is on the TV.

But I also believe it's about standing up and supporting communities that are being targeted. For example, speaking out against Islamophobia, supporting Muslim communities in Canada who right now are being targeted disproportionately. It's not lost on me that while we were all protesting the immigration ban in the US a horrific shooting happened in our own country. That certainly rattled a lot of us, but I think we still fall back on this mentality of, “well, but look what's happening in the US.” Well, it's happening here, and actually it was people here that were killed in a Mosque. So it's clear to me that there needs to be far more support for communities in terms of their needs at this time in general. That's everything from addressing the ongoing discrimination that Muslim communities, racialized communities, immigrant communities face in the workplace, looking at different measures that we can take there. Looking at support for those that are seeking asylum, many of whom are Muslim. For example, in my province many of the people that are crossing the border to try and seek asylum are doing so in very unsafe conditions because of the Safe Third Country Agreement. We need to repeal that, and make it clear that we understand that they are being targeted, and ensure a safer environment here in our own country.

I also believe it's very important for us to have foreign policy as well that does not reflect Islamophobic or divisive perspectives. One that actually stands up for peace. That's why I'm proud to be the only candidate to have explicitly spoken out against the bombing in Syria. You cannot be engaging in increased militarization and the targeting, in this case, of predominantly Muslim countries, but then here at home say “everyone's welcome” while you're obviously making the world an increasingly insecure place. I do believe that there's ways of supporting communities. The normalization of hate, especially with Trump, is very dangerous.

You look at the Conservative [leadership] race here in Canada and it's very clear that people have been inspired by Trump's ideas and Trump-like politics. We need to call that out. We have been calling it out in a number of instances, but we need to continue to do so and make it clear that it's simply not acceptable. It's not to be tolerated.

KT:

What would the NDP in 2019, in opposition...south of the border with a leader like Donald Trump – how would that relationship function given the ideological opposites of your campaign and perhaps your party in the future, versus Donald Trump and that Republican milieu?

Niki Ashton:

I would say if I'm to be elected leader I would be strong in standing up to Trump, whether it's in terms of Canadian jobs and Canadian livelihoods or in terms of his foreign policy. This is not a leader who reflects many of the values that we believe in as Canadians, and certainly not a leader that has the best interests of Canadians at all in mind. I'm very concerned by the way in which Justin Trudeau for example has cheerleaded Trump's bombing in Syria, has not stood up with backbone to Trump's threats on softwood lumber or the dairy industry. The charm offensive that Trudeau has been trying to lead on Trump has clearly not worked. What we need is real leadership that will stand up to Trump for Canadians.

 

KT:

On precarity and economic reform, have you thought about implementing anything like maximum income, [supporting] democratic worker cooperatives, or lowering the work week hours? These are things that have been proposed in France, that have been proposed in the British Labour Party, and that Franklin Roosevelt proposed in 1944 and got passed at 94% [instead of 100%, income tax for the top income bracket] because of the opposition. More radical reforms to the current economic establishment.

Niki Ashton

Yeah, I believe that all of those are things that we need to be looking at in terms of creating economic justice. It's clear to me that as precarity rises what we need to do is fight the system and certainly the status quo. The adage of “working hard will allow you to live a life of dignity” is clearly not panning out. More and more people have multiple jobs and are struggling to survive. A number of major corporations that gain significantly from public money are turning around and giving their executives major bonuses. Bombardier for example. I do think there's certainly reason to discuss limiting the ability of corporations that receive public funds from wasting their money in that way. Especially at a time when they're laying hundreds of workers off. Democratic worker cooperatives are an example of workers determining their lives and contributing to our economy in a very successful way. They're definitely a model that I support, and I know many that identify as New Democrats do as well.

Some of the models that we're seeing overseas, whether it's shortening the work week or expanding the social safety net, are all things that we ought to be looking at as possibilities. We did release our economic justice platform. We talked about the need for a living wage. Right now [a living wage] is $15 an hour they're saying, but year after year this is shifting. Life in places like Toronto and Vancouver, it requires much more. So I think that's really critical. And we need to engage in some broader economic policies to level the playing field right now, whether it's tax reform, making the wealthy pay their fair share, closing loopholes, bringing in an inheritance tax which is one of the things we talked about in our platform yesterday, and also increasing the corporate tax rate. These are things that our campaign has already brought up, and like I've said I think there's other areas we could be exploring.

KT:

The final question I wanted to ask you – you've said you draw a lot of inspiration from movements. What are your intellectual inspirations? Who do you read? Who have you followed? Who do you look to for your politics?

Niki Ashton:

For direction, yeah. There's been a number of people over the years. I would say more recently, more on the politician end of it, Bernie Sanders has been a tremendous inspiration. So I read his book, then I read another book about him, and then I read another book about his campaigns. I believe that he is one essential example in this day and age in a similar situation as we are here in Canada – obviously in the US – that is all about movement building. I think in fact he's done things that are far more bold than what we've done in Canada. Usually we think of ourselves on the left as being further ahead than in the US. Bernie Sanders has really blazed a trail that's inspiring to many of us.

I identify as a democratic socialist as well as an intersection feminist. One person that I hold very dear in the context of those two universes is Angela Davis. For me she is where it's at. She's always been where it's at. In times like these, the way she speaks truth to power gives me a lot of direction. 

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