NDP leadership

INTERVIEW: Peter Julian on pipelines, inequality and free education

The NDP leadership contender explains why he’s running, and what kind of party he wants to build
Peter Julian

Today marks the first installment in a series of feature interviews with the candidates to lead the New Democratic Party. As one of Canada’s only bilingual media outlets, we feel bilingualism is a key requirement for leadership of any federal party. To assess that skill we will pose one policy question in French to each candidate. The editors of our French edition will then assign a letter grade to reflect the candidate’s command of the language. Read on to find out what grade we gave Julian.

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MP Peter Julian was the first candidate to enter the race, and he kicks off our series of interviews. A member of the NDP since he was 14, Julian has held a wide variety of positions within the party, including several years working as an organizer and provincial secretary in Quebec. A former executive director of the Council of Canadians, Julian was elected to represent the New Westminster-Burnaby riding in British Columbia in 2004.

How would you summarize the reasons for the party's loss of support in 2015, and what are your impressions of the party's post-mortem review? Do you have any criticisms?

First off, I think we needed to be bold in 2015, and I don’t think we were.

The reality is, when you talk to people on doorsteps, when you talk to people in their workplaces, you get a real sense of what they’re looking for. And throughout the campaign in my riding and in ridings I visited, I had a lot of very good conversations. And I would say that people basically gave us a roadmap of what they wanted the NDP to be. They wanted the NDP to be bold, they wanted to the NDP to be listening, and they wanted the NDP to adjust the sails as the debate went on through the course of what was a very long campaign. And we didn’t accomplish those things.

It starts with an immediately affordable housing program that builds 250,000 housing units over the next couple of years.

I think that is an important lesson for the future: that when we’re gutsy and we’re bold, that’s the NDP that people want to see. And they want an NDP that is listening to people across the length and breadth of this country, including activists — progressive activists, social democratic activists, democratic socialist activists — who want to see some real changes in this country.

As far as the post-mortem is concerned, my sense from activists is that they didn’t feel it was adequate. I think there were a lot of good intentions but we needed to be going out more across the country to get feedback. And that’s partly why I’ve launched this leadership campaign, to be out there across the country talking with people in their workplaces and church halls and at the doorstep as well, to get a real sense of where people want us to go. My sense is that people want us to be bold, they want us to listen, and those are the kinds of things I’m bringing forward to this campaign.

In brief, what kind of issues will you emphasize in order to mobilize existing supporters and to win over new ones?

The issues that I raised when I launched the campaign are the following:

We’re seeing profound inequality in this country. It is increasing. More and more is going to the top 1 per cent and large corporations and very little is left for the other 99 per cent. So a key element has to be eradicating poverty in this country and that starts with housing. Housing is in crisis. There is a growing homelessness crisis across the country. In my area of the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, we’re seeing more and more people simply not having a place to live.

It starts with an immediately affordable housing program that builds 250,000 housing units over the next couple of years. That is not the most ambitious program in our history. We had that after the Second World War when we built 300,000 affordable housing units within just a couple of years of the war. And it costs Canadians over $7 billion a year to keep people on the street. We can use a smaller amount to make sure that every Canadian has a roof over their head. And that is the first major jump start to eradicate poverty in this country.

Economically, the Liberals have perhaps kept us in a kind of holding pattern, using deficit spending to make some mild investments in infrastructure. What should the NDP do to improve the economy? To create new, good jobs, especially for young adults? And what should it emphasize so that Canadians understand and accept their plans? This communication issue has sometimes been identified as a problem for the NDP.

On the economy the very first step that we need to do is to open the doors to college, university and trade school. We’re seeing more and more younger Canadians excluded from actually going on to higher education. And the countries that have eliminated tuition fees are actually the most competitive because they have a workforce that is highly engaged and a workforce that is able to be part of the knowledge economy. So, having the federal government sit down with the provinces and structuring an ending of tuition fees and opening the doors to postsecondary education is the very first step. We need to do that because that is not just the jobs of tomorrow in the knowledge economy, but it is also very much the entrepreneurs of tomorrow that are able to create a broader array of jobs.

Secondly, we as Canadians have seen successive federal governments put all of their eggs in the basket of raw resource extraction and development. We export raw logs, we export raw minerals, and we have proposals from Mr. Trudeau to ramp up the export of raw bitumen rather than developing the value-added, the real jobs that mean that we get a much greater value out of that resource.

And thirdly, we lag behind the rest of the industrialized world in research and development. That goes hand in hand with opening the doors to college, university and trade school. We need to make sure that we’re actually investing in public research and development, because that as well creates the jobs of tomorrow. When we eradicate poverty, we create more prosperity at the local community level. When we open the doors to education, we create jobs at the local and community level.

What we’ve had from Conservatives and Liberals is a really failed, old-time approach that’s very much top-down: give resources to the top 1 per cent. And somehow we expect that that’s going to benefit everybody. My approach would be very much community-based and would be developed from the community up to build that prosperous economy.

Could you talk about your thoughts on student debt?

The proposal that I’ve raised that has provoked a lot of debate was around looking to ensure that we eliminate tuition fees in Canada. It’s in all Canadians’ interest to make sure that folks can go to post-secondary education, to go to college and university, to be trained in a trade. We have shortages in so many areas. So the very first step is to eliminate tuition fees and in that way ensure that we’re not indebting future generations.

The federal government spends a lot more time going through the process of approving temporary foreign workers rather than putting in place a jobs plan.

There are accumulated debt loads for students who’ve gone through post-secondary education. The amount is somewhere around $25 billion, I believe. We’ve got to look at ways of bringing that down. The very first step is to take interest fees off of this accumulated student debt. The government or the banks should not be benefiting from the closed doors that we’ve seen in college, university and trade school over the past few decades.

Many people say that a lot of young adults already have substantial amounts of education but are not able to find entry-level positions. What kind of solutions might you offer for those people?

I think education right now is a major barrier, and I meet a lot of younger people in my community that can’t go on to college, university or trade school. The lack of access is a major problem. Secondly, in terms of identifying the jobs of tomorrow, the federal government spends a lot more time going through the process of approving temporary foreign workers rather than putting in place a jobs plan. A jobs plan has to include younger workers who are trying to get into the workforce. And to do that you need a federal government that is actually inclined to [put] jobs first, and we haven’t seen that. So, the apprenticeship programs it would be opening doors to, and to college and university, is really a first step to making sure those entry-level positions are available for people to get into the job market.

The Leap Manifesto highlights an important divide for the NDP. However we haven’t seen it being debated at the riding level, as the party committed to do at its last convention. As leader, would you ensure that debate? Given you’re opposed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, will you personally be engaging in acts of resistance with water protectors in B.C.?

The Leap Manifesto is being discussed right now with a lot of the riding associations, and I think that’s a very important thing. We need to have these discussions around what it means to actually build the inclusive green economy of the future. And the jobs that can come with this, the green collar jobs, are phenomenal. That’s one door available to us, to put in place a strategy around developing clean energy that leads to hundreds of thousands of new jobs in this country, as we’ve seen in other countries around the world.

The other door, as you’ve pointed out, is to build Kinder Morgan, Energy East and even Keystone, all of which I’ve taken a firm, unambiguous stance against. Why? For the following reasons: when we talk about [pipelines] we’re exporting raw bitumen and, with these massive pipeline projects, we are accelerating climate change. And it’s not just on the environment, it’s also on the economy, that we’re going to see profoundly negative changes if we accelerate climate change with this plan. The estimated cost to the Canadian economy will go up to $90 billion a year — $90 billion a year — and will cost us tens of thousands of jobs a year unless we actively combat climate change and put in place sustainable policies.

Right now, we’re seeing a whole bunch of legal steps that are being put forward, and I think those legal initiatives from Indigenous peoples, from municipalities in British Columbia, are going to stop that project. And I certainly hope in 2019, in places like British Columbia, this will be a major ballot question: Do we want Mr. Trudeau’s policies or do we want to push back against these pipelines?

But will you stand with people who are physically and peacefully trying to block the construction?

As I say, there are legal cases in places. I hope that that won’t be necessary. With the legal cases that are piling up now against this project, I would expect that we’re going to see the same kind of legal decisions that resulted in the cancellation of Northern Gateway.

Immigration and the status of refugees are hot issues right now across the United States and Europe. The NDP has asked for a 90-day suspension of the Safe Third Country Agreement. What is your position on this agreement?

I believe that we should be suspending the Safe Third Country Agreement. Refugees that were accepted into the United States are now being thrown into limbo by Mr. Trump’s fiat. I also believe that we should be standing up against the hatred that Mr. Trump seems to want to bring forward. We’ve had rallies in my constituency pushing back against Mr. Trump’s hateful acts.

The implementation of Jordan's Principle has gained renewed attention in recent months. What would an NDP government do differently in order to equalize First Nations health care and also child welfare funding levels? And more generally, what would be your priorities on Indigenous issues?

It is an appalling state and situation that we’re seeing: First Nations kids that are underfunded in health care and education. And we need to immediately, immediately move to change this. It’s a crisis much on the same size and scope that we’re seeing in housing. It requires immediate movement from government.

What the NDP would do under my leadership is bring forward a fair trade template, which basically means that every agreement we sign would be based on fair trade principles.

The [Liberals] would say that they don’t have the resources. And that is ridiculous because we see the federal government putting in place a very intricate network of tax evasion through tax havens offshore that allow the 1 per cent and Canada’s wealthiest companies to not pay their fair share of taxes. We need to end the sweetheart deals with offshore tax havens and apply those resources to the appalling state of health care and education in First Nations communities right across Canada.

And we need to show real leadership on reconciliation. We’ve had a Liberal government that pays lip service and only lip service to reconciliation. As a country, this is going to take a number of years. It’s going to take real leadership from the federal government to work with the provinces and municipalities, to work with school boards, health authorities, the justice system and police forces so that we can attain real, lasting and meaningful reconciliation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples across the country.

French question: A core segment of the NDP base cares a great deal about ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people through adoption of BDS measures. At the same time, it's not an issue to which the average Canadian is attuned. How would you approach this issue?

Editors’ note: Julian responded to this question in French, and we have translated the answer below. The editors of Ricochet’s French edition gave his language skills the letter grade of “A.” From opinion editor Félix Deslauriers: “I find the quality of his French is very good. Clearly Julian is perfectly bilingual, even if the syntax and accent are not those of someone whose mother tongue is French.”

I think what we need to do is make peace our first priority. What does that mean? It means calling out violence in all its forms, whether we’re talking about violence committed by Hamas, or by the Israeli military. We need to denounce all violence.

Second, there are human rights violations that occur, we see that for example in the West Bank, and Canada needs to be very clear that these violations of human rights are not violations that we will accept.

All of these elements are important, and there’s an important role for Canada to play in helping peace come to the Middle East. If it does not, we will continue to see these violations of human rights that are happening. Canada must be a voice for peace.

If the Trans-Pacific Partnership is ratified before the 2019 election, would an NDP government under your leadership aim to withdraw from it?

I don’t think the TPP will be ratified, and I oppose the TPP. But the reality is without the United States supporting implementation of the TPP, it’s quite clear what you get. So I don’t support it, and I don’t expect that it will be an issue. What I do want to see is Canada approaching every trade agreement from the standpoint of fair trade, not free trade. We have a free trade template that is used for every trade agreement that is right-wing and very repressive. What the NDP would do under my leadership is bring forward a fair trade template, which basically means that every agreement we sign would be based on fair trade principles. That means no more investor-state provisions that give companies an ability to override decisions made in the public interest.

It would mean we would look at some of the best examples worldwide, examples of incorporating human rights into trade agreements. The Mercosur agreement, which actually has poverty alleviation as one of its core principles, that’s the kind of thing that would actually make a real difference, a positive difference in a progressive approach to trade.

Canada intends to deploy hundreds of troops to Latvia. Many people believe the NATO-Russia border confrontation is seriously increasing the risk of nuclear war, yet there seems to be little scrutiny from the media or parliamentarians. What is your position on Canada's participation?

There needs to be parliamentary oversight every single time with these missions. But I believe Canada’s role should be providing humanitarian support. There is a tendency for both the Liberal and Conservative governments to use our military in ways that don’t further the kind of humanitarian supports we see [are needed] in conflict zones. And our military is well trained and able to perform those functions.

We’re seeing this now in Northern Iraq, where the humanitarian needs are overwhelming in many respects the ability of local agencies to provide those supports. So it really represents change. If we’re using our military forces, it needs to enhance humanitarian supports in making sure that civilian populations are not suffering in conflict.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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