NDP leadership

INTERVIEW: Niki Ashton on why the NDP needs to reconnect with social movements

NDP leadership candidate on how not to get “out-lefted” by the Liberals
Niki Ashton

Niki Ashton, who has has held a seat in Parliament since 2008, is the MP for the riding of Churchill—Keewatinook Aski in northern Manitoba. At 34, she’s the youngest contestant in the NDP leadership race but also the only declared candidate who’s previously run for the job. As she did in the 2011-2012 race, Ashton is advocating in no uncertain terms to shift the party to the left.

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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 Ashton.

How’s the campaign going?

Good, very good. Things have been pretty busy. I’m just at home in Manitoba for a couple days getting things organized and about to hit the road again soon.

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? And do you have any criticisms of the review?

I’ve already been pretty vocal about the fact that I, like many, feel that we gave the Liberals the chance to out-left us in the 2015 election. And I do disagree with the position we took on balanced budgets. That was a flashpoint in the campaign and differentiated us in a way where we came off as less progressive than the Liberals. I do think it was clear we had a number of other progressive policies. But that certainly was a major distraction.

There’s been a resurgence in social movement energy, whether it’s Indigenous struggles, Black Lives Matter, climate action, Fight for $15 or even with what we saw in the Women’s March earlier this year.

On the review, I think it was an important exercise. I think there are a number of recommendations that came out of that that will be useful. But I feel that this leadership race is also a chance to get into what people felt we did wrong in 2015 and the direction we’ve been on for some time. What our campaign is all about is saying that we need to reconnect with our principles, especially given the progressive activism we’re seeing out there today. We can no longer be afraid to call out the rich and powerful who’ve been making political and economic decisions, promoting a neoliberal agenda that is setting us all back.

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

We’ve got our 13 key points that we raised on our launch on our website. We’re certainly keen on developing each of those further. But our key theme is building a movement together. We need to reconnect with activists — whether they’ve grown disillusioned with the party — with young people, racialized communities, Indigenous communities, women, LGBTQ activists that are fighting for the same kinds of things that we believe in. We need to find ways of connecting together.

We’ve put together a series of key points — whether it’s free tuition, standing strong on public ownership, proposing nationalization, clear opposition to pipelines. We need to have a very strong platform on jobs. Increasingly, a lot of millennials are facing rising precarious work. A lot of Canadians are losing good jobs. We need a strong progressive platform that looks at job creation and protection and that includes a transition to a green economy and a carbon-free economy.

Economically, the Liberals have perhaps kept us in a kind of holding pattern, using deficit spending 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.

I’d say what we have to do is clearly reject the neoliberal approach that we’ve seen from both Liberal and Conservative governments that have promoted privatization, deregulation, austerity and bad trade deals as avenues to job and wealth creation — because that simply hasn’t materialized. In fact, Canada is growing more and more unequal. That has a lot to do with the loss of good jobs. We’re seeing the evidence of loss of good jobs in the rise of precarious work.

But at the core of this is rejecting the neoliberal agenda and tackling inequality and climate change.

We need to put forward a plan that sees tackling inequality as critical. That has to have as a central point the importance of job protection: opposing trade deals that are selling us out, opposing the large-scale privatization agenda that the Liberals are promoting. It means investing in green technologies, investing in social and public infrastructure, including housing and transportation infrastructure that would benefit all of us.

It also means an extension of the social safety net. One of the things we’ve proposed is not only the need for pharmacare — which is a long-standing NDP policy — but we need to see the federal government start getting into dental care and mental health services.

We need to promote fair taxation. We need to close loopholes that allow so many of the rich to send their wealth offshore. We also need to increase the tax rate on the wealthiest Canadians. But at the core of this is rejecting the neoliberal agenda and tackling inequality and climate change.

The Leap Manifesto highlights an important divide for the NDP. It seems that there has been no follow-through to debate the manifesto at the riding level, despite the convention commitment. As leader, would you ensure that debate? And you have voiced opposition against oil and gas pipelines. Will you personally be engaging in acts of resistance against, say, Energy East or Kinder Morgan if construction does get underway?

I’d say that the Leap Manifesto is an important source of discussion. I support the principles of Leap. And there have been many riding associations that have already engaged in a discussion around it. But I do think it’s incumbent on the NDP to come up with an agenda that reflects what is Leap.

To your second point, there’s a new normal when it comes to resisting pipelines. I, like many in our part of the country, was very involved in showing solidarity with the resistance against the Dakota Access pipeline. A lot of friends and constituents were there, and I helped organize our solidarity action in Ottawa back in December. Basically, I would say that the era where government and corporations run roughshod over Indigenous rights and environmental regulations is gone. We stand to see the same kind of resistance here and certainly, as I pledged solidarity on the opposition to Dakota Access, I stand with many who are against Kinder Morgan and Energy East. I see it as important to clearly oppose and build resistance against these projects as part of my leadership run.

And so you may well stand with people who are physically and peacefully trying to block the construction?

Yeah, I mean I’ve certainly engaged in very clear opposition to projects that First Nations have opposed here in my own region. For me, it’s absolutely critical that I and the NDP show strength in these struggles too.

And so that solidarity would include possible physical direct action?

I don’t want to get too much into hypotheticals because — I mean, do I believe in protest and joining protests? Absolutely. But I also feel the work we need to be doing is at all levels. And we should be providing solidarity at all levels, on the ground and at the national level. I’m certainly keen to be there and show support on the front lines when the time comes.

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. How would you approach this issue as leader?

I do stand by the work that our party has already done. We’re the only party that is calling for the repeal of the Safe Third Country Agreement. I studied it when it was first implemented. It’s legislation that has no place in a country like ours. It’s critical that we point out the hypocrisy of the Liberal government — where you have Trudeau that’s putting out tweets indicating that Canada is a welcoming country but continues to implement legislation that discourages people from seeking asylum and rejects people as well based on that legislation.

I’m from Manitoba. Many people are crossing the border into Manitoba. And I’ve seen the way in which the right is trying to use this issue to fan the flames of division. We need to be strong in our support for refugees and that also means fighting for regressive legislation to be lifted.

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 Aboriginal issues?

Indigenous issues ought to be a major priority for Canadians and Canada. The highest levels of inequality and poverty are most evident in Indigenous communities. I’ve had the honour and privilege of representing 41 First Nations here in my own riding.

For far too long, the federal government has imposed a colonial agenda, an assimilationist agenda.

But I’ve also seen firsthand the Third World living conditions that people face and the impacts of chronic underfunding in terms of health care, education and housing, including how that can translate into a sense of hopelessness. These are the kinds of realities that often lead to young people being so hopeless that they think about and act on taking their own lives. We need to come to grips with that reality.

For far too long, the federal government has imposed a colonial agenda, an assimilationist agenda. But it continues to impose that agenda. Despite the rhetoric around a nation-to-nation relationship, they’re still refusing to address the decision of the Human Rights Tribunal calling on them to fund the child welfare system. They’re still refusing the lift the two per cent cap on First Nations education. The investments are extremely minimal.

And I would say that addressing the funding is key but it also has to begin with a framework. And that framework is the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The implementation of UNDRIP is critical in addressing the injustice and underfunding and in challenging that colonial relationship.

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

Editors’ note: Ashton responded to this question in French, and we have translated the answer below. The editors of Ricochet’s French edition gave her language skills the letter grade of “A.” From news editor Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours: “Her french is pretty good. In comparison with the others, I’d say she’s in the middle between Caron and Julian, Caron being the best, but the two others are pretty good too.”

I would say Canada has to be a voice for peace and justice around the world. This includes being a voice for peace and for diplomacy in Palestine. We have to be clear that the occupation of Palestinian lands must end. And we have to put an end to the abuse of Palestinians’ human rights. As the NDP, we have to be a strong voice for justice for the Palestinian people.

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

Absolutely, if it is ratified. I feel like Donald Trump will do a good job of making sure that it doesn’t stick around, in its current form anyway.

This trade deal and CETA and even the discussions around the trade relationship with China — these are trade deals serving the wealthiest one per cent in our countries. We know the TPP would mean the loss of tens of thousands of good jobs in Canada. We need our party to be a strong voice against trade deals that sell us out.

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

I would say that I am very concerned about the military ramp-up in that part of the world. I would say that, again, as we’ve indicated in our campaign, Canada must be a voice for peace in the world. Increasing aggression and tensions is not in line [with that]. I will say that we’ll be looking at developing our platform on foreign affairs more extensively. And that’s one of the areas we’ll be speaking to.

We also have to talk more broadly about priorities. A number of military missions that Canada has committed to — whether it was the war in Afghanistan or, more recently, some of the musings around peacekeeping missions for which details are unclear — are missions which have served to hurt our country in many wars. We have many veterans that require support that the government is letting down on a regular basis. We should be putting priority on supporting our veterans and the work we need to be doing here at work rather than getting involved in military missions that serve to increase conflict and tensions.

Could you talk a little bit about your thoughts on student debt? Peter Julian has said he would remove interest from student loan debt, Guy Caron that he is not closed to the idea. But you are talking about completely writing off and forgiving Canada student loan debt, is that correct?

I would say we are definitely in support of removing interest on federal student loans. But we also need to have a strategy on unpayable student debt. We need to be realistic about what young people are facing today — they are facing an increasingly insecure job market with the rise of precarious work. That has an impact on their ability to pay off their student debt.

We want to look into not just eliminating student interest but also ways of being responsive to those that end up in situations where they simply cannot pay off their student debt, especially in the times we live in.

And so this would target people that are having particular difficulty. I’m wondering what that would look like then.

Yeah, we’ll be doing a bit more work on this front as the campaign rolls on. So, stay tuned!

Before we wrap up, Ms. Ashton, you have offered explicit support for nationalization and opposition to privatization. I am aware of your role in calling for the Port of Churchill to be placed under public ownership again, but moving forward, what specifically do you think an NDP federal government should nationalize?

I really appreciate how expansive this interview is! But a number of these platform points we’ll be developing as the campaign moves on. This is one of them as well. We are in discussions with various activists, people from labour, people that care deeply about this issue and fighting to assert public ownership and about new ways of doing things.

We’ve been playing the rearguard action with respect to fighting privatization but we haven’t always turned to reclaiming public ownership or nationalization.

It’s a broad discussion — whether it’s about supporting the campaign on postal banking, looking at the transportation infrastructure that is on the chopping block under the Trudeau Liberals, whether it’s newer initiatives that we should be looking at. For example, as part of the transition to a green economy, is there a Crown corporation that we could put in place to lead that transition?

I look forward to continuing to have these conversations. I am very proud to come out in support of public ownership. We’ve been playing the rearguard action with respect to fighting privatization but we haven’t always turned to reclaiming public ownership or nationalization. We need to head in that direction, and that’s what challenging a neoliberal agenda, tackling inequality and climate change looks like.

Sid Ryan said that he would leave it until the end of March to decide on whether to enter the leadership race and mentioned to Althia Raj at Huffington Post particular proposals that he’d like to see candidates adopt before deciding. I’m just looking at them now and wondering if you might have as well and given them any thought.

I’ve read the article and I agree with a lot of what Sid Ryan has fought for over the years and what he’s raised in the context of the leadership discussion. I certainly appreciate the perspective he’s put forward — a need to be proud of being a left party. We need to reconnect with our principles and with left and progressive activists that are engaged in these struggles.

I very much share a similar perspective on that front. And I look forward to being in touch with him and with others who feel that way about the future of our party.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you might want to emphasize?

Sure. I do think that one of the things we’ve talked about in our campaign that Ricochet has covered a great deal is the power of social movements. For me — as someone who’s a millennial and someone who is identified as being a democratic socialist and intersectional feminist — engaging with and being inspired by social movements is something that’s very key to our campaign. I recognize that there’s been a resurgence in social movement energy, whether it’s Indigenous struggles, Black Lives Matter, climate action, Fight for $15 or even with what we saw in the Women’s March earlier this year. Only the NDP, when it comes to political parties, can truly connect in a principled and political sense. But I feel that’s something we’ve largely lost touch with, that relationship with social movements. We need to re-engage — working in solidarity with and learning from social movements.

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