NDP leadership

INTERVIEW: Charlie Angus on pipelines, free education and Indigenous rights

The folksy former punk rocker explains why he wants to lead the NDP
Photo: Guelph NDP

In the latest installment of our series of interviews with NDP leadership candidates, Ricochet speaks with Charlie Angus. An MP representing northern Ontario, Angus is known as a punk rocker with a folksy style and a commitment to advocating for Indigenous rights in Canada.

With just over two months left to sign up new members and three months until voting begins, the NDP leadership race is starting to heat up. The unexpected success of Jeremy Corbyn and the U.K. Labour Party, especially among young voters, is likely to raise expectations among those looking for reinvigorated left-wing politics in Canada.

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The NDP leadership race hasn't always been at the forefront of the news. Do you expect it'll get more news coverage now now that the Conservative race is over? And maybe capture Canadians' attention more?

What I learned from the Trump election is the danger of a progressive class that thinks it doesn't need to talk to working-class people, that thinks it can speak for them.

My main interest is in talking to our base right now — those many people who don't pay attention to Ottawa politics or Ottawa media people, and who feel they're being written off the political and economic map of our nation. That's where our focus has to be. Certainly, there's going to be more attention on where we're going. But I think there's too much of a love to try and turn these leadership races into, you know, battles and competitions. We're talking policy, we're talking about things that matter to our base. So yeah, I think it'll pick up. There’s going to be a lot of interest to the ground level, and that's where my focus is going to.

In that coverage, what do you want your signature issue to be? Guy Caron has probably made his basic income. I don't know if the other candidates have defined themselves in the same way. If you had to highlight one, two or three important proposals that you want people to focus on and really remember, what would those be?

I think what we need to be talking about as a party is reconnecting with people and speaking plainly and clearly. And listening to that.

What I learned from the Trump election is the danger of a progressive class that thinks it doesn't need to talk to working-class people, that thinks it can speak for them. So the first stage of my campaign was to get out and talk to people. And what I'm seeing is that there are three fundamental issues that are interconnected: economic insecurity and justice, environmental insecurity and justice, and Indigenous injustice. We don't get one without all three.

What I want to do is to look at the practical steps to move towards environmental, economic and Indigenous justice. There is no one solution, there is no one national program that's going to do that. It's going to take a series of regulatory changes, a series of changes to everything from EI provisions, the Competition Act, how Indian Affairs has been set up, to do that.

But it starts with a relationship, a sense of trust. And that's why my campaign says "got your back." People want to know that there's a leader that does have their back, that is going to put their best interests forward and deal with the myriad of regulatory changes and tax code issues that have stacked the deck against the modern working class. And when I say working class, I mean the new working class, both white collar and blue collar, [including] professional workers caught in an endless cycle of temp work.

You've become known as an advocate for First Nations, Inuit and Métis people. I'm wondering if there is a particular achievement in that area that you're most proud of, or that has maybe meant the most to you personally. And if you did win the leadership and the election, are there particular priorities that you would have as prime minister around Indigenous issues?

Well, my greatest pride is the work that I did with the [youth] leader Shannen Koostachin. That started as just a fight to build a school in Attawapiskat, where children were being educated in deplorable conditions, through years of government negligence and indifference. But out of that fight for a school, we launched what became the largest youth-driven movement in Canadian history, the Shannen's Dream campaign, to change the discussion in Ottawa about the injustices faced by Indigenous children.

[Trudeau] has done nothing in terms of moving our economy towards the low-carbon economy of the future.

Working with Shannen and working with that youth team is the thing I'm most proud of in my political life. And out of that, to see children continuing to be denied basic services and children dying almost daily in the regions I represent in northern Canada, from systematic indifference by government, it's got to end. As leader, we will be in compliance with the Human Rights Tribunal. We will ensure that every child gets what they need in terms of education opportunities, health opportunities, mental health support. We will ensure that we will be proactive rather than sitting on the sidelines, losing a generation of children. So that is my first priority.

The other issue is implementing UNDRIP. Working to build a credible relationship with Indigenous communities is going to be a priority for me because I think it's a priority for Canadians.

Moving to environmental issues, the Hill Times identified you as the "most pipeline-friendly candidate" in the race so far. Is that fair? Why build these pipelines?

Well, I think it's sort of more indicative of the dysfunction of the Canadian conversation. We can't seem to talk about environment unless we're talking [about] the flashpoints. Are you for this pipeline or are you against that pipeline? Nobody is having a conversation about the fact that Canada isn't even coming close to meeting our international commitments. And nobody has suggested putting in hard caps to legislate the limits in place. That's my position.

The number one opportunity we have in the world for renewables right now is in central and south Alberta.

Oil is moving. It's moving by tanker train. It comes through my region, we've had spills here. It's moving by pipeline. What we need to be talking about is a credible review process that deals with those issues. But the bigger issue, number one, is legislating hard limits. The industry knows what the limits are. Number two, establishing a national carbon budget council, like they have in the U.K., to identify how we're going to meet our priorities. Number three, establishing a Crown corporation that invests in renewables, that reinvests in public infrastructure, working with the provinces, municipalities and First Nations to make the most of the huge opportunities we have. And number four, I will work with industry — the natural [resources] sector, resource industries — on the efficiencies so we can get there.

In saying that, the number one opportunity we have in the world for renewables right now is in central and south Alberta. And so where the hell is the federal government? Justin Trudeau's approved three pipelines. He's out promoting Keystone XL as the fourth pipeline. He's done nothing in terms of moving our economy towards the low-carbon economy of the future. I believe with energy workers in Alberta on this issue, they're ready to move. The Notley government's ready to move on this. So this is my position. We're going to legislate the hard limits. We're going to start that transition. And we're going to make sure that we don't leave a generation of workers [behind].

But Mr. Angus, at the end of the day, if you become prime minister, will you stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline from being built?

Well, right now, this is a question [where what] Mr. Trudeau needs to explain is how he approved the Kinder Morgan [pipeline] without addressing —

Yes, but —

Can I finish? I didn't get an answer. Can I just finish?

Of course, I just want to make sure that you address the question about if you become prime minister. Go ahead.

Okay. Mr. Trudeau approved the Kinder Morgan pipeline after making a promise to have a proper overhaul of the National Energy Board. That never happened. He promised to deal with the concerns of the B.C. coastline. That didn't happen. So right now with Kinder Morgan, those questions are unanswered. Our caucus took a position about our concern on Kinder Morgan. I haven't changed that position. The issue here is how do we address B.C.'s concern but also how do we deal with the serious need for Canada to work with Alberta on shifting that economy. So I will work as prime minister with a government in B.C. on their concerns about the broken Kinder Morgan process. And I'll also work with the leadership in Alberta [to make] that transition.

I hear you in a way. But I think many people say we need to think about this a little bit more concretely. Just to take the other one, will you stop the Energy East pipeline from being built? I don't quite hear what your answer is.

Well, you didn't ask me on Energy East, but you just did. No, I will not support the movement of Energy East because Mr. Trudeau's approved three pipelines and is about to approve a fourth. As I said, in Canada we only talk about the flashpoints. We don't talk about the carbon future. Nobody expects us to meet our Paris Accord commitment. So if Mr. Trudeau's going to approve three pipelines and a fourth, then we're certainly going to blow well past our Paris obligations.

I will be establishing a national carbon council to say that all future projects are going to be reviewed [in terms of] how do we meet those legislative limits. And if we have legislative limits, huge mega projects that are not [compatible with] that are not going to happen. But at this point, I can't see why I would support an Energy East proposal through a broken National Energy Board plan that has not had the support of Indigenous people, that will add to our carbon footprint when there's no commitment on meeting the greenhouse gas targets.

I'll move off this subject in just a moment. I appreciate you giving your thoughts. But just to clarify though, I don't hear you saying categorically that you will stop the Energy East pipeline from being built.

You should review the tape.

Why not prioritize green energy projects right now? And definitively rule out the construction and —

You should rewind the tape. I just said: if we are going to have a serious plan [then] we're not just going to have flashpoints, because it's something that the pro and the con side only talk about. Nobody's talking about how we're going to meet the green energy future. I've been, out of the candidates, the only one that's been in Alberta meeting with energy workers to talk about their plans. So I can reiterate: number one, we legislate hard caps. So if we legislate hard caps, there's a limit that we have to beat, and we can't exceed that.

We need to re-establish our credibility on the world stage.

To do that then we need a national carbon council that'll actually have the mandate to see where the issues are and to recommend where the investments need to go. And the third point is to create a Crown energy corporation. And the reason I'm promoting a Crown energy corporation is we've seen the debacle in Ontario with green energy. They gave a whole bunch of privatized contracts that jacked up the price of hydro, so that they're dumping hydro now at a loss into the United States. And they came under WTO provision so we didn't even get a benefit from [producing it].

So we establish that Crown energy corporation to work with the provinces, municipalities and First Nations communities on public infrastructure. That's how we get to green. And as I said, Justin Trudeau has not put [forward] any commitments on this. And the number one area for development that we can have on green energy is in the province of Alberta. So this is why I'm laying out a very clear plan of how we get there.

Thank you for your thoughts. I'd like to move from these environmental issues to a related development, energy and foreign affairs issue, specifically, Canadian mining companies involved in Latin America and Africa. There are a variety of concerns about the transparency and conduct of many of these companies, and the role of the Global Affairs Canada in partnering with them. If you become prime minister, can you commit to reviewing Canada's relationship with mining firms?

We will certainly be establishing a priority for development, right now in the developing world, that is focused on positive development, not just giving Canadian companies access to resources. That has to be a fundamental pillar of an international policy. That international policy's also going to require that Canada really steps up in the world of diplomatic efforts.

We need to re-establish our credibility on the world stage, not merely [play] the “me too, me too” game, following the Americans, but establishing a presence as a positive, proactive partner working with the United Nations to try and diminish zones of conflict. So I want a complete overhaul of our foreign policy that is going to be in line with Canadian values, and development projects focused on ensuring that when we're making investments in poverty-stricken regions, that we're doing it for the benefit of global stability and not to support Canadian mining or petrochemical companies. They can do their own work in the Third World.

What about the creation of a mining ombudsman office? That's been floated by the Liberals.

I want to see what that would look like. Certainly, we need to ensure that if Canadian mining companies are working internationally, that they are working to a standard. And there are some horror stories. Those horror stories need to be investigated. There needs to be an international standard for any kind of development, because otherwise this race to the bottom will continue. So these are certainly things that — I haven't taken a position on an ombudsman per se, because I haven't had a chance to look at it and I don't believe in making promises I haven't really had a chance to have a look at. But the issue of Canada's role on the international stage is something I'm very concerned about. And I want us to re-tool where we're at because I think, especially in an age of incredible uncertainty and instability, the voice of Canada needs to be there as a positive player.

Turning to foreign affairs, I'd like to ask you, what's your understanding of the purpose for our mission in Latvia and how it's going? And do you agree that we should be there, specifically doing what we're doing?

Editors’ note: Angus 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 “C.” From news editor Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours: “His French is passable, but halting. I’d say he’s the worst we’ve heard so far, compared to Julian, Ashton and Caron.”

On the question of Latvia, I respect the idea of working with our allies, but, for me, it should be under the mandate of the United Nations. I am worried by the actions in Europe now that I hear about. Canada's role in Ukraine or Latvia should be to concentrate on reinforcing democratic movements and I am concerned by Mr. Trudeau's plan to launch these military actions.

How would you address economic inequality in Canadian society and how will you pay for those measures?

We see the middle class disappearing under this government — under this government, the previous government, the previous Liberal governments. So we need to take a number of steps because the middle class has become the new working class, which is white collar and blue collar. Number one, I'm going to have a jobs code. We invest in and give billions of dollars to corporations. If they want to get money from the federal government, they're going to invest in Canadian jobs.

I'd love to promise everybody free tuition. I'd love to promise everybody free subways too. And free housing. But there has to be a financial plan in place.

We're going to deal with the federal public sector right now, where more than 40,000 workers are being treated as temporary, precarious. We're going to start to establish codes on these issues. We're going to look at the issue of the tax policies, because the lower working class is paying way more than their fair share and the upper class is not paying theirs. So we'll come up with a number of those solutions.

In your Huffington Post article on universal pharmacare, for instance, you mention that a small change to the tax code would be enough to finance it. What particular change are you thinking of?

Well, companies will save $10 billion a year under pharmacare.

Yes, but what change to the tax code in particular do you think is suitable to achieve that?

If companies are getting $10 billion worth of savings and it's costing the federal government a billion dollars in investment — that's not my numbers, it comes from the Pharmacare 2020 report, which I think is a pretty good report — we can tweak the tax code to make sure that that money is reimbursed in savings that companies are making.

And how would you compare your student debt policy with that of the other candidates? I know that Niki Ashton has pointed out the need for a strategy focusing on people who are most in need.

Well, what I've heard from Niki and Peter [Julian] is free tuition, which I think is a great idea. My question is how do we get there? And who pays for it? The majority of these issues are under provincial jurisdiction, so we're going to have to start to negotiate with the provinces. What I would do is [on] the federal charging of interest on student debt. That has a crippling effect. The feds are making profit off the need for students to get an education. We can deal with that now.

I'd love to promise everybody free tuition. I'd love to promise everybody free subways too. And free housing. But there has to be a financial plan in place. And that's going to include serious negotiations with the provinces and territories. So we'll start to deal with that. But I think we start right off the top dealing with interest on student debt.

So for existing student debt, that would be the sole focus for now, the elimination of interest?

Well, it's a tool we have. If I get in, if we form government, we're going to have to look at the tools we have at our disposal to move quickly to address issues. We can spend years in jurisdictional battles and maybe those issues are where we're going to go. But under federal jurisdiction we can do large block transfer payments to the provinces for student costs. But I'd like to see that costed out, my colleagues haven't presented that plan. So I'd like to see that before I comment on it; otherwise, I'm not quite sure where we're getting the money.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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