NDP leadership

INTERVIEW: Jagmeet Singh on pipelines, seniors and free tuition

NDP leadership contender goes in-depth on the policies he would bring to the party
Photo: By ideas_dept via Flickr

In the final installment of our series of interviews with NDP leadership candidates, Ricochet speaks with Jagmeet Singh. Singh has been an Ontario MPP since 2011 for the riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton, and more recently has served as the deputy leader of the Ontario NDP. Singh grew up in Windsor and graduated from Osgoode Hall law school in 2006, going on to practice as a criminal defence lawyer in Toronto before moving into public life.

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With the deadline to join the party and vote in this leadership contest now passed, campaigns will turn their attention to winning over existing party members as this fall’s vote approaches.

You recently announced a National Public Transit Strategy as part of your Green Economy and Climate Agenda. In the 2016 Liberal budget, the Public Transit Infrastructure Fund provides $3.4 billion over three years to transit systems. How does your plan compare?

I’m proposing, as a leadership candidate, in a leadership race for the NDP, what we need to do to tackle climate change. And as part of our climate change plan, we need to have a national public transit strategy. And that strategy is something that is not just a one-time amount of funding, but a strategy for how we tackle this issue, ensuring that federal dollars are actually spent in a sustainable, ongoing committed way towards building up public transit infrastructure. That’s different from the federal government making a one-time announcement to give some money.

I’ve made a really clear no to Kinder Morgan and Energy East.

In B.C., the ferry system is an integral part of the public transit and gets people to different parts of the island. But more importantly, urban cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver are in a pretty dire situation when it comes to public transit, so we need a serious approach to a sustainable funding model and a strategy around how we can make sure cities’ public transit needs are met and how we can put some federal dollars behind some sort of stable funding to get our cities up to speed.

Some of the debate within the NDP has been between candidates like Niki Ashton and Peter Julian, who say that pipelines like Kinder Morgan and Energy East cannot be built under any circumstances, and those like Charlie Angus and Thomas Mulcair, who say that the issue is with the environmental assessment process. You recently came out against Kinder Morgan and Energy East. So can you clarify if that’s a no under any circumstances or if you’d be willing to entertain new pipelines under certain circumstances, say with a new environmental review process?

I’ve made a really clear no to Kinder Morgan and Energy East. I can give you the reasons for those decisions. I’ve said that with respect to any energy project, it has to satisfy the principles of UNDRIP. An energy project could be a hydroelectric energy project ike Site C or it could be a pipeline. So it brought me to a broad approach to this question. How can we answer this question in a broad way? So one, it has to respect UNDRIP. Two, it has to meet our climate change goals. So if an energy project is proposed that’s going to increase our emissions, then it’s not in line with what we want to do as a nation in terms of reducing our emissions, then it’s also a project that doesn’t satisfy that criteria. And finally, another very important criteria is that energy projects need to result in a benefit to Canada, locally. Local jobs being created, local opportunities being created. So those are three criteria that I’ve used.

With respect to Kinder Morgan, outside of the three criteria, it’s also something that’s going to have a significant and potentially devastating impact on the coastal region. And that’s also something of grave concern.

So will you rule out the construction of new oil and gas pipelines generally or are you open to them?

I’ve put forward three criteria. Those criteria, I think, should guide our decisions with respect to any energy project. So even broader than your question. You’re speaking about pipelines, I’m speaking about any energy project in general. I’m saying that we need to look at three criteria —

I’m sorry to interrupt. But if the pipelines meet that criteria, then they can be built?

I would say that energy projects have to make sure they respect UNDRIP. They have to meet our climate target goals. They have to create local opportunities. I think, in general as a society, we need to move towards sustainable energy and a sustainable economy. And we know that certain technology is finite and not sustainable. And to me it doesn’t make sense for us to make investments in technology that’s not going to be sustainable and create an economy that’s long-lasting.

[My plan] would roughly triple, between triple and quadruple, the amount that seniors would receive.

We know that certain industries, while we’re heavily dependent on them now, aren’t going to be the industries of the future. So it doesn’t make sense for us to make investments in the technology that isn’t going to develop sustainable jobs for Canadians. So that’s another broad principle that I can put forward.

I’ll move off this topic in just a second. But it sounds like, then, you’re not ruling out new oil and gas pipelines.

I can just give you my principles. I can give you my principles. And my principles are that I’m very firmly committed to those three criteria. I’m also committed to make sure that we have a sustainable economy, which means investing in the future and economies of the future, instead of making investment in things that are finite, not sustainable, not long-lasting. So those are my values that would be informing any decisions. I can give you those values.

A major part of your Income Security Agenda is the Canada Seniors Guarantee. For a senior with no other income, the maximum monthly income from Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement is $1,442.62. About what kind of monthly difference would adding the Age Credit and Pension Income Credit make?

Right, and I guess you’ve already included the GIS in that — approximately $1,500 for no-income seniors. What we’re hoping to do with the plan that I’m proposing? It would roughly triple, between triple and quadruple, the amount that seniors would receive.

For a while now there have been concerns that Canadian-made arms could end up or already have ended up contributing to the attack on Yemen or to repression inside Saudi Arabia. These concerns were renewed by a recent video the Globe and Mail released as part of their reporting. Do you oppose the Saudi arms deal?

Yes, I think that we already have a decision-making framework that exists and allows Canada to make a judgement with respect to the human rights track record of a nation. It’s very clear that Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive and human rights-violating regimes in the world. And it’s offensive to me that our prime minister went ahead with a deal that could’ve been stopped based on existing frameworks, existing policies that we have around who we sell arms to. So I am absolutely opposed to it.

So if you had been in Mr. Dion, Ms. Freeland or Mr. Trudeau's place, you would have cancelled the deal?

Yes. And in fact, it’s come out that we were able to. The clause allowed us to [cancel the deal] without breaking any sort of agreement. We had an option, an exit clause. From what I understand, the government was still at the stage where they had the exit clause and chose not to make use of it.

And you think it should be cancelled right now as well?

It shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

And it should be cancelled right now as well?

Well, yes, I’m firmly opposed to it.

The Liberals were elected on a promise to implement UNDRIP, which they have failed to do. There’s been a lot of criticism that Justin Trudeau talked a good game on Indigenous rights during the campaign, but has done little to act on those promises. What specific, concrete steps would your government take to address Indigenous concerns, apart from your position on pipelines?

I think the first and most glaring, most offensive issue that we see right now is that we have a prime minister that is making the express decision to deny Indigenous children equitable funding. And a government and a prime minister that’s making a clear decision to contravene, I think it’s now four, compliance orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. I would immediately comply with the Tribunal and ensure that Indigenous children receive equitable funding. That’s a basic starting point. And it really offends me that Trudeau can talk about reconciliation on one hand and then send lawyers on the other hand to deny Indigenous children equitable funding. That’s such a sham, when it comes to his commitment. It shows how false a commitment it was and continues to be.

It really offends me that Trudeau can talk about reconciliation on one hand and then send lawyers on the other hand to deny Indigenous children equitable funding.

Secondly, the principle around UNDRIP — true implementation of a nation-to-nation relationship. The idea of obtaining consent from a nation before an energy project [can proceed] is really just recognizing that our relationships should be the same [as] we would have with a nation. And that means, at a minimum, that there’s partnership and consent in projects. And that’s a principle we should move forward with. That would be a real step towards reconciliation.

I also think that, as a nation, we have to confront our legacy of genocide. And in that act of confronting it, we have to acknowledge that there was a direct and indirect genocide perpetrated against Indigenous people. And that it’s [because of] that legacy that we must move forward and embrace Indigenous people and understand that we need to work together with Indigenous communities to remedy this grave injustice. And to move forward, we need to make sure that we not only recognize UNDRIP but really understand that we have to build a nation on justice and it requires undoing this grave act of injustice.

In the last leadership debate Charlie Angus challenged Niki Ashton and Peter Julian on their proposal for free university education in Canada, saying effectively that it wasn’t realistic. Do you support increased federal transfers to the provinces contingent on eliminating tuition?

Absolutely. I’ve talked about tearing down the barriers to education. And one of those barriers is tuition. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. I have to acknowledge that it’s going to require negotiations with provinces.

We absolutely can develop a specific financing envelope and an accord with provinces to attain a position where we eliminate tuition fees.

But we absolutely can develop a specific financing envelope and an accord with provinces to attain a position where we eliminate tuition fees. It’s something that’s very attainable and something that we should work towards.

Several candidates have said they would remove interest from student debt, while Ashton has said she would forgive student debt for those who can’t pay it back. What would you do to tackle the student debt crisis in Canada?

I think, as a starting point — when I was the deputy leader of the Ontario NDP, we put forward a policy of forgiving the interest on debt. That’s something that we should immediately do. We have students that are living under crushing debt and that debt is all the more crushing knowing that there’s interest which will make that debt increase.

The additional thing that I think we need to do around looking at debt relief — we also need to acknowledge that even if we eliminate tuition fees or greatly reduce tuition, there’s still significant barriers that students will face in terms of accommodation costs, books, living expenses. And so we need to ensure that there’s access to grants and other funding sources to help students who need help with those costs associated with education as well.

We’re seeing a surge in support internationally for politicians, like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, offering radically progressive visions, while traditional, third-way social democratic parties have been crushed in places like France, Greece, Spain, etc. Do you think it’s important for the NDP’s success that the party turn left and embrace an agenda of radical change to energize people and have turned up in large numbers to support Corbyn, Sanders, and others?

Editors’ note: Singh 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 “B-.” From news editor Gabrielle Brassard-Lecours: “He’s pretty good, but a bit halting and his choice of words seems limited.”

It's very clear that we need to propose a progressive and audacious politics. It's clear, as I said, that now the status quo does not work. We see in our society that the gaps due to inequality are growing, and if we want to combat that, if we want to combat inequality, injustices, we need audacious and progressive politics.

We should also be quite proud to be social democrats, who are all about addressing, fixing, this problem. So yes, I am someone who thinks that we very much need politics inspired by social democratic values. That's what I have proposed, and I will continue to do so.

Charlie Angus accused you of acting like a Liberal. After reflecting on that, how do you respond to that criticism and, also, can you rule out ever joining the Liberals?

Yes, I can rule it out immediately, I will never join the Liberals. That’s not an issue.

And I think it was a — I mean, I was deputy leader of the Ontario NDP. I’ve championed social justice issues. I fought against insurance companies and temporary job agencies. I’m proud to have worked with local activists and community organizations to fight against police discrimination and bring forward a motion to end carding.

The fact that Charlie can say that, it really speaks to his privilege. And I think it’s something that, maybe in the heat of the moment, he didn’t — I can forgive him for not thinking it through. But on all policy accounts, on all social justice values as a social democrat, there’s really no basis for him to have said that. [I think] it was a mistake that he made and in the future he’ll understand that it was a mistake.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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