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Jagmeet Singh is the self-styled candidate of connections and emotion

26 July 2017 - 8:56am
Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Jagmeet Singh certainly knows how to attract attention to himself.

He entered the NDP leadership race late, months after the four other candidates, yet there is polling and anecdotal evidence that he already has higher, and more positive, name recognition than any of the others. One gesture, in particular, gained Singh a pile of favourable coverage: a one-minute video in which he explains what motivated him to learn French early in life.

In that video, he compares his own Punjabi people to the Québecois, speaking in fluent French. He tells how listening to singer Roch Voisine, who was especially popular in the late 1980s and 1990s, helped him learn the French language. He does this little riff while tying his turban; and winks at the too-cool-for-school folks in his audience by admitting that Voisine's music might sound "kétaine" (corny) today.

This writer has spoken to people who have scant interest in the NDP or its leadership race, but who know all about the video. They are impressed with Singh's flair and audacity, and the way he turns what might be concerns in Quebec about his turban on their head, no pun intended.

Elected in difficult territory for the NDP

So far, Jagmeet Singh seems to have led a charmed political life, although he has not chosen an easy route. He made his first try for political office, as a federal NDP candidate, in 2011, in a riding in the suburban Toronto Peel region, not usually fertile ground for New Democrats.

Like other New Democratic politicians, Singh found his way to politics through activism. As a law student he worked for refugees and immigrants, and did know-your-rights seminars. Once he began practicing law, he continued the same work. In 2011, youth groups, mostly in the Sikh community, convinced him to run federally, in an area where, as he puts it "the party had never won any election at any level of government …" He came agonizingly close, losing to the Conservative candidate by only 539 votes.

A few months later, Singh ran for the NDP in the same riding provincially and won. He quickly became a prominent and active member of the legislature. Ontario NDP leader Andrea Horwath named him justice critic and, later, her deputy leader. He was having a successful provincial career, so why run for the federal leadership?

His answer is based, without false modesty, on an evaluation of his own talents and appeal and, in particular, his communication ability. As an acknowledged rising star in the party, Singh has travelled around the country on behalf of the NDP. During those travels, he says, he has met many people who seem to share NDP values -- on inequality and social justice, for instance -- but do not vote NDP.

"I realized," he says, "that I am in a unique position. I am a bit disruptive. I represent a suburban riding, but I am known for being an urban person who cycles in a suit. I have stood up on discrimination and policing. Stood up to insurance companies, stood up for precarious workers. I did a lot of bold work, and I had built a great relationship with a whole lot of different communities. I won an award from the coalition of Black trade unionists for my work on carding. I have a great relationship with many communities, from the Muslim to the Black to urban hipsters. I think I am in a unique position to appeal to people who share our values, but don't necessarily feel at home in our party."

Four policy pillars

On the policy front, other candidates have accused Singh of being vague, but he is quickly putting meat on the bones of his proposals. The four pillars of his campaign, he says, are: inequality, electoral reform, Indigenous reconciliation and climate change. When this writer pushed Singh to choose one of those as his highest priority, he answered, "It would have to be inequality."

To address growing inequality in Canada, the young Ontario politician says he has an "income security and tax fairness agenda." On income security, he proposes a targeted guaranteed annual incomes for seniors, for low-wage working Canadians and for Canadians living with disabilities. These targeted income guarantees, Singh explains, "would immediately lift those three groups out of poverty." He would pay for these measures with tax reforms, which would "ask those who can afford it" to pay more -- or, as he puts it, "to invest a bit more in our beautiful country."

Jagmeet Singh argues that his idea is better than Guy Caron's universal guaranteed annual income because it would be means tested, focused exclusively on "those who need it the most." In addition, he adds, his plan is fully costed.

"Guy Caron's idea is great and noble," Singh says, "but it is not clear to me if it is fully costed and practically achievable. As well, it is not clear if it is targeted toward those most in need."

Of all the candidates, Singh portrays himself as being the most able to counter the ineffable Trudeau factor. In addition to being youthful and a global celebrity, Trudeau has wrapped himself in the banner of boosting the middle class through economic growth. Does Singh have a message for that middle-class cohort, however one might define it, which is primarily concerned with the state of and prospects for the economy?

The candidate counters, first, by pooh-poohing the obsessive political preoccupation with the "amorphous middle class."

He then brings up the disruptive impact of technology. Singh makes the point, at first, that he is excited about technological disruption; but then corrects himself to explain that he is, in fact,  "concerned." He raises the example of driverless vehicles, which, he says, will have a big impact on the transportation sector, and offers that "as a country we need to make the investment in training so that our workforce can transition into good jobs."

"That is something I will be looking at," he says, and then, on a personal note, adds: "I have a lot of friends in the tech and creative sectors and I will seek their advice as to how we can train people to transition to the new, good jobs that will be created by technological change."

Split in the party over a pipeline and reflections on 2015

Like most other NDP leadership candidates, Singh is unequivocally opposed to Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline proposal, a project Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley enthusiastically supports (as does Prime Minister Trudeau).

When asked about his position, Singh's first response is to praise Notley's great work on climate change. He then adds that he took his time before declaring himself on the Kinder Morgan project because he is respectful of the Alberta government's need to protect existing jobs and create new jobs in its province.

"It wasn't an easy decision for me," he says, "but in the end I had a number of key concerns, including the need for any project to have the full consent of Indigenous people. I also believe an energy project has to be in line with our climate change targets, and should create sufficient benefits or local jobs. Those were some of the factors I took into account in deciding to oppose Trans Mountain."

As to the fact that the proposed pipeline has created a major rift in his party, Singh argues that it is just one issue.

"There are so many issues on which we align, " he argues. "At a time when, with the dropping price of oil, Conservatives were talking about cutting health and education, Rachel Notley implemented plans to freeze tuition fees, and put in policies around workers' rights and minimum wage. Plus, Notley's climate change plan is one of the strongest in the entire country."

Finally, what does Singh believe went wrong in the last federal campaign, in 2015?

"We actually had some great ideas," he replies. "Pharmacare, daycare. But we did not connect with people emotionally. People, in their heart, did not feel that the New Democrats were the true progressive party. They thought the Liberals were. It may not have been rational or based on facts; it was about connection and emotion. That is what I will be working on. Developing connections."

So far, for a politician who has zoomed quickly into the national spotlight, Jagmeet Singh has done remarkably well at the job of connecting.

This article is part of a series profiling candidates in the 2017 NDP leadership race. Read the full series here.

Photo: ideas_dept/flickr

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

44,000 permanent residency applications from live-in caregivers have yet to be processed

25 July 2017 - 9:49am
July 25, 2017Advocates criticize Liberal government for keeping caregivers apart from their familiesAdvocates point out that the federal government's recent changes to the Temporary Foreign Workers Program were skewed to the interests of employers.

Changing from fossil fuels to emission-free fuels is not enough to save us.

23 July 2017 - 8:29pm
July 23, 2017Divestment is shifting the geopolitics of fossil fuelsFinancing a country mainly through one industry has several problems, including economic instability. Divestors challenge the petrostate's financial and political power.

B.C. unions are hopeful for increases to minimum wage and improved workers' rights with Horgan's government

21 July 2017 - 8:46am
July 21, 2017Unions say minimum wage and workers' rights should be NDP Premier Horgan's priorityBritish Columbia's unions are hopeful for increases to minimum wage and improved workers' rights with John Horgan's NDP-Green coalition government.

Unions say minimum wage and workers' rights should be NDP Premier Horgan's priority

20 July 2017 - 3:01pm
Meagan Gillmore

British Columbia's unions are hopeful for increases to minimum wage and improved workers' rights with John Horgan's NDP-Green coalition government.

Horgan and his cabinet were sworn in on Tuesday.

Irene Lanzinger, president of the B.C. Federation of Labour, said she hopes this new government will raise minimum wage to $15 an hour by sometime in 2019, a timeline consistent with announced changes in Alberta and Ontario. Alberta's minimum wage is set to increase to $15 an hour in October 2018. Ontario is considering legislation that would see that same wage become effective in January 2019.

The NDP and the Green Party both support the increased minimum wage, she said.

Lanzinger called the increases a way to "immediately" improve the lives of the working poor. The province also needs to follow suit with nearby jurisdictions like Alberta and Seattle, where the minimum wage is already $15. It isn't fair that British Columbians have a lower minimum wage when their cost of living is so high, she said.

But it can't stop there, she said. Eventually, the minimum wage should be the same as the living wage. How that happens is a "completely appropriate and a good discussion to have," Lanzinger said. She said the federation is looking forward to working with the Fair Wages Commission, which will study the issue.

The provincial Green party had named the establishment of such a commission as an election promise.

But Lanzinger also wants the government to tackle concerns that are "less on the public radar," like changing the labour code to make it easier for people to join unions, calling unions the "key to reducing the gap between rich and poor."

Lanzinger would also like to see stiffer penalties, including criminal charges and jail time, for employers whose negligence causes the injury or death of workers. Drivers face prison time when their negligence causes injury or death, she said. It should be the same for employers.

The new cabinet includes many ministers with past labour experience. Judy Darcy, former president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), was named to the newly created ministry of mental health and addictions. George Heyman, former president of the B.C. Government and Services Employees' Union (BCGEU) was named minister of environment and climate change strategy. Minister of Citizens' Services Jinny Sims was previously president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF).

While Lanzinger says the "deep knowledge" about labour these ministers will bring is helpful, it's not necessary for advancing the rights of workers. It's more important that government officials recognize the importance of unions, she said.

A former teacher, Lanzinger said she was pleased to see Rob Fleming appointed minister of education. Fleming was previously the education critic.

Glen Hansman, president of the BCTF, echoed Lanzinger's approval. Fleming "doesn't need to come up to speed" about the issues facing the education system, said Hansman.

The first priority needs to be making sure the B.C. government implements last November's Supreme Court of Canada decision. The country's highest court ruled against a 2002 law that removed language about class size and composition from teachers' collective bargaining agreements, and forbade teachers from negotiating about those issues in the future. As part of the settlement, the government was supposed to provide money for districts to hire more teachers.

But that hasn't happened, said Hansman. Many districts were "scrambling" in June when they learned they weren't going to receive the money they had expected, he said. This includes large districts, like the Vancouver District School Board, that Hansman said didn't find out about what they weren't getting until the second-last week of school. This has thrown school organization into "disarray."

Districts need that staff immediately, said Lanzinger.

"It is not optional," she said. "It must be implemented and it must be implemented quickly. Frankly, that's the best thing for kids in the province. And it's also the law."

Hansman also said he hopes the new government will have a less "adversarial" relationship with unions. The Liberals were known to "use the legislative hammer" to get things done, he said, calling their relationship with labour a "dark cloud" hanging over the province. He said he hopes this changes -- especially as teachers' collective bargaining agreement expires in 2019. Preparations for negotiations will begin soon, he said.

Hansman wasn't the only union leader calling on the government to take action on education.

Paul Faoro, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) BC said in a release he is looking forward to working with Minister Fleming to "restore" the system after 16 years of what Faoro called "cuts and neglect." 

Stephanie Smith, president of the BCGEU, said in a release the union is hopeful to work with a new government "forged in a spirit of cooperation." The release singles out the need for the ministry of education to provide better services in time for the next school year.

The government also needs to re-evaluate long-term educational goals, said Hansman. The government has spent years changing the curriculum. The federation supports many of those changes, he said. But other changes, like those to assessment and reporting, has caused a lot of stress for teachers.

Teachers are "faced with a lot of changes all at once without the resources in place in schools to make them successful," he said. "It's a lot of scrambling."

The last government seemed to make decisions at "random," he said. It spent millions of dollars implementing electronic databases for student information, without always explaining the purpose for this, how information will be used or how long it will be stored, or giving teachers adequate training about privacy.

Hansman said he hopes to meet with Education Minister Fleming soon to discuss priorities.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: BC Gov Photos/flickr

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You don't stock up on fighter jets and warships if your focus is peacekeeping

20 July 2017 - 9:27am
July 20, 2017Trudeau dodges 'poodle' label after caving in to Trump on arms build-upThe Trudeau government's pledge to hike military spending by a whopping 70 per cent over 10 years succeeded in winning praise from Trump while going largely unnoticed by Canadians.

WATCH: How Trump's travel ban is affecting Muslims living in Canada

19 July 2017 - 3:31pm
YouTubeMelek OrtabasiAnti-RacismCivil Liberties WatchUS PoliticsJuly 19, 2017Best-of-the-net

The recent travel ban by the president of United States has far-reaching effects on the Muslim community living outside the six banned nations. The Ban is a short documentary that sheds light on how Muslim individuals are affected by the travel ban living in Canada, specially in Vancouver.

Many have deemed this travel ban as xenophobic as it encourages discrimination against Muslims and promotes Islamophobia. The Ban, facilitated by Dr. Melek Ortabasi (SFU), interviews individuals who were affected by the ban. This video documentary gives them the platform for their stories to be heard. The Ban also includes prominent figures such as Vancouver-based author and social activist Harsha Walia and Joy Kogawa, Canadian author and member of the Order of Canada. Joy underwent extreme racial discrimination during the Japanese internment in 1941.

The purpose of this video is to raise awareness and promote inclusivity of Muslim community in Canada. The take-away message from this video is, as Joy Kogawa states near the end of video, "don't let this happen again," drawing a sharp comparison to the pitfalls of our modern history. This documentary calls for public attention to the ban and helps demonstrate how such a ruling negatively affects innocent Muslims living across the world.

travel banislamophobiaMuslim communitytrump administration The Ban

Billions wasted and jobs lost as Ontario's Green Energy Strategy continues to fail

19 July 2017 - 3:12pm
Nora Loreto

On December 2, 2010, the Ontario government promised that a new wind turbine plant in Tillsonburg would deliver 900 jobs to the southwestern Ontario region. The government release said that the plant was part of a $7-billion investment made by Samsung to invest in clean energy. Siemens would build the plant.

Half a year later, and right before the 2011 election, then premier Dalton McGuinty toured the plant. In a release announcing his visit, the government said, "The Tillsonburg plant is one of four under Ontario's revised, enhanced agreement with Samsung that will provide 16,000 clean energy jobs across Ontario."

Part of the Samsung deal was that Siemens would supply 140 wind turbines for $850 million. That contract was signed in 2014.

Six years later, Siemens has announced that the plant is closing, and 340 workers are out of a job. More than 200 of those workers immediately received a termination notice. The remaining workers will be phased out between now and 2018.

The region already faces a combined loss of 1,000 jobs at the CAMI autoparts plant in Ingersoll and Maple Leaf Foods in Thamesford.

This is just another thread in a twisting saga of Liberal mismanagement and so-called clean energy promises.

Last September, Energy Minister Glenn Thibeault announced that the government would cancel several long-term energy contracts signed in 2013, to try and reduce cost to individual energy bills. This would save up to $3.8 billion, he argued.

The 20-year to 40-year contracts were intended to sweeten the deal for private companies who would participate in boosting Ontario's new green energy capacity. Rather than publicly build these facilities, private companies were promised stable profits, but would be expected to assume extra costs. The Globe and Mail explained it like this: "The private sector would be responsible for cost overruns and other construction problems in exchange for 20-year contracts from the province. The contracts essentially guaranteed that the companies would receive a certain amount of revenue -- no matter how much electricity their plants produced (though they would be paid more if the province used their electricity)."

The Samsung consortium deal, called "lucrative" in the same Globe and Mail article by the reporters, was sole-sourced. These 20-year contracts, handed out under the Ontario Green Energy Act, ended up pushing the extra costs onto customers. By 2014, Ontario's capacity to generate electricity was much higher than average usage. As demand fell, in part due to reductions within the manufacturing industry and household conservation mechanisms, Ontario was still paying for this over-supply, thanks to these 20-year contracts.

Part of the Green Energy Act removed most projects built under the act from being subject to processes defined by the Planning Act and, ironically, the Environmental Assessment Act.

By 2016, almost 60 per cent of Ontario's energy came from nuclear. Wind power made up 5.1 per cent.

Samsung and Siemens announced the partnership in 2010, and named Siemens as the company to make the wind turbines. The announcement of this partnership boasted that Ontario's feed-in tariff program pays "the highest rates for green energy producers in North America." Indeed, for some of the contracts, promised rates were as high as 40 times more what one would pay for fair-market value.

Siemans and Samsung have seemingly benefitted handsomely from these contracts, even though the promise of more renewable energy in wind, more jobs and fewer costs have all turned out to be lies.

In 2012, Brad Duguid congratulated Siemans for having existed in Ontario for 100 years: "Siemens is taking advantage of Ontario's modernized business climate to grow. Growth of anchor companies, such as Siemens, creates new opportunities for us to work together, and more importantly, new jobs for Ontarians."

Siemens employs 4,800 people in Canada and made $3.0 billion in sales in 2015. In 2016, Mediacorp named it one of Canada's top 100 employers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Samsung Renewable Energy has been a donor to all three political parties, particularly during 2014, the year of the last Ontario election.

Between 2014 and 2016, Samsung Renewable Energy Inc. donated almost $86,000 to the Liberals, the NDP and the Conservatives combined. They donated almost $17,000 to the NDP, $11,000 to the Progressive Conservatives and almost $58,000 to the Liberals, the party that gave them the sole-sourced contract in the first place.

This disaster has provided cover for the Ontario Liberals to justify privatizing Ontario hydro.

On August 9, 2016, Samsung Renewable Energy's one-third stake in the wind power plant also in south-western Ontario, in Goderich was acquired by Axium Infrastructure, Alberta Teachers' Retirement Fund Board and Manulife Financial Corporation.

Photo: Premier of Ontario Photography/flickr

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Trudeau dodges 'poodle' label after caving in to Trump on arms build-up

19 July 2017 - 2:39pm
Civil Liberties WatchPolitics in Canada

Once a poodle, always a poodle, as Tony Blair learned.

Even after The Economist magazine ran an article headlined "Tony Blair is not a poodle," the British prime minister was unable to shake the slur of being George W. Bush's loyal lapdog for supporting his invasion of Iraq.

So there must be a huge sigh of relief inside our own Prime Minister's Office these days, now that fears Justin Trudeau could end up similarly branded a poodle -- with the leash held by the current U.S. president -- seem to have passed.

Certainly, the Trudeau government's announcement last month that it would dramatically increase Canada's military spending -- as Donald Trump has loudly demanded -- was risky, given the distaste Canadians have for big military budgets and for prime ministers who cave in to U.S. presidents.

But the Trudeau government's pledge to hike military spending by a whopping 70 per cent over 10 years succeeded in winning praise from Trump while going largely unnoticed by Canadians. Sweet.

That might be because Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland had just delivered a theatrical speech to Parliament that proclaimed Canada's determination to find its own way in the world, now that Trump had decided to "shrug off the burden of world leadership."

It sounded feisty and bold, with a touch of swagger, a willingness to defy the Man. No poodle here, she trumpeted.

If Freeland's defiant tone irked Trump as he contemplated his pre-dawn tweets the next morning, he was soothed hours later by the welcome news that Canada would increase its military spending by $30 billion, with 88 new fighter jets and 15 new warships! Wow! For the unmilitaristic Canadians to spend like that on their military is no nothing-burger!

Meanwhile, all was quiet on the Canadian front where the media, still high on Freeland's soaring oratory, was awash in stories about the Trudeau government's determination to "set its own course" and "step up to lead on the world stage." Its keenness to please Donald Trump mostly got lost in the hoopla.

The military spending hike, although introduced without much controversy, is in fact a major development with devastating consequences, imposing a massive new $30-billion burden on Canadian taxpayers over the next decade and relegating pressing social needs to the back burner.

It's also a significant departure for Trudeau, who made no campaign promise to increase Canada's military spending which, at $19 billion a year, is already the 16th largest in the world.

On the contrary, Trudeau campaigned on reviving Canada's role in UN peacekeeping. But you don't stock up on fighter jets and warships if your focus is peacekeeping.

This military spending boost is dramatically bigger than what Stephen Harper had planned. Harper was continually stymied in his controversial plan to spend $9 billion on 65 fighter jets. Yet now the Trudeau team, which likes to present a feminist face to the world, has blithely announced its intention to more than double that, spending $19 billion on 88 jets. 

All this will put Canada fully back in war-fighting mode, so that we can fit seamlessly into whatever military ventures Trump might want to entangle us in. 

And make no mistake about it, that's what we're gearing up for. The new military plan, titled "Strong, Secure, Engaged," makes 23 references to Canada's "interoperability" with U.S. and allied military forces, notes Peggy Mason, president of the Rideau Institute, the only Canadian think-tank dealing with military issues that is not heavily funded by the arms industry.

Mason, a former Canadian ambassador to the UN on disarmament, says that, despite talk about Trump's isolationism, the Trump administration is not retreating from foreign military engagements; on the contrary, it is expanding its troops in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Trump has railed against America's allies for not spending enough on their militaries, leaving the U.S. bearing too much of the financial burden of defending the "free world."

Of course, a more sensible solution would be for Washington to cut its gargantuan $600-billion "defence" budget, which accounts for 36 per cent of global military spending -- almost three times more than China, the next biggest spender, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Certainly, the extra $30 billion in military spending Trudeau has just promised seems wildly out of whack with the priorities of Canadians.

My guess is that, given a choice between spending that money on fighter jets or on social programs, most Canadians would favour social programs.

But then, they're not holding the leash.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author. Her book Shooting the Hippo: Death by Deficit and Other Canadian Myths was among the books selected by the Literary Review of Canada as the "25 most influential Canadian books of the past 25 years." A version of this column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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military spendingdefence spendingTrudeau governmentChrystia FreelandCanada-U.S. relationsDonald TrumpCanadian militarismLinda McQuaigJuly 19, 2017Breaking tradition championed by his father, Trudeau boycotts key UN disarmament initiativeWhile the Trudeau team is very worked up about chemical weapons, they seem strangely unconcerned about nuclear ones, snubbing important new UN negotiations aimed at nuclear disarmament.Liberals' massive increase in defence spending is a budgetary coupWith its giant boost to military spending, the Trudeau government is gearing up for more Western adventurism, using NATO to prop up a failing finance capitalism by military threats.As NATO war-mongering against Russia intensifies, Canada faces a difficult choiceNATO is requesting that Canada join a 4,000-troop contingent that would form a permanent NATO presence in countries bordering Russia. Will Prime Minister Trudeau make the courageous choice and say no?

MP Niki Ashton is the candidate of youth and of the left

19 July 2017 - 9:11am
July 19, 2017Niki Ashton is a veteran MP -- and also the youth candidateNDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton describes herself as an "intersectional feminist" and as the candidate of youth and of the left.

Niki Ashton is a veteran MP -- and also the youth candidate

19 July 2017 - 9:05am
Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

For Niki Ashton, politics is, in many respects, her family's business. Her father, Steve Ashton, has been an NDP member of the Manitoba Legislature since 1981, and held numerous senior cabinet positions in the Doer and Selinger NDP governments.

"My dad got elected off the picket line in 1981," she recounts, but hastens to add that her mom, Hariklia Dimitrakopoulou, is also a political person: "She was a feminist activist involved with the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and did school board politics, as well."

Ashton comes from northern Manitoba, which for a long time has been good territory for the NDP and its predecessor party, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).  In the first postwar election, in 1945, Roland Moore won it for the CCF. Later, in 1979, Rod Murphy won and then held the riding through four elections for the NDP. In the 2000s, Bev Desjarlais was the NDP MP, and it was her opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage that prodded Niki Ashton into running for federal office at the age of 23.

"We tried to get her to change her position but that didn't work," Aston relates. "She was not only taking a stand against party policy, but was falsely portraying this part of the country, with its large First Nations and blue-collar population, as being against human and LGBTQ rights."

Party activists recruited Ashton to run for the nomination against Desjarlais in 2006. Ashton carried the NDP colours in that election, but Desjarlais ran as an independent, and the Liberals won the seat. Ashton tried again in 2008, and has held the seat ever since.

An intersectional feminist

Entering politics not merely to get into the family business, but to show that traditional working-class issues can be consistent with advocacy for equity-seeking groups, is typical of Ashton. She describes herself as an "intersectional feminist," and does not worry what the voters of Thompson, The Pas, Cross Lake or Flin Flon might think.

In fact, Ashton tries to portray herself, quite deliberately, as the candidate of youth and of the left.

"What we need," she says, "are bold progressive policies that tackle the challenges of our time, which are growing inequality and catastrophic climate change." And she then adds: "Incremental change is not going to cut it. We will move forward only through bold, progressive politics."

When it comes to policy, her ideas are not necessarily as radical as her rhetoric. For instance, she proposes a jobs program to help the millennial generation get away from the precarious work trap. Ashton has devoted considerable energy to the rise of the gig economy and what to do about it, but her jobs plan offers few tangible details.

Another of her policy proposals that might scare more pragmatic and moderate NDPers, is an inheritance tax. In principle, taxing inherited wealth should be a no-brainer for a social democratic party. However, whenever the NDP has flirted with the idea it has run up against the conundrum that imposing a levy on inheritances would entail taxing family homes when they are passed from one generation to the next.

Even a whisper of such a notion, especially in many big city ridings where homes have inflated cash values, can cost New Democratic MPs their seats. Voters do not like the idea of being forced to sell the family homes in order to pay tax, and do not appreciate the idea of being taxed on the only significant asset many families have.

Ashton also talks about ending privatizations, and goes further when she says she wants to revive the neglected instrument of public ownership. Here, again, the rhetoric might be bolder than the actual policy prescriptions.

Ashton does not propose anything like what Clement Attlee's British Labour Party did when it took power immediately following the Second World War. They nationalized the steel, coal, electricity, gas, civil aviation and rail transport industries -- a fifth of the British economy.

Niki Ashton proposes nationalizing the tiny, seasonal port of Churchill on Hudson's Bay, mandating Canada Post to set up a postal bank of the sort they have in many countries (a suggestion the postal unions have been pushing), establishing a Crown corporation to direct federal investment in the green transition, and studying the idea of starting a public company to produce and distribute generic drugs, "in the context of pharmacare."

They are all creative and probably quite useful ideas, but taken together they do not constitute a radical socialist program. Perhaps Ashton's boldest idea is free tuition for post-secondary education. Of course, there many studies that show that universal, and not means-tested, free tuition would mostly benefit more affluent families. That does not deter Ashton, any more than it did Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. It certainly helped the latter two motivate the youth vote.

Inspired by Indigenous courage

The still-young northern Manitoba MP emphasizes that much of her inspiration comes from witnessing the courage and resilience of Indigenous peoples. Her riding has a great many First Nations communities, and she has invested considerable time and effort working with Indigenous Canadians. Today, Ashton argues that the current Liberal government is hypocritical in its rhetorical commitment to justice for Indigenous groups.  She points to pipelines and other resource projects, where the Trudeau government, she argues, has too often put corporate interests, and the pursuit of trade at any cost, against the wishes and needs of Indigenous communities.

"I represent many communities that have third-world living conditions," she says, "and where people are doing incredible work to pull together what resources they have to make a difference in these communities, and the federal government is nowhere to be found."

As for an overall strategy for the next election, Ashton starts out by arguing that in 2015 the NDP allowed the Liberals to "out-left" them. New Democrats, famously, promised to balance the federal budget, while Trudeau's Liberals pledged that, if elected, they would make big investments in infrastructure, the deficit be damned.

But there was more to the Liberals' success than the deficit issue alone, Ashton says.

"Trudeau did not get elected just because he has nice hair and nice clothes," she points out. "He actually put forward a progressive vision that inspired many Canadians, including a great many young Canadians."

Next time, she says, New Democrats must take note, and come up with a real progressive vision that can inspire Canadians, especially, she adds, as we have watched Trudeau break so many of his promises. On that front, Ashton points to pipelines, electoral reform and, especially, the Liberal promise to grow the middle class, which, she says, is actually shrinking rather than growing.

For Ashton, the most important political fact of life now is this: when the next election rolls around, the biggest voting bloc will be the millennial generation, at 37 per cent, not baby boomers, at 32 per cent. Millennials, she says, are not lured by the idea that unfettered markets and private initiative can solve everything. They are looking for a politics in Canada that echoes that of Bernie Sanders in the U.S., Jeremy Corbyn in the U.K. and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France.

Those three men all appealed to young voters, without being young themselves. In Canada, Ashton hopes a candidate who is herself part of the millennial generation can become the authentic progressive voice.

This article is part of a series profiling candidates in the 2017 NDP leadership race. Read the full series here.

Photo: Matt Jiggins/flickr

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Street Farm serves up food for the soul

18 July 2017 - 2:26pm
Arts & CultureEnvironmentFood & Health

The lazy days of summer bring on the urge to lounge in the warm shade of a tree, and, perhaps if you're lucky enough, to read alongside the trickle of a creek or the lapping waters of a lake.

Writing this column has prompted me to think about agriculture, food and rural-urban connections. So it makes sense that my summer reading is on these issues as well.

This column has also made me wonder  about the "food movement," and just how true and meaningful it is. In the course of researching agriculture issues, I have come across new movements, new ways of growing food, and social and community connections made through engaging in agriculture. Writing this column also had me searching for groups that can coalesce around agriculture and food -- and made me wonder if the growing interest in organic food, locally grown food, and even celebrity chefs is really enough to ensure that we maintain a solid agriculture base in this country. Will all this new interest in "clean" food actually empower the Canadian family farm?

So this summer, I am taking some time to read -- feed my soul, if you like.

And one of the books that has been on my list, and well worth spending some time with is Michael Ableman's Street Farm: Growing Food, Jobs, and Hope in the Urban Frontier.

This book is definitely an out-of-the-box way of thinking about agriculture and farming -- who gains, who loses, and how growing food can grow urban community.

Street Farm is the story of Sole Food Street Farms and how the creation of an urban farm eventually developed into a network of four farms located in Vancouver's East Hastings district, the poorest postal code in Canada. It is the story of how the idea of an urban farm created a link between empty parking lots and vacant land, food, poverty, addiction, and urban squalor. It is an inspirational story about how people who have been written off by many in our society can contribute to their lives -- and even help mend their lives -- through food production.

Ableman tells of the brainstorming that initiated the idea: how a few people set about using vacant urban parking lots to generate a farm that would eventually supply local restaurateurs with high-quality, organic products, and in so doing, bring meaning to people whose lives had become disconnected and dysfunctional.

Street Farm is about the ups and downs of trying to grow quality food and build community in a harsh urban environment. The story is nothing short of incredible and testament to what is possible when you think outside the box.

Ableman analyzes the challenges of farming, links community to food production, questions land ownership, and identifies food production as a strategy that can mitigate addiction, poverty and mental illness. He shows that when people are valued, encouraged, and given purpose, they can be empowered to improve their lives.

Along the way, we are given insight into agriculture and food issues, connections to a local market, the celebrity chef trend, and more.

For example, notes Ableman:

"[I] sometimes wonder what role high-priced fine-dining restaurants play in our society. I have seen how well-known chefs and the influential clientele they serve can elevate the public dialogue about food and farming. I have seen the attention that the media give to those whose artistry turns good ingredients into high art. But I also wonder whether these temples of food worship are just there to keep rich folks happy or whether they can actually be a force for change in the world."

Lots to think about in that paragraph. And there are other gems as well:

"I look forward to the day when people expand their thinking beyond gluten-free, vegan, omnivore, locavore, pescatarian, and vegetarian and inquire instead -- or additionally -- about whether the farmer and family are well paid, the land has been well cared for, and the cook was in a happy mood when he or she prepared the meal."

Throughout the book, Ableman shares with us the tragic yet heart-warming stories of many of the people who have been employed with Sole Food Farmers, conveying the challenges, the successes, and, yes, the disappointments:

"Jordan and his father have taught me so much -- about generosity, about taking care of one another, about forgiveness. Their lives are proof that, just like the plants that we grow, humans are resilient, and will thrive when given proper nourishment, a sense of community, some respect, and something meaningful to do."

Ableman urges us to move beyond our immediate wants and needs when it come to thinking about food and farming.

He challenges us to think through our role in food production, observing that, "[t]he responsibility of our food and how it comes to us, the responsibility of how we use and steward our land, should not belong solely to the 2 per cent of the population we call farmers. That responsibility belongs to all of us."

The story of Sole Food Street Farms is moving. It's one that we need to learn from and re-tell…often.

Happy summer reading!

Lois Ross is a communications specialist, writer, and editor, living in Ottawa. Her column "At the farm gate" discusses issues that are key to food production here in Canada as well as internationally.

Photo: Visit.org/flickr

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Media coverage of Khadr continues to perpetuate myths and lies told about him

18 July 2017 - 9:10am
July 18, 2017Omar Khadr forced to surf wave of Canadian racism Canadian torture survivor Omar Khadr has been forced to surf the wild wave of Canadian racism and white fragility that marks so much of the gloating Canada 150 party.

Lockout begins at OLG Woodbine Racetrack

17 July 2017 - 1:15pm
Meagan Gillmore

Slot machine workers at the OLG Woodbine Racetrack have been locked out. 

The lockout began on July 14, after the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), the union representing the workers, failed to agree on a new contract. Workers began picketing outside the site on the morning of July 14.

Slot machines at the province's largest gaming floor remain open. Rui Brum, spokesperson for OLG, said mainly non-unionized workers and managers are working the slot machines. The electronic poker room is closed and the onsite courtesy shuffle isn't running. Coat check hours are reduced.

The union and OLG reached a tentative agreement on July 5, but workers rejected it. According to a statement from the union, the OLG sent the workers a letter saying it would lock them out by July 14, the legal deadline for a strike or lockout. PSAC sent OLG a revised offer on July 12. OLG rejected the offer.

The offer doesn't address workers' concerns about scheduling, said Sharon DeSousa, PSAC's executive vice-president for Ontario. Most of the more than 400 slot workers are part time. Their schedules are unpredictable, she said. Many don't receive more than two days' notice of their schedule. This makes having a work-life balance nearly impossible, and can make it difficult to plan for family responsibilities, like caring for parents or children.

Workers have to take shifts when they're called in, said DeSousa, and that "really puts (them) in a precarious position." The slots are open 24 hours a day, so shifts can be at all hours of the day or night.

Some workers are classified as part time, even though they work full-time hours. Many have been working like this for more than 10 years, said DeSousa. "They've just had enough," she said.

Part-time workers don't receive the same benefits as full-time workers. Full-time workers have six sick days, she said.

Brum told rabble.ca in an email that part-time workers are entitled to three lieu days. They can cash out these days to use if they're sick. They also have 10 unpaid emergency days. He said part-time employees are paid the same as their full-time colleagues, and are eligible for health, dental and life insurance, depending on the hours they work.

He said the OLG's offer included ways for employees to have more input into their schedules.

Brum said wage increases were the main concern of the contract dispute. In a statement, OLG said it offered "fair and reasonable" wage and lump sum offers. The corporation also said it is willing to go to arbitration to reach an agreement.

This dispute is the latest to happen at OLG facilities. Slot machine workers at OLG-operated Rideau Carleton racetrack in Ottawa were on strike from December 2015 to May 2016. PSAC also represents these workers.

Security guards at Woodbine were on strike last summer. Those workers are represented by SEIU Local 2.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: mpancha/flickr

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Grassy Narrows cleanup long overdue

16 July 2017 - 5:50pm
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University of Toronto Students' Union layoffs violate contract, union says

14 July 2017 - 4:06pm
Meagan Gillmore

The union representing workers at the University of Toronto Students' Union (UTSU) says recent layoffs violate the collective bargaining agreement and put students' services at risk.

Vita Carlino, clubs and services' groups coordinator, and Maria Galvez, health and dental plan coordinator, worked their final shifts in early July. Carlino has had the position since 2008; Galvez since 2015. The UTSU voted to eliminate the positions in April, along with the financial coordinator position. The financial coordinator position has been vacant since August.

The reasons were purely financial, UTSU President Mathias Memmel said in a May 30 press release, explaining the union's current level of spending could send it to bankruptcy.

CUPE 1281, the union representing the workers, has filed grievances against the students' union, saying these layoffs violate the collective agreement.

The collective agreement lists these three roles as permanent, unionized positions. The contract lists seven such positions. The contract between CUPE and the students' union says both are committed to providing full-time jobs, as long as it is feasible and both parties agree to it.

The agreement also says there will be no layoffs "without a corresponding reduction in work required."

Students will still need these services, even without dedicated staff to provide them, said Orion Keresztesi, CUPE 1281 president. There are more than 350 clubs and service groups at the university. Among other things, the coordinator ensures they receive funding and training. The health and dental plan coordinator helps students make insurance claims, or opt out of the plan.

"They're eliminating the coordinator but they're not eliminating the health and dental plan. They're not eliminating clubs and service groups," he said. "And they're certainly not eliminating [their] finances."

The students' union may need to contract out the services, Keresztesi said, increasing the amount of precarious employment. Clubs are already complaining about delays in receiving needed paperwork from the union, and this will only increase that, he said. These layoffs will also make the process harder for students to opt out of the health and dental plan, meaning they'll be "paying extra for coverage they don't need."

These layoffs will reduce the interaction between students and their union. This puts UTSU "on a track where it is less and less relevant to students," said Keresztesi.

In an email to rabble.ca, UTSU president Memmel said there wasn't enough work to justify keeping these positions. There are no plans to bring these positions back. If the students' union's financial situation changes, it may consider re-instating these roles, he said.

Memmel called the clubs and services coordinator position "entirely redundant" because other people have always done some of the tasks assigned to this role.

Many believe these positions provide essential services. More than 500 people, including university alumni, have signed an online petition urging UTSU to restore the positions immediately. The petition launched three months ago. Online, one former UTSU executive called the positions the "glue" that keeps student services running. A current student said it's hard to be engaged in student life when the students' union keeps cutting services. Fred Hahn, CUPE Ontario president, has also written UTSU to express concerns about the layoffs.

Keresztesi said the union will continue to inform students throughout the summer and into the fall about the cuts and how it will impact them.

Meagan Gillmore is rabble.ca's labour reporter.

Photo: Skewe Too/flickr

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Canada's refusal to push for nuclear disarmament is perplexing

14 July 2017 - 3:20pm
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Labour movement salutes Trudeau government's ratification of ILO Convention 98

14 July 2017 - 9:25am
July 14, 2017Labour finds cause to rejoice in some Trudeau government actionsIt has been a long time since the Canadian labour movement has had the opportunity to applaud the actions of a Canadian federal government. And yet recently the Canadian Labour Congress did just that.

Canada upholds commitment to labour rights with ratification of ILO Convention 98

14 July 2017 - 9:08am
Patty Hajdu

Last month, in a ceremony at the United Nations' International Labour Organization (ILO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, Canada finally joined 164 other countries in ratifying the ILO's Convention 98, a commitment to workers' right to organize and collective bargaining.

As Canada's Minister of Labour, I deposited the instrument of ratification, in the presence of representatives from both Canadian employers and Canadian unions. It was a proud moment for our government, which, under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was elected on a commitment to restore fairness and balance to labour relations in this country.

When I was sworn in as Minister on January 10, I brought to my new role the kind of lived experience that allowed me to carry out my work with a first-hand understanding of the value of healthy labour relations in a workplace. Before I entered politics, I was running the largest homeless shelter in northwestern Ontario. It's a unionized workplace, and as its Executive Director I oversaw a staff whose union advocated for them about wages, hours, conditions, and other issues. And together we worked on our common goals of excellence in service and a safe, fair workplace.

I carry that experience with me every day as a member of Parliament and as Minister of Labour. It reminds me that unions are fundamentally about people. The "labour movement" is about people who work in Canada, and who deserve to work in fair, safe spaces and earn a decent living. And when employees thrive, so do their employers.

We know that healthy labour relations directly contribute to economic growth. Independent institutions like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have concluded that lower rates of unionization result in stagnating incomes, particularly in the middle class, leading to direct impacts on the growth of our economy and on inequality.

When our government talks about building a strong middle class, we're talking about ensuring that people can count on good-quality jobs and the ability to make a living and support their families. Unions are critical to helping achieve that goal.

This is one of the reasons I was so proud to be a part of our new Liberal government on the day last year when we introduced Bill C-4, which restores fairness and balance to the tri-partite relationship between government, employers and workers -- a balance that had been upended by the previous Conservative government.

That balance matters, and it's why our government shows faith in, and respect for, the collective bargaining process during collective negotiations and disputes.

Now, with the long-overdue ratification of Convention 98, Canada is also sending a clear message to our friends and allies about the value of labour standards and good employment conditions for workers around the globe. By ratifying Convention 98, Canada is now signatory to all eight of the ILO's Fundamental Conventions.

The International Labour Organization was established as an agency of the United Nations in 1919 to set labour standards and promote decent work for all women and men. Its Conventions are legally binding international treaties. In addition to Convention 98, which represents a commitment to protect the right to collective bargaining, the remaining core Conventions address freedom of association, forced labour, child labour, equal pay and discrimination.

Standing up for healthy labour relations, not just here at home but on the world stage, affirms Canada's commitment to global diversity, openness and inclusion. As our Global Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland declared in June, Canada's support of the middle class, and those working hard to join it, is defining an approach to globalization that can be a model. Multilateralism and collaboration are key to the challenges we are facing. From Thunder Bay, Ontario, to Geneva, Switzerland, the ratification of Convention 98 is another step forward, with our allies, to building prosperity at home and abroad.

The Hon. Patty Hajdu is Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour.

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Labour finds cause to rejoice in some Trudeau government actions

14 July 2017 - 8:50am
Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

It has been a long time since the Canadian labour movement has had the opportunity to applaud the actions of a Canadian federal government. And yet, this past June, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) did just that, and it did so twice.

The CLC and most Canadian unions are both pleased and relieved that the Trudeau government has repealed Stephen Harper's Bills C-377 and C-525. The previous Conservative government introduced both, sneakily, as private member's bills, as we reported in this space in 2014.

C-377 was disguised as an income tax measure. In fact, however, it imposed costly and onerous reporting mechanisms on unions, of the sort that the government does not impose on business, or even on itself.

C-525 aimed to make it harder for federally regulated workers to unionize, by requiring a secret ballot vote in addition to the existing "card check" system.

Trudeau promised to get rid of both and, in this case, he was true to his promise.

"Our affiliates and labour activists across the country have organized and campaigned against these bills from the beginning, and this is their victory to celebrate," CLC President Hassan Yussuff enthused at the time, in early June.

It is worth noting that in addition to thanking both the current and former Trudeau government labour ministers for making this happen, Yussuff also thanked Quebec Senator Diane Bellemare. It was Bellemare who shepherded the repeal legislation through the Red Chamber.

Senator Bellemare was appointed by Harper, but had previously worked with government, organized labour and business as a highly respected economist. Her main focus was on labour and workplace issues. Bellemare quit the Conservative caucus in 2016 to sit as an Independent. She had already fearlessly criticized a number of Harper initiatives, such as changes to employment insurance. She said the Harper changes would drive down wages. It seems that Stephen Harper's senatorial appointments did not always work out for him, in more ways than one.

International accord on the right to organize unions

The other and more recent action from the Trudeau government came late in June when Labour Minister Patty Hajdu announced that Canada would ratify the International Labour Organization's (ILO's) Convention 98. That agreement, in the words of the CLC, "protects all workers from anti-union discrimination, including being forced to give up union membership in order to get a job, or job termination for participating in union activities." It is officially called the "Convention on the Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively" and it is one of eight key ILO agreements that undergird the basic right to join and belong to a union. It is the only one of that group Canada has, until now, failed to ratify.

The ILO is a United Nations (UN) body, one of the family of UN agencies founded in the late 1940s, following the Second World War. Others in the family include the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the UN High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR).

Canada was an enthusiastic supporter of the ILO from its inception, voting for virtually all of its many conventions, which, among other goals, seek to ban child and forced labour. However, historically, Canadian governments -- both Liberal and Conservative -- have frequently failed to ratify those agreements.

According to the Canadian Foundation for Labour Rights, Canada has ratified only a handful of the more than 180 conventions the ILO has adopted at its annual meetings since its inception more 67 years ago.

In addition, Canadian unions have brought numerous complaints to the ILO about the anti-labour practices of both federal and provincial governments. In the vast majority of cases, the ILO has ruled in organized labour's favour. Most of those complaints have concerned government violations of the ILO's principles of freedom of association for workers.

Still, the Canadian Labour Congress and others in the labour movement are happy to salute the Trudeau government's indication that it will, however belatedly, ratify ILO Convention 98.

As CLC President Hassan Yussuff sees it, adopting this international agreement is far more than a symbolic gesture. It will have a tangible impact on Canadian policy, both at home and abroad, especially in the current global context.

"Internationally, this ratification means Canada can more effectively insist that trade partners like the United States and Mexico must respect and enforce labour rights," Yussuff explains. "This is key as we face the prospect of renegotiating NAFTA."

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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