Federal New Democratic Party leadership candidate and member of the Ontario legislature Jagmeet Singh is not a stranger to Canadians who have been following the leadership race closely. He represents the riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton in the provincial legislature of Ontario and has focused his efforts on bringing new members under the party’s tent.
The 38-year-old lawyer has become one of the front runners to lead the party since joining the race in mid-May. Behind him lays the deputy leadership of the Ontario NDP. What lies ahead is a tough and long leadership race. Online voting for the federal leadership race opens Sept. 18 with first ballot results scheduled to be announced Oct. 1. Second and third ballot voting will continue through October.
Singh visited Winnipeg on Aug. 23 to host a “JagMeet & Greet” and a group cycle tour followed by a fundraiser to talk about issues that matter to Manitobans. During his time in Winnipeg, Singh spoke with the Manitoban about many issues, such as the cost of post secondary education, reconciliation with Indigenous communities, the economy, the environment and more.
Manitoban: The cost of post secondary education is at an all time high and continues to increase, leaving students in high levels of debt. Particularly in Manitoba, students are likely to experience a five per cent increase every year in tuition if Bill-31 is passed. How will you best represent the students on the Hill to ensure affordability and access to post secondary education?
Jagmeet Singh: Many students are thinking twice about going to university because of how expensive tuition fees are and to me that is an incredible lost opportunity. People who are talented and passionate should be able to go to university. There should be no barriers to education in general, at all. What I would commit to is, at a federal level, we actually are in the position to develop an agreement with provinces to actually eliminate tuition fees, to make [post secondary education] tuition free. It’s something that’s possible, something that we can achieve and it’s something that I would like to see happen.
And I should also say, not only is it enough to eliminate tuition fees but there are other costs associated with education. There’s living costs, costs of books, other supplies. So we need to also allow for grants to support those who just eliminating the tuition fee isn’t enough, they also need other supports [and] we need to make sure those are available for living expenses, etcetera.
On top of that, there are students who have graduated with debt and I think it’s also important to acknowledge that those students who have graduated with debt are facing this very soul-sapping, and something that’s very crushing and makes you feel a lot of despair knowing that you have this debt – and then it’s increasing because of interest. So I think one of the first steps that need to be done, and something that I have committed to doing, is making sure that we get rid of the interest on that student debt so that you don’t see that debt increasing. And also looking at flexible payment plans to ensure that students who are graduated but are not in a position to pay back that debt have a lot of flexibility with how they can pay back their debts.
M: The millennials are also struggling to find stable job opportunities and are over represented in precarious employment. How will you, as a leader of the federal NDP work, to address this?
JS: The first thing I would do is send a clear message that precarious and unstable work is not acceptable. To do that, what I propose at a federal level is to provide that national leadership about what good work is. I have released a better work agenda and it talks about making sure we have a minimum wage building on the $15 and fairness movement – a $15 minimum wage nationally set. That would apply to federal jurisdiction but it would still be a leadership move to show the direction that Canada should move in.
One specific form of precarious employment that I would like to tackle, just to begin the work on making sure that people get stable work, is temporary job agencies. And these are agencies that are increasing across the country, they are particularly a big issue in Ontario and [British Columbia]. We are seeing a rise of these agencies across the country but they’re also something that specifically is being used a lot at the federal level, in federal jurisdiction. So what I would like to see happen, and what I propose in my agenda, is ending the practice where agencies exploit workers by clawing back up to 40 per cent of their salary. Also, the barriers that exist to getting hired directly, I would remove those barriers so that there isn’t a penalty fee that client companies have to pay to the agency to hire an employee directly.
I would also work to reinstating some of the federal legislation around labour that was excellent legislation that provided for a high standard [that has] been repealed by [former Prime Minister Stephen] Harper. I would like to reintroduce those acts that provide strong labour protection and make it easier for people to organize if they so choose.
M: What does true reconciliation look like? How will you ensure social, economic, and environmental justice for Indigenous people across Canada?
JS: The first step is we have to make sure that we don’t have a government that is denying Indigenous children equitable funding. The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has issued four compliance orders, ordering Canada to recognize that indigenous children do deserve equitable funding. And our government under [Prime Minister Justin] Trudeau has consistently said ‘No’ and has sent lawyers to appeal the decision, literally sending a message that Indigenous children don’t deserve equal funding. That is heinous, particularly for Justin Trudeau, the prime minister who said repeatedly that reconciliation was going be the hallmark of his administration. It’s shameful to me that on one side you talk about reconciliation and on the other end, you’re sending lawyers to challenge Indigenous children getting equitable funding. So that’s one step.
UNDRIP [United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples], recognizing the rights of Indigenous people as a nation to have prior, informed consent with respect to energy projects is important. And then economic justice means that we make significant investments in terms of how we can tackle the legacy of genocide, both direct and indirect, that has impacted Indigenous people across the country.
Environment and the economy
M: Let’s talk about pipelines and the environment. Why did it take you so long to officially oppose the expansion of Trans Mountain Pipeline in British Columbia and Alberta? What about your stance on the Keystone Access Pipeline?
JS: I have come out clearly against Kinder Morgan and against Energy East. I made sure that I took time to hear out different positions with respect to what the concerns were in Alberta and took time to hear some of the realities around a province that’s so resource intensive and so resource extraction based. I also wanted to reach out to folks in BC to understand their circumstances.
I really wanted to convey that decisions around national policy should be made in a way that we consult with and we hear different opinions. We may not agree and we may have principles and values that don’t align with everybody but we need to make sure we take the time to hear people out.
The other key piece is that I didn’t want to release my position on an energy project before I released my entire climate change plan. My climate change plan wasn’t ready and I wanted to have a climate change plan because environmentalists told me that it is disrespectful to the importance of climate change if you release your position on energy projects without actually having a broader position on climate change.
M: Will you under any circumstances approve the construction of pipelines and if so, how will that decision be made?
JS: I have put forward three policies, or three principles, when it comes to decisions around energy projects, whatever they may be – whether they’re hydro-electric projects, or any form of project, any sort of energy project. It has to respect UNDRIP, it has to be in line with our climate change goals and it has to create local opportunities. So if it satisfies these criteria – that it respects UNDRIP, it doesn’t contradict our climate change goals, and it creates local jobs for communities that are going to see a benefit [from] them – then it’s a project that would satisfy those criteria, then it would be something we could look at that.
M: What are some of the major concerns you have about the economy? And how do you plan to strengthen and diversify the economy?
JS: That’s the major issue I have, is that we are a resource extraction country and we need to make sure that we diversify our economy. We know that resource extraction-based economies are very susceptible to the ups and downs of the market. If a commodity is doing well in the market, then the economy is doing well, if a commodity is not doing well, then all of a sudden we see a very difficult time economically. We need to make sure that we don’t just rely on raw goods as an economy. We have to have value added jobs and we need to have a diversity of our economy.
And the other key thing is we need to look at is where the world is headed. We know the world is more and more headed towards the new technology that we’re seeing more and more being used. For example with automobiles [that new technology] is electric vehicles. There is going to be electrification of transportation, which means that there will be an increased demand on generating electricity. We know that countries are moving towards cleaner energy as a solution to dealing with climate change, air pollution, [and] air quality. So we need to be ahead of the curve on that and make sure we make investments in green energy, green technology, so that we are leaders nationally and internationally on this issue. And we need to make sure that we make those investments so that our economy is in line with the moving times, that we create sustainable jobs that are not just finite and last for a short period of time but are ongoing and sustainable.
Racism in Canada
M: Canada is not immune to racism and hatred that is spreading across North America with an increase in white nationalism and hate crimes against minorities. How will you ensure the safety of visible minorities and address this?
JS: We need to get at some of the root causes of hatred. We know that we need to denounce hatred of any form: hateful policies, government bills, and laws that currently exist that continue to perpetuate this notion of divisive politics, that pit communities against each other. We need to denounce, repeal and get rid of those policies. So things like [the anti-terrorism act Bill] C-51 continue to be laws that the liberal government has not repealed that target marginalized communities, and create this sense that there is something wrong with, or there is something problematic with different communities in our society.
We need to celebrate immigration. Immigration is a foundation of our country. And we need to get rid of this debate whether we need or don’t need immigration. There’s no question about it, we need immigration. It’s built up this country, it’s given us a richness to our society, but it’s also something very necessary economically. We need immigration to grow our economy. So we need to make sure we communicate the importance of immigration, we communicate the importance of diversity, we celebrate diversity, and we denounce any form of hate – whether it’s in speech or in legislation.
M: As a clear visible minority, how do you navigate the political system?
JS: I really wanted to generate, or inspire in others, a courageous sense of self-worth. I think everyone has to foster that sense of self worth that everyone has an inherent value, that you bring something to our society that’s important, and you need to celebrate who you are. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do – be really unapologetic about who I am and talk about my social justice and social democratic values. And really showing that you can be confident in who you are and be successful in politics and successful in your life.