EXCLUSIVE: Meet Niki Ashton, the progressive politician trying to bring Bernie Sanders’ movement to Canada

‘We need a bold progressive agenda that calls out the rich and powerful’

Niki Ashton, a Canadian Member of Parliament from the Province of Manitoba, is standing in the leadership race of Canada’s third largest party, the New Democratic Party (NDP). If victorious, she will be in the running to be Canada’s next Prime Minister in 2019.

We spoke to the self-declared millennial MP about Justin Trudeau, legalizing weed and getting young people involved in politics.

I was looking over old interviews in preparation for this, and I came across them in a few different languages. How many languages do you actually speak?

I read, write and speak four languages. Greek is my first language and then English and French. I went to a French immersion school. I also studied Spanish from a young age, so I’m fluent in that. Later on, over the years, I’ve studied five other languages. But I don’t speak them fluently, certainly not the way I speak the first four.

That’s pretty impressive. One of the other interesting things about you is your early start in politics; first running for office aged 23 in 2005. What inspired you to run for parliament at such a young age?

I’ve always been a New Democrat, and always supported the NDP, but I didn’t see myself running for office. I was interested in working in human rights at the international level. That was the direction I certainly pursued through my studies and some of the work I had the opportunity to do. But in 2005, the big debate that was gripping our country was the recognition of same-sex marriage. At that time my Member of Parliament, who was NDP, was against same-sex marriage. I disagreed with that, along with many others and despite the fact that we tried to get her to change her position, she refused. So we decided to organize and people did ask me to consider running, and at first I said absolutely not, but I want to be involved. Eventually, some very strong feminists that I looked up to said that they wanted me to do this and they would support me. So we decided to go for it.

I ran for the nomination and we engaged in a really grassroots campaign, engaged people across our constituency. Indigenous people, young people, people who work in our resource-based communities. And we were able to put a campaign together and win the nomination. But unfortunately, the incumbent chose to sit as an independent and so the vote was split in the election that followed. So unfortunately we lost the 2006 election [to the Liberal Party candidate]. I went back to finish my Master’s and didn’t think I wanted to run again. Losing did not feel great. But again, a number of people that I looked up to, people that I looked up to, said we believe that you should do this. We talked about it and decided to go for it again. That of course led to our win in 2008, when I was 26.

You mentioned a feminist helped inspire you to run initially and feminism is a subject you’ve studied in depth. Do you think Justin Trudeau, who has called himself a feminist, is living up to the label?

I would say that feminism requires much more than talk, it requires action. I certainly appreciate people recognizing themselves as feminists, but what we’ve seen with Prime Minister Trudeau is someone who has an incredible amount of power to be able to make a real difference in the everyday lives of women in our country. We are not seeing that. Yes, there have been some important commitments, like the inquiry [into missing and murdered indigenous women]. But in terms of changing the tangible day-to-day reality of indigenous women, racialized women, immigrant women, disabled women, queer women, trans women and all women in our country, immense challenges remain. And even in his last budget, where the federal government said they used a gender lens, it’s been made clear that there is a lot left to be desired because the resources simply aren’t there to make a difference for Canadian women.

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Commentators have compared your platform to that of Bernie Sanders, someone you campaigned for. Do you think you will be able to build the same kind of movement here in Canada?

I am someone who is definitely inspired by Bernie Sanders, and I like many, were inspired because he was speaking not only to the reality in his own country but in our country as well. A reality where there is growing inequality and where the threat of climate change is pushing people into very difficult situations. When it comes to inequality, more and more people are being pushed to the margins. And so we need a bold progressive agenda that calls out neoliberal policies, that calls out the rich and powerful for the way in which they have led us to this situation facing us today. So I was certainly inspired to put forward an agenda that does these things in our own country. I can say a lot of people have been very enthusiastic and very positive about what we are putting forward and we are certainly keen to build the movement to put forward this sort of bold, progressive agenda. So far we’re seeing a lot of positive energy and we are excited to build on that.

Do you think Justin Trudeau is as progressive as the international media portray him to be?

I would say no. The image and rhetoric he uses is very progressive and yet when you look at the kind of decisions he’s taking, whether it’s breaking his promise on electoral reform or his approval of pipelines despite the opposition of First Nations and non-indigenous peoples. Whether it’s his approval of trade agreements that will sell out Canadians and lead to the loss of good Canadian jobs. Whether it’s his support of a historic privatization agenda; seeking to privatize key infrastructure assets. These are not the kind of decisions one would have from a progressive leader.

He does certainly come across as progressive by calling himself a feminist, by talking about Canada being welcoming. But the reality is, even when it comes to the welcoming of refugees, for example, right now we are seeing a number of people that want to cross into Canada because they’re refugees and don’t feel safe in the US. And yet our government is refusing to repeal legislation, as to allow people to legally seek asylum at the border. Which in this situation is forcing people into very unsafe conditions. It’s important to look at the kind of decisions he’s making and the impact that these decisions are having on Canadians. His decisions are benefitting the wealthiest in our country and also the wealthy elsewhere when we are talking about trade agreements. There are decisions that are pushing working people and people struggling in poverty further to the margins.

Do you think a Trump-like figure could make significant gains in Canada at the next election?

Yes. Although it may not be a Trump-like figure, but it could be Trump inspired ideas. We are already seeing those emerge and become quite obvious in the Conservative leadership race. That’s why there is a need for an alternative vision that speaks to the economic insecurity people are facing. But also we need to be united in fighting back against that insecurity and inequality, while not resorting to scapegoating, discrimination or the politics of fear and division that the right is doing.

You said in the last leadership debate that young people should “expect to be worse off” than their parents. Should you make it to the PM’s office, what plans have you made to help young people and students?

As we see inequality grow in our country, it’s particularly evident in the inter-generational inequality we’re seeing. Over the last year and a half, I have been involved in a national tour on the rise of precarious work in the millennial generation and we went across the country and heard heartbreaking stories about what young people are facing in terms of a life of insecure, contract and temporary work with no benefits, no pensions. Student debt that’s saddling them, high tuition fees that they are having to deal with. An inability to access the rental market, never mind the housing market. And increasingly, a sense that they will live lives that are more challenging and worse off than their parents.

A poll that came out a few weeks ago indicated a lot of young people feel that way and it’s clear to me that that kind of a statement in a country as wealthy as Canada, in the year 2017 is totally unacceptable. We do need to address that intergenerational inequality and that begins by making it clear that it is the neoliberal agenda that brought us to where we are; the politics of privatization, deregulation, austerity, trade deals that have sold us out, growing corporate concentration. So we need to reject that agenda and we need to fight back against it. We need bold progressive policies, not because in theory, they would be good, but because they would allow for young people in our country to survive and thrive in a way that they are in danger of not being able to do right now.

On students in particular, what is your policy regarding growing student debt and tuition fees in general?

First off, we have committed to free tuition, which we feel is very critical. It’s important to recognize that education is a right. We’ve also committed to tackling student debt by eliminating interest on federal student loan. We also want to find a way to tackle unpayable student debt. Many young people are struggling immensely as they are not finding the work that would allow them to service their debts. We would look at introducing a debt relief strategy.  There was a story just today [29 March] out of Ontario that many young people are defaulting because they simply can’t pay the debt. [These are some of the ways] that we can support young people, not just students, but people who were students to overcome an increasingly difficult situation.

With this week’s announcement that President Trump is rolling back a number of Obama’s green policies, what measures do you think Canada should be taking to fight the threat?

First I’d say is that it has been made clear, our own Prime Minister has been quite positive about some of the decisions that Donald Trump has made. He has welcomed Donald Trump’s support for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Are you and the NDP against Keystone?

My campaign is against it. The NDP has expressed real concerns about it. It is clear that Donald Trump is allowing our own PM to further himself and our country away from our climate change targets by embracing something like the Keystone pipeline. From our end, what we’ve made clear is the need to invest in a green transition to a carbon free economy. Right now the federal government is not doing its part.

We do have jurisdictions in our own country, like Alberta, that are investing in that green transition. But the federal government is nowhere to be seen or gets involved in very minimal ways. That involves investing in education and training, it involves investing in public transportation infrastructure. That would be part of a green transition. Emphasizing public transit and emphasizing the kind of housing infrastructure that we need, but ought to be built along parameters that allow us to build a sustainable environment. [It involves] moving away from the infrastructure of the past, like pipelines and recognizing that we need to be investing far more in solar and wind energy. Something that we are not doing much of right now compared to other countries in the world.Image result for niki ashton parliament trudeau

You raise the point of housing. It just came out this week that Toronto has one of the world’s hottest housing markets, with average prices rising by 27 percent compared to wage growth of just 2.5 percent. This is clearly a massive obstacle for graduates and young people in particular to renting or buying. How would you tackle housing issues?

We have a real lack of social and affordable housing in our country and we need to address that. Again, the federal government has committed to invest in affordable housing, but their commitments are very much over a long period of time and it’s not clear that these investments will be made in such a way that will make a difference anytime soon. And I would say the lack of access to affordable housing is forcing people into very insecure housing situations and certainly allows those who have the power in the housing market to demand more and exclude those discussed in this entire conversation from the market. Affordable and social housing is critical. There are a number of very strong campaigns on the ground, particularly at the municipal level around rent controls and we need to be involved with these movements and political leaders at all levels who are fighting against the kind of exploitation we are seeing in some of our biggest cities when it comes to housing.

With the government due to legalize marijuana by July 2018, how do you think they are handling the whole process? 

I think it is hypocritical to say cannabis will be legalized and yet we are continuing to criminalize those that are involved in recreational use and consumption, but also those that are generally involved. I think that the issue here is that the government sees this as an issue that appeals to a lot of Canadians, and it does particularly young Canadians. So they’ve put out a date and yet there’s no plan in working towards that and certainly no plan to ensure that people aren’t getting in trouble.

I would also say the fact they’re leaving it up to the Provinces is troubling because it’s not uniform across the board. For example here in my Province [of Manitoba] we have a very regressive government that I suspect will make it very difficult in terms of access. And so the way the Feds have left it up to the Provinces may mean a very different approach across the board. That certainly doesn’t respect the spirit and commitment of legalization made by the Federal government.

So would you introduce legislation to do it from a Federal level?

What I would say is needed is immediate decriminalization and we need to pardon those who have been charged with simple pot possession.

On the issue of pardons, what about the likes of Marc and Jodie Emery who face multiple charges connected to the running their Cannabis Culture dispensaries in various cities, should they be pardoned?

I think those that are involved in the access of marijuana, yes we need to be reviewing these cases. My major concern is all the people that do get saddled with a charge that have to face serious repercussions later on in life, or quite soon in life and right now there is no plan to deal with any of these cases.

Specifically, on the case of Marc and Jodie Emery, and others in the dispensary movement, do you advocate they be pardoned?

Yeah, I would say that those involved in dispensaries we should definitely be looking at. There should be a wholesale review and obviously we need to get moving with decriminalization as soon as possible.

On a personal note, when pot is finally legalized, will you be smoking it yourself?

Haha, we will see when it happens.

So you’re not like Trudeau who smoked it in college?

I can just say that even as an MP, I’ve been around it a lot.

Obviously, Trump’s win was a massive hit to the progressive movement in general, so what would your message be to those who are fighting for progressive policies in both Canada and the US?

Well, I would say in the US what is clear to me is that the movement [Bernie Sanders] helped build is ongoing. We’re seeing the way in which social movements have really emerged campaigning against the proposed cuts to Obamacare, for example, which were successful. It is clear to me that there is a resistance that is alive and well to Donald Trump’s policies. My message to people in the United States would be to keep fighting; their fight is an inspiration to us.

We can also take lessons from the US here in Canada that we can’t wait for the alt-right and the right to mobilize around a Trump-like candidate or Trump-like politics. We need to build a grassroots movement [and challenge] the one percent and neoliberal politics that have put us into the situation we are in. And we need to build on the movements and win so that we are not fighting a Donald Trump-like figure in office. But that we’re able to put forward a political resistance and a vision for fundamental political change for all Canadians.

If you were to win the NDP leadership race, you would be the youngest Federal party leader in Canadian history. How would it make you feel to be an icon for people of the millennial generation and also future generations?

I do believe it’s time for millennials to be heard at the highest level. In all seriousness, I’ve been involved in politics from a young age and I’ve faced ageism and sexism, but I keep going and the reason why I keep going is because I am inspired by so many people, especially so many young people. The activists, whether it’s indigenous, racialized, queer. And I would say, especially what our generation is facing. It would be an honor to bring that vision forward as leader of the Party and work with millennials and people of all generations to achieve the kind of social, environmental and economic justice that we all deserve.