NDP Interview Series: Niki Ashton

The New Democratic Party's leadership race is on! 

Ultimately, this race determines who will lead the New Democratic Party of Canada in the 2019 federal election. 

As Canadian Muslims, it is important that we exercise our civic duty to help choose the next leader of the New Democratic Party, who could be the next Prime Minister of Canada.

How to vote?
In order to vote for the next leader of the New Democratic Party, you must be holding an active membership to the New Democratic Party before August 17, 2017.

Interview Series
Over the past few weeks, The Canadian-Muslim Vote has been sitting down with the candidates contesting for the leadership of the New Democratic Party.
We have been profiling these candidates so that you (our readers) can make an informed voting decision.

Right to left: Mariam Rajabali (Communications and Project Coordinator), Turab Ibrahim (Director), Niki Ashton (MP), Safeeya Faruqui (Volunteer)

Question: Tell us a bit about your background and why you choose to enter politics.

Answer: I’m from Northern Manitoba. That’s where I was born and where I grew up. I’m the daughter of immigrants; my dad from the UK, my mom from Greece, and they came [to Canada] for a better life for us. I grew up in a mining town, up North, very diverse community. In fact, it was built in the 50s. It relied on diversity, relied on immigrants to do work in our community. Diversity and commitment to human right has always been a part of who I am by virtue of the community I grew up in. We are also on treaty territory, connection to the community is very strong. I would say exposure to diversity and struggle in terms of poverty, inequality, racism, sexism, has certainly shaped my approach to politics.

My intention was actually never to get into politics. I grew up around politics. My dad was elected for a number of years. My mom was also involved in politics and feminist politics as well. In 2005, our MP came out against gay marriage - which was a fundamental NDP policy. A number of us thought that it was not right and it was wrong to portray our community as somewhere that wasn’t in tune with human rights and LGBTQ right and they played up stereotypes. We didn’t think it was right, but, thankfully we have access to democratic nominations. Despite my apprehension, it was a number of older woman I looked up to who said they felt strongly about this and they wanted to support me in pushing forward in the nominations.

It was really about taking a principled stance on human rights at the time. I put my studies on hold and my work on hold. At the age of 22 or 23, I ran in the nomination and we engaged a record number of people across the north who had never been engaged before in a political process. Fortunately, we were able to win the nomination but lost the election as a result of a split vote.

In 2008, I ran again and I was elected for the first time and then again was re-elected in 2011 and 2015. From the get go, my commitment has been to give voice to people on the margins and to work in solidarity with people who are fighting injustice in whatever form injustice takes.

Question: What motivated you to run for the nomination to be the next leader of the New Democratic Party and perhaps one day Prime Minister of Canada?

Answer: I would say that first that there are two key reasons. Firstly, the NDP is at a crossroads and secondly, the country is at a crossroads. With the NDP, we lost touch with some key principles and we lost touch with people on the ground who share our values - such as people involved in social, environmental and labour movements. It’s clear to me that we are on a path that, some may say, is safer. In the pursuit of winning, I don’t want to lose touch with core principles and the people you ought to be working with. I think the 2015 election showed that we lost significant ground.

Also, I believe Canada is at a crossroads. Two of the biggest challenges is our growing inequality and climate change. When we talk about Canada and inequality, we talk about how Canada is better than the U.S. but our inequality is in some ways growing faster than the U.S. In cities like Toronto and Vancouver, you can see it clearly. I would say there's been different faces of inequalities: indigenous, racialized, immigrant, queer, disabled, women, seniors - but one of the faces that’s emerging is intergenerational inequalities. This is an experience of millennials - a poll recently came out a few months ago stating that a growing number of young people think they’ll live worse than their parents. This isn't by chance, it’s because of things like a rise in precarious work, cost of tuition, student debt, unable to access housing market - never mind housing, even rental market. What we said very clearly as part of our campaign was to grapple these two issues in a major way. We need bold principled solutions to take this on. I’m proud that this the core of our campaign: Putting forward a bold visionary platform to take on two big issues of our time and really just give voice to the issues that the up and coming generations are facing and to give a more dignified and just future for every day.

Question: Why do you feel you’re qualified to lead the New Democratic Party of Canada?

Answer: I would say first off, I certainly bring significant experience to the table. I’ve been elected for 10 years now and a lot of my work falls under different portfolios - most recently jobs and workforce development, and indigenous affairs and women affairs, rural/post-secondary issues and I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the work being done both as an activist and elected official.

I believe even beyond the experience, what's important is the quality of the ideas. It's clear to me that there's a number of movements around the world where ideas are inspiring people to get involved - new ideas as well. Rejecting the status quo that is privatization, austerity and trade deals is going to benefit all of us. It’s really speaking to the fact that we need to do things differently. The reality is that we are becoming more and more unequal and climate change is more serious. What we’ve seen in this campaign is people have been inspired and motivated and people are mobilizing around the ideas and visions we’re putting forward. I think this is the only way to take the NDP forward: through a bold vision that speaks to the challenges people are facing and puts forward a vision of hope.

Question: In your opinion, what could have the New Democratic Party done differently in the 2015 federal election?

Answer: I would say that the NDP, no questions, a number of progressive policies and took important stand on key issues - at that time a position to Harper’s politics. One piece we took a clear stand on was bill C-51, which was really important. Overall, although that stands out as a bold position, we didn’t take bold positions on other issues, such as the pipeline issue. We took a stand on issues we shouldn’t have - like doubling down on commitments to balanced budgets. This gave the liberals the opportunity to ‘out-left’ us - like you can go in deficits for the right reasons like creating employment, growth and benefit for everyone. So, in taking that position we also signaled that we weren’t the NDP that people thought we were. And, we lost support, as a result. I also said, I felt we were on a trajectory where we have lost touch with grassroot movements and activists on the ground, MPs were doing that work but we needed to go beyond that. For me, grassroot activists are the ones closest to the issues and who we should take cues on which issues we’re taking on and how we are taking them on. That disconnect hurt us and it’s a disconnect that needs to strongly be addressed going forward - in addition to the need to take bold positions to reflect what we believe in.

Question: In your view, since the Liberals were elected in 2015, what have they done wrong? What have they done right?

Answer: I will say that there was no question that Canadians were clearly angered and had enough of Harper’s politics and welcomed a more progressive rhetoric and more positive approach to politics which we saw clearly under Trudeau. And while the rhetoric is being maintained, the actions and policies are definitely not there. In fact, I would say he’s carried on a number of Harper’s politics with respect to international affairs - he just announced a ramped up military budget that I don’t think Harper would have dared to announce. He’s someone who continues the same approach to immigration and refugee policies despite the nice sounding tweets. I would say, in addition to continuing a number of Harper’s policies with different branding - he went on to break key promises to Canadians like electoral reform, pipelines and environment, and public services (mail delivery). I would say they’re big changes. When you haven’t seen change in substance, the reality is the middle class in shrinking. Is Trudeau not taking on that reality? Support for bad trade deals! So, I would also add that my particular concern, when people play ethnic politics - saying that we’re there for you, but with these exceptions - how is he there for communities and knowing the issues that they’re facing? Especially in an age with rising inequality, we need to understand the issues critically. Tweets and attendance at cultural festivals are all there and they’re okay, but,  beyond that: how are you (Trudeau) there for the communities? I think that’s something the Liberals have been good at. Tweets and videos aren’t going to cut it.

Question:  In regards to your policy platform, what are the three most significant policies in your campaign?

Identified early on in the campaign: economic, environmental and social justice. We’ve put forward policies in respect to those three key pillars. I certainly identify some key positions in each of those. In economics, an example is leading growth and tax reform. We’ve taken on growth and equality. Our position on tax reforms has been called the most progressive and most comparative in the generation. We will realize Canadians that are working class/middle class and have paid their fair share of taxes. Those who are getting away are the rich and corporations - and that’s not right. We’ve proposed a tax reform policy that shifts that onus and makes sure everyone is paying their fair share and we’ve recognized how we can recruit $40 billion that would be spent on free tuition, pharma care, dental care - we’ve put that forward. I would say that tax reform policy allows us to pay for other key priorities.

My economic platform would include a clear call for a transition towards a carbon free economy while recognizing the reality of climate change. We’ve come across opposition on pipelines and we’ve recognized that this is not the way to build a green economy. Instead we need federal investment and have proposed a crown corporation to engage in that federal investment towards a green economy.

In the social justice area, one of the platforms that’s received a fair bit of attention and that we're really proud of is our comprehensive racial justice platform. We’re the only campaign that’s talking about the need to repeal bill C-51, it’s clear that the liberals want us to forget that it’s there - but, it’s very much operational. We also made very clear statements in terms of changes to be made through policing, our immigration and incarceration systems. We are recognizing that in those three areas, there is specific targeting of Muslim and racialized communities. We need to tackle these systemic barriers if we’re going to talk about achieving justice.

Question:  With the recent refugee crisis in Europe and subsequent reactions from the international community, such as Brexit and the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policies, what do you see as Canada’s role in a global context framed by fear-mongering and alienation?

Absolutely. I think we’re living in very troubling times and I think Trump’s politics are very dangerous. I see the ways in which his divisive approach is also infiltering into Canadian Conservative politics - we saw that in the Conservative leadership race very clearly. It’s also benefitting the Trudeau government; they are not making the necessary changes to our refugee system. For example. first of all, we need to denounce Trump’s hateful rhetoric and his approach is particularly targeting Muslim communities. On our side, we also need to make policy changes including repealing the safe third country agreement. I was in Manitoba the last number of months, there were a number of asylum seekers that were crossing the border in very treacherous conditions and most of them were Somali and Muslim and because of the safe third world country agreement that had no choice but to come at the dead of night in -30 weather and as they crossed there was no system.

We need to repeal the STC agreement, we need to ensure that there are just ways of asylum seekers applying for asylum in Canada, recognizing that they are not only leaving their home country but also a toxic environment in the U.S. I would simply also boost our support for immigration and recognize that many people want to come to Canada to contribute to our society and to build a family, a future. Unfortunately, immigration in Canada has become more and more difficult to access unless you have significant funds. The reality is we need people with skills and different backgrounds, expertise to come as we have such an approach in the past - but we’ve definitely distanced ourselves from it. I think there’s a number of policy areas where if Canada is going to be real about not targeting Muslim and racialized communities then repealing bill C-51 is critical and certainly putting forward policy that looks at getting at the structural barriers - not just putting out tweets and hashtags about welcoming refugees.

Question:  Nationally, hate crimes are on the rise. Statistics Canada released figures in 2016 that showed Islamophobia had doubled in a three-year time frame. During that time, we saw a mosque firebombed in Peterborough, and in January of this year we saw 6 innocent men murdered in their place of worship in Quebec. Do you think this Islamophobia is a problem for our country? Do you feel the passing of motion M-103 will help address this issue and is there more that can be done?

I absolutely think that islamophobia is a rising problem. One of the most powerful moments in this campaign was when I visited the mosque in Quebec City in May. We’d gone just before the beginning of Ramadan and we had the opportunity to meet with one of the members and he said people were only now beginning to come back and that during Ramadan everyone would be coming back. But, it was clear the pain was still very much there. And the conversation shifted into the work that needs to be done to combat islamophobia. One of the things he said, and this was a man in his 70s, “people keep telling us we need to integrate, but I don’t know what that means”, he said “I’ve been here for 40 years, my kids were born here, they’re professionals, their own kids were born here, they contribute to this economy, this society. What do they mean we need to integrate”? It was clear the grief was still very much alive, but, so was the need to fight against islamophobia was very much alive as well. I do believe the NDP has historically worked in solidarity with Muslim communities, I believe going forward that relationship will be critical. I don’t feel like we are seeing the leadership that’s necessary from other parties. Yes, we supported M103 - but it doesn’t actually get at the resources that support what need to fight islamophobia. We need to go beyond the vast structural barriers that exists (employment, policing, public safety, immigration, refugee systems). It's important for the NDP to play a role is to work directly with grassroots organizations and supporting/defending what they’re fighting for. The NDP is a party that should be very connected with the grassroots. We ought to be there to support the struggle as it’s being taken on in the communities across the countries.

Question: As Prime Minister, what practical steps would you take to protect other mosques in Canada from experiencing the tragedy that took place in Quebec?

Obviously, setting a clear stand against hate and the rise of white supremacy is critical and it should start from the top. It would also be very important for me to work with jurisdictions, provinces, municipalities and taking on the rise of islamophobia as it exists today. Looking at how we can support provincial and municipal jurisdictions and Muslim communities in ensuring safety. I would say that we need to send a signal to public safety, police forces that we don’t need resources or time spent on enforcing bill C-51 - what we do need is to ensure that communities that are under attack and are being targeted, are safe. It’s a question of priorities and I think when we're talking about directives and our police forces - there needs to be a stop to carding, racial profiling and that changing the culture of our police forces and making it clear that that’s not what makes communities safer - in fact that puts people at risk. We need to work together to make sure that this kind of discrimination is no longer taking place. We often talk about how horrible Trump is, but, ignore the reality of our own country. There’s no question that there needs to be national leadership right now. That’s something that I would very much be focused on providing, with the help of communities and other jurisdictions.