Trinity-Spadina Byelection Candidates: Camille Labchuk of the Green Party
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Trinity-Spadina Byelection Candidates: Camille Labchuk of the Green Party

Our second of three candidate interviews ahead of Monday's federal byelection.

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Torontoist reached out to the major candidates in the upcoming Trinity-Spadina byelection to get their views on five important federal issues. On Friday, we sat down with Camille Labchuk of the Green Party of Canada—she’s a criminal-defence lawyer, an animal-rights activist, and a campaign organizer for her party leader Elizabeth May. Labchuk sits on the board of Mercy for Animals Canada, which investigates conditions on factory farms in Canada.

Torontoist: Elizabeth May and the Green party have a different stance than the other major parties on managing oilsands development in Alberta. What is your party’s plan?

Camille Labchuk: All of the other parties in the House of Commons want to expand the oilsands. Stephen Harper is probably the worst offender: his party would like to increase it from about 1.8 million barrels per day to almost triple that, at 5 million barrels per day. The Green party is alone in saying: let’s limit oilsands growth. What we should be doing is moving toward a clean, green energy future. Fossil fuels are a fuel of the past. The Green party is the party of the future, and we say: move away from fossil fuels.

To accomplish that, the first thing we have to do is limit the growth of the infrastructure that increases the capacity of the oilsands to ship the product to market. We don’t want to be building new infrastructure to export the expansion, and that’s inevitably what will happen.

The second issue with respect to pipelines is we have to think about what’s being shipped out: it’s bitumen. Bitumen has the consistency of peanut butter. To get it into a form where it can flow through a pipeline, you have to mix it with a toxic diluent substance. It’s a natural gas condensate that is shipped from places like the Middle East, which we say we’re trying to move away from in terms of oil reliance. It has to be shipped into Alberta, mixed with the bitumen, which is then shipped out again.

Dilbit, as they call the mixed product, is incredibly toxic and incredibly difficult to clean up—we don’t even know how to properly clean it up. The Kalamazoo River spill of dilbit resulted in a catastrophe that, over $1 billion later, is still not cleaned up. So it’s a disaster for our environment, a disaster for our communities, and we’re saying: no unrefined bitumen should be shipped from the tarsands.

The other issue is that it doesn’t actually make economic sense to ship this product out of Alberta and then refine it elsewhere. Those jobs should stay in Alberta and we should build refineries there to take the product that is being produced, remove it from the tarsands, and get it to market.

At the doorsteps I’ve been hearing a lot about pipelines. The NDP have tried very carefully to frame this issue as a referendum on the Keystone XL pipeline. That’s not working. The NDP have their pipeline as well. They support a west-to-east pipeline to ship toxic tarsands oil out of Alberta. That’s a problem for the same reasons that Keystone is a problem, and for the same reasons that Northern Gateway [pipeline proposal] is a problem.

The Pembina Institute has estimated that a west-to-east pipeline would create more emissions than Keystone XL. I’m the only candidate in this race without a pipeline, and people are very receptive to that message.

A lot of people look at what’s happening in Alberta and see prosperity. They see people who have no jobs in other parts of the country moving to Alberta to make a living. How can you tell those people that the oilsands are not part of the economic future of this country?

We need to diversify our economy and, in particular, we need to start building the green economy. The Green party says we shouldn’t have to ship people from other areas into the tarsands to provide the labour force. We should provide economic opportunities right at home.

One of the ways we would do that is through massive reinvestment in green energy and renewables. The David Suzuki Foundation issued a report that indicated that with a little bit of support from the government, Canada could become a green-energy superpower, and produce all of the energy we need from renewable sources like hydro, wind, and solar. The capacity is there—the political will is missing. That’s what we bring to the table.

We just passed the two-year anniversary of a federal government decision to deny health care to refugee claimants and even some accepted refugees. According to a study done by SickKids hospital in Toronto, refugee children’s hospital admissions doubled after Ottawa cut the Interim Federal Health Program. What, if anything, needs to be done about this?

This Harper policy is a complete abdication of our responsibility to take care of each other. Our responsibility is to help people who come from war-torn countries and violent situations, who have come to Canada to seek a better life. Is it our obligation to care for them once they get here? It absolutely is, for moral reasons and for financial reasons as well. Cutting refugees out of the health-care system at an early stage doesn’t save us money in the long run. It actually costs more because these individuals suffer more health ailments, which the government is then on the hook for. It’s a false economy, and abdication of our moral responsibilities, and an effort to offload the costs of treatment to hospitals themselves.

What has ended up happening is that hospitals, because they’re staffed with doctors and nurses and administrators who care about people and about their health, they’re not refusing refugees. They’re treating them and they’re paying for it out of their own budgets, outside of the health-care coverage scheme.

The Green party is committed to providing health-care coverage for refugees and all of those who come to this country in need of help. What we’ve been doing is an indecent thing to do as human beings to members of our community.

We live in Canada’s largest city, and 80 per cent of Canadians now live in urban areas. What’s the most important thing Ottawa can do to support cities?

The biggest fiscal imbalance in this country is not between the provinces and the federal government, it’s between municipalities and the other levels of government. The federal government needs to become a partner to municipalities. We need to provide the funding for their services and for the massive reinvestments in infrastructure, including transit, that we in Toronto all know we need simply to get around.

It’s been too many decades that municipalities have been starved for funding, and the federal government has a role to play in that. We say a couple of things: first of all, increase the federal gas tax transfer to five cents per litre for municipalities. We say create a series of municipal superfunds, money held by the federal government that is granted to municipalities for projects in a variety of areas, including urban transit, brownfield renewal, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, affordable housing—all of the things people in cities need to live happily and healthily.

How would you pay for this?

We want to increase the transfer of the existing gas tax to five cents a litre. On the idea of raising new taxes on gas, the Green party is the only party that calls for a carbon fee at the source: an amount placed on fossil fuels at their source that sends a clear signal throughout the marketplace that we need to move away from dirty, polluting fossil fuels, and towards cleaner, greener energy.

This would be a revenue-neutral scheme. The fee would be paid and would result in higher energy costs in certain areas. But the beauty is that, under our plan, each Canadian would receive a carbon bonus at quarterly increments, basically a rebate in relation to the increased costs that we would be paying.

In 2011, Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada won a majority government with just under 40 per cent of the popular vote. Harper can control votes in the House of Commons, and has appointed 58 senators after promising he would not appoint any. Yet 60 per cent of Canadians rejected him in the election that saw him gain majority rule. Is it time for electoral reform in Canada and, if so, does your party favour any replacement for the current system?

Most people in this country have always opposed Stephen Harper’s anti-climate agenda, his anti-people agenda, his attempts to undermine the use of science in making public policy, and everything else he’s done to undermine Canada as a country. It’s a tragedy that our first-past-the-post system has allowed such an individual with less than half the support of the Canadian population to rule every aspect of our lives.

First-past-the-post made a lot of sense when there were two parties in the running. Once you introduce more than two, the result perverts the will of voters and delivers false majorities. It delivers over- and under-representations for parties based on regional factors. The Green party has been a proponent of proportional representation since our very existence. We say: let’s start to look at what electoral reform models make sense for Canada.

I’m personally a big fan of the citizens’ assembly process that was used in Ontario and British Columbia. When you get citizens together in a room and give them full information about different models of democracy, they will come up with the best decision and find the system that works best in their province or country.

I’m a personal fan of mixed-member proportional representation. I think it would be advisable to do it on a regional basis to ensure that we have regionally focused representation in Canada. But I would be content with starting to look at the question and seeing what advisors and Canadians come up with that makes sense for us. One thing is clear: we need a model that represents people in Parliament proportionate with how they voted. The number of seats you have should reflect the number of votes you get in an election.

I don’t hear the NDP and the Liberals talking about this. The NDP does support proportional representation, which is great. But I don’t hear them pushing for it. The Liberals do not support proportional representation and never have. Frankly, I think it’s because Liberals and Conservatives have always governed in this country. They see Stephen Harper in power at the moment, but they might see themselves in power in the future under the same system.

These parties are happy to take their time out when they think the system requires it, as long as there’s a chance for them to get a chance at another false majority in the future. I think that’s unconscionable. It’s also a moral issue. The reason that Canada is failing in our climate responsibilities is because we don’t have proportional representation. If Parliament reflected that most people in this country do want climate action, the Conservatives would never have been allowed to implement their anti-climate agenda. Any party in this country that’s serious about stopping climate change must be a proponent of proportional representation.

The Harper government scrapped the mandatory long-form census in 2010. The head of Statistics Canada resigned in protest of the government’s decision. Many statisticians and bureaucrats say the survey that has replaced the census is inadequate for understanding the circumstances and needs of Canadians. Can we continue to govern without a long-form census, or should we bring it back?

Let’s be clear: this is part of Stephen Harper’s scheme to completely eviscerate the use of science and evidence in the making of public policy. He favours policies based on ideology, not based on what we know the facts to be. Without the long-form census, we don’t know what areas of the country need services, we don’t know where people are vulnerable and are struggling to get by. We don’t know how populations are shifting around, and we’re unable to provide services in the way that people need them.

It is bad public policy to make decisions based on ideology. The Green party, more than any party I would say, believe we need to focus on evidence when coming up with policies, not on what is popular or easy. The Green party would reintroduce the long-form census, and we would quickly reverse other cuts that Stephen Harper has made to science, including slashing Environment Canada’s budget, muzzling scientists in the government, and the destruction of literature possessed by [the Department of Fisheries and Oceans] libraries, which is about the closest thing we’ve seen to burning books in this country in the last century.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.