Trinity-Spadina Byelection Candidates: Joe Cressy of the New Democratic Party
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Trinity-Spadina Byelection Candidates: Joe Cressy of the New Democratic Party

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

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Joe Cressy is the NDP candidate in Monday’s Trinity-Spadina federal by-election. Photo taken from

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 Joe Cressy of the New Democratic Party—he’s a former senior advisor at the Stephen Lewis Foundation, an environmental activist, and the 2011 campaign chair for former member of Parliament Olivia Chow, who vacated the seat in Trinity-Spadina this year to run for mayor of Toronto.

Torontoist: There seem to be two major questions about oilsands production in Alberta: whether or not the oil should come to market at all and, if it should come to market, how it should get there. It appears Thomas Mulcair believes the oil should get to market. What is his plan to get it there, if not through the Keystone XL pipeline, which you’ve condemned?

Joe Cressy: I actually think the big issue is climate change. That’s what we’re talking about here. It’s one of the defining issues of our time. In Toronto it’s very real: ice storms and flooding, extreme weather. We look at weather patterns on the rise. It’s impacting us personally. So we have to make a decision here as a country, and at the federal government level. What are we going to tell our kids 60 years from now? That we ignored the science and we ignored the signs because we wanted to win an election? That’s not good enough.

The Keystone pipeline will accelerate climate change. Every single major environmental group in North America has said so. Communities are being impacted by it, local communities who oppose it. And then, of course, we’re looking at the economic realities of shipping raw resources south of the border as opposed to processing it here, and exporting jobs abroad. It doesn’t make sense for the environment, it doesn’t make sense for the economy.

As the NDP, we look at resource development in the following context: how should it be done sustainably? How should it be done in partnership with First Nations? We saw yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling just reaffirmed title for First Nations. So this has changed the pipelines debate yet again. And how should it be done with an eye to long-term prosperity? So, we support resource development, but it’s got to meet those factors.

At the moment, when we look at oilsands development, there is no target on emissions. We think we need a firm target and a cap-and-trade system to enforce it. We think, more than just a target on emissions, we need strong regulations in place to make sure that we have sustainable development that looks at issues around air and water quality. And we need to look at First Nations communities, downstream communities. So our position around resource development and pipelines is that we evaluate these on the basis of those conditions.

The Liberals support pipelines without any conditions. They support Line 9 without any conditions. They support Keystone without any conditions. It’s not good enough. They support Energy East [pipeline project] without any conditions.

But which, if any, of the plans to get oil out of Alberta do you support?

There’s not a proposal on the table that we’ve endorsed. We have said as a party that we support the principle of looking at energy development and resource development within Canada, with value-added jobs. If we can do that on the basis of doing it sustainably and in partnership with First Nations, and an eye to long-term prosperity, we’ll do that. We support resource development but on those conditions, because the issue here is climate change, as well as our economy.

We need to make a transition, ultimately to a new energy economy, and that means not subsidizing big oil—$1.4 billion a year by the Conservatives, $8.3 billion over 8 years by the Liberals when they were in government. It means putting a price on carbon and making sure that polluters pay, and it means respecting and listening to science.

Adam Vaughan says that the NDP says different things in different parts of the country, depending on where you believe it will play well with the public. What’s your response?

It’s not true, and Adam knows better than that. Tom Mulcair gave a widely regarded speech on this topic just a few months ago, talking about resource development and how we do it, and how we look at pipelines. The Liberals support these pipelines without any conditions. Adam Vaughan should explain why he personally supports a pipeline that every major environmental organization in North America opposes. We stand with the environment and with First Nations, not with the Keystone pipeline like Adam Vaughan.

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?

I look at this in the context of our Canada Health Act as a starting point. Our Canada Health Act—championed by Tommy Douglas and put in place because the NDP was there in a minority scenario. It’s not just about protecting the Canada Health Act, but strengthening it.

Stephen Harper closed immigrant refugee health centres, closed these offices. We’d restore that funding and re-open them. That’s a starting point. Conservatives have announced that they are going to cut $36 billion over the foreseeable future from health care in this country. We would reverse those cuts. The Liberals—and this is where it’s not just about what you talk about, it’s what you do—during the Liberal government years, they cut transfers to social [programs] and health by $25 billion over those 13 years. These cuts started under the Liberals; they’ve accelerated under the Conservatives. We would restore the funding.

It speaks to a broader issue here that we should not have two classes of residents or citizens in this country. The [proposed] new citizenship act bill would do that. Legal analysts and immigrant service organizations are furious at this act, because it creates two classes of citizens. So when we’re talking about the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, if you’re good enough to work here, you’re good enough to live here.

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 statistic in Toronto that I like: more people ride the TTC every day than live in 9 provinces or territories. We are an urban country—the face of our country has become a face that is Toronto and Calgary; it’s Vancouver and Montreal. Olivia Chow talks a lot about this in her mayoralty, and it’s true. We need a progressive urban agenda, and the biggest thing we need is to address the fiscal imbalance facing our cities. We get eight cents back on every tax dollar we create. It’s not good enough. We can hardly afford to deal with our parks and libraries, let alone dealing with the $171-billion infrastructure deficit; or the need for the need for stable, predictable, and permanent funding for transit; or to deal with child care and housing.

We need to deal with the fiscal imbalance, and so we need a progressive urban agenda. And the biggest issue as part of that agenda that I see is transit. It’s not just a quality-of-life issue around our commute times, it’s not just about the emissions created, it’s about the economy too. We’re losing $6 billion a year in productivity in the GTA alone, $11 billion across the country, and we have a $15 billion funding gap facing transit and municipalities over the next five years.

If we’re going to make our cities more livable, but also set the stage for the next generation and drive the economy for the next generation, we need a national transit strategy with stable, predictable, and permanent funding. I worked with Olivia Chow on her national transit strategy bill. We got 130 organizations on side, from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, to the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, to mayors like Naheed Nenshi. We had a vote in the House of Commons and unfortunately we lost. [Liberal leader Justin] Trudeau did not bother to show up for the vote.

On issues like transit, like a progressive urban agenda, you can count on the NDP to stand up and actually deliver results, like we did under Jack Layton in minority Parliament. The Liberals talk about these issues—we deliver on these issues.

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?

Absolutely yes, we need to change our electoral system desperately. When Stephen Harper wins a majority with 39 per cent of the vote, it’s not right. When Kathleen Wynne wins a majority with 28 per cent of the vote, it’s not right. When Bob Rae, as a former New Democrat, won a majority with 37 per cent of the vote, it wasn’t right. There are three countries in the Western industrialized world that have no form of proportional representation: Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. The three countries in that region with the lowest voter turnout? Canada, the U.S., and the U.K.

Our electoral system disempowers voters and makes them feel like their vote doesn’t count. If you’re a Conservative or a Green in Trinity-Spadina, some people say your vote doesn’t count. Well, it should count. Voters should be able to vote for who they believe in. So our party believes to our core in proportional representation—we need it.

We’re a progressive country. Liberals and Conservatives have been happy with the first-past-the-post system not because it reflects the values or the interests of Canadians, but because it helps them from time to time. That’s not good enough. I believe in proportional representation, and I think we need it now.

But I would go a step further. How else can we do voting reform to engage and motivate voters? Let’s look at weekend voting. If you want to have a music festival or the Santa Claus Parade or Pride, you do it on a weekend. And if we want to respect the Sabbath and respect people are going to church, let’s do it over a couple of days. Let’s consider and at least pilot online voting. But let’s do everything possible to make sure our electoral system reflects the voters’ wishes in this country.This is a key difference between the Liberals and the NDP. The Liberals oppose proportional representation—the NDP supports it, and we’d implement it.

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?

It’s absolutely time to restore the long-form census, but this is part of a bigger issue. We have a government under the Conservatives that believes in political-based fact-making, as opposed to fact-based decision-making. Over the last five years, the Conservatives have fired 2,000 scientists, and the ones they haven’t fired, they’ve muzzled.

We’re driving blind, whether it’s the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, the Ministry of the Environment, or whether we’re dealing with social services and the need for a long-form census to make sure that we actually know who’s living where, and how they’re doing.

Here in Trinity-Spadina, we have no idea who’s living in the condos in the south, because the government doesn’t ask them. It’s not right. What we need in this country is to embrace the notion that we need to respect science and evidence, and let it guide our decisions. I believe to my core that evidence should be the guide, and that what evidence will point to is the need for more progressive governments to deal with the issues our communities face, whether it’s climate change, or income inequality, or the need for more immigrant health centres.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.