NDP Leader Tom Mulcair on his Urban Agenda
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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair on his Urban Agenda

We sat down with Mulcair to ask about his party's plans for Toronto and the GTA.

Tom Mulcair wants you to know that he considers Toronto the most important city in Canada.

The New Democratic Party leader made the remark more than a couple of times during his recent media and event blitz through the GTA in preparation for this year’s federal election campaign. We caught up with Mulcair yesterday at a café up the street from City Hall to ask the opposition leader about housing, transit, and how an NDP government would affect the GTA.

Torontoist: On Sunday at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, you talked about an urban agenda for Toronto and the GTA. How did your ideas about cities and their place in our country develop?

We’ve got a team that includes a lot of people from our large cities who work on issues that affect people every day. Some would see that as more removed from the federal government—issues that Jack [Layton] worked on when he was in municipal politics, like homelessness and social housing and taking care of the urban core. These issues are in our DNA. But often, especially since the Liberals started withdrawing from funding those programs under [former prime minister Jean] Chretien, people don’t see a federal government role in this anymore.

If you look at it objectively, Canada is one of the most urbanized nations in the world. And it’s not just about people’s lives—issues like housing and food security are crucial to individuals—it’s also a big economic question. How gridlock [occurs] in a city like Toronto, where commute times are higher than New York or Los Angeles or London.… We’ve reached a tipping point. This has to become a national priority; that’s when things get done. So it’s not wanting to take the place of the provinces and territories, but wanting to become a solid, reliable partner in coming to grips with issues like transit, like housing.

I’ve always understood that it’s good to have a federal role. There are federal instruments that can be put into play to help. The Liberals stopped all federal funding; the Conservatives are letting money lapse, and they’re going to stop the deals that are there right now for co-op housing, social housing across the country. It’s a massive problem. We’ve come to the simple realization that we have to offer a reliable partner.

Do you see an urban-rural divide in our discussions about Canada, and does that make it hard to talk about prioritizing cities?

I think that’s part of it, but when you have convictions, you’ve got to be able to state them straight-up. One of the reasons we have rural areas that are strong, where people can earn a living compared to other rural areas around the world, is that the economy is based on strong cities that have to be able to move people and goods. If we get everybody on board in understanding that it’s in the interest of everybody in Canada, no matter where they live, to help the most important city, which is Toronto—and that’s a Montreal guy saying that—and helping our other big cities to be able to move people with proper infrastructure, proper transit, then that’s a good thing overall.

You mentioned on Sunday that you want to bring back a minister of urban affairs, which we haven’t had in Canada for a few decades now. Tell us more about that.

It’s an indication of the importance we give to this topic. I’ve been in government since the ’70s and you can boil that down to a few constants that repeat over and over again. One of the constants is, when you make something a priority, it can actually get done. For us, this is going to be a priority, and the way to show that federally is to make sure we have someone specifically tasked with the job.

Matt Kellway, who is our member for Beaches–East York, is specifically tasked with dealing with urban issues. We’re the only political party in Canada that has someone responsible for urban issues. (Editor’s note: The Liberal party has assigned Trinity–Spadina MP Adam Vaughan to the file.) We’re making it a priority and we want Canadians to know that as we head into the next campaign. We will be working with provinces and cities to help in areas like transit, like housing. Jack was such a strong believer in that, and he came out of municipal politics. I have no hesitation to say I’ll work with the provinces and territories—I come out of provincial politics. [Prime Minister] Harper won’t even sit down with the provinces and territories. In the whole time he’s been PM—he’s in his 10th year—he’s not attended a single meeting of the Council of the Federation. We’re going to hold two a year: one in Ottawa, and one on a rotating basis. I will attend every single one of them.

You said Sunday you want to take more of the gas tax that’s currently being collected, and devote it to public transit. Explain that.

One cent of the gas tax translates into $420 million dollars of new money; $90 million of that will go to the GTA.

And where is that money going now?

It’s the existing tax, and it’s currently going into general coffers. It would be transferred to the municipalities through their federal governments.

You’ve also been talking about housing. You mentioned Sunday that several federal housing grants for Toronto are soon set to expire. You seemed to suggest you would revive some of these grants. How would you do that?

Well, letting them lapse is going to be a massive problem. A lot of that housing stock, it’s not just the funding that will lapse, it’s actually of an age where it will be in serious need of repair, otherwise the stock will be lost. So instead of abandoning them, we should be adapting. There are tools that could be created to work better with the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, for example. Conservatives don’t believe in a positive role for government in this. We do. We find it unacceptable that in a country as rich as Canada, so many people are not properly housed.

Toronto is also making a separate pitch to provincial and federal governments to repair its severe repair backlog within Toronto Community Housing. Is that something you’ll commit to?

Absolutely, and with good reason. How can we continue with this Canadian attitude that you build stuff, then let it rot and fall down and move on to something else? This is what we’ve done with a lot of our infrastructure. Compare and contrast that with Europe, where ongoing maintenance and care is built into a project. Here we’re watching housing stock that could continue to take care of families for generations to come, and we’re letting it fall apart. That’s irresponsible and of course we’ll move in and help.

But presumably we’d need more revenue to fulfill your housing promises, wouldn’t we?

Yeah, but don’t forget that governing is about priorities. I’ve sat around a cabinet table. When we talk about the things we’re going to do, it doesn’t necessarily mean we keep everything that Stephen Harper is doing, and then add more stuff on. Some of the stuff he’s doing, we wouldn’t do. His debacle with the new fighter jets is a good example. His income-splitting scheme, taking billions of dollars from the middle class and giving it to the richest 15 per cent, we’re going to strike that overnight. That money then becomes available to do good things.

You’ve been talking about inclusion and diversity during your GTA visit. Toronto is one of the only places in this country with neighbourhoods where you can see several women wearing the niqab. This clothing has recently been a controversial issue in Ottawa, particularly around citizenship ceremonies. What is the NDP’s position?

The only person I know who is trying to tell Muslim women how to dress is Stephen Harper. One of their arguments is, always, it must be their brothers and fathers or husbands telling them what they should be wearing. The NDP’s position is that people are allowed to practise their religions, and, when the time comes, depending on the issue, the courts can always determine the extent to which the Charter applies in any given case.

Stephen Harper has been singling out Muslims in a way that I find absolutely unacceptable from a sitting prime minister. If you listen to [U.S.] President Obama talk about the issue of radicalization, he’ll talk about the need to work with communities, educational institutions, faith groups, houses of worship—generic terms. Mr. Harper singles out mosques. He’s talking about Islam, he’s singling out Muslims, and that’s a dangerous slippery slope towards Islamophobia. That word’s not too strong when you watch the behaviour and the wording of Stephen Harper.

Last week, he stood in the House and said that [the niqab] emanates from a culture that is anti-women. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, so that kind of generalized term shows just how dangerous this has become in terms of our public discourse. Interesting, too, by the way, is that everybody thinks the niqab case was all about saying that the Charter of Rights applies, and that you are allowed to wear a niqab during a citizenship ceremony. What that decision actually says is that it had always been allowed. The person had to identify themselves visually to someone in the government to take a written citizenship test.

The problem here, as it often is, was the Conservatives, and in particular, as it often is, [Conservative cabinet minister] Jason Kenney. Kenney purported by his own directive to change the law, which of course he can’t. You can’t contradict the clear of the law. I want people to remember that this whole issue was generated by the Conservatives themselves.

Finally, you’ve frequently mentioned the late Jack Layton, who brought this party to new heights and was well-admired. How can the NDP hang on to the gains Layton made?

People come up to us in any corner of Canada, and it’s almost always the same message—which is, ‘When are you going to get rid of Harper?’—because they see me standing up to him. When Jack worked so hard that we became official opposition for the first time in our history, we had two jobs to do. One was to hold the government to account, and the other was to show ourselves as the government in waiting. On the first score, anyone looking at this objectively will tell you we’ve done a pretty good job. I‘ve stood up to Stephen Harper, I’ve taken him on every single day. I can promise you he doesn’t enjoy question period when I’m asking the questions.

On the second part, look at the team we have here in Toronto as emblematic of what we’re able to accomplish. We’re planning to form Canada’s first social-democratic government. The reason we honestly believe we can do that is because of the team we’ve got, because of the policies we have, and the heritage we have, whether it’s Jack, Dave Lewis, Tommy Douglas, Alexa McDonough.

Listen carefully to the Liberals and Conservatives. They’re trying to have it both ways. On key environmental issues, Mr. Trudeau won’t even have a federal role in enforcing our obligations under Kyoto. He thinks he can get the provinces to do that. That’s wishful thinking, that’s not leadership. Saying that you’re going to vote for Bill C-51? That’s not leadership. Canadians are now starting to take measure of the three parties, and for the first time in our history, we will have a three-way race. Like hockey, the playoffs are whole new season. Election campaigns count more than ever in Canada, and we’re going to run one hell of a campaign. We’re taking on Harper, and we want Canadians to know that the only way they’re going to get the change they want is to vote for the NDP.