Niki Ashton’s campaign for re-election as Churchill-Keewatoinook Aski MP was in her hometown of Thompson Aug. 19, where she spoke about party promises such as justice for Indigenous people, higher taxes on the rich and action to combat climate change.
The NDP candidate’s campaign began earlier this week in Peguis First Nation – the largest First Nation in the riding – before moving on to Sagkeeng and north to Thompson with a stop in Norway House Aug. 18. Ashton will be in Flin Flon and The Pas to continue her campaign whistle-stop tour Aug. 20.
Ashton said her party would rather have continued working with the Liberals to help the government offer Canadians the things they need during unprecedented times but that Justin Trudeau decided to have an election instead.
“This election timing was not our choice,” she said, adding that Trudeau is not entitled to a majority. “It’s unfortunate because this is a risky time for our country. We have a fourth wave that is already being talked about. People are concerned about the pandemic. This is not the time for an election.”
The circumstances of the election mean it will be somewhat different than Ashton’s five previous campaigns dating back to 2006, two years before she won her first of four straight elections.
“Our commitment is to get out to as many communities as possible across our region to share our progressive vision for our north, for northern and Indigenous communities, to engage people and keep fighting for our region,” she said. “Because of the possibility of a fourth wave, we’re going to be very careful in how we do this work. We’re doing what we can to make sure people stay as safe as possible.”
Speaking about the NDP platform, Ashton said that justice for Indigenous people isn’t just about helping them find out the truth about what happened to children who went away to residential school and never came back, as well as repatriating their remains, but also bringing quality of life in First Nations to the same standard that it is for other Canadians.
“We need to put an end to poverty on First Nations,” she said.
Money to do that could come from higher taxes on high-income earners.
“During this pandemic we’ve seen some of the richest people in our country make massive profits on the backs of working people,” Ashton said. “Our commitment as New Democrats is to make the rich pay their fair share, to go after those that got the wage subsidy and, instead of reinvesting and making sure Canadians had jobs, put it back into shareholder profits and profits for their executives. We’re also saying that the rich need to pay their fair share and pay more like they did years ago. We need to make sure that that revenue comes back and is invested in things that matter to Canadians.”
Recent weather has made the effects of climate change clear, Ashton said, and the federal government needs to take action to mitigate it instead of buying pipelines.
“Here in the north and across Manitoba we’ve had an unusually hot and smoky summer. We’ve seen record forest fires, record heat waves, not just here but across Western Canada. This is a matter of life and death increasingly and we need to be leaders on this, not part of the problem.”
Ashton said she would speak about the mental health portion of the party platform during a stop in Flin Flon Aug. 20.
“We’ve seen mental health crises only increase, become more serious during the COVID pandemic and we’ve seen that here in our own region, the suicide crises in Tataskweyak Cree Nation, in Shamattawa First Nation, in other communities that have been struggling with this,” Ashton said. “We need to see the federal government reinvest in health care, reverse the cuts that Stephen Harper made to health care a number of years ago that Justin Trudeau only continued. We also need to make sure that there is a specific First Nations and northern strategy because of issues like isolation, remoteness that only makes things worse. That includes supports for traditional healing, which is something youth in Tataskweyak have been calling for. That includes for virtual services as well, which is something that I’ve heard from leaders in the north that youth are asking for.”
Mental health programs must also address the fact that different groups such as first-time mothers and LGBTQ youth and Indigenous youth have different struggles.
“We need to make sure that the mental health supports aren’t one-size-fits-all,” Ashton said.
Without the NDP members in Parliament, the federal government’s response to COVID would have been worse, in Ashton's view.
“There was really no plan to respond to the needs of First Nations communities,” she said. “March 14, 2020, I called for the military to come out and support and the feds said nothing but lo and behold that’s exactly what we needed when things got serious here on the ground.”
Economic supports would have been more meagre if the Liberals had had a majority, said the candidate.
“The Liberals were only willing to give $1,000 a month for CERB. We pushed for $2,000 a month. The Liberals only wanted to give a 10 per cent wage subsidy. It was the NDP that pushed for a major expansion of that, which was 75 per cent, and I know Vale and Perimeter and others accessed that program so it essentially ensured that people could keep working during the pandemic.”
Some Canadians might have also been left to fend for themselves.
“It was the NDP that pushed for the specific student supports, which were not enough, but it was something to work with,” Ashton said. “We pushed for disability supports. Those were inadequate as well which really speaks to the need for more supports more broadly for people who’ve been pushed to the margins in this pandemic crisis. If it wasn’t for the NDP, a lot more Canadians would have fallen through the cracks.”
Ashton also said she regretted having to make a trip to Greece visit her grandmother, who has since died, during the pandemic but that she didn’t violate any COVID-19 protocols.
“It was a very serious decision I didn’t make lightly,” she said. “It was a quick trip to say goodbye to somebody who helped raise me and was a big part of my life. There was a compassionate care exception. We followed all the rules both in terms of Canada and overseas.”
Compassion is also what drives her in politics, Ashton said.
“That guides the work that I do day in and day out. What I really hope folks will see is my commitment to fighting for our region. On Sept 20 I ask for your support to re-elect a strong voice in Parliament, a voice that gets results for our region, a voice that is part of an NDP team that fights for northern and Indigenous communities, that fights for the justice that we all deserve.”