As the marathon campaign to replace the late Jack Layton as leader of the federal NDP nears the end of its fifth month, Churchill MP and Thompson MP Niki Ashton is staking out her territory on issues from immigration and national defence to health care and discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Ashton's stance on the Conservative government's moves to eliminate single-desk marketing of western Canadian wheat and barley through the Canadian Wheat Board - she's against it, at least without a vote - got a glimmer of hope in December, when Justice Douglas Campbell of the Federal Court of Canada agreed with the CWB's then board of directors that Minister of Agriculture Gerry Ritz acted in violation of the law when he failed to consult the CWB directors and hold a vote among producers before taking steps to eliminate the single desk.
"The government has to obey the law," Ashton told the Nickel Belt News on Dec. 7, the day that Campbell issued his ruling. "I actually put forward an opposition day motion that the government voted against, denoting that the government had a duty to follow the law and give western farmers a vote. We know that the plebiscite indicated that a majority of farmers want the wheat board and we also know how critical it is across the Prairie provinces including in our region, mainly for Churchill but also the Bayline and our northern economy more broadly. To see the court come out in favour of western Canadians having a voice is really positive and I certainly hope that the minister of agriculture and his government respect the ruling and that Canadians demand that the government follow the law."
Since then, however, the Harper government has not slowed down, and Bill C-18, which will end the wheat board monopoly, received royal assent on Dec. 15, a fact highlighted in the prime minister's year-end statement on the government's accomplishments in 2011.
"Our government has followed through on our commitments by ending the wasteful and ineffective long-gun registry, ending the Canadian Wheat Board monopoly, and giving western farmers the freedom to sell wheat and barley on the open market," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper's New Year's Eve statement.
A backgrounder accompanying that statement also highlighted another bill - C-27 - the proposed First Nations Financial Transparency Act, introduced and given first reading on Nov. 23, 2011, among the government's significant achievements for the year. That bill followed an earlier private member's bill, C-575, introduced in the third session of the 40th parliament by Conservative MP Kelly Block (Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar), and known as "An Act respecting the accountability and enhanced financial transparency of elected officials of First Nations communities," which passed second reading on March 3, 2011 by a vote of 151-128, with Ashton and all other NDP MPs voting against it. Among other things, bill C-27 would require the disclosure of chief and council's salaries on First Nations.
Ashton said in December that the NDP would not support the bill in its current form, though the party does believe in transparency and accountability when it comes to First Nations.
"What's important to us is to support transparency and accountability of First Nations with a particular emphasis on accountability to First Nations citizens but we feel that this needs to be done by working with First Nations in order to ensure that they have a greater say in their governance rather than the government imposing what they feel is the way to go," said Ashton. "The approach of this bill is very problematic and, like I said, it will be going through committee so things will happen there but in its current form we don't support the host, the range of things that it proposes to do. As the MP for Churchill I've heard from many people from First Nations across our riding that they want accountability, I've heard it from members, I've heard it from leaders and you know I think what we're saying is this accountability, the way to get this accountability, needs to be done by working with First Nations and the government's not doing that. They're not listening to the auditor general who made their own recommendations in this area. They're not listening to the Assembly of First Nations or First Nations on the ground and we're saying that yes, accountability is important but in order to ensure that accountability we need to be working with the people that are most affected and that most want this kind of accountability."
Ashton - who joined the leadership race on Nov. 5 - has raised less money than any of the other nine candidates who were originally seeking the leadership, including Nova Scotia MP Robert Chisholm and Quebec MP Romeo Saganash, who have since dropped out, according to quarterly financial reports filed with Elections Canada for the period from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011. In that time, Ashton raised $10,215 with all but one of her contributors providing $750 or less. In terms of actual money to spend, that amounted to $8,682.75, as 15 per cent of the money raised goes to the party to cover the costs of the leadership race. Nearly a quarter of the money Ashton raised - $2,400 - came from herself, her brother Alexander, her father Steve and he mother Hari Dimitrakopoulou-Ashton, with each putting up $600. Saganash, who raised $17,552 in the last quarter of 2011, and Chisholm, who brought in $35,400, were the second- and third-lowest in financial contributions received.
The top three, in contrast, all raised more than $100,000, with Brian Topp leading the way at $156,597, in addition to the $11,850 he raised in September when he was the only officially declared candidate. Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair was second, with $145,863 raised in the final quarter, while Toronto MP Peggy Nash brought in $108,223.
Ashton may not have deep pockets, but she does have seemingly boundless energy, which is much-needed when you're criss-crossing the country to attend events and drum up support. She also hasn't been shy about letting NDP members and the public know where she stands.
Since the start of the year, Ashton has voiced her positions on justice reform, foreign takeovers of Canadian firms, international relations, immigration and gender and sexual equality. She's said she would restore judges' ability to base sentences for crimes on the facts of a particular case, create a dedicated federal transfer to fund legal aid, end the criminalization of marijuana and other soft drugs, and let provinces decide whether to require registration of long guns. Ashton has also said she would reinstate family sponsorship immigration for parents and grandparents, which the Harper government has imposed a two-year moratorium on to reduce the backlog of applications, and that she supports the need for specific recognition of sexual orientation in the Canada Human Rights Act.
Ashton has also brought attention to the endorsements she has received - from B.C. MLA Michael Sather, Northern Ontario MP Carol Hughes and Quebec MP Francine Raynault most recently, as well as from numerous Manitoba politicians, including Deputy Premier Eric Robinson, Culture Minister Flor Marcelino, Trade Minister Peter Bjornson, her father Transportation Minister Steve Ashton, Radisson MLA Bidhu Jha, Brandon East MLA Drew Caldwell, Interlake MLA Tom Nevakshonoff, Tyndall Park MLA Ted Marcelino, The Pas MLA Frank Whitehead, Flin Flon MLA Clarence Pettersen, Winnipeg city councillor Ross Eadie, Pimicikamak Cree Nation Chief Garrison Settee, Keewatin Tribal Council Grand Chief Arnold Ouskan, Peguis First Nation Chief Glen Hudson, Mayor Alan McLauchlan of The Pas and Mayor Tim Johnston of Thompson.
The NDP will choose the candidate who will succeed Layton and replace interim leader Nycole Turmel at a leadership convention March 24.