The NDP incumbent and the former MLA looking to make Churchill-Keewatinook Aski a Liberal riding in the Oct. 21 federal election faced off in a debate in Churchill Oct. 8.
None of the riding’s other candidates – Conservative Cyara Bird, the Greens’ Ralph McLean or People’s Party of Canada candidate Kenneth Klyne – made the trip to the Hudson Bay port town to participate.
NDP candidate Niki Ashton said her party represented northern values of fairness, justice and equality and that the Liberal party under leader Justin Trudeau has a habit of saying one thing when it comes to Indigenous people and then doing another.
“All too often I’ve seen from the Liberal and Conservative governments the ways in which those values are not respected,” said Ashton, who has represented the riding since 2015 and its predecessor, Churchill, since 2008. “We have a history of a Liberal government that made all sorts of promises. Those things didn’t materialize. Instead what we got is a recent decision to fight First Nations kids in court … a prime minister who fired an indigenous attorney general. He talked about a different choice but he didn’t deliver.”
Liberal candidate Judy Klassen, who formerly represented Churchill as the Liberal MLA for Keewatinook in the provincial legislature from 2016 to 2019, urged voters to think strategically about whether it is better to have someone fighting for them from the outside or working for them as part of a government.
“As the MP I will be at the table with the purse strings and will be able to invest in Churchill and build this place to what you guys want it to be. We need to ensure that our vote is strategic. A vote for any other party other than the Liberals means that the investments [in the port and railway] are in jeopardy. I urge you to vote strategically.”
Responding to a question about what they would do if they have disagreements with their party leaders on issues that affected their riding, Klassen said her experience as an MLA taught her that collaboration and compromise were the keys to getting results.
“It’s just a matter of making compromise, working together, stressing the importance of how it would benefit the people here … to ensure that our voices are heard and not forgotten and paid attention to.”
On the topic of how the candidates would seek to ensure that federal government employees in isolated postings receive compensation to make up for the higher cost of living in northern and remote communities, Ashton said the cost of living is getting higher.
“Nobody is talking about how life is getting cheaper,” she said. “That’s a reality I think the federal government needs to recognize.”
Both candidates said they were in favour of restorative justice, with Klassen calling the prison system a different manifestation of the residential school system for Indigenous people.
“We’re taking people away from our communities and we’re taking away our mothers and fathers for breaches,” she said. “We could easily have some programs in our own communities and take care of our own and ensure they’re put on the right path rather than this punishing system where they’re not really rehabilitated back into society.”
Ashton said Liberal support for restorative justice is meaningless if if they aren’t addressing the root causes of poverty and crime.
“We know that there is a connection between children being pushed into the child welfare system and being more vulnerable when it comes to the criminal justice system,” Ashton said. “Let’s give youth a chance. It’s not enough as a Liberal government to talk about these nice things. It has to be comprehensive.”
Asked about the poverty rate in Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, where 64 per cent of children live in poverty, Ashton said it was the result of federal government policies over decades.
“It is the result of Liberal and Conservative policies, polices rooted in a paternalistic attitude that Ottawa knows best,” she said. “That mentality has to end.”
Klassen said more than 300,000 children in Canada had been lifted out of poverty through the Liberals increases to the child tax benefit.
“I am proud to be standing beside a Liberal government who is actually making those increases in our systems,” she said.
Ashton repeatedly attacked the Liberals for fighting a Human Rights Tribunal directive ordering them to compensate First Nations children harmed by discrimination in the child welfare system.
“Just a few days ago, Justin Trudeau’s government refused the directive from the Human Rights Tribunal to make sure that young people that have gone through the child welfare system can seek compensation. He quashed that directive. That, to me, is unacceptable, fighting kids who are on the margins. The prime minister, despite his commitments to reconciliation, has decided to not listen to that directive. The NDP has stood strong in calling on the government to reverse that decision.”
Klassen said that she would not be running for the Liberals if they weren’t committed to addressing inequality for Indigenous people such as herself.
“Don’t mislead them,” she said. “We will compensate. We will make it right because that’s why we’re here.”