5 min

Jennifer McKenzie hopeful Ottawa Centre will choose NDP

School board chair to run for MPP seat

Jennifer McKenzie says she wants to see more sustainable urban development, as well as tax cuts for small businesses to keep downtown neighbourhoods such as the Village vibrant. Credit: Alan Dean

Jennifer McKenzie is hoping Ottawa Centre will choose NDP orange over Liberal red on June 12. McKenzie, who is also chair of the Ottawa Carleton District School Board (OCDSB), is running against Liberal incumbent Yasir Naqvi, Green Party candidate Kevin O’Donnell and PC candidate Rob Dekker.

As OCDSB chair, issues of education are obviously at the forefront for McKenzie. But she’s also passionate about small businesses and urban development that considers the character of existing neighbourhoods and the needs of the people who live there. Xtra spoke with McKenzie at her campaign office in Chinatown on June 2. Here’s what she had to say about the issues.

McKenzie has held the position of OCDSB chair for the past four years. She is also school board trustee for Somerset and Kitchissippi Wards. “I get calls from constituents and get to make policy that helps support their needs, and that’s been a real pleasure seeing the policy that we make translate into actual changes in the classroom and in the community,” she says.

Her decision to run for the NDP in Ottawa Centre was motivated by her opposition to Bill 115 (the Putting Students First Act), which subjects teachers to a two-year pay freeze and puts legal limits on the ability of unions and support staff to strike. She says she’s in favour of moving to a one-school system in Ontario, although she doesn’t feel it’s the most pressing issue for constituents in Ottawa Centre.

“I would say that in Ottawa Centre I haven’t heard it as a big concern because really, the public school board is the most prevalent school board here,” she says. “I don’t see myself driving this issue forward at any time, but if it’s something that people really care about, I certainly am on the record as supporting a one-school system.”

As far as GSAs, McKenzie points to the work of openly gay trustee Donna Blackburn in helping the groups to gain wider acceptance. She also affirms the OCDSB’s continued participation in the Capital Pride parade. “That, I think, of anything has transformed our school board,” she says. “It’s sent a message across the system that this was something that we were very proud of in our board, that we were inclusive, we were equitable and that everyone is welcome in our schools.”

Harm reduction
“I certainly support harm reduction,” McKenzie says. “I think everybody should have access to safe injection no matter where they are. I don’t think it should be specifically located, but I think it’s an important part of our healthcare.” Rather than one centrally located injection site for Ottawa, she says she wants to see a more targeted approach that allows people in all communities to access the care they need.

“If you live in Kanata, you should have access to safe injection,” she says. “If you live in Orleans, you should as well. It shouldn’t just be if you live in one particular area of the city. So I would be looking at across-the-board policy, but of course, I would support it wherever it went.”

PEP and PrEP
Like other candidates, McKenzie says she would need to know more about PEP and PrEP before she could form a definitive stance on their availability. But in principle, she says, she’s in favour of measures that keep people healthy. “Of course, keeping people from getting harmed and sick is an important part of our healthcare, and prevention and intervention is something I support in the schools and all sorts of areas. It’s a much better way to go than, you know, after the fact, when somebody is sick and have all the consequences that go with that. It makes a lot of sense.”

Transportation and infrastructure
McKenzie is a strong champion of cycling infrastructure, something she says is extremely important to the NDP. “We have in our environmental platform a cross-province connected cycling infrastructure,” she says. “It’s a huge part of our platform, and I’m very proud of that fact. I fully support alternatives to greenhouse-gas-emitting modes of transportation.”

She says alternative transportation is something she’s also spearheaded at the school board, implementing walk-to-school initiatives citywide in both the Catholic and public boards. “That’s, of course, good for everybody,” she says. “It’s good for the students, it’s good for the community, it’s good for the transportation authority in terms of not putting as many buses [on the streets].”

Walking to school is also an important tool for community building, she says, because it introduces children to their neighbours and makes the streets safer for them.

As for public transit, McKenzie says she supports LRT development but is very opposed to the city’s planned diversion of 2,500 buses a day down Albert and Scott streets. “I think it’s unfair to put all that imposition on one group of residents in Ottawa Centre,” she says. “There’s a lot of options for the city in terms of rerouting the buses; people can take a transfer — we don’t have to shave seconds off a commute. Everybody should feel the impact and have to make accommodations, not just one small group of people.”

Urban development
“One thing I think our current MPP has to answer for is the OMB [Ontario Municipal Board],” McKenzie says. “Everybody lives in fear of the OMB, and communities are making concessions they wouldn’t ever make without the OMB being present,” she says, referencing a 2011 move that tripled the amount of farmland that can be developed in Ottawa.

“That puts more cars on the road, it puts more pressure on our infrastructure, but it also means that we have to build schools and fire stations and municipal facilities, and not invest in our existing infrastructure.”

She says the OMB is partly responsible for what she feels is unchecked urban development in the downtown core. “We have these buildings that are completely out of proportion with the rest of our neighbourhood and our communities,” she says.

“As school trustee, I’ve written letter after letter after letter to the OMB, to the city, about the inappropriateness of these buildings and particularly how they affect our schoolchildren.” She says huge condo towers are a recipe for more car congestion in the streets and change the feel of established communities. “You have to build a community around cohesiveness, where everybody feels like they are a part of it and neighbours talk to neighbours and neighbours help each other. We don’t want to have insular communities. It all has to be built together.”

Small businesses
“I think the NDP is the only party that has a really pro small-business platform,” McKenzie says. “Our job creation gives a tax credit to every small business that creates a job, and as we know, small businesses are the engine of our economy.” She also points to the NDP policy of lowering taxes for small businesses but raising those of large corporations.

“There’s a lot of really pro small-business aspects of our platform, and I think that’s because we believe in main streets, and we believe in local businesses. We believe that that’s how our economy is going to thrive in the future.” Unchecked urban development, including condo properties that drive up rent and property taxes, can be incredibly detrimental to small businesses, she says.

She says she has canvassed Bank Street business owners, talking to them about the NDP’s proposed Job Creation Tax Credit, which would reimburse employers 10 percent of the salaries paid to new hires. “There’s built-in disadvantages for small businesses on our main streets,” she says. “They get in here, they build our community, and then they’re forced to leave when their rent or their taxes go up, when their electricity and their hydro rates go up, and . . . a lot of them are having to pack up and leave our downtown community.”