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Kevin O’Donnell makes bid for Ottawa Centre

Green Party candidate says he supports a secular education system

Green Party candidate Kevin O’Donnell says he would support the provincial availability of PEP and PrEP, as well as a secular public school system. Credit: Temara Brown

Kevin O’Donnell believes it’s time for some decisive changes in Ontario. A computer programmer by day, the father of one is deputy leader of the Green Party of Ontario. He’s running for the second time in Ottawa Centre, hoping to unseat Liberal incumbent Yasir Naqvi as MPP.

Xtra chatted with O’Donnell on a busy Thursday morning about where he stands on the issues and what changes he has in mind for Ottawa Centre and for the province if elected. Here’s what he had to say:

Education
O’Donnell says he’s in favour of the Green Party’s stance, which would support a shift to a secular, publicly funded school system instead of public and Catholic boards. The new model would see English and French boards, both publicly funded, as is the model in Quebec. Private religious schools would still exist but would not receive any public funding.

“[The Green Party’s] calculations show the savings from going to an English-French public system would be up to $1.6 billion,” O’Donnell says. “That’s a lot of money to just turn it right around and send it back to teachers in the classroom.”

But it isn’t only a financial matter — O’Donnell says moving to a secular school system is also a matter of human rights. He says giving preference to one religion, as is the case now with the Catholic school board, is unfair. “It’s unjust that one religion in Ontario gets special treatment from the taxpayer and no other religion does.”

From a human-rights standpoint, O’Donnell says the move would also ensure equal access to employment in schools for the LGBT community. “A whole bunch of people in Ontario, LGBTQ . . . are prohibited from working openly in one third of the schools that Ontario pays for,” he says.

Moving to a secular school system would also simplify the GSA debate, O’Donnell says. “The only reason we have to have this GSA debate is because public money is going into the Catholic system. You take the public money out, I have no view of this at all. If parents choose to send their children to a privately funded Catholic school, that is a parental decision and they have the freedom to do that.”

Harm reduction
O’Donnell says he’s in support of safe consumption sites in Ottawa and Ontario, including safe injection sites. “I think that’s appropriate and should be done,” he says. “It’s much cheaper to manage a healthcare problem, which is exactly what addiction is; it’s a health problem. It’s not a social problem, it’s not a crime problem.”

O’Donnell worked in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for a number of years and says he saw the efficacy of safe injection sites in that city. He says they are much less disruptive than people fear they will be.

“Safe injection sites mean [users] are not injecting on the street with disposed needles,” he says. “Bringing them inside where they have a nurse will first save that life if they OD at that very moment. It’s also probably their only exposure to the system that is not confrontational.”

He says many users typically interact only with healthcare and anti-addiction services in situations where the care is being forced on them, such as after a 911 call, whereas users who seek out safe injection sites on their own are much more likely to respond positively to receiving care.

“People’s fears are valid because they come from honest places,” O’Donnell says, “but the reality is we should not fear a safe injection site at all.”

PEP and PrEP
O’Donnell says that he’s not totally familiar with the PEP and PrEP issue but that he would support their being availabile in Ontario and funded by the province. He relates the issue to his own near-brush with high cholesterol after a routine checkup a few years ago.

“Had I been diagnosed with high cholesterol, I would’ve been prescribed cholesterol medication that would have allowed me to remain healthy,” he says. That medication, he notes, would have been made freely available to him by the province of Ontario.

“It’s a good idea that the health system offers me this free service,” he continues, “because it really just saves more money than me not taking cholesterol pills because I either can’t afford it or choose not to because I have to pay.”

Preventative therapy, he argues, is simply more cost-effective than caring for people once they’re already sick. “In my mind that PEP and PrEP regime falls right into [that category]. The cheapest thing we can do is prevent illness, so let’s do that.”

Access to midwives

When O’Donnell’s daughter was born, he and his partner used the services of a midwife. “It was having a baby as a natural course of life, not as a healthcare concern,” he says. He wants fewer barriers between hospitals and midwives so that, whether women choose to give birth at home or in the hospital, they can still have access to their services.

“I would have been upset if the midwives who were helping us all the way through were somehow prevented from walking through the doors of the hospital,” he says of his daughter’s birth. “That would not be right. The midwives are there to provide specialized care — why wouldn’t we allow them to continue that care into the hospital?”

“I hope that everyone has the same access that I did, and if that access is not equal across Ontario, it should be.” 

Transit and cycling infrastructure
As an avid cyclist who commutes all year round, O’Donnell says he wants to see more cycling infrastructure in the city and the province. He says the Green Party wants to see two percent of the province’s annual $3 billion transportation budget dedicated to walking and cycling infrastructure.

For Ottawa, this would be about $3 million per year, he says. “That’s a pedestrian or cycling bridge every other year before Ottawa puts in any money.”

“The NDP and the Liberals have proposed very anemic funds — it’s more like a token,” he says of his opposition, adding that currently the Ontario Ministry of Transportation does not allocate any of its budget for cycling or pedestrian infrastructure. “It’s the Ministry of Transportation — it’s not the Ministry of Cars.”

He also wants to see congestion charges implemented on the Queensway during peak-use hours so that drivers pay a portion of the funds required to develop and maintain roads. The amount of space freed up on roads by people paying to ride the LRT makes this a fair arrangement, he says, adding that the LRT development will be like adding two extra lanes to the Queensway in terms of the traffic it will reduce.

“It’s . . . fair to make [drivers] pay a little bit for the two lanes that get created because a whole bunch of people left the Queensway and got on a train, just like it’s fair that you ask people today to pay a fare to get on the bus.”

Sustainable development
O’Donnell says he supports the Green Party’s stance on reforming the property tax system as a whole. “The core areas where it’s cheapest to provide the services, actually every year they fund disproportionately more and more of the city revenue, and that’s because the property taxes are levied based on the value of the land and the value of the building on top.”

The Green Party’s model proposes taxing only the land, which would mean downtown condo taxes would go down. O’Donnell says it would also encourage high-rise growth to move out of the downtown core and into the suburbs, because it would be less expensive than building single-family homes. “Ideally, we’re going to start to see some mid-rise development out in Kanata.”

O’Donnell would also like to end hydro subsidies and return the money saved to the Ontario Child Benefit for low-income and poverty-level families. “It’s an extra $100 in the pockets of people that desperately need every single dollar that they can have. It will mean that I will pay about $10 more a month on my hydro bill.”