Long-time NDP insider Brian Topp was the first to declare his candidacy for the party leadership after the death of Jack Layton. The native Quebecker and CEO of the actors’ union ACTRA quickly racked up a large number of major endorsements for his campaign and made headlines with proposals to return to the party’s roots by raising corporate taxes and taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for new social programs and infrastructure.
Recently, Topp issued a policy paper, “Taking the Next Step – Strengthening LGBTTQ Rights in Canada” (embedded below), in which he pledged to appoint a minister responsible for queer affairs who would be responsible for ensuring the government is inclusive in everything it does.
Xtra spoke with Brian Topp about how to build on the NDP’s momentum, what he thinks of his rivals’ plans to promote queer rights abroad, and why Stephen Harper hates pearl necklaces.
Why should members choose you?
I bring some good background to the job. I’m a bilingual Quebecker who’s worked across this country. I know this country very well. I worked very close with Jack Layton on all of his campaigns, and look at how far we’ve come. I worked at the heart of an NDP government that was fiscally responsible, economically literate and socially progressive and that was elected and reelected four times. We can do that federally, too.
Is it a liability that you’re not elected?
We have this debate in every leadership race. In 1961, a guy named Hazen Argue, who was a veteran member of the CCF caucus, argued with absolute passion and commitment that you had to be a parliamentarian because there was something magical about being an MP that fundamentally transforms you, and only an MP can be a leader of the party. Party members said, Hazen, we revere your service, you’re a great guy, but we’re electing Tommy Douglas — who wasn’t an MP.
The same argument was made by Lorne Nystrom two races ago. He was a veteran member of the House, made exactly the same arguments and the party said, We thank you for your service but we’re electing Alexa McDonough. Last time if anyone had the right to make this argument it was Bill Blaikie. He was the dean of the House, he had the most experience in the House of Commons, he made exactly the same arguments, but at the end of the day the party selected Jack Layton, who was not a parliamentarian, and it worked out okay.
What are the most important queer issues and how would you address them as prime minister?
Well, I think, let’s begin by saying that gay Canadians, like all Canadians, share common issues and values. And so I think all of us care about the fact that the Conservatives have broken the government, and that needs to be reversed if we’re going to work together. So we need government that is not about billions in dollars on tax giveaways to people who don’t need help but that we should be investing our dollars in people who do need help.
And all of us are worried about the fact that the governments have failed to act on climate change. We need a government that will act on it. And all of us are worried about the fact that Canada is increasingly unequal and we’re paying a heavy price for it. We all agree. I think that we need to act on these issues.
There are some specific issues that we need to act on. I think you know that our caucus is quite committed on these issues and has done some good work. Megan Leslie, for example, has been a leader on the issue of bullying, and I think that we need to pick up on that issue and act on it.
We need to take a look at legislation and regulations to make sure they’re inclusive of gay people, and we need to reverse the criminalization of HIV and AIDS. And there’s much else to do. For example, we need to reestablish our good name abroad, including on issues of concern to the gay and lesbian community.
How would you address HIV criminalization?
[In my LGBTTQ policy paper] I talk about decriminalizing HIV and ending the prosecution of Canadians based on their positive status. I talk about encouraging Canadian blood services to craft a donation policy based on unsafe practices and not sexual orientation, and passing legislation to fix the regime that is failing to provide countries with access to generic HIV medication. Government is explicitly discriminating against people just because they’re gay, not their sexual practices, which we shouldn’t be doing.
I think we need to define the issues in the Criminal Code, and aggravated assault should be defined, and therefore by definition what it is not.
How would you have Canada work for the freedom of gay and lesbian people in the rest of the world?
That was an interesting bi-play there on the issue of gay marriage. On the one hand you have government lawyers out there basically undermining all the progress that we made, and then in fairness, the government said that it wasn’t their intention that they were going to pass it in law. So provided that they actually do that, we can look at that and go, We’re making a bit of progress here, when even the Conservative government is seeking to put this beyond debate. That’s good.
There’s the Declaration of Montreal and the Yogyakarta Principles, and I intend to make a declaration that we’re going to proceed with those. And part of the issue here is just to speak up and say this is part of bringing development and justice to the world and being fair to everyone, including people who happen to be gay.
In French that’s called la stratégie de la chaise vide. That’s pursuing the strategy by having the chair be empty. That’s rarely wise. It’s a threat that is easier to make than to carry out or get results from after you’ve done it. You’re dealing with some very tough issues here with regard to some of the criminalization issues, particularly among African members. And the communities that are there aren’t looking for symbolic walkouts. They’re looking for friends who will work steadily until we achieve what we’re after.
We had debates like this in the Commonwealth over apartheid. The British government under Thatcher took an outrageous position on apartheid, and Canada — and here we have to give some credit to Mulroney, who was PM at the time — didn’t withdraw from the Commonwealth because they didn’t achieve the results that they wanted. They just said, We’re not going to stop arguing about this until we get to what we need to do. That’s how you make progress diplomatically; you be relentlessly determined until you get the job done.
Are you prepared to be a leader from outside the House for three years?
I intend to get into the House of Commons as quickly as possible, and it’s going to be before 2015.
Do you have an NDP MP who’s prepared to step down?
This is a delicate matter, as you can imagine, but I do intend to get into the House before 2015.
That strategy could pit you against newly elected but also seatless Bloc Québécois leader Daniel Paillé.
That would be very interesting. I think in the right circumstances that might be a very fine thing to do. The overwhelming majority of Quebec want to get rid of the Harper government, and they know perfectly well that the Bloc Québécois cannot do that.
Where are you going to get the 60 to 70 additional seats the NDP needs to form a government?
You begin by building where you’re strong, building out from where we have incumbents. We need to win in BC, and we need to win in Ontario, particularly in the GTA. The Conservatives won their majority here, and their most vulnerable seats are likely to be here. That’s where we need to focus, and it’s going to be in many of those ridings a straight NDP-Conservative fight.
How will the NDP rebuild in the Prairies?
Let’s begin with my sorest point, which is our result in Saskatchewan. We had one of our best electoral outcomes anywhere in Canada in Saskatchewan. We got over 30 percent of the vote in Saskatchewan, but didn’t get a single seat, and the reason why is an outrageously gerrymandered map that has quartered Saskatoon and Regina and brought in large rural areas with each little piece of the city, in a perfect map designed to elect Conservatives. To begin with, we need to be attentive to the fact that this electoral system is designed not to reflect the voting outcome.
We need to do a better job in the Prairies, there’s no doubt about it. The Conservatives have had a very good run there, but they’ve also made some big mistakes. Shutting down the Wheat Board was a big mistake over the opposition of a big majority of farm producers.
If the Wheat Board is so popular in the Prairies, why did the Conservatives do so well there? They weren’t hiding their plan to eliminate it.
I think we’ll win that argument when we see what that means, to hand over one of the foundations of the Prairie economy to international grain companies. There’s going to be good prices for a couple of years and then people in the farm community will be facing the same issues producers in the US do, which is that their input costs are driven up and their returns are driven down while profits are accumulated in a few hands.
What’s the strategy in the Toronto area?
At the end of the day Canadians all across Canada vote on national issues. And the duty of a national leader is to find the thread through all the pearls; what are the common issues, common enterprises, that we can do together as a country. This is my fundamental problem with Mr Harper. He is dismantling the necklace, and he doesn’t care about you and I, and he doesn’t think that there’s anything that we can do together.
There’s lots of regional issues that we need to talk about, too. In the GTA, a key issue is the inadequacy of the public transportation system and our infrastructure here. A key part of addressing climate change has got to be a national transportation system that includes a big emphasis on public transit. Some of the biggest challenges are here in the GTA.
There’s big issues facing not just the GTA but all our cities on access to housing. So we need a national housing strategy, public housing and co-op housing. We need to address poverty, which is concentrated in our cities, and child poverty.
Conservative governments are focused on reverse-Robin-Hood tax cuts in which they transfer money from working and middle-class families and give them to people who need them the least. And our take on them is we should take those resources and transfer them to more important priorities, one of them being housing and one being transit.
Can you hold on to Quebec and grow in Western Canada at the same time? It seems that the Quebec desire for greater autonomy runs counter to Western sentiment against special treatment.
There are no entitlements in politics. Nothing is permanent. Quebeckers are very loyal voters on the whole. They stuck with the Bloc for 20 years, they were very loyal to Mulroney, and they were loyal Liberal voters before that. We can look forward to a very strong support in Quebec for a very long run provided we do our job.
The way to reconcile the aspirations of Quebeckers with other Canadians is to speak to issues that we have in common. It is the Conservative game to divide people and to get them angry, and the progressives play a different game. Our game is to bring them together.
I think it’s perfectly reasonable for French-speaking Canadians to expect their federal government to be able to speak to them. English Canadians well know that the idea of having leaders who couldn’t speak any English is not appropriate, and that’s just as true for French Canadians.
When you’re talking about new initiatives in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, it’s okay for a province like Quebec to say this is an area of exclusive provincial jurisdiction and we don’t want to participate in your new program. Like-minded provinces that do will work together and provinces that don’t, won’t. That’s a perfectly reasonable way to go forward. There’s plenty of precedent for it. The pension system, for example.
What we’re saying is there’s much that we can do together. When you’re dealing with areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction, you do it with a respectful federalism. You work together instead of trying to impose things.