Niki Ashton, the NDP leadership candidate and 29-year-old MP for Churchill, Manitoba, plans to announce her queer-positive priorities in Regina on Jan 12, with a roundtable of queer activists and allies in Regina that same night.
The location of the announcement is notatable as the home of The B Team, a coalition of queer community groups that formed in the wake of the Tom Lukiwski videotape scandal.
Xtra’s Evie Ruddy spoke with Ashton about homophobic bullying, the Conservatives’ new Office of Religious Freedom, and what it’s like standing up for queer people in a rural riding in Western Canada.
Evie Ruddy: Would you like to start by telling Xtra readers what sort of action you would take to address issues facing the queer community in Canada?
Niki Ashton: Today, we’re going to be releasing our platform on queer equality . . . and I’ll be calling for a renewed commitment for queer equality. Our campaign of “new politics” has as its central theme equality, and when I talk about that equality, I also talk about the need to end discrimination against LGBTQ Canadians and a real commitment to establishing equality for queer Canadians.
That involves working to end homophobic bullying in schools; providing funding for anti-homophobia organizations and for healthcare services for people who have suffered from trauma resulting from homophobia or transphobia; reversing the blanket bans on sexually active gay men donating blood or organs; endorsing the NDP private member’s bill to add gender identity and expression to the list of prohibited grounds for discrimination in the Canadian Human Rights Act; and finally, endorsing the Montreal Declaration on LGBT Human Rights, which calls for an end to the death penalty worldwide for the “crime of homosexual sex acts,” the abolition of all laws against homosexual acts between consenting adults, and the right of asylum for those fleeing homophobic and transphobic persecution.
How, specifically, would you address homophobic bullying in schools?
There’s definitely different levels of government that need to be part of the effort . . . but we need to see that same kind of leadership federally. We need to see that there is funding available for the kinds of advocacy and awareness campaigns that target young people, that work with young people and work with society as a whole, because we know that what happens in our schools is a microcosm of what happens more broadly in society.
The Conservative Party is planning to create an Office of Religious Freedom within Foreign Affairs. What’s your position on this?
What’s interesting is this government often uses the word freedom when in fact they’re doing little to make sure that Canadians have the freedom to have a better quality of life and a government that looks out for the basic needs in our society.
So, does that mean that you oppose the office?
Yeah . . . I support the work that our party is doing right now to say that we ought to be looking at different priorities.
Another NDP candidate, Peggy Nash, has also released a platform on queer priorities. What makes yours unique?
I’m a member of Parliament from Northern Manitoba from the Prairies. I decided to run because our member of Parliament at the time was the only NDP member who opposed same-sex marriage, and she claimed she came from a part of the country where it just wasn’t okay. I, along with activists across our region in northern Manitoba, disagreed strongly with that portrayal that somehow we were okay with discrimination, that we wouldn’t accept same-sex marriage . . . and so, for us, it was a tough decision to challenge an incumbent.
I would also add another very personal experience that showed me, and many of us, just how urgent it is to have a serious agenda when it comes to achieving queer equality. In the last election, the Conservative candidate in my constituency three days before election day put out a robo-call across my constituency saying that I supported grown men going into girls’ washrooms . . . He chose to do it when I couldn’t answer in our local papers, because we have weeklies where I come from . . . Luckily, many people were turned off by this phone call and what was a smear campaign, but there were others who were deeply confused and were wondering what this all meant.
As you know, the left is divided in Canada. Would you consider allying the NDP with the Greens or Liberals?
Our goal is to strengthen the NDP and build an alternative to Stephen Harper, which would be an NDP government in 2015. I believe that involves welcoming people who voted NDP for the first time in this election, or may not have voted for us but see the value of our message, and people that may have not voted at all and have been increasingly marginalized and disaffected by the old politics of Harper and people before him. I believe that working with people across Canada and building a progressive movement in strengthening the NDP is the way to go.
At 29, you’re the youngest candidate in the race. What advantage does this give you as a politician?
New politics is about a new way of thinking about leadership. Jack Layton was someone who talked about that, and I feel that I’m a part of the Jack Layton generation that was inspired to get involved. “New politics” is about throwing out some of those old ideas about who a politician is and the fact that people weren’t seen as being leaders because of their gender, because of their background, because of their age. I believe, and I’ve heard it from so many Canadians, that it’s exciting to think of the idea that a 33-year-old woman, if she gets the support of Canadians, could become the next prime minister of Canada in 2015.