Original Published on Jul 20, 2022 at 16:50

By Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Jagmeet Singh spent Wednesday afternoon at a gathering of Dene leaders outside Yellowknife after meeting with the N.W.T.’s finance minister earlier that day.

Singh also spoke with Cabin Radio about how his New Democratic Party would tackle the issues raised with him by residents and Tłı̨chǫ leaders on Tuesday.

Those concerns included the North’s lack of affordable and adequate housing, the rise in what was already a difficult cost of living for many to manage, and a lack of access to healthcare.

Singh said the NDP would make tax changes to try to rein in the wealthy real estate firms that dominate many housing markets, the N.W.T.’s included. He said his party would also use a windfall tax to take extra revenue from large firms and redistribute it to people in need.

Dennis Bevington represented the N.W.T. in Ottawa as an NDP MP for nine years from 2006 to 2015. However, the territory has been represented by Liberal Michael McLeod for the past seven years. McLeod retained his seat in 2021 despite an 11 per cent swing back toward the NDP.

Singh’s visit to the territory continues on Thursday as he meets representatives of the N.W.T. Association of Communities.

Below, read a transcript of his conversation with Cabin Radio’s Caitrin Pilkington.

This interview was recorded on July 20, 2022. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Caitrin Pilkington: The NWT was an NDP riding for nine years until 2015. Were you feeling that support in Yellowknife?

Jagmeet Singh: There’s clearly a base of support here. It was awesome. Folks were particularly aware of the work that we were doing recently, the dental plan we’re working on, the pharmacare stuff, medication coverage. People know the stuff that we’re doing. It was very encouraging. There was a love for the NDP in addition to the work that we were doing recently, so it was good to see.

You’re here to talk about affordability, you’re doing this tour of the North. What feedback are you getting here?

The biggest thing that I’ve been hearing around the cost of living, which is definitely something that people are worried about, is housing. That would be the major focus. People are worried about how hard it is to find a place to rent, to buy. It just seems that it’s out of reach. I remember a young couple – both had really good jobs – and they were interested in buying their first place, and they said, ‘That’s our biggest concern. We don’t think we can do it, even though we both have decent jobs. We just don’t think it’s possible. And that’s our biggest worry.’ There are folks that are talking about even rent being so hard. There are students that I met who had gone away to school in different provinces and had come back and wanted to find a place to rent, and they were mentioning how the vacancy rate is such that they just can’t find anything. So housing was probably the biggest concern, the cost of it and how it’s unattainable for so many people. 

And then in general, the cost of living going up. The cost of gas is starting to feel harder on communities that already have to deal with the high cost of living as it is in the North. This is making things a little worse, a little harder to deal with. That came up. Healthcare is something that came up a lot. Folks are really worried about the challenges to accessing healthcare. In Yellowknife, people talked about healthcare workers being burnt out and how it’s hard to retain workers. And that’s an issue we’re actually having across Canada, it’s not just a northern issue, but certainly being felt by people here. And then even Indigenous community members are talking about losing staff in health centres in more remote communities, and how that’s having a big impact. So housing, cost of living and healthcare were the concerns that I heard a lot about.

Here in Yellowknife, over 80 per cent of the housing market is controlled by REITs, or real estate investment trusts. We’ve seen this trend sweep across the U.S. where institutional investors have been buying billions of dollars worth of single-family units. We’re increasingly seeing this activity in Canada. Is that something you’re concerned about?

Very, very concerned about. I’m deeply concerned about it. We can’t have a housing market, where first-time home buyers are competing against a company that has deep pockets to purchase a billion dollars in real estate. And there was a big headline about a year ago about a Canadian company that wants to purchase a billion dollars, literally – that’s what the headline was – including houses and apartments in Canada, because they saw this as such a lucrative market. That is a problem. It can’t be that the young couple that I met, that had good jobs, are competing against a company that can buy a billion dollars of property. That’s not sustainable. And so we’re deeply concerned about the financialization of the housing market. It’s becoming just like a stock market where people with deep pockets, corporations are looking at this and saying, ‘We can make a lot of money off of housing.’ And then families and workers and people are thinking, ‘Well, where are we fitting into this mix? There’s nothing left for us.’ 

That’s something that we want to tackle. We want to look at REITs but also property flipping and this whole approach that housing is being used to make money like a stock market, a casino to gamble on, as opposed to a place where people can find a home. There are ways we can look at the tax system to disincentivize that type of activity and encourage the housing market to be left for people to be able to have a home.

There’s obviously a need to build more units. There’s no question we need to build more homes. That’s for the North and that’s for the rest of Canada as well. But we also need to get at the underlying problems where we’ve got a massive foreign investment and you’ve got local investment from large corporations that are forcing out first-time home buyers from ever being able to get a home. That approach to our housing market has to change. That’s going to require looking at the tax code and looking at different levers that we have to encourage housing for people, for families, for workers, and not let it become something that is consumed by wealthy corporations.

I was looking at a headline this morning about this historic 39-year high for interest rates of 8.1 per cent. How would you address this kind of inflation?

That’s certainly putting a lot of pressure on people who already are feeling that they’re just getting by and their budgets have already been squeezed. It’s making things a lot worse. There’s a report that came out that one in four Canadians is putting back groceries, they’re going hungry because they can’t afford to buy what they could buy in the past. One in four Canadians reported that they are not going to be able to afford their homes if the interest rates keep on going up. What we’re saying is that the sole response to the cost of living going up and to inflation cannot just be that interest rates go up. Because if that is the only response, what’s going to happen is people that are already feeling squeezed, that are already finding that it’s hard to pay their bills, are just going to be in more pain and more difficulty. So that’s why we’ve been advocating for looking at some other solutions. It can’t just be the interest rates going up alone without any additional support from government. 

One of the specific tools that we’ve called for, that we’ve we’ve reached out to economists that have supported, is the idea of sending some financial support directly to families, to people. That’s through up to $1,000 that could go directly to people using the Canada child benefit and the GST tax credit. And this would be targeted, so it wouldn’t go to everybody. But it would really help those that are feeling the squeeze of the cost of living going up, it would alleviate some of the pressures on them. 

And the way we would pay for this? Instead of injecting new money in the system, this would be about redistributing money already in the system. We know that a lot of corporations are posting record profits. In fact, it’s been a record-setting year for a vast majority of Canadian corporations. And a lot of the inflation has been attributed to the fact that there’s just corporate greed. Grocery stores have been found to be increasing their prices beyond the increased costs based on transportation costs going up, and they’re making record profits. Oil and gas companies are making record profits. So what we’re calling for is a windfall tax on those record profits and to redistribute that revenue into people to give them some help. The GST revenue for the federal government has gone up. The cost of everything’s gone up, which meant the GST revenue is higher. So we are calling for redistributing that extra revenue to people.

Yesterday, you met with Tłı̨chǫ chiefs. How did those meetings go? What were you hearing from them?

They talked about concerns around similar things, around housing in their communities – to me, that’s a big, big concern – and they were worried about healthcare, like I mentioned. They also talked about land claims and implementation. There are communities that want to be self-sufficient, they want to be able to have good economic development, and they want an opportunity for economic prosperity so they can build healthy communities where there are good jobs and good investments going on. I’ve always been a strong believer of being a champion and an ally for Indigenous communities and really promoting or amplifying their voice. They’ve got a lot of solutions that they know will work in their community and they just need a partner. 

And I feel the federal government could do a lot better job of being a partner with Indigenous communities and supporting some of the things they are asking for. There hasn’t been really good leadership from the federal Liberal government right now. Indigenous communities need real leadership that’s going to put in place strong decisions, policies and investment that help them see a brighter future.

You’re also attending the Dene National Special Assembly this afternoon. There have been calls for more direct funding fom the federal government to Indigenous governments rather than to the GNWT as an intermediary.

I think it makes a lot of sense. I think in a lot of cases, having a more direct relationship with supporting Indigenous communities is in line with the principle of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which is about looking at Indigenous communities as nations. Having that nation-to-nation relationship is, I think, a very important step forward. So I’m very open to it and I think it could result in some better outcomes. Having that direct relationship would give access to Indigenous communities of funding and resources that will help them maybe more efficiently or better respond to the needs of their communities.

After what happened to you in Peterborough, are you concerned about civility in Canadian political discourse?

(Singh was verbally harassed outside a campaign event in Peterborough, Ontario in May.)

I’m not worried about myself. I have had life experiences where what happened in Peterborough was not a big deal in the context of things that I’ve gone through. I’ve gone through a lot worse. I’ve met with actual physical violence and I’ve had to defend myself. I’m a trained martial artist, I’ve trained my whole life, I’ve competed, I work out. 

What I’m worried about is the precedent it set. That should not be the criteria to be a leader, that you have to face violence in your life and are trained to respond to it. That, to me, is really worrying because I don’t want any marginalized community member, a young person, someone who hasn’t had that experience, someone who’s already experienced other challenges in their life, to now say, ‘You know what? Politics isn’t for me. I don’t want to have to deal with that type of aggression and violence.’ So to me, I’m really worried about the potential impact of discouraging people to get into politics who think that: ‘I don’t want to put up with that type of aggression.’ 

The right to dissent is so important, people should be able to disagree with you. And it’s important to meet with people who disagree. But what we’re seeing is an aggression and a violence that goes beyond just disagreement. And people can be frustrated about policies but when it verges on the aggression that we see where people are getting in someone’s face and yelling and screaming, and threatening violence? That’s just completely wrong. And that’s what I’m worried about. There are legitimate frustrations that people feel and if we don’t respond to those frustrations with hope, and with real solutions, the right will take this as an opportunity to just encourage tearing down of everything, that things aren’t working, things are bad. And then we see people take advantage of that to encourage more division. 

I want to acknowledge, yeah, there’s real frustration that people have. We can use that frustration and convert that into real opportunities to make things better. We can make sure people can find a good job that helps pay the bills and allows them to find a home they can afford. People should be able to get healthcare that’s there for them when they need. We should be able to build a system that works. And when people see wealthy corporations making record profits while they’re struggling to put food on the table, that frustration is real. What I hope to do is respond to that frustration with hope, and not allow folks that are using that frustration to divide people and to promote more division to have that space unchallenged. I really want to show that there is a better way forward.

I should say, though, that it was pretty intense. Politically, that was the worst and most aggressive kind of scenario that I’ve been in. I’ve been through worse in person growing up, looking different and stuff. So I’ve dealt with worse in my life. But politically, that was the most intense. But I should say that though there were about 20 people outside that were really aggressive and kind-of getting my face and saying, like, ‘I hope you die’ and all these crazy things, inside there were triple the amount, 60 people, that were there and support. There was an amazing range of young people, and some Elders and some families. There were far more people in support of the work that we’re doing than were there protesting. I feel like that kind-of got lost in the coverage, as much as I appreciate people being concerned.

This item reprinted with permission from Cabin Radio, Yellowknife, NorthWest Territories