Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Voice of the North' could use some tweaking

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FLIN FLON -- No one can deny that Niki Ashton faces one of the toughest jobs in Canadian politics.

Representing the vast, sparsely populated northern riding of Churchill, she must slog her way to nooks and crannies most Manitobans have never heard of.

When it comes to meeting those she serves in Canada's fourth-largest riding, Ashton goes above and beyond.

But as far as being the Canadian MP who best represents her constituents, as Maclean's named her in 2012, that is up for debate.

Why? Because face time with your MP is one thing. How she votes on your behalf is another.

Ashton, a New Democrat, received accolades in the last Parliament by voting to trash the long-gun registry, largely unpopular in her riding.

But when the Conservative majority finally got its way on the oft-maligned program in 2011, Ashton reversed herself, suddenly supporting the registry.

OK, perhaps it was not a clear-cut reversal.

The final version of the Conservative bill, unlike earlier renditions, called not only for the end of the registry, but also the destruction of all of its data.

That last point was key since Quebec, the new NDP heartland, wanted the data to launch its own provincial gun registry.

In explaining her vote, Ashton pleaded fiscal prudence, saying the Tories were "forcing Quebec to pay even more money to put in place a provincial registry" -- as if law-abiding gun owners in Gillam or Wasagamack should care about a new provincial program two provinces away.

What northerners do care about is affording our First Nations the most basic level of openness in local government.

This is another area where Ashton, whose riding is at least two-thirds aboriginal and contains 33 reserves, has disappointed.

She has been a vocal opponent of Ottawa's efforts, at last successful, to require band chiefs and councillors to publicly disclose their salaries.

Ashton, who ran for her party's leadership last year, calls the government's efforts a "top-down approach" brought in despite "a failure to consult properly with First Nations."

She says people on reserves want funds "used appropriately" but "listening to how First Nations would best approach the issue of accountability is the way to go."

This ignores the reality that too many First Nations have had decades to bolster transparency and still come up short. Should Ottawa stand by and hope things change? When is enough enough?

Media reports illustrate that in some cases, perhaps a lot, band chiefs and councillors are bestowing themselves outrageous salaries. Funds that should go to raise a tragic standard of living instead end up in politicians' pockets.

On this one, Ashton is obviously taking her marching orders from the party; finding even one northerner to agree with her is an arduous chore.

There are other questions as to whether Ashton's tactics are helping or hurting her riding.

When nickel giant Vale announced it would close its Thompson nickel smelter and refinery by 2015, the MP convinced Michael Moore, the pot-stirring American documentarian, to post an essay on his website in opposition.

Moore proclaimed Vale's decision is about "killing the social contract of Canada." In an essay of her own, Ashton said Vale acted "arrogantly" while pursuing a master plan to undermine wages.

It may have been feel-good stuff for union bosses, but the average Vale employee must have wondered how such insults would possibly help their futures.

All of that said, Ashton has done a lot of good.

She defended the Port of Churchill by opposing, unsuccessfully, the end of the Canadian Wheat Board's monopsony. She fought, successfully, the planned closure of the CBC-Radio bureau in Thompson. And she has drawn constant attention to the Third World conditions on reserves.

She is energetic, a people person and at 30 has drawn young people into boring old politics.

But Churchill is no run-of-the-mill NDP riding in the mould of Quebec or downtown Toronto.

Ashton must thus employ greater flexibility if she is to truly be the MP who best represents her constituents, the voice northern Manitoba needs.


Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 3, 2013 A15

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