Former MP wants voters to know he’s not ‘the average politician’
Read this article for free:
Already have an account? Log in here »
To continue reading, please subscribe:
Monthly Digital Subscription
$4.75 per week*
- Enjoy unlimited reading on winnipegfreepress.com
- Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
- Access News Break, our award-winning app
- Play interactive puzzles
*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.
Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/09/2022 (249 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
If elected mayor, Robert-Falcon Ouellette will have his office housed inside Thunderbird House.
He’d call a massive meeting, inviting everyone from trustees to MLAs to gather for hours and sort out how to fix Winnipeg’s homelessness crisis.
“If people are thinking about voting for me, I think they have to realize they’re not going to get the average politician,” said Ouellette, a Liberal MP from 2015 to 2019.
“There are a lot of social challenges related to poverty in our city, that haven’t been addressed very well.”
Ouellette first ran for mayor in 2014, boasting about his lack of ties to the political and business elite.
Instead, he framed himself as an Indigenous person raised in Calgary who was at one point homeless, before going into academia. He earned a PhD in anthropology from Laval University in Quebec City, and speaks fluent French. He placed third in the 2014 vote, with 16 per cent support.
Ouellette argues since 2014 the three levels of government haven’t done enough to increase the supply of transitional and supportive housing to keep up with the city’s growing needs.
“I think that requires a different type of leadership,” he said, arguing outgoing Mayor Brian Bowman could have done more.
“Perhaps it takes somebody who has more lived experience with that, to understand why it’s so important, and not to easily give up.”
He said every Winnipegger is negatively affected when they see people sleeping in bus shelters and along riverbanks.
“They’re confronted by it each and every day, and it’s moved beyond the downtown core; it’s moved into the suburbs,” said Ouellette, who lives in south St. Vital.
“There is a realization that if we continue doing the same old things, it’s never going to stop.”
To get past that, Ouellette wants to emulate the Estates General, which citizens formed in revolutionary France to usher in a democracy.
It would mean a massive, lengthy consultation with elected officials, Indigenous leaders, nurses, school trustees, advocates and just about anybody interested in getting things unstuck, Ouellette said.
He argued the non-partisan mayor’s office can convene all parts of society, even if Ottawa and the province control most of the funds.
“It’s people sitting down and having wide and long discussions, speaking in full sentences about what needs to occur,” he said. “And then following up with this action plan, and then having and continuing those discussions, with everyone involved.”
He would move the mayor’s office to Thunderbird House so that visiting dignitaries and local leaders would be forced to see the city’s most vulnerable, and hopefully adapt their policies to improve things.
In his time as Winnipeg Centre MP, Ouellette said the most demoralizing moments were seeing people fall through the cracks.
He recalls working the phones for two hours, trying to get addictions help for an Indigenous woman who wanted to quit the drug habit that had forced her into sex work.
“I was unable to find any help for her, and that was one of the hardest things I ever had to do, to turn someone away,” he said.
“There is a lot of money in the system, with a lot of people working and doing great work, but has anyone actually sat down to try and co-ordinate this?”
Ouellette’s platform touches on other issues, such as ranked ballots and incentives to convert parking lots into parks. He wants to freeze the current police budget and fund community-safety projects.
He wants to make Winnipeg a “child-friendly city,” which means low-cost programming and reviewing some policies such as restrictions on what strollers are allowed on city buses.
Ouellette said he breaks the mould of an average politician.
As an MP, he occasionally spoke out against his Liberal government’s policies, voting against party lines 17 times in four years. On paper, MPs are to put their constituents ahead of party loyalty, but it’s a rare move in today’s politics.
That had Ouellette opposing a bill to legalize medically assisted dying due to traditional beliefs, and opposing legislation that ordered striking Canada Post staff back to work.
He pushed for child-care devolution and support for Indigenous languages.
But he was criticized for an unconventional approach to politics, ditching a run for House speaker after saying he’d use that role to push the government for more community funding. He filibustered his government colleagues in an attempt to persuade them to undertake a study for a guaranteed minimum income.
In 2017, he took a three-week trek from North Battleford, Sask. to Winnipeg to try forming a political union among 41 First Nations. The 1,000-kilometre journey, on foot and by ski, was approved by his party, but it took him off a month of House and constituency duties.
He also attracted scorn in 2019 for publishing a calendar of 12 “notable Canadians” who were all men, some of whom had plagiarized biographies.
Ouellette said that as an MP, he learned how politicians get things done. But he also had a stark realization about how Ottawa, provinces and cities relate to each other.
“They actually don’t work together on most issues,” Ouellette said, recalling personal frustrations in trying to meet with elected officials at each level.
He said that’s why Manitoba is often playing catch-up to access services and resources other provinces have access to.
“I don’t think we do a good job of working together, with all the levels of government, to go and get those resources that will help our communities,” he said.