November 12, 2019

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Housing, poverty on voters' minds

Inner-city candidates concerned about basic issues

When the Manitoba electoral boundaries commission redrew constituency lines last year, Union Station, which stretches from The Forks to the core of West Broadway, was created.

The electoral district (mostly consisting of what was once called Logan) is one of several newly named constituencies in the city, but the issues it faces are as old as the cracks in the sidewalk.

There’s the matter of income-geared housing — nearly half of its residents spend 30 per cent or more of their pay on shelter. There’s poverty and substance abuse; many outreach organizations are stretching every penny to support community members and city residents who rely on their services. And, right smack in the middle of the district is the provincial legislature, where elected officials craft policies that will help dictate the future of the area itself.

Seeking to tackle these issues is a crop of new candidates. Uzoma Asagwara, a community activist and psychiatric nurse, represents the New Democratic Party; Andrea Shalay, a community organizer and communications specialist, will look to paint the riding Green; and Harold Davis, a former commodities and trading executive who’s lived in Union Station for nearly a half-century, is running for the Liberals.

The Free Press sat down with each of them to discuss their candidacy and the issues vital to Union Station.

Neither the Progressive Conservatives (Tara Fawcett) nor the Communist Party of Canada (Elsa Cubas) agreed to do an interview.

At her Sargent Avenue campaign office, Asagwara seemed calm with two weeks until voting day. The night before, the first-time candidate more than held her own with Tory Health Minister Cameron Friesen and Liberal candidate Jon Gerrard in a community forum on mental health and addictions.

Asagwara, 34, is a psychiatric nurse who specializes in acute adult mental health, addictions, and stabilization. She founded QPOC Winnipeg, a community for queer people of colour, and sits on the boards of both the Women’s Health Clinic and the Plug-In Art Institute. A former athlete of the year at the University of Winnipeg, where she starred on its basketball team, she has lived in Union Station for the better part of 20 years, now residing just beyond the boundary.

Uzoma Asagwara, NDP candidate for Union Station, meets with seniors at the Lions Place Manor in Winnipeg on Aug. 29.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Uzoma Asagwara, NDP candidate for Union Station, meets with seniors at the Lions Place Manor in Winnipeg on Aug. 29.

"This is work I have always done and work I will continue to do," she said. "I basically committed my life and career to service, and there’s nothing that will shift that."

Asagwara said she decided to run for office because of the Pallister government’s austere approach to health care. She said its cuts have hurt community members, health professionals and front-line workers. "I certainly felt a sense of responsibility to get involved in advocacy work in a new way," she said.

In a race of political rookies, Asagwara is the perceived front-runner: the riding of Logan was held by NDP mainstay Flor Marcelino (who has retired), Voting in the Union Station area favours the left.

Also to be considered is the constituency’s diverse voter base. Of adult residents in Union Station, 44.5 per cent are visible minorities; the constituency’s percentage of immigrants (36.5) is more than double the provincial average and of those, 51 per cent are Asian, and 30 per cent are from Africa.

Asagwara said those numbers should bolster her support.

"Being a black person and someone of African descent, and having a deeper understanding of what’s in the experiences many folks are going through is really important," she said. "I want to represent everyone in Union Station, not one demographic versus another."

Her opponents are confident in their potential to represent the riding, as well.

For Shalay, who’s lived and volunteered in the constituency for eight years, there is a lot at stake: the Greens have never elected a candidate to the legislature, and in left-leaning territory, the longtime West Broadway Community Organization board member said she has a shot.

She said her main priority is developing affordable, safe and stable housing in the constituency. Mixed-development housing, with income-geared rent, is essential considering the economic realities of the area.

Andrea Shalay, Green candidate for Union Station, at her office in Winnipeg on Aug. 29.

MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Andrea Shalay, Green candidate for Union Station, at her office in Winnipeg on Aug. 29.

"If we tackle poverty, we will be addressing the underlying roots of a lot of these issues," she said. "We also acknowledge that mental health really plays a huge role, as well."

Shalay, who has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Guelph, said it’s important to take action to create equitable opportunities for all residents. A key to that is her party’s universal basic income plan, she said.

"What I hear is a call for harm-reduction strategies, including safe-injection sites. I think if we were to get one downtown, we could save the province (millions of dollars)," she said, in addition to helping drug users stay safe.

The last time Davis ran for office, it was 1980, as a self-described "sacrificial lamb" for the federal Liberals against Stanley Knowles (who held the former Winnipeg North Centre seat for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation from 1942 to 1958, and the NDP from 1962 to 1984).

Before that, Davis was the president of the University of Winnipeg Liberals student group, and has remained an active member of the party in the years since.

Davis, 66, said he’s always been looking to run again, but wanted to focus on his family. Now he can commit all his time and energy to getting into office. He’s lived in and around Union Station for almost 50 years, working in the banking and bond markets, and as an agricultural forecaster.

He’s passionate about fixing the health-care system to better represent residents, and about maintaining Portage Place as a key community meeting place and venue.

He said a Liberal representative is needed to create change in the community and the province.

"(The provincial NDP and Conservative governments) haven’t moved the needle," he said. "They may have tried hard, but we need to do more, and we need to do it differently."

Davis also emphasizes the importance of income-geared housing, and said his party’s minimum income plan would help reduce barriers to shelter, which he learned about first-hand while living in a boarding house on Kennedy Street at the age of 17.

The three candidates who spoke to the Free Press agree the constituency needs an MLA who is a hard worker with intimate knowledge of the constituency. They all rattled off the same list of major concerns they had heard at the doorstep: housing, poverty, harm-reduction.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

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