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Taking a left turn

In her second leadership bid, Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton shares her vision for Canada -- higher corporate taxes, free tuition, no pipelines -- and her deep commitment to the nation's North

<p>Northern Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton was elected to the House of Commons in 2008, defeating Liberal MP Tina Keeper after losing to her in 2006.</p>

JUSTIN TANG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Northern Manitoba NDP MP Niki Ashton was elected to the House of Commons in 2008, defeating Liberal MP Tina Keeper after losing to her in 2006.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 29/9/2017 (912 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OTTAWA — Niki Ashton moves fast.

A typical week sees the NDP MP for northern Manitoba darting between parliamentary committees and street protests, and using social media or, depending on the season, ice roads to check in with the 85,000 residents of her sprawling Churchill-Keewatinook Aski riding, the fourth largest in Canada. Until recently, she was working on a PhD thesis, while practising a handful of languages.

As a candidate in the NDP leadership race, however, the pace has been racheted higher.

MP Niki Ashton, Lord Selkirk and Brokenhead Chief Jim Bear in Peguis, Friday, July 21, 2017.

TREVOR HAGAN / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

MP Niki Ashton, Lord Selkirk and Brokenhead Chief Jim Bear in Peguis, Friday, July 21, 2017.

She’s spent the past six months criss-crossing Canada, pushing NDP members to support a bigger role for governments and Indigenous groups, while decrying multinational corporations and trade deals.

On her way to a recent interview, Ashton, 35, allows herself to ease up, wiping her brow in the 31 C heat. Her third-trimester pregnancy, with twins no less, now has her moving uncharacteristically slow.

She laments the media’s focus on her pregnancy over her politics.

"Pregnancy is not a permanent condition," she says in an interview at a coffee shop near Parliament Hill. "I think it’s a troubling indication of the ways in which sexism is alive and well in our society."

On Sunday, the NDP will announce its first round of voting for leadership. Many expect that none of the four candidates — Ashton, Charlie Angus, Guy Caron and Jagmeet Singh — will clinch 50 per cent, which would lead to a second-round, Thanksgiving weekend reveal.

It’s Ashton’s second attempt at the leadership, after coming last among seven candidates in 2012. But this time around, she believes her message will go further.

NDP MP Niki Ashton asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, May 16, 2016.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/SEAN KILPATRICK

NDP MP Niki Ashton asks a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, May 16, 2016.

The party is still smarting from a catastrophic 2015 election that had the NDP start first in the polls and end last at the ballot box. "We allowed the Liberals to out-left us," says Ashton, who blames departing NDP Leader Tom Mulcair’s pledge to stick to balanced budgets.

"We distanced ourselves from our principles."

Ashton is pledging higher corporate taxes, free tuition, no pipelines and federal control over everything from pharmacare to sustainable-energy projects. She fires off platform points to the point of needing to catch her breath.

She’s targeting millennials — set to be the largest voting block in 2019 — who largely sided with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. Ashton says youth now see the Liberals falling short on issues such as climate change and income inequality, amid rising tuition and diminishing job prospects.

"It’s creating a perfect storm, where young people end up living a worse life than their parents."

Those forces have driven young people to Bernie Sanders in the U.S. and Britain’s Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, neither of whom won recent elections. Ashton, who door-knocked in June 2016 in Sanders’ North Dakota race for the Democrat nomination, says young people are politically engaged, but turned off by middle-of-the-road parties.

"Change comes from outside of institutions, when people mobilize, when people advocate," says Ashton, whose riding’s median age, 27.2, is the lowest in Canada after Nunavut.

Supporters of leadership contender Niki Ashton listen to her speak at the NDP's Leadership Showcase in Hamilton, Ont. on Sunday, September 17 , 2017.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/CHRIS YOUNG

Supporters of leadership contender Niki Ashton listen to her speak at the NDP's Leadership Showcase in Hamilton, Ont. on Sunday, September 17 , 2017.

Christo Aivalis, adjunct professor of Canadian labour history at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., says Ashton’s theory is borne out by left-leaning publications and polling.

"There’s a real sense that the left has to re-engage with its historic roots," Aivalis says. "There’s a point being made, that that intergenerational narrative has to be challenged from the left, both within the NDP and beyond it."

He says Ashton is tapping into feelings across the western world, though he says inequality is likely stronger felt in places such as Britain.

"Corbyn is saying, ‘Look, if the economy isn’t democratic, then the politics aren’t democratic,’ and I think that’s what Niki’s trying to say. And in Canada we might not quite have that issue."

Detractors say Ashton is promising the moon, and doesn’t have a political track record of success.

In her nine years as MP, her northern Manitoba riding has remained one of the poorest in Canada. This summer, forest fires led to an air evacuation around Island Lake, which lacks road access despite Ashton’s years-long advocacy. Churchill’s perennial woes have only got worse with this year’s railway washout. Greyhound has cut northern bus service.

"What’s been very important for me is to be a voice for our constituency, in solidarity with those who are fighting injustice every day," says Ashton. "Being from the north, I recognize how all too often we’re not being heard."

When pressed to list her wins as an MP, Ashton kneads her fingers.

"I would say there are a series of fights that we’ve been involved in," she pauses, "that were in some part or all parts addressed."

She counts her success as delaying 2010 plans by Brazilian mining company Vale SA to close its Thompson nickel smelter and lay off 500 workers. Her video campaign inspired American filmmaker Michael Moore to weigh in, and Vale reversed course (last May, Vale announced plans to close the mine next month).

When cash-strapped CBC tried shuttering its Thompson radio station in 2009, Ashton’s petition drive reversed course. Around then, she successfully pushed Ottawa to help curb Island Lake’s outbreak of swine flu.

She says it’s the stark inequality in the resource-rich north that inspires her political vision.

But Ashton has received more press for her response to divisive identity politics.

An innocuous tweet quoting a Beyoncé song led Vancouver Black Lives Matter to call out Ashton for "appropriating Black culture." She apologized within hours.

In 2010, Ashton reluctantly sided with the Conservatives’ first push to end the long-gun registry, which pitted her hunting constituents against her views on gun control. Ashton has heard the suggestions that she’s out of touch with the average Canadian — especially in her northern riding.

But she doesn’t buy that.

Niki, centre, with her father Steve during his drive to become premier in 2015.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Niki, centre, with her father Steve during his drive to become premier in 2015.

In 2005, Ashton beat NDP predecessor Bev Desjarlais for the Churchill NDP nomination, largely because Desjarlais opposed same-sex marriage. Ashton says many in the riding connected gay rights to Indigenous issues and feminism.

"It was a sense that human rights was kind of the guiding principle," she says. "There’s a lot of misconceptions about the north, and about rural areas."

Party voters chose her at age 23, but they were familiar with her father Steve Ashton, who was then a provincial cabinet minister, as well as her experience advocating against gender-based violence.

The multilingual college instructor shelved her career plans of "international, humanitarian work" and ran in the 2006 election, losing to Liberal Tina Keeper. But in the 2008 vote, Ashton beat Keeper with 60 per cent more support.

True to her activist roots, Ashton took part in a 2011 sit-in with members of the Sayisi Dene First Nation, who blocked the hallway to the Indian Affairs minister’s parliamentary office. They were seeking an apology and compensation for the band’s forced relocation.

She won a majority of votes in that year’s election. By 2012, Ashton’s colleagues in the Commons voted her the MP who "best represents constituents," in the annual Maclean’s survey.

Joe Stover, a Churchill port worker laid off two years ago, says Ashton has an authenticity that resonates with people in the north.

"A lot of activists love her, because they see the fire inside," says Stover, who first met Ashton at province-wide competitive swim meets, when he was 12 years old. Growing up in Thompson, friends gave her the nickname "barracuda" for her fast-paced swimming.

"She’s able to tap into a lot of people’s passion."

"A lot of activists love her, because they see the fire inside."

JUSTIN TANG / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"A lot of activists love her, because they see the fire inside."

Yet Ashton barely kept her seat in the 2015 vote, squeaking by with a three-point lead, which she still calls "a tremendous honour."

And then there’s the family name. Her father, is a divisive figure among provincial NDP insiders. The party changed its voting rules in 2007 to a delegate system, after Steve Ashton signed up a large number of recent immigrants, in his first of three unsuccessful runs for provincial leadership.

When asked how she differs from her father, Niki Ashton says they share similar worldviews, with her focused on regaining the economic stability that baby boomers had secured.

Lately, Ashton’s been criticized for pushing leadership candidates to clarify whether they believe domestic assault allegations against new provincial NDP leader Wab Kinew, who’d eclipsed her father with three times as many votes.

Ashton’s particularly focused on Jagmeet Singh, whom many see as her top opponent, over statements on Kinew that she says don’t adequately support victims of sexual assault.

"To not take a clear stand is a way of pushing more women into silence," she says. "Talk is cheap; you have to walk the walk."

On the campaign trail, Ashton’s focus is to unite the NDP’s various constituencies — unions, visible minorities, LGBTTQ* activists — and shifting them to the left. In typical fashion, she says the party must act fast to beat Trudeau.

Party insiders say she has a shot at winning. The likely second-round vote could see a split among the more moderate candidates.

"What Niki’s trying to say is that there’s a sense that the party isn’t as open as it could be," says Aivalis. "She represents the diversity of Manitoba."

dylan.robertson@freepress.mb.ca

Dylan Robertson

Dylan Robertson
Parliamentary bureau chief

In Ottawa, Dylan enjoys snooping through freedom-of-information requests and asking politicians: "What about Manitoba?"

Read full biography

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