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We lost sight of who we are

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An interview with NDP leadership candidate Lenore Zann

KJIPUKTUK (Halifax) – In late February of next year the Nova Scotia NDP will elect a new leader.

Over the last week the always curious Halifax Media Co-op interviewed the three candidates in the running. We asked all three to reflect on the Dexter years and what (if anything) went wrong. We also asked how they plan to regain the confidence of voters and party activists, and what political priorities they would push if elected.

This is the interview with Lenore Zann, conducted in the Halifax Central Library. Lenore Zann is the MLA for Truro-Bible Hill-Millbrook-Salmon River, and NDP Deputy House Leader.  She was first elected in 2009, and was a backbencher during the 2009-2013 Dexter reign.

HMC – How do you look back on the Dexter government? When did you begin to see signs that things were getting off the rails, and what did you do to correct the situation?

I decided to run for the NDP because I am a social democrat, I come from a long line of social democrats, and I believe in equality, fairness, and social justice. I believe that we need to eradicate poverty, that it is not right for children to go to school hungry. I was a professional artist for 35 years before I went into politics, so the creative economy is very important to me and believe that it is the way of the future for this province.  I also believe in the green economy and in creating green jobs and protecting our environment and mitigating against climate change. I have been a big proponent of all of those things for many years.

So when I was giving the opportunity to run for office (in 2009) I thought that this was a great way to be a voice at the table, to talk about alternative energy. I really liked that Darrell Dexter was also talking about those things. Early on he went over to Copenhagen for climate change talks, and while there he won an award for what he was doing in Nova Scotia. I was quite thrilled to be part of such a government.

At about the one-year mark the government started to talk about cuts to education because it wanted to balance the budget. One theme of the Dexter years was about the need to get back to balance, and about living within our means.

I felt that an austerity program was not necessarily what people had voted us in for or really wanted. I got concerned when they started telling us that they were going to make cuts specifically to education. I voiced these concerns around the caucus table, which is the place where you are supposed to do that, and I wrote letters and emails to the premier and the Chief of Staff about my concerns.

I became more and more concerned. At the two-year mark I said to the entire caucus, and remember that I was a backbencher at the time, that  in my humble opinion, if we continue on this path we will be handing a nice tidy balanced budget to the next liberal government. We are  throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We have lost sight of who we are, and we are going to lose our base.

You cannot make cuts to education and keep people happy. People look at education as a kind of hope.  If they are poor they look at education as a way out of poverty, and even if they are well off they still look at education as a way for their children to do better that they did.

The elimination of the ferry (between Yarmouth and Maine). Not so much that they got rid of that particular ferry, it was shown that ridership was down 72 percent, and having lived and worked in the States I knew that the americans weren’t coming. Our dollar was on par with or above the US dollar and tourists were not coming.

It was about the way we announced it, without giving any kind of warning, the people in South West  Nova Scotia felt abandoned by their new government, and that really bothered me. It would have been much better if we had given some notice, and said, look, we are considering changing this ferry over in one, maybe two years, and we need your help finding something else.

And of course there was (the way the government handled) the Home for Coloured Children, that really disturbed me. felt that we needed to do the right thing, step up, say we are sorry, even though we were not in government when the whole thing went down.  

In fact my dear friend Rocky Jones was on the executive of the NDP riding association, and we used to shake our heads, and we would talk to them (the politicians in government). For some reason Darrell felt that he was doing the right thing by making it a court decision, instead of what this (current) government has done, which is to offer an apology and pay restitution.

I wasn’t in the cabinet, I wasn’t privy to a lot of the decisions that were made, and unfortunately, as people who read both Howard Epstein’’s book and Graham Steele’s book know, most of us were not told (about decisions) until after the fact.

HMC – How could the provincial NDP regain the confidence of voters? What should it do to rebuild trust with its members and progressive activists in general?  

After we lost the elections I was the only backbencher still standing. There were seven of us. The others were (former) cabinet ministers, and speaker of the house.

Part of the reason I was re-elected  is that I always remained true to my values and to the people.  I would tell it how it was. I would never put down my own government, but I always said that I believe in education, and that I believe in teachers, who are the unsung heroes of our province.

After I decided to run for leader I went all over the province, holding meet and greets. Party members and non party members, come and meet me, tel me what you want, what you are disappointed about, where you want Nova Scotia to go, and what are you looking for in a leader

It was fantastic.  I would let people do the talking first. Many of our members felt abandoned, and I listened, without getting defensive, and without offering excuses. I said I am really sorry that you feel this way, that is part of the healing process, as far as I am concerned.

Then I would offer my vision of Nova Scotia. I felt people were getting more excited and more relieved. I believe in what is best for people. I am not one of those party animals who think (only) about getting votes. I feel people are really into me that way. Youth in particular are very excited when they hear me speak, because I have a vision that wants to keep them here.

(Leadership candidate) Gary Burrill and I have been very vocal about poverty. Sometimes people will jump on a bandwagon, because they feel that is what people want to hear. Some of us have been like that from day one, and I think people need to take that into consideration.

I have had a couple of round table discussions where I brought in poverty activists, and also different social democratic economists, and social workers and labour people, to talk about how to solve the issue of poverty in Nova Scotia.

HMC – What are your political priorities?

Some people say that in  a leadership platform you don’t talk about specifics, you just talk about general ideas. But I do have some specific things I am very passionate about.

One of the things that really bothers me about poverty is that children go hungry. I believe that you need to have strong healthy young little bodies  to help create strong healthy minds and souls. So I propose a provincial breakfast and lunch program, for all children from p to 12. Two warm meals per day. That would be even for the kids who can afford it (because) their parents run around and if kids don’t want to eat then those kids (also) go to school hungry.

They do it in Cuba, they do it in Russia, they do it in many countries that have less money than we do. We can afford it. The former government was talking (about a school breakfast program), and the government would put in $750 thousand  per year.  Businesses and individuals would also be able to contribute, and Scotia Bank or whoever could say ‘we believe in our children.’ That way you get the community being a part of it.  Also, in Ontario farmers get a tax credit by donating produce to food banks, why don’t we do that for the schools? It integrates the whole community.

I am very interested in keeping students in our province, and attracting more students  I know students are hurting, drowning in debt. I believe in free education.  

I know we can’t afford free tuition for everybody at this time, but what I would like to do is listen to the students who would like to see loans turned into grants. They did that recently in Newfoundland, and enrolment has gone up.

I also want to go back to 2011 tuition levels, and also freeze international student rates. The Canadian Federation of Students costed that out, it would only cost $48 million. When we were in power we had the graduate retention rebate program worth $50 million. The liberals did away with it, we would use that $50 million to do what students are asking us to do. Students are begging for help now, not at the end of their studies.

I also believe in a thriving green and creative economy. This includes universities. the IT sector, things like that, and also all the arts, the carpenters, the little mom and pop shops where a television show is shot. It infuses the economy with so much money. They call it show business for a reason. It’s a business and it creates wealth.

(Another priority is) to turn our (traditional) energy resources as quickly as possible to alternative sources.  I went to Germany. In one place they had five farmers and a banker who formed a co-op, the banker bankrolled the thing, and the farmers gave land, 125 hectares, and they grew barley and wheat and corn. They turned it into biogas, and it heated a whole factory and lit up an entire town. We could do so many things, hydro- electricity from our little rivers, with a fish runoff… Smaller things rather than these great huge projects. Wind, waves sun, that is the way forward.  And no fracking. No fracking way!

Why not have universal dental care. Look at our seniors who are suffering. Under our government we took (subsidized dental care) up from age 8 to age 14, and then we were going to age 17, but we lost the election.

What I bring to the table is a fresh approach, thinking out of the box and incorporating imaginative and creative ideas. As opposed to for instance offering money to corporations to settle here, as governments tend to do over and over.

Edited for clarity and length

Follow Robert Devet on Twitter @DevetRobert


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