It would have been considered unthinkable a few short years ago: Six serious candidates battling it out, among the 1,356 members of the NDP riding association, to carry the party colours in the newly formed riding of NDG-Westmount.
We met the winner, James Hughes, a few days after his first ballot victory last month and, sitting in his campaign office on Sherbrooke St. W., he was as relaxed, articulate, and thoughtful as in quieter days.
Hughes, 50, was among three winners last fall of the Sheila and Victor Goldbloom Award for outstanding contributions to English-speaking Quebec, his career path and achievements having impressed the Quebec Community Groups Network.
He was then executive director of the Montreal-based Graham Boeckh Foundation, dedicated to bringing about transformational change in the lives of people with or at risk of mental illness. For NDP members in the riding, he offered an attractive profile to challenge incumbent
Liberal MP Marc Garneau.
Early in his career the Montreal-born-and-raised Hughes stepped away from what looked like a promising career in corporate law to focus his talent and energy on the not-for-profit sector. With the support of his wife, the actor Jane Wheeler, Hughes and their three children downsized into a smaller home and he rolled up his sleeves to concentrate on a new career path.
He co-founded YES (Youth Employment Services), the Prometheus Project, which mentors students at risk of dropping out of high school, and worked as executive director of the Old Brewery Mission, one of Canada’s oldest and largest homeless shelters before serving as deputy minister of social development in New Brunswick.
“It’s all about working for social justice, working for people in need. What better way to do it than as an NDP MP within an NDP government.”
To Hughes, the biggest issue in this riding is “getting rid of this government and its wedge politics.”
He sees the Conservatives’ anti-terrorism legislation, which the Liberals supported, as based on the belief that “there is only security, and the privacy of our personal information is not relevant.
“This is the Conservatives’ politics of fear, whereas we take a different approach, where you can balance security and privacy. This is the Canadian tradition — a more moderate, balanced, careful approach. That’s the way we want to govern, on all the issues.”
Should the NDP form the next government, expect it to consult with the provinces on its proposed $15-a-day early childcare program “to get it right,” Hughes says.
The Conservatives’ scrapping of the compulsory long-form Census, for example, means the quality of the data has been “significantly decreased.
“I’m into social services. It means our decisions on housing stock, deployment of services geographically, languages first learned and still spoken at home are skewered. Only people who voluntarily give the information are being recorded. You cannot rely on this data; it fails to account for those who do not respond.”
“We could talk about the gag order on government scientists, deregulation of forests and streams and lakes and air, Canada’s refusal to endorse the Kyoto Accord on climate change, severe cuts to the CBC. They have made bad decisions and are governing in an appalling way.”
The most recent aggregate of opinion polls indicates that former astronaut Garneau has a slight advantage going into the race, even as the NDP’s standing, and that of leader Thomas Mulcair, continue to rise in Quebec.
Hughes makes clear that he is not challenging Garneau the man – “an honourable person who served this country very well” – but the Liberal Party, which has “lost its way.”
The Liberals’ support of the anti-terrorism legislation clearly shows that “the party doesn’t have a core. What does it stand for?
“Justin Trudeau was not naive, as he said in the first TV debate. He was calculating. He saw the polls. When the polls change, the policies are going to change.”
Hughes argues that the electorate can see through Trudeau’s approach. “An increasingly sophisticated and educated population is drawn to the NDP because it’s got this core. The population knows we’re going to stand hard on protection of personal privacy, service to people, compassion. With the Liberals, you’re not sure what you’re getting.”
Asked if the NDP are simply “Liberals in a hurry”, all about spending and big deficits, Hughes replies, “Historically, with one exception, NDP governments have been very careful about the management of public funds, while at the same time trying to advance the interest of those parts of the population that need services.”
Though the national childcare program is a costly project, Hughes argues that an NDP government would work toward balanced budgets.“We won’t touch personal taxes; we’ll lower small business taxes to create incentives for lasting and meaningful jobs.” The NDP commitment to raise the corporate tax rate, which the Conservatives had lowered to 15 per cent from 21 per cent in 2006, is a good source of revenue to help finance NDP programs, Hughes notes.
He rejects the argument that big business will move head offices if taxes are raised — NDP leader Thomas Mulcair says they should remain lower than in the U.S. — and argues that would launch a self-defeating “race to the bottom.”
His message to voters: “Look what we can do for the environment, advancing Canadian culture, radio, television, theatre. Look what we can do for health and social services, which is what I know best. …
“We can do all this. It’s a magnificent opportunity to serve the country.”
He is proud of the NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration, which would accept the legitimacy of a 50-per-cent plus one vote in a future Quebec referendum on sovereignty to kick-start talks on separation.
“The policy has succeeded in effectively ridding the federal Parliament of the Bloc Québécois. We are the voice of Quebec in the House of Commons. We should rejoice.”
The four reasons to vote NDP, he says, are: “The best leader in the country, core values that Canadians can identify with, a very progressive program on social, economic and environmental issues, and the team to govern responsibly.”