A human-rights advocate, Osgoode Hall professor and former art gallery owner, Craig Scott is throwing his hat in the ring for the NDP in the upcoming Toronto-Danforth federal by-election.
With less than a week to go until the March 19 by-election in the late Jack Layton’s old Toronto-Danforth riding, many are pegging the NDP’s candidate, Craig Scott, to win by a landslide. A Valentine’s Day poll conducted by Forum Research indicated that the Riverdale resident had the support of 61 per cent of respondents, a number almost identical to the 60.8 per cent who voted for Layton in the last election. The poll ranks Liberal candidate Grant Gordon a distant second with 19 per cent support, while Conservative candidate Andrew Keyes scored 14 per cent and returning Green candidate Adriana Mugnatto-Hamu 4 per cent.
But Scott, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School with no political experience, isn’t taking anything for granted. “You can’t give any credence to polls,” he says. “You never know when they’re accurate, and the fact of the matter is that it wouldn’t matter. You just have to work really hard.”
We sat down with Scott at Broadview Espresso (817 Broadview) for a cup of Joe and a conversation about his fighter’s instinct, his questionable move to attend NDP caucus strategy meetings before being elected and what he’s hearing from voters.
Was there a particular moment when you decided to run in this by-election or was it more of a gradual process?
It wasn’t something that was on my plate until around November, when the search committee realized that I lived in the riding, but it did take me awhile to decide, and that was because, obviously, following in Jack’s footsteps is a daunting position. I had to think long and hard about it. My two main motivations for doing this are to help stand up to Stephen Harper’s government and to communicate a sense of urgency about the state of the environment globally and a desire to contribute to solutions.
You’ve said a number of different times that you aren’t trying to fill Jack Layton’s shoes but are instead trying to follow in his footsteps. What do you mean by that?
I think the metaphor of standing in someone’s shoes suggests that you literally replace the person and do exactly what they do. I prefer the metaphor that recognizes the trail that’s been blazed and that I’d be learning a lot as I go. Following in his footsteps is a more appropriate metaphor because the reality is that I could never hope to replace Jack. At the same time, at a certain point I’ve got to be forging my own path. He built a very dynamic and strong party; I would be crazy not to follow in his footsteps for awhile until I get grounded.
Can you give me a few examples of how you’d follow in his footsteps?
One is that my own approach jives with what Jack did. Jack had an ability to reach across differences and bring different people into the fold in order to work towards common solutions. That’s very much something that became a strong point of his leadership. The other is how he was able to balance an openness to dialogue with a fighter’s spirit. That particular balance that Jack demonstrated as he grew into the leadership is something that I greatly admire and something that I want to try to achieve. I do have a fighter’s instinct and progress isn’t achieved without it, but it has to be done in a way that’s respectful and well thought-through.
Where do you think your fighter’s instinct comes from?
When I say “fighter” I mean it partly as a metaphor, apart from the fact that when I was a kid I did want to be a boxer when I grew up. I think it has a lot to do with growing up in a family environment where perseverance and persistence were demonstrated constantly. I’m known for speaking out when people are being mistreated in different contexts, and I would trace this back to my parents. My dad persisted in his dream to become a full-time artist. After he was struck down by a brain aneurism, my mother stuck by him for 30 years until he passed away. The strength of character they both showed can only be something you want to emulate.
You’ve been an active canvasser throughout this campaign. What are some of the common issues you’ve been hearing?
One is a concern over where the Conservatives are taking the country and that the opposition has to do its job to get us to the next election. The second is the environment. There’s a pretty strong environmental consciousness among many in the riding. The sense of working together intuitively and pragmatically on the environment is deeply rooted here. I’m looking forward to actually doing that work with those who have the knowledge and experience with practical solutions that actually address global issues. Another issue that I’m hearing has to do with the pension system, including Old Age Security. We don’t know exactly what the prime minister is going to do, but I’ve heard concerns from not just existing pensioners but often from those in their 40s and 50s who are understanding the fact that what they are hoping for in their retirement might not be there.
If elected, how are you going to tackle those issues?
With regards to holding Stephen Harper to account, I’m in the hands of the party. I really do believe there is a strong team up there. It would be wrong of me to think that I don’t have a learning curve for a little while to know how I can make the best contribution. I do think my experience in a range of advocacy actions in the academic field and my skill set, including my training as a teacher, will allow me to play an accountability role in parliament—and not just in the House of Commons during question period but in committees, where frankly a lot of the holding to account has to occur. You need MPs who are capable of using the limited time for getting at the heart of things and to not be floundering or getting misdirected or unfocussed approaches. I’m hoping I have the skill set to be part of committee work to hold them to account.
On the environment, I’ll be working with the other MPs on pushing the government to, for example, reinstate the eco-energy program, which was one of the recession response-measures they were pushed into. The program was designed to retrofit houses in order to combat excessive heat and other kinds of leakages. Four hundred million dollars was left in the fund and they cancelled it, so part of my job will be to help push for measures that this government might actually do. We honestly can’t afford three years of nothing on the environment.
At the end of January, you accepted an invitation to sit in on the NDP caucus strategy meetings in Ottawa. Some might see this as a bold move for someone who hasn’t even won the by-election yet. Why did you accept that invitation?
The primary motivation was to meet the caucus because I wanted to be able to talk knowledgeably at people’s doors about how strong it was. I already had that sense and I knew enough individual MPs and others to be quite comfortable making sure people knew what a strong team it was. The second reason was that the caucus was engaging in some discussions around certain policy issues that I knew I would benefit from, so I thought, why not participate? I came back from the meetings with a better understanding of the ways in which the Conservative government has actually not been a good manager of the economy. I learned a lot to deepen my own sense that they have a smoke-and-mirrors approach to the economy, and that their measures have actually not produced jobs or innovation.
If elected, you’ll be one of five gay NDP MPs and one of six in parliament. Will queer issues be on your agenda if you reach Ottawa?
Not in any way that would say, “I’m the one speaking for this.” What I primarily want to do is be an openly gay politician; for that reason, one who acts as a role model. I want to be a respected as an honourable politician and help raise some of the prejudices that still exist, and then help—especially youth but anyone in society—who still feels they are looked down upon because they’re gay.
You’ve said that the urban Aboriginal experience hasn’t been properly addressed at any level of government. What are the urban Aboriginal issues you’d like to see on the government’s radar and how would you address them at the federal level?
One main issue is education. We already know that the federal government can play constructive roles in education. But the moment you get off the reserves, the whole question of education for non-reserve-based Aboriginals comes up. There needs to be a much better understanding at the federal level of how to work with the provincial level to make sure Aboriginal education and the opportunities that stem from it for urban Aboriginal youth, for example, are on the federal agenda. Frankly, I’m also simply interested in hearing more about what the experience and challenges are for urban Aboriginals. I’ve already begun speaking with different members of the community about these issues because I’ll confess that it isn’t an area that I know enough about yet.
You haven’t won yet, but let’s imagine that you defeat your opponents on March 19. What will be your first order of business in Ottawa?
It’s almost certain I will focus on getting my own mind around and assisting caucus with the budget, which will be coming down 10 days after this by-election. And at minimum we’re going to be looking at what the government ends up doing, especially on issues related to old-age pension. I will assist in that because it’s something that I’ve paid attention to during this campaign. Beyond that, I will very quickly want to get a lay of the land about where the interests lie among different members of the NDP caucus. And even beyond that, with respect to global-environmental issues, [I want to know] their different areas of specialization and how I can begin to understand what potential there is in parliament to beat the drum on some of the global ecosystem–collapse scenarios that will be very real in the next couple of decades.