The Spirit Lounge, with its tinfoil-clad walls and faux-leopard skin table cloths isn’t the typical restaurant for a political fundraising dinner. But then again, Jack Layton isn’t running a typical campaign.
Layton, a Toronto city councillor vying for the New Democratic Party leadership, was in Montreal this weekend for a leadership debate at CEGEP Vieux Montreal. He took advantage of his time here to have a brief fundraising dinner at the trendy, quirky restaurant on Ontario St. East.
Not everything has been roses so far in the campaign, which has been plagued by a general apathy by the public. In a recent poll, 59 per cent of Canadians – including party members – said they didn’t know who they would vote for in an NDP leadership race, which has been greatly overshadowed by the Liberal leadership race.
Layton has also faced criticism from Bill Blaikie, a long-time MP and the candidate favoured by the NDP apparatus to become the next leader. In a speech earlier this month, Blaikie compared Layton to former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day, who had never been involved in federal politics before and ultimately caved under the pressure of the national spotlight.
Layton, 52, has been centring his campaign on the youth vote, appealing to the uneasiness many young activists and would-be activists have with the seemingly stale, old guard of the NDP. One of the main issues he is campaigning on is bringing the voice of the people back into politics, something many have tried to do before him, very often failing.
In light of the upcoming protest against the Free Trade Are of the Americas (FTAA), and Layton’s professed anti-corporate globalization stance, the Concordian sat down with him for a few minutes to get his some of his views.
On the FTAA and free trade
For Layton, the biggest fear is that the FTAA will turn previously public services – like affordable housing, education, and Medicare – into private commodities, resulting in higher user fees and lower quality service.
“If these [services] are defined as commodities, they enter the cash flow and therefore represent profits for companies. This then results in higher costs for previously public services, like post-secondary education.”
But he emphasized that the biggest threat is to local democratic decision making. “The problems [with free trade] begin when these agreements define democracy as a restriction of trade.”
As an example he pointed to the on-going challenges by the multinational “pesticide cabal” to his home town of Hudson’s decision to ban the use of pesticide for aesthetic uses.
One of the greatest obstacles many see right now in getting out of free trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, is they are so entrenched in our society and trading patterns that it is impossible to break away from them. Layton sees a very real possibility of change, though.
“Before democracy came to this part of the world, it was seen by some as very difficult, even impossible. Yet thousands of people working together pulled it off. We can do it again.
“Our other option is to sit back and see the disaster as spectators. But we’re not really spectators, are we? Our kids will have to face this some day.”
On student protests against the FTAA
On Oct. 31, students across the Americas will be partaking in a Western Hemisphere-wide day of strike and action against the FTAA. Many such protests in the past have resulted in violence, property damage and large numbers of arrests, such as the protest against the FTAA in Quebec City in 2001 and the massive demonstration against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
At the same time though, supporters believe it is a new movement, akin to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, working to bring social justice to the way governments and multinational corporations act. Layton very much falls into the second category.
“First, I’d like to say thank you. Thank you for going out there to expose the dangers to democracy of the corporate agreement,” he said, when asked what he would want to tell students going out to protest instead of trick-or-treating on Halloween.
“And beware. Last time we voted, the party we elected [the Liberals] said ‘we won’t go ahead’ with free trade agreements. Then they did. Then, under [former finance minister] Paul Martin, the guru of free trade, we saw it grow. Remember that we can sometimes elect charlatans.”