Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh says creating safe and affordable housing in the North is a top priority for the New Democrats.
Singh recently discussed northern priorities with Northwest Territories Premier Caroline Cochrane. He told Cabin Radio: “What we’re hearing from people in the North is housing is the most important thing – making sure they have access to housing, making sure people have quality places they can call home.”
Singh said his party will push the federal government to make “massive investments” in housing as part of its Covid-19 recovery plan. Doing so, he said, would be one of the best ways to create jobs and make communities better places to live. Houses built to green standards, he added, can help to fight the climate crisis.
“For the past number of decades, the federal government has not invested in building affordable housing, has not invested in places for people to call home,” Singh said.
“There’s going to be money rolling out for the recovery. We want to see it invested in housing.”
In Nunavut, housing was a big part of Mumilaaq Qaqqaq’s 2019 federal election campaign. She is now the North’s only NDP MP.
Earlier this year, Qaqqaq documented issues like overcrowding and mould while touring housing in several Nunavut communities.
Singh says Nunavut healthcare has historically been underfunded, putting communities at greater risk during the pandemic. In late November, as Nunavut saw a surge in Covid-19 cases, Singh called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to provide federal help with personal protective equipment, testing and contact tracing.
“If we do not trace and isolate every positive case, the number of cases could explode,” Singh wrote at the time.
“No one should be worried about the cost of a mask or whether or not one is available,” he later told Cabin Radio. “We need everyone to have access to the important protective equipment they need to stay safe.”
Among the NDP’s other northern priorities, Singh said, are improving access to high-speed internet and addressing the climate crisis. He noted Premier Cochrane raised concerns that warming temperatures pose a challenge for communities that rely on ice roads.
Singh also wants Canada to increase access to affordable food in the North and approach the addictions crisis as a healthcare issue, not a criminal justice matter.
Yellowknife MLA Rylund Johnson recently made that argument following the decision of Vancouver city council to request an exemption from federal drug laws that would have the effect of decriminalizing drug possession. The western Canadian city is at the front line of the country’s opioid crisis.
NWT health officials, however, told Cabin Radio illegal drug use statistics in the territory don’t currently justify decriminalization and it isn’t being actively considered.
Overall, Singh said, the federal government needs to make the North more of a priority and take action.
“There are so many things that we already know about. We don’t need another study. People in the North can just tell you we need these investments to happen right away and get down to doing the work,” he said.
The Northwest Territories last had an NDP MP in 2015. Dennis Bevington, from Fort Smith, was the territory’s member of Parliament from 2006 until his defeat by current Liberal MP Michael McLeod nine years later.
The Yukon last had an NDP leader 20 years ago. Audrey McLaughlin served from 1987 to 1997, followed by Louise Hardy until 2000.
Asked about the NDP’s waning presence in the North, Singh said his party has a long history of support in northern communities across the country. He wants northerners to see New Democrats as “champions” for people in the North.
“People have seen that previous governments, Liberal and Conservative, haven’t really put the interests of the North front of mind. They haven’t really fought for people in a way that’s made their lives better,” he said.
“In the Northwest Territories, I hope people see the NDP as a party that’s going to be there for you. It’s going to fight for you.”
Singh has travelled to Nunavut since becoming leader of the NDP. Once travel opens up again post-pandemic, he said he hopes to visit the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
In the meantime, Singh has made extensive use of social media – including TikTok, where he has more than half a million followers – to reach people.
“My goal is to speak to people where they are. I try to connect to people where they’re already gathered,” Singh said, noting that is on social media now more than ever.
“It’s a great way to connect and to hear people’s concerns, but also to share our vision and what we want to do for people.”