Buffalo Trails & Tales - Summer 2011 Issue
What was it that initially attracted you to this industry?
I think it’s the community development piece. In politics, it allows people with different skill sets and different sectors to bring that to the job so you see the business sector come in, you see people with social work background and I think for me, the interest for me has been the idea that I could use my skills around community development. I think the other thing about politics is that I’ve never believed its something that you should ever decide to do yourself.
I remember talking to Yvon Dumont about it and I said “How do you know when you should run in politics?” and his explanation made the most sense to me, he said “You don’t really decide, if enough people approach you and they think that you’re somebody that could articulate a message and lead and that you have those kinds of qualities, then they’ll ask you to.” So for me, enough people had asked, encouraged me and supported me to do it so I thought I’ll give it a shot and that was probably the biggest reason why I did it.
Would you say that Yvon was one of your role models?
Ya, Yvon’s been like a role model and a mentor. I think more of a mentor because he spends a lot more time with me, he’s been somebody who is beyond a friend, I think of him more as part of my family.
Do you have many past experiences that have taught you any life-changing lessons that you’re constantly remembering as you’re campaigning?
Yes, the biggest thing is the importance of relationships. Having relationships with people is a key factor. I think the other thing is also, practically in politics when you make these connections with people you can do a lot of great things and then ultimately your success is based on what happens on election day but I think if you run a particular campaign where you’re building relationships and making good community connections you’re learning a lot about what people have to say. Even if you don’t win on Election Day you really do get a lot of wins doing these things. A friend of mine who was at one time the southern grand chief of Manitoba ran for mayor and somebody asked him why he decided to run for mayor and he told them that the experience he got running for mayor would cost somebody 30 thousand dollars in a university degree. The learning opportunity there is massive. The friendships and relationships that you build during it is incredible so those are some of the things that will stay with me for whatever I decide to do, whether or not I win. And that’s where I’m basing my success on, not just on Election Day.
What motivates you?
I grew up in a particular way with a lot of challenges mainly around economics so I didn’t have a lot growing up. I’d say that we were financially poor. There were a lot of people who had given and were extremely generous with their time and so a lot of people had done a lot to help me succeed. I have not only a sense of gratitude by a sense of debt. What you’ll find is that when you’re out working hard and doing things for people, when you actually give your time and you’re generous in that way you find that it becomes somewhat addictive. It becomes a life style and you surround yourself with people like that. For me, I’ve built a career out of values and I’ve always wanted to make sure that people felt as though they belonged and had a strong sense of belonging. That’s not just for children and youth but for families and for elders. I wanted people to understand the concept that you don’t have to be rich to get a sense of contribution. You can get it from simply volunteering and helping people. Another thing that I talk a lot about is how much I like working with people with different skill sets and helping them develop those kinds of talents. Those are the kinds of things that attracted me to community work and the stuff that I do now. What you’ll find is that you can see people who are very financially successful and once they start getting older you’ll see that they want to start giving it back. Not only financially but you’ll find that people give up their time. People who value wealth earlier in their careers eventually get to a point where they want to contribute as well with their time and help people.
Do you have a personal or emotional attachment to the Point Douglas area?
Yes, I was born and raised there so the schools, the coaches, people from the churches are all people who helped raise me. What’s great about campaigning in the neighborhood that you grew up in is the people. For example while I was door knocking I met this lady who said she had lived in her house for 50 years. I remembered going to that house to play with friends and I learned that they were her kids, and she remembered me. So that lady lived in that house for 50 years and I was playing with her kids like 30 years ago so you get these deep connections. That’s one of the things about politics, as of now I’m not interested in trying to represent the people of any other community. As I’m starting my political career I’m very interested in the area that I’m in. I was born and raised here; my son will be born and raised here. The people that surrounded me are the people that will surround my son as he grows up, so I do have a different type of connection to the riding. Where I think it’s harder to have that personal connection if you were born and raised in another area and you’re trying to represent the people of Point Douglas. Not that someone shouldn’t do that, but the connection won’t be the same. At this point in my career, I’m very interested in politics in Point Douglas because it’s where I was raised, where my son will be raised and where I’ve built my career.
Have you ever had to go door knocking at one of your old houses?
Yes, the best way to have someone support you is to try and personally connect with them and the best way to do that is if you actually have a connection. If I go to a house that I grew up in, I say to them that at one point I used to live here and sometimes they let me come inside to see how the house has changed since I lived there, that’s the nicer side of the campaigning. The other thing is when you’re out door knocking, you do go to homes and find that people don’t want you there so it’s a nice balance when you get to go somewhere that you have a personal connection to.
As a politician, what is your main goal in your work?
The main goal is the ability to make the position accessible. When we elect people, we elect people to be in specific positions and many people pick for you to be in that job so I think the number 1 goal is how you find a way that many people from different backgrounds can fully access the position. Part of accessing the position is being accessible as a politician. Myself as a candidate, if I’m elected, part of it is people knowing that they can access me. But it’s more than that, the position of a politician is surrounded by services and resources of public funding. So how do you make the position more accessible, so that people can understand how it works and can access the resources and services available to them? Sometimes people don’t even have to go to you as a politician, there’s a lot of other ways to access the position of an MLA without even getting to the politician. I think the thing that interests me the most is how you can use this position so many people can access it and how can you share it to build capacity of your community, of organizations and of people. The more people who access a political position, the stronger the position becomes. The less people who access that position, the weaker it becomes. When you’re elected, you become the face and the spokesperson for that position but it’s not your position, it belongs to everybody. Sometimes you see in politics that someone will get elected, and then you’ll never see them! You don’t even know how to access them. What ends up happening is that the politicians will think that it’s their position, but at the end of the day, they leave it and it then belongs to somebody else. It’s a position that needs to be shared and used in a productive way and the key to that is accessibility.
As MLA for Point Douglas, what are the key things that you would like to accomplish?
The first couple of things that I’d like to accomplish are the issues that you hear about around crime and safety. I want to find some practical things that we could do right away to make people feel safer and deal with some of the crime issues in my particular area. A part of that concept is making people feel good about where they live. So what are some short term and long term goals that we can have to achieve some of that? In my particular riding we have a lot of seniors. I know there are a lot of issues with seniors, they get on prescription drugs and then they have to choose between buying groceries and paying for their medicine. Which means that they have to buy cheaper food in order to afford their medicine. So what are some things that we can do to help seniors live with more dignity? The concept is that if we can find ways to provide opportunities for youth and children and we can provide services and resources to seniors, it starts to lay a foundation for some really great things. This also ties in with helping people understand how this position works, that’s the campaigning side of it whereas this stuff is more policy driven.
If you were elected, what would you do to make the north end safer?
It starts right now, if you run the kind of campaign that I’m running. I have a very diverse campaign, I have children, youth, families and seniors that are all volunteering. Were probably sitting at about 200 to 300 volunteers and I’m hoping to get up to about 500 or 600. The idea is that once you have a couple hundred people volunteering in a campaign, when you’re elected, that’s a big team of people that are trying to do something. For example, the police are always telling us that they can’t be everywhere at once, so the people should leave their blinds open and be aware of what’s going on in their neighborhood. It’s that community engagement. But you can’t get that after you’re elected, you’ve got to do it right at the beginning. If I want to do things on crime and safety and there’s two women living on opposite sides of the blocks and they’ve never spoken yet they have the same issue, there’s a huge advantage once you get them talking. Part of that is by bringing people together. Most people running would say that we need more police officers, I’m not disagreeing with it but that’s what everybody says. But the concept is that if you want to make people feel good about where they live and you want them to feel safer, you have to bring people together to do it. If you can’t do it during an election campaign then chances are you’re not going to be able to do it once you’re elected. If you’re able to get 500 or 600 people from an area with all different backgrounds, all different ages and all different ethnicities, you’ve got a pretty big base to start to be able to do something. Once you have that base of support you can start getting into doing things such as block parties, you can actually start discussing with the police service because they know that you represent a lot of active people, some policies that would make sense to deal with some of the crime. Maybe the volunteers that help out in this campaign could actually assist the police in some way. Having more police officers could possibly be a long term goal, but what I’m currently working on is something that we can do right away. Even just keeping the area clean could help. If somebody graffiti’s a place, within a day or two it should be coming down. If people are throwing garbage all over the place, we should be finding ways to have it cleaned up, which makes people feel better about where they live and that transitions into them being more active and more engaged in things that are going on in their neighborhood as opposed to closing their doors and shutting their blinds.
How does your work in politics intertwine with the Metis and Aboriginal community?
Right off the bat, I’m Aboriginal. I think that in itself draws some attention in the Aboriginal community. Because of my background as well as my background in community development work, I think we’ve been able to draw in more aboriginal volunteers and families. I think the other thing that I’ve been able to do quite well is build some knowledge and relationships in the non-Aboriginal community so that we can find ways to work very well together. In the area of Point Douglas, there is a very high aboriginal population, so once again if you want to be able to look at connecting with that group of people, you have to be able to have relationships built and established. The first step of democracy is to have people buy a party membership to see if you will have a group of people that will come out to support you to run for a political party, it’s called a nomination process and it’s a process that’s always skipped for Aboriginal people. When I decided to run for the nomination for the NDP, I went out and I educated people on what their money was going to get them. Once they purchased a membership off me, they became fully engaged in the process right at the beginning. Often what we do is we skip that process. Some politicians won’t have people engaged right at the beginning and then they’ll come back and ask for those people’s vote on Election Day. At that point you’ve already missed a big opportunity to educate them on the process. I started right at the beginning, it was extra work but I learned that if you engage people at the beginning it will work to your advantage. I think the only way you can engage people is to do so at the very first step of democracy.
How would you get more Aboriginal and Metis people to come out and vote?
You would need to educate them on the process. Another thing is that most people think that politics is driven by issues, and that’s part of it but politics is really driven by values. If you can’t make people feel like they belong to a political campaign, then you’ll never get them out to vote. Voting is part of having confidence. If you’ve never voted before, it’s tough to go in there and do that, you’ve never been there before and you don’t know how you’ll be treated. What I have to do in order to give those people confidence is to provide them with a strong sense of belonging. What helps is if these people come down and volunteer. This way they meet people who are volunteering for the same purpose and they can build connections and begin to feel more comfortable. Another thing is to have those people recruit others that they know, this way they are comfortable around more people and they feel a stronger sense of belonging towards the campaign. The most important thing is to get them through the campaign office doors as a volunteer, they will vote. I don’t try to spend my time just trying to get them to vote on election day, I’m trying to get them to come in and get a sense of belonging and contribution in the campaign. In politics, anything positive that happens that is going to sustain, is also going to take a long period of time. Anything that happens immediate, will drop right away. Are people committed to increasing voter turn out for Aboriginal people for a number of years? I’ve never seen it. I see them try to get voter turn out for usually 4 weeks, once every 4 years. You can’t increase voter turn out in the aboriginal community if you’re only trying to do so for 4 weeks every 4 years. You have to commit to it year after year. The best time to increase voter turn out for aboriginal people is actually when there’s no election on. The worst time to try and get people to vote in during an election. This makes people feel as though the only time a politician will go and talk to them is around election time. You have to commit to it when an election isn’t on. Most people think that’s not convenient but I’m committed to that because I’m committed to things like values as much as issues.
When you aren’t campaigning, what are some of the things that you love to do most in your spare time?
Well I have a wife and a ten-month-old son, they’re my first priority. I love spending time with them. I also really enjoy sports; I played basketball at U of W for 5 years. I also like to go for runs. I like to do anything that will take my mind off things, for example I love going to the movies because I can get away from everything for a couple of hours. I love my job, but if I want to get away, I like to go with my wife and son, just the three of us somewhere. The hardest part is to not be able to spend as much time with my family. When you’re into community work, you have to find a balance between work and family. You’re never going to find a completely stable balance but it’s important to have some down time with the family in the midst of all the craziness at work. Sometimes even when you come home, you’re mentally and emotionally still at work, so you have to find a way to equal it out.
You said that in being MLA for Point Douglas, you’d like to make the area safer. Do your son and his future motivate you for that goal?
Me running in an area in which I lived and I was born and raised in, is a different type of campaign. When people tell me that they don’t feel safe, I ask them how they think I feel when I have a wife and a ten-month-old son. Do I want them out walking alone? No! So I can do one of two things: I can close my door and shut my blinds or I can try to do the best I can to change it for his future and for our future together, growing up there and wanting to stay there. Those are some of the reasons why I get out there and try to change things, not just for him but for lots of different families like ours. There are a lot of great things that happen in the north end but there are also a lot of challenges. Most importantly, there is potential. If you can see potential in great situations and in tough situations then you’ll always be optimistic. For me in Point Douglas and in politics, there is a lot of potential and that’s what drives me. I want to try and maximize some of that potential.