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Niki Ashton in Edmonton: Young, formidable, and a force to be reckoned with in the NDP

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Niki Ashton

Business forced me to be in our nation's capital when Niki Ashton, the latest candidate for the leadership of the New Democratic Party to visit Edmonton, spoke at the City Arts Centre in Old Strathcona Tuesday evening. Since Edmonton's mainstream media, the folks actually paid to do this work, have up to now been ignoring this important race to replace the late Jack Layton as leader of Canada's Opposition, it seemed as if the job had fallen to me. Accordingly, since I couldn't be there, I asked my friend and former Saint City News editor Olav Rokne to provide this report. These are Olav's observations, not mine, but as he's a smart fellow with a keen eye, I think readers will agree they're well worth reading… I'm also pleased to report that according to brief sightings recorded on Twitter, the mainstream media showed up, with camera crews from City TV and CTV. -- David Climenhaga

By OLAV ROKNE

When asked exactly how many languages she speaks, New Democratic Party leadership candidate Niki Ashton modestly replies that she speaks four, but has a smattering of five others.

But seeing her -- and listening to her -- mingling with attendees last night at her campaign event at Edmonton's City Arts Centre tells a more complete story. She effortlessly moved among several languages and clearly engaged people of a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. First she was chatting away in Greek, the next person spoke Spanish. I think I heard her getting by in Ukrainian.

There's a lot to like about this polyglot wunderkind. She has a good political resume: a two-term MP who represents a large rural riding, she has served as post-secondary education critic, rural development critic and chaired the Standing Committee on the Status of Women.

And as a 29-year-old university lecturer from Thompson, Man., who was the second-youngest woman ever elected to the Canadian House of Commons, she engages youth in a way that bodes well for the long-term prospects of the NDP.

After the event, a young woman was effusive with praise because she felt Ashton had listened to her in a way that other politicians -- including other NDP leadership candidates -- rarely do.

When speaking off the cuff, Ashton peppers her speech with youthful turns of phrase like "pretty cool," and "Edmonton-Strathcona has got it goin' on." From a more conventional (antediluvian, Anglo-Saxon and male) politician, this would sound contrived, but from Ashton, it sounds natural because she speaks the language of youth as fluently as she does both of Canada's official languages.

Impressively, she does this while still engaging people who are as old as her grandparents. The audience of more than 100 people at Tuesday night's campaign event in Edmonton was pleasantly diverse in age, and some of her most vociferous supporters were among the most venerable. The person next to me was a few months shy of being three times Ashton's age, and nodded enthusiastically throughout her speech.

It can be difficult in a leadership race to differentiate a campaign on policy issues, so it came as no surprise that Ashton's platform puts her in the mainstream of the NDP. Her stump speech was irresistible to most of the audience: She's pro-union, pro-social justice, pro-health care, pro-education.

Where she did differentiate herself is that she knew Western Canadian issues, shared anecdotes about her connection to Edmonton and was able to engage the audience in a discussion about the Conservative dominance of the Prairie Provinces.

"If the Conservative agenda is toxic to Canada," she said. "It is doubly toxic to the West because they think that they own us."

It's a good piece of rhetoric, and one that I think speaks to a lot of Albertans who aren't pleased with the way that the Grits and Tories have taken turns ignoring the Prairies. It seems clear that Ashton speaks the regional political languages of Canada.

The one language Ashton doesn't seem to speak fluently is the language of sound bites. She speaks for meaning, rather than for brevity, and fills her sentences with parenthetical thoughts and explanatory clauses. This is an admirable quality in a policy-maker, but an unfortunate one in a public speaker. I had not expected someone so young to be as impressive as Ashton is, but I had also not expected someone so young to occasionally sound so academic.

The New Democrats -- and in fact Canadians in general -- are better off for having a candidate like Niki Ashton as a candidate in this contest. I have doubts about her chances of winning the race to replace Jack Layton, but suspect that she'll be a force to be reckoned with during any subsequent leadership race.

This post appeared on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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