Photo of Jagmeet Singh by Mitchel Raphael (via Olivia Chow/flickr)

NDP leadership candidates reinforced their commitment to workers and the labour movement at a debate hosted by the United Steelworkers in Toronto on Thursday night.

Candidates unanimously supported protecting workers’ pensions when companies declare bankruptcy, helping temporary foreign workers gain Canadian citizenship faster, making it easier for workers to democratically join unions, and protecting workers who rely on precarious and contract employment.

But the debate highlighted candidates’ different approaches to ensuring economic prosperity and protecting the environment.

Singh’s economic policies questioned

Member of provincial parliament for the Ontario riding of Bramalea-Gore-Malton Jagmeet Singh faced questions about his proposed changes to Old Age Security (OAS) and the current tax system.

Singh proposes to create a Canadian Seniors Guarantee that would combine OAS, Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), the Age Credit and Pension Income Credit.

All Canadians older than 65 who meet proper residency requirements can receive OAS. Work history does not affect eligibility. Seniors with low incomes may qualify for the GIS.

Guy Caron, member of Parliament for the Quebec riding of Rimouski-Neigette-Témiscouata-Les Basques, asked Singh if his proposed guarantee would be universal, like OAS is. Singh said his guarantee would not be universal. It would be means-tested and target low-income seniors.

“We need to make sure any support we provide is given to people who need it the most,” he said, saying his plan would lift seniors out of poverty immediately.

NDP policy supports the universality of OAS.

Caron suggested Singh’s plan could further stigmatize low-income seniors, saying Singh was “trying to dress up a Conservative idea in progressive clothes.”

Singh is proposing creating two high-level income brackets, one for those who earn more than $350,000 and another for those who make more than $500,000. He also wants to create a tax on estates worth more than $4 million. He would increase the amount of capital gains that are taxable to 75 per cent. Right now, 50 per cent of capital gains are taxable.

Niki Ashton, member of Parliament for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in Manitoba, challenged Singh to go further with his proposed tax reforms. She questioned him about why he wasn’t increasing the tax on capital gains to 100 per cent, the same rate used for working income.

Singh said that while his plan was “strong,” he could do more to reform tax legislation.

Ashton has campaigned against a tax system she says is “rigged against the working people.” In her closing statement, she told the audience she is the only candidate campaigning for “fundamental” change: “Incremental change won’t cut it.”

Responses to environmental concerns differ

Peter Julian, member of Parliament for New Westminster-Burnaby in British Columbia, asked Charlie Angus about what he thinks the limit should be on Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. Angus, member of Parliament for the northern Ontario riding of Timmins-James Bay, said legislation is the best way to ensure industry meets environmental standards. He would want a scientific committee to make suggestions about what specific targets should be. Later in the debate, he said the federal government needs to support workers in resource industries who are re-training for more environmentally friendly jobs. No worker should be left behind, he said.

“We do not get environmental justice in this country without economic justice,” he told the crowd. “They are inseparable.”

Julian has said he will create one million green jobs in the next five years. He did not provide more specifics of this plan at the debate.

Targeted approaches for Toronto and Quebec

Candidates were asked how the party can regain seats in Toronto and Quebec. There are no New Democrats representing federal ridings in Toronto and the GTA. The party has 16 seats in Quebec — a sharp decline after claiming 59 in 2011.

Singh emphasized the importance of creating an urban-centred plan that addresses concerns about the lack of affordable housing and insufficient public transit. This strategy needs to be one that can apply to cities across the country, because the health of cities benefits everyone, he said.

All candidates said that the NDP must partner with Quebec, calling it one of the most progressive provinces. But Caron took it a step further, saying the party needs to develop a Quebec-specific platform. The lack of a Quebec-specific platform hurt the NDP in the 2015 election, he said.

Federal government blasted for infrastructure and race relations

Both Singh and Caron expressed frustration with the federal government’s infrastructure bank. Singh called it a “veiled attempt at privatization” the party “must resist.” Caron called it “basically theft,” saying investors will decide where the money is spent, and the government will only approve projects where it can make the most money, not where the greatest need is.

Candidates also criticized the government’s inaction addressing anti-Black racism or dire situations in many Indigenous communities. Ashton said the federal government has failed to show leadership in combatting anti-Black racism, although did not say how she would fight it if elected prime minister. Singh said he would remove carding practices from the RCMP.

Julian said he would establish an emergency fund to respond to crises in Indigenous communities, such as lack of mental-health supports, unsafe drinking water and lack of education supports. He would then meet with municipal and provincial government leaders, school boards, police and members of the justice system to develop more strategies.

Ashton said Canada must adopt the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

NDP needs to return to its roots

Candidates also critiqued their own party. Angus said the party is becoming too centralized, and needs to focus on meeting with people in the grassroots.

“We are excellent at fighting the last election,” he said, when asked how he would challenge the idea of strategic voting. “We have to be fighting the next election.” The Liberals won because Trudeau gave people a sense of hope, Angus said. The NDP needs to do that by reconnecting with people in the grassroots.

The leadership vote will be held this fall. The next debate is scheduled for July 11 in Saskatoon. Potential candidates can register until July 3.

Meagan Gillmore is‘s labour reporter.

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