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Peter Julian is a veteran MP. He has represented Burnaby-New Westminster, in British Columbia’s lower mainland, since 2004, is fluently bilingual — a result of the many years he lived in Quebec — and is a self-styled “regular guy” with real working-class experience. He worked in a brewery, in factories, in the service sector and even in an oil refinery.

He has never been a rock star, but he is a nose-to-the-grindstone politician who believes in the value of grassroots, retail politics. By his own account, Julian has knocked on hundreds of thousands of doors across this country.

When New Democrats last held a leadership race, flush with their success from 2011’s Orange Wave and following the sudden death of Jack Layton, Peter demurred. But he is running this time, when the prize may be more of a challenge than a gift. Why?

“Because,” he says, “we need to change as a party. We have to use the wisdom and strength of our members across the country. It is important to revive that sense of purpose in our party. I come out of social movements, and so the idea that we are part of a broader movement is part of what I am all about.”

Peter’s own journey and life story are interesting and quite unusual. It is not every kid from B.C.’s lower mainland who decides to decamp to Quebec’s almost entirely French-speaking Saguenay region to attend university. Peter did, and it is fascinating to hear him talk about his early struggles with a language in which he is now fluent.

He was also an early adopter of the NDP brand. Even though his father was a hardcore Liberal who even carried the Liberal colours in one federal election, Julian became a New Democrat when he was 14 and has never looked back.

Julian also spent part of his life working with the disabled and is still profoundly committed to that community.

All in all, it makes for a fairly compelling life story. But Julian is not interested in marketing his biography. He is all about policy. Ask him about himself, and he quickly pivots to his key policy proposals. He’s got six of those, some quite specific and tangible, and some that are — well — more over-arching and general.

They are: fair taxes, massive investment in housing, free post-secondary tuition for all, reconciliation with First Nations, a good jobs economy and no more raw bitumen pipelines.

Stop welfare for the very wealthy

On taxes, Julian mostly emphasizes the lost revenue from massive tax evasion. That includes the billions the über rich hide offshore.

“In this country,” the B.C. MP says, “one of the largest social programs is providing off-shore tax havens for the very wealthy.”

He points out that the response of the Canadian Revenue Agency to the Isle of Man tax evasion scheme was to say that the perpetrators were “too big to prosecute.” Julian wants to change all that and recover a good part of the $50 billion that Canada fails to collect in taxes each year.  He wants to make sure “everybody pays their fair share,” including the top one per cent, but is less clear as to how he would achieve that goal.

On housing, Julian advocates for an “urgent program to construct 250,000 housing units in the next couple of years.” He has an ambitious plan that would cost four or five billion dollars per year. That’s a lot of money, but Julian emphasizes the economic benefits, and argues that Canada invested even more in housing following the Second World War. 

Next on this list is a major and very tangible pledge. Julian wants to eliminate tuition fees for colleges and universities, at a cost, annually, of $8 billion. He would have to negotiate this with the provinces, of course, but thinks they would not likely resist. He does not favour a means-tested solution in which only those in need would get a break on tuition. We would make sure the billionaires pay their fair share of taxes, Julian says, and so their children would be as entitled to free tuition as the children of working-class and low-income Canadians.  

More than photo-ops for Indigenous people

The British Columbia MP accuses the Trudeau government of breaking its promise of reconciliation with First Nations. He says the “shallowness with which the Liberals have treated this issue is appalling.” 

His idea is for the federal government to work intensely at the local community level with the provinces, and other groups such as health-care authorities, school boards, the justice system and the business community, in a decade-long project. 

He contrasts his strategy with what he calls the Liberals’ photo-op approach. Julian has yet to put too much flesh on the bones of his own plan, however. It will be a long leadership campaign and there is, of course, time for him to go into greater detail.

Julian’s plan for a “good jobs” economy includes a traditional NDP pledge to move us away from the extraction of raw materials to more value-added production.  As with First Nations, though, the jobs commitment is still mostly a collection of generalities.

When prompted to explain how, specifically, a federal government might go about creating good jobs, Julian points to Canada’s low investment in innovation and research and development. He then moves to the need for better education and training, and reiterates his free tuition pledge. If Canadians were better educated they would be better equipped to fill “the good jobs of tomorrow,” Julian argues.

What would Peter Julian do to help create those “good jobs”? Here he is a bit vague. He alludes to “talking with the sectors” and working with communities. The B.C. MP is much more specific at what he sees are the excessively low corporate tax rates championed by both Liberals and Conservatives, which, he complains, have not produced much in the way of private sector investment.  Even some Conservatives, including the late finance minister Jim Flaherty, recognized that uncomfortable and inconvenient truth. 

No more bitumen-carrying pipelines

When it comes to raw bitumen exports, especially via pipeline, Julian is as clear as the tar sands are murky. He wants to kill the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which the Trudeau government so recently approved, and any other actual or potential pipelines — including Energy East — that would carry tar sands bitumen. The leadership candidate expects pipelines and what to do about them to be a key issue in the next election.

Echoing the LEAP manifesto, Julian wants Canada to start moving, in a deliberate way and at a fairly speedy pace, to a low-carbon economy. The rub is that the only sitting NDP premier, Rachel Notley of Alberta, sees things quite differently.

Julian candidly recognizes that he and the Alberta premier have “an honest disagreement.”  He admits that while he and Rachel Notley “agree on the importance of the federal government showing leadership in keeping more valued-added in the processing of tar sands bitumen in Canada,” on pipelines they will simply have to “agree to disagree.”

The other declared candidates for the NDP leadership have not, as yet, been as unequivocal on pipelines as Julian, whose position happens to coincide with that of the British Columbia NDP. Julian’s British Columbia riding is also in the part of the country through which Kinder Morgan would run its new line, which would twin an existing pipeline. It makes perfect sense, politically, for Julian to take the position of his B.C. colleagues and not that of a neighbouring province’s premier.

However, if we cannot be sure Julian is correct in predicting that pipelines will be a defining issue of the 2019 election, we do know that the pipeline question currently divides the NDP — as it does the country as a whole.

The lessons of 2015

In the end, all the candidates who aspire to lead the NDP into the next election will have to confront what has to be a huge elephant in the room: What went wrong last time? The NDP started the 2015 campaign as the official opposition, and was leading or tied in most opinion polls, but ended back in third place.

As Julian sees it, last time, party headquarters got too wrapped up in what he calls an “Ottawa bubble” mentality and lost touch with the NDP’s grassroots.  The party became too cautious, he argues, just when it had to be bold

The Liberals, Julian points out, promised “bold change in vague words.”  As for his own party: “We offered smaller changes, but in specific words.” Next time, if he becomes leader, Peter Julian promises to offer Canadians change that will be both bold and specific.

As yet, he only offers specific detail on some, but not all, of his main policy planks. There is still time to roll out more specifics. However, for Julian, getting the entire party to rally around his biggest pledge — killing all pipeline projects — will be a task worthy of a latter-day Sisyphus. 

This article is part of a series profiling candidates in the 2017 NDP leadership race. Read the full series here.

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Image: Facebook/Peter Julian

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...