‘Civil’ servants

The Winnipeg Centre riding has more pressing issues than the candidates’ war of words

Two weeks before election night, an excited group of students, downtown dwellers and party faithfuls are rallying inside Eckhardt-Grammatté Hall hoping for some fireworks.

Four of the seven Winnipeg Centre candidates are meeting for a debate at the University of Winnipeg.

New Democratic Party incumbent Pat Martin, Communist party candidate Darrell Rankin, Liberal party candidate Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Green party candidate Don Woodstock will soon launch into their spiels.

Conservative candidate Allie Szarkiewicz told The Uniter she would not be attending. Randy Shank from the Libertarian Party of Canada and Scott Miller from the Christian Heritage Party do not attend either.

“I believe my time is better spent door-knocking and speaking to people one-on-one or in small groups, rather than in debates,” Szarkiewicz says. “Debates tend to be yelling matches – it’s not a solid conversation. It’s more like a chest-thumping, testosterone rage thing.”

If this debate is anything like the last Winnipeg Centre forum held Sept.16 at Portage Place Shopping Centre, there should be plenty of entertainment.

At the Portage Place debate, Woodstock accused Martin of not paying attention to the mental health problems facing his constituents.

The two candidates sparred and local TV cameras caught the pair jabbing one another, with Martin calling Woodstock a “son of a bitch.”

Martin and Woodstock are seated at opposite ends of the table at the U of W debate.

As the moderator gets things underway, it’s clear there will be no shortage of verbal digs tonight, although they seem to be more so cascading from the crowd.

About an hour in, a woman heckles Ouellette as he defends the Liberal party’s position on Bill C-51.

“Thank you, I believe you’re the campaign manager for Mr. Martin?” Ouellette asks.

She quiets as many in the audience erupt with laughter.

••• 

Robert-Falcon Ouellette (Liberal Party of Canada). Photo by Simeon Rusnak

The Uniter spoke with five of the seven Winnipeg Centre candidates before and after the U of W debate. Four of the interviews happened in person and one by phone.

When The Uniter arrives at Ouellette’s campaign headquarters on Sargent Avenue – a rental space sandwiched between a Portuguese grocer and a bottled water supplier – he suggests moving to Flying Pizza.

The Tuesday afternoon bustle inside his office is distracting – the Liberal team is bringing in a new shipment of lawn signs after their last batch of 2,000 ran out.

Ouellette grabs a couple of mini Caramilk bars and heads to the pizza joint a few doors down.

The Winnipeg Centre riding, branded one of the most dramatic federal races in the country, has been largely publicized because of the back and forth between Ouellette and Martin.

In an interview with the Huffington Post, Martin said Ouellette was “full of shit,” a “political slut” and that Ouellette’s wife would be “afraid that she'll have her hubcaps stolen" in the Winnipeg Centre riding. Martin later apologized.

Ouellette’s family lives in South St. Vital near the University of Manitoba where he left his job as program director of the Aboriginal Focus Programs to run for office. He also ran for mayor in the 2014 municipal election and came in third place despite being a relative unknown when he entered the race.

Ouellette believes he can have a greater impact running in Winnipeg Centre than he would in his home riding.

“It’s one of the poorest ridings in the country and I’d love to really be able to make a difference in people’s lives here,” Ouellette says. “If I was in South St. Vital, what would I be doing? I’d be talking about roads.”

The socioeconomic divide in Winnipeg Centre is daunting - the riding has among the highest child poverty rates in the country.

Ouellette says the Liberals plan to lift 350,000 children from poverty with their child tax benefit for families.

Helping children is an important priority for Ouellette who has five of his own – four boys and a girl, ranging in ages from three to 11.

Alleviating the overload of kids in Child and Family Services’ care in Manitoba is also important to him.

“There are 11,000 kids in care of the state right now in Manitoba, 8,000 of those are First Nations children. That is a federal responsibility and we can play an important role in trying to keep families together,” he says.

Ouellette says he’s feeling “pretty good” about his chances of winning the MP seat that’s been an NDP stronghold since 1997.

For every election since his first win in ’97, Martin has earned more votes in Winnipeg Centre than the time before.

Allan Wise, the last Liberal candidate to tempt fate in the riding in 2011, barely earned 11 per cent of the vote.

But Ouellette isn’t fazed by Martin’s past success, it seems.

“It’s fun to be the one that people are trying to catch,” he says.

•••

Pat Martin (New Democratic Party). Photo by Simeon Rusnak

Pat Martin feels the same way.

On a Saturday afternoon nearly two weeks from election day, he says his lead in the polls is substantial.

Martin’s campaign team has set up in a converted computer repair store at the corner of Portage Avenue and Arlington Street.

The Uniter interview is the first media he’s welcomed in a while, he says.

“I’ve been running from media all week,” Martin says, laughing. “I’ve just been getting such a shitty treatment and I’m really quite fed up.”

Martin’s outbursts have been well documented by news outlets – from his profanity-laden attacks on other candidates to his comments about ill-fitting underwear in the House of Commons in February. The underwear comments earned him airtime on the Late Show with David Letterman and CNN, among others.

Having served as Winnipeg Centre’s MP for 17 years, Martin says he’s seen significant progress in the area since he took office, but still feels he has a lot of work left to do.

“I haven’t even got started yet, really. It’s the excitement of the possibility of being part of the first NDP federal government,” he says.

If the NDP is elected to government, Martin believes he’ll have better opportunities to help constituents than he did as an opposition MP.

Still, he says he’s proud to have brought in the 14th highest number of federal government grants and contributions to Winnipeg Centre of 308 ridings in Canada.

“I’m excited about doing much, much more as a member of the ruling party,” he says.

Martin’s primary goal is to help the NDP implement a national affordable housing strategy.

In the meantime, his own housing situation has also made headlines.

In September, Ouellette sent a cheeky news release to the media explaining how Martin doesn’t live on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia, where he keeps a cottage.

“Mr. Martin has publicly stated that he will sue for libel anyone who suggests that he lives on Salt Spring Island,” the release reads. “Therefore, we wish to make it absolutely clear that the official position of Robert-Falcon Ouellette and his campaign for Liberal MP in Winnipeg Centre, in public and in private, is that Pat Martin does not live on Salt Spring Island.”

Martin actually lives in a condo in Osborne Village with his long-time partner. He also has two grown sons.

Martin says the condo is up for sale now and he is looking at a place on Lipton Street.

“I spent 28 years in the riding. This is why it’s so frustrating for me to have to explain to people I raised my children here,” he says. “Two years ago, I sell my big old rambled-down shack on Canora Street and move into a condo within a stone’s throw of the riding and it becomes an election issue… I’m not going to let it happen again.”

In response to the mudslinging in the Winnipeg Centre race, Martin says he’s bringing back a campaign he started with former NDP leader Jack Layton. It’s called “Opto Civitas,” Latin for “I choose civility.”

The NDP stopped heckling in the House of Commons because Layton had partial hearing loss and couldn’t hear himself speak during question period while being bombarded by the other parties.

The NDP asked the other parties to stop heckling and also wear “Opto Civitas” buttons, but got denied.

Martin says he plans to bring back the buttons to give to his fellow Winnipeg Centre candidates.

“I sincerely hope we elevate the standard of political discourse before it’s too late in this election campaign,” he says.

•••

Allie Szarkiewicz (Conservative Party of Canada). Photo by Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

The Conservative candidate says she’s been ‘civil’ the whole time, although ‘civil’ and ‘quiet’ are very different things.

Allie Szarkiewicz opens her campaign headquarters to The Uniter on a sleepy Sunday morning. Her gel-tipped fingernails are painted with a French manicure and Conservative logos on each thumb.

The headquarters, located in the former home of Lotus Wellness Centre on Sherbrook Street, is empty. When someone knocks at the door, Szarkiewicz gets startled.

It’s her campaign co-manager, Grant Nordman, a former city councillor in St. Charles. He’s come to fix the election signs that got torn down from the front lawn the night before.

“It’s not the first time and I know it’s not going to be the last time. I’m just really disappointed that’s the way people want to make a mark in their community,” she says of the destroyed signs.

Szarkiewicz’s other campaign manager is Paula Havixbeck, another former city councillor from Charleswood-Tuxedo, who currently teaches business at the U of W.

Having political vets on her side is helping greatly during her first run for office, Szarkiewicz says. She is still working part-time at her human resources job and will be until the last week or so of the election. At work, Szarkiewicz helps people find jobs. Often it’s people coming off an injury or new Canadian immigrants, she says.

Szarkiewicz immigrated to Winnipeg with her Polish parents when she was two. No one in her family spoke English and she would eventually teach her parents the language after learning it herself in school.

Szarkiewicz became a teacher and retired after 34 years in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division. She thinks that experience will be beneficial if she’s elected.

“How many people can actually stand up in front of a group of 25 to 30 14-year-olds from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and keep their attention without them killing each other? Now, if I can do that and still walk out smiling, the House of Commons? Bring it on,” Szarkiewicz says.

Though she lives in St. James, Szarkiewicz says she’s familiar with the problems going on in Winnipeg Centre, having grown up in the North End.

“Ridings are just political boundaries, but the whole downtown area, we all have the same issues. So I’m not immune to what happens. I can honestly say, been there, done that and I’ve lived it,” she says.

Szarkiewicz isn’t as familiar with the niqab debate. It’s a wedge issue the Conservatives confronted, claiming women shouldn’t wear niqabs during Canadian citizenship ceremonies.

“Honestly, I’m not as well read about that as I’d like to be. So I have no opinion at this point,” she says on Oct. 4.

•••

Don Woodstock (Green Party of Canada). Photo by Jessica Botelho-Urbanski

Don Woodstock knows all about the niqab issue - it’s one of the first things he brings up during his interview, among many other qualms about partisan politics.

Woodstock’s Green party headquarters is parked on Portage Avenue near Sherbrook Street, between a thrift shop and a bus stop.

A rotating garden in the front window houses dozens of bok choy plants and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms hangs on the wall among newspaper clippings.

As Woodstock walks outside his office, a Winnipeg Transit driver honks and waves. Woodstock smiles and waves back, shouting hello – he is also a transit driver when he’s not too busy campaigning.

Woodstock has run for office twice before for the Liberal party and once for a city council seat in St. Charles.

Now he’s running for the Greens because he disagrees with the Liberals on Bill C-51, he says.

“The fundamental human rights of any Canadian should not be held in any way, shape or form or subjected to one political party’s whims and fancies,” Woodstock says. “Why are we trying to pretend that this is something that is somehow along the way going to make us safer? Are we kidding? It’s a joke.”

Woodstock is the only Winnipeg Centre candidate who lives in the riding and he vocalizes that fact often.

Driving a bus through the downtown core every day gives him an added awareness of the surroundings, he says.

“No matter how insulated you are and how hard your heart is, you sit in a bus for three hours and four hours… you’d have a sense of how people live. For those who don’t have that exposure, they can afford to pretend to stick with political norms,” he says.

The Green party candidate has pledged to donate $35,000 from his personal salary to food security groups in Winnipeg Centre if he’s elected MP.

“When I say to folks that I will go to Ottawa and I will tackle those things, I’m not talk. Everybody else is talk,” he says.

Woodstock has championed many eco-friendly causes, including urging the city to change the name of Garbage Day to Recycling Day (a battle he won in 2009) and getting malls and grocery stores to promote using reusable bags.

He often conveys his messages in song and is the only person known to have sung at city hall and the Manitoba Legislature. He says he’d like to sing next on Parliament Hill.

Win or lose on Oct. 19, Woodstock will keep carrying a tune.

“Some of us when they lose, they’ll go on to do something totally different. I’ll continue to be Don Woodstock,” he says.

••• 

Communist candidate Darrell Rankin is about to leave home for the annual Take Back the Night march, but takes a few minutes to talk to The Uniter by phone.

This is the fourth Winnipeg Centre election Rankin has run in since ‘97.

He’s realistic about his chances of winning, but says he enjoys using the platform to talk to more people about the Communist party.

“The elections are kind of like a snapshot of where people are at politically at that moment in time. So far, people are not that interested in our socialist alternative and they really haven’t realized the kinds of solutions we have to things like poverty and unemployment and racism,” Rankin says.

The roofer by day discourages strategic voting, which has been a major consideration in this federal election campaign for voters wanting to defeat the Conservatives.

“I’m always in favour of voting for a positive message. People vote strategically to block a greater evil party by voting for a lesser evil party. But in my view, it’s important to vote for what you want,” he says.

And with that, Rankin is off to do some good in the community - less talk and more action.

Published in Volume 70, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 15, 2015)

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