Meet the Candidates Federal Election 2021 edition is The Gateway’s series of interviews with candidates running in Edmonton Strathcona. This is the third of five articles.
With the September 20 federal election just around the corner, The Gateway sat down and interviewed candidates from the major parties running in Edmonton Strathcona electoral district.
Heather McPherson holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education from the University of Alberta. She previously served as the executive director for the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation.
The Gateway spoke with McPherson to find out more on how, if elected, she plans to represent the residents and students of Edmonton Strathcona in the House of Commons.
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
The Gateway: Why did you decide to run in this election?
McPherson: I was a Member of Parliament for the last two years. I was elected in 2019. So in 2019, there were a lot of reasons that I chose to run, but for this particular election, I do feel like in the last two years we’ve all gone through a really unique and pretty unprecedented time with COVID-19. The work we were able to do, the supports we’re able to get for Canadians, the help we were able to make sure got to students, to people living with disabilities, to seniors, to workers — I’m really proud of that. I’m pretty comfortable and confident that as we go forward, we can continue to get things for Albertans that will make their lives easier, a little bit more affordable, and continue to push to make Alberta and Canada a better country.
What is the single issue that is most important to you?
I’m always the worst at this because there are so many issues that I think we really need to look at. So I’ll cheat a little bit and do that overarching issue of COVID-19 recovery. When I say that, I mean, that all of those cracks that became apparent during COVID-19 like long term care, like our health care system, like the fact that we don’t have enough childcare and 100,000 women have had to leave the workforce, all of that is encompassed within [COVID-19 recovery]. For Alberta, the recovery from COVID-19 also needs to acknowledge that our economy was not doing well pre-COVID-19. It was not doing well in February of 2019. An 18-month lockdown has not helped our economy. So realistically, the need to diversify our economy, the need to invest in our post-secondary institutions, invest in all their alternative energies and alternative industries, is probably the number one priority for me going forward.
What is your party doing to support post-secondary institutions, specifically considering financial cuts they may be facing?
The cuts to the University of Alberta have been utterly devastating. It’s an institution, that to be fair had a $1 billion infrastructure deficit prior to Jason Kenney and his devastating cuts of 20 per cent, and then subsequent cuts coming. Institutions can’t survive on that.
We were one of the top 100 universities in the world, and that is very quickly being eroded. We are losing the ability to attract international students. We’re losing the ability to keep students and young people in Alberta when we undercut our post-secondary institutions. There are a few things that I think need to be done.
First — pandemic. I have to say it was the NDP that actually pushed for that support for students to give them that Canadian emergency benefit. That was the NDP that pushed for that, and something I’m really proud of. I also pushed to have student loan repayments paused for the entire duration of the pandemic. We didn’t stop any of the sports for any other group but students during the pandemic. So I think that’s something that we pushed for, and unfortunately, the governing party didn’t agree with and didn’t do.
Students graduate with $28,000 worth of student debt on average, many with much more. We have a plan to forgive up to $20,000 of student debt, to really give students a chance to get a head start when they graduate. Then for my own self, I’ve worked quite closely with a number of different groups, student groups, university groups to look at a Post-Secondary Education Act that I did table at the end of the last parliament that looked at the transfer payments of the federal transfer payment to the province that does not break out that that post-secondary piece. This would change the law so it would break it out. Those funds need to be dedicated to making tuition more affordable, towards making sure that staff, professors, and researchers are funded appropriately and adequately across the country. So that’s one of the things that that we’ll be doing. Of course, another piece for Edmonton is conversational and making sure that we can maintain our Western campus and our Western Francophone campus. And so I’ve fought tooth and nail for the campus and will continue to fight until we have secured long-term predictable, stable funding for our Francophone campus.
When looking at student affordability, there are many components to consider including food and job security, student debt, housing, etc. If elected, what component would you prioritize when supporting students?
It’s one of those things where you can’t necessarily do one without doing the other.
Making sure that we have affordable housing and there is housing stock that students can afford to live in. That extends to housing that students can afford to purchase when they’re done with their post-secondary education. That [students] can invest in owning a home is really important to me. Also — child-care. One of the things I realized as a parliamentarian is that the government doesn’t necessarily understand that students are all not a homogenous group. In fact, students are often caretakers of elders or other dependents. Child-care is also one of these things that’s vital. So student debt is vital. Housing is vital. Making sure that we do have child-care in place so that students can work on their studies and continue to go forward. When we look at things that students need, it is making sure that as we try to diversify the economy in Alberta, as we try to retrain folks, as there are that same quantity of jobs in the oil and gas sector, that there are low-income grants, there are opportunities for students to go back to school and be able to afford the tuition.
How will your party concretely work to address climate change?
So our plan will invest in improving the net zero legislation and having more ambitious targets. It will be working with Indigenous people around the country to make sure that we are using the knowledge that Indigenous people have as caretakers of this land, as the first peoples of this land, to have those protected areas. We will make sure that we have 30 per cent of our land devoted to nature by 2030. Something I talked about a little bit at the Students’ Union debate is that all the parties are putting forward platforms right now — all the parties are putting forward targets and saying what they’ll do and what not. I will say that we have never met any of our climate targets to date in this country.
At this point, I’m deeply disappointed not just in the Conservative government, but in the Liberal government. Because while Conservatives don’t necessarily even admit the climate change is real, the Liberals talk a good game and yet never ever meet their targets. They are still investing in the oil and gas sector with millions and billions of dollars of subsidies. We need to make a change with that. We need to find a different path forward. We actually need some sort of Bill of Rights, like Linda Duncan proposed, to hold governments to account when they fail to actually keep their targets and keep their promises to Canadians.
How will your party concretely work to support Indigenous communities and students?
I’m so happy that reconciliation is part of the conversation that we’re having in this election. For far too long it’s been sidelined, it hasn’t been front and center. It’s a vital conversation we should have been having for a long time. But certainly, I’m happy we’re having this conversation. Our plan involves a lot of things. But for me, it’s very clear that we have a roadmap — the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls report gives us a roadmap. It tells us exactly what they would like us to do and exactly what would need to happen for meaningful, real reconciliation.
Obviously, what we need to do is stop having water advisories and make sure that there’s clean drinking water everywhere. Obviously, we need to work with Indigenous communities, with Indigenous peoples, and find the bodies of those children who have been buried at residential schools. We need to ensure going forward that we are collecting race desegregated data to ensure that that we understand where there is systematic racism happening. We have to ensure that we are listening to our colleagues when they tell us what needs to be done, listening to our allies, listening to folks that are actually helping us as we develop and improve our own understanding. The other thing we can do is make sure that we have more representation in the House of Commons. You know, Blake Desjarlais is the candidate in Edmonton Griesbach for the NDP. He is a Métis man and a fantastic candidate. We’re delighted to have him, it’s so wonderful. [We need to make] sure we are recognizing that not only do we need to listen to Indigenous people and hear them when they tell us how they would like reconciliation… but we need to make sure that they’re at the table with their part of the conversations.
Given the U of A does have our French-speaking campus, Campus Saint-Jean, what is your party doing to support French Canadians?
This has probably been one of my top issues for the last year. I have stood up in the house time and time again and demanded action for Campus Saint-Jean. It is the only Francophone campus in Western Canada, it is the heart of the French Quarter in Edmonton Strathcona. It adds this vibrancy and diversity to our community. It would be catastrophic if we lost the campus. Frankly, we would not be able to meet our obligations under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to ensure there is an equal opportunity for parents to have their children educated in French or English. So it is vital legally and it is vital for our community. There are so many reasons why we need to fight for this. There’s also a 1976 agreement between Campus Saint-Jean, the University of Alberta, and the Government of Alberta to ensure support.
So I will continue to work with folks across the hall, across the aisle. I’ll work with anyone who was fighting for Campus St. Jean. I’ve been working with Senator [Paula] Simons, I’ve been working with the Alberta opposition. So just to make sure that we are getting that support for the campus and that we are ensuring that even if Jason Kenney doesn’t come to the table, even if Jason Kenney fails to do what’s right for Albertans, the federal government will step in.
Now right now we’ve gotten some great news that there will be a 95 per cent match by the federal government — they’ll pay for 95 per cent, the Alberta government pays for five per cent in the first year. [The federal government plans to cover] 70 per cent in the second [year], and 50 per cent in the third [year]. This is great, but the problem is Jason Kenney may still choose to not come to the table. As we’ve all seen, he has not shown himself to be a friend of our Francophone community. If that is the case, the federal government unfortunately will have to step in, but that’s part of it. The other part of it is we need to upgrade our Official Languages Act, we need to make sure that we are protecting the French language across Canada. We are losing ground on the French language and that [language] is what makes our country so great. So I’ll continue to fight for our official languages, both English within Quebec and French outside of Quebec.
If you were to choose one initiative or area of policy which makes your party stand out from the rest, what would that be?
The reason I’m running for the NDP, the reason that I’ve always been a New Democrat, is because of the values that are there. The values are that we’re here to help Canadians. We are here to help everyday Canadians.
As someone who sat in the House of Commons for the last two years, I can say that it often feels like the Conservatives and the Liberals are really in it for themselves and for their wealthy friends. That they don’t really know what it’s like to be you, to be a student who can’t make ends meet. To struggle to find a job. To struggle to pay off debt. It kind of feels like they’re two sides of the same coin.
I run for the New Democrats where running for the New Democrats in Alberta is not always easy. The values that I believe in — fairness, taking care of each other, making sure our systems help everyone — I think those are values that most Albertans have. They just don’t necessarily know that they’re New Democrats yet, so I’m going to help them.
Fun Question: If you could steal credit for any great piece of art, song, film, book, etc, which one would you claim?
I would want to steal credit from Nelson Mandela for the justice he brought to his country, but you know what, you can’t steal from Nelson Mandela. Maybe I’ll take William Shakespeare’s works.