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Q&A: Trudeau says ACOA minister from Toronto reduces bad politics

CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits down for a one-on-one interview with Guardian reporter Teresa Wright at the Charlottetown Airport on Thursday, June 29, 2017. Nathan Rochford/The Guardian
CHARLOTTETOWN, P.E.I. - Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sits down for a one-on-one interview with Guardian reporter Teresa Wright at the Charlottetown Airport on Thursday, June 29, 2017. Nathan Rochford/The Guardian

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he appointed an MP from Toronto to head the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency to “reduce the kind of politics” that have plagued regional development agencies.

In an interview with The Guardian last week during a visit to P.E.I., Trudeau said he wanted all regional development agencies under one roof, so he added them to Innovation, Science and Economic Development Minister Navdeep Bains’ portfolio.
Bains listens to the regional perspectives and advice of local employees, but can also oversee regional agencies as “a way of reducing the kind of politics that we’ve always seen from regional development agencies,” Trudeau said Thursday.
“It’s something that has benefitted the quality of decisions being made and it’s something people appreciate of a new, more open, more responsible, more transparent way of doing politics.”
ACOA (Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency) has long faced criticism for patronage appointments - criticism that led to sanctions after the Public Service Commission found four top ACOA executives engaged in improper conduct when they hired former Conservative politician Kevin MacAdam as director general of operations for ACOA P.E.I. in 2011.
Similar patronage concerns also led to the firing of the CEO of Enterprise Cape Breton in 2014,  before that agency was rolled into ACOA.
Last year, former interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose said she believes the ACOA portfolio being given to a Toronto MP is a snub to the region that elected Liberals in every single Atlantic Canadian riding.
But Trudeau dismissed any notion he is taking the region for granted.
“On the contrary, we continue to work extremely hard, I’ve met with Wade (MacLauchlan) many times, we have a tremendous level of agreement on the things we need to work for,” Trudeau said.
“I see an extraordinary, bright future for Atlantic Canada, one that doesn’t minimize the real challenges, but looks at the opportunities that come with transforming workplace and global economy as a chance to step up.”


Q&A with Trudeau
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sat down with The Guardian’s Teresa Wright during his visit to P.E.I. for an exclusive, one-on-one interview. Here is the full transcript of that conversation.

Electoral reform

Q: Why do you believe it is OK to break your promise of electoral reform?

A: I think Canadians expect me to do things that are in the interest of the country and make the right decisions for our society, for our communities and for our democracy. And I will not keep a promise or tick a box off on a list if it means it will be hurting our country.
I’ve always believed that I don’t think proportional representation suits Canada because I think it leads to fragmentation of our political parties into smaller groups instead of having larger political parties that represent a range of diversity within them as we do right now. And I think the creation of regional or niche parties is not necessarily in keeping with the best way to govern a country that has figured out a way to make diversity a source of strength and not a source of weakness.
What became clear to me through this process is the different parties had absolutely solidly anchored positions – the NDP weren’t going to move from their position of proportional representation, the Conservatives weren’t going to move from their position of wanting to keep the status quo and I didn’t think that holding a referendum on this issue would be in the interest of the country either. So I made the decision that we were going to put that promise aside and we were going to focus on the things that really matter to Canadians, which is growing the economy, making sure we’re supporting the middle class, making sure we’re leading on energy and the environment and making sure we’re doing the things that I do hear about every day when I meet with Canadians and talk door-to-door.
 
Q: Islanders did have an opportunity to vote on electoral reform and a majority voted in favour of proportional representation. You say you don’t think it’s in the best interest of Canadians to vote on this. Why not?
A: I think anything that subdivides and fragments Canadians into smaller and smaller interest groups, doesn’t go in the keeping of bringing Canadians together around the themes that we agree on.
We are a country that has done very well in emphasizing the things that we share instead of highlighting fault lines and where we’re different. I’ve been open to it, but I have never been able to be convinced by anyone wanting proportional representation that it would end up with a better path for Canada.
 
Q: Voters are increasingly becoming cynical about politics and politicians. What do you say to young Island voters who voted for you because you promised electoral reform?
 
A: A lot of people vote for people for different reasons and our central promise and what we campaigned on and what we’ve been focused on every single day is growing the economy in ways that work for the middle class.
 
Confederation Bridge

Q: You made the bridge in your constituency free, why are Prince Edward Islanders being treated differently?
A: One of the things I won’t do and one of the things that was problematic of the way the previous government chose to play politics was – I’m not going to pit regions against regions, I’m not going to play up differences or wedges between regions.
I have been listening to Islanders, we have four strong Island MPs who carry Islanders’ messages to Ottawa and fight for the things that matter, and we are continuing to focus on the investments that people are calling for and asking for. The investment in the Northumberland Ferries, for example, was one that was a long time coming.
 
In regards to the decisions that the bridge operator makes around setting tolls, we respect their capacity to do that, but we’re always listening to Islanders and their concerns when they bring them up.
 
Q: You are keeping your election promise to make the Champlain Bridge free from tolls but not your promise of electoral reform.
 
A: I’m keeping the election promise when it comes to raising taxes on the wealthiest one per cent and lowering them on the middle class, I’m keeping my election promise in regards to creating more jobs and a brighter future for Canadians.
I think everyone understands that when you’re in government you’re going to have to make decisions as situations come up. I think the way we’re dealing with the United States, the way we’re investing in infrastructure for the Island, the way we’re delivering on the promise of real change across the board is something that Islanders and Canadians appreciate.
 
Q: I don’t hear a commitment on the Confederation Bridge tolls being lowered.
 
A: This is something we’re listening to, we’re hearing. One of the nice things about an independent senate is senators can raise issues that they care about, and certainly Percy (Downe) has been very vocal about this. And we’re always going to listen to the concerns that people raise and make decisions based on what’s in the best interest of regions and the rest of the country.
 
ACOA/ Economic development

Q: You have 32 Atlantic Canadian MPs. Why did you choose an MP from Toronto to head the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency?

A: We chose to bring all the economic development agencies under one roof in Innovation, Science and Economic Development. He is the Quebec development agency minister, he is the western economic diversification minister. We recognize, in terms of being a minister who has a view of all areas while making sure there are strong people at ACOA who are representing and making their views known, is a way of reducing the kind of politics that we’ve always seen from regional development agencies. It’s something that has benefitted the quality of decisions being made and it’s something people appreciate of a new, more open, more responsible, more transparent way of doing politics.
 
Q: This region has long suffered when it comes to economic development, many areas including P.E.I. still have double digit unemployment, heavy reliance on E.I. and seasonal economies.
ACOA was supposed to address those realities. Is ACOA delivering the results it was intended to bring to this region?
 
A: One of the things that we’re very proud of that we’re doing in Atlantic Canada is the Atlantic Growth Strategy, where we’re taking advantage of the opportunity that has four strong premiers and 32 MPs very well aligned in line to grow Atlantic Canada. Being able to sit down and talk about how we’re going to create that growth, yes using agencies like ACOA, but also through other means – the approach we have on immigration that Atlantic Canada has devised, the leadership we’re showing in innovation and investment and entrepreneurship, looking at things like the new fish farm, which is going to help people to adapt to the opportunities that will come with the Canada-Europe trade deal.
We recognize both the challenges and the opportunities here in Atlantic Canada to get the opportunities and the jobs, particularly for our young people who shouldn’t have to be moving away to find work.
 
Q: I mentioned that we don’t have a dedicated ACOA minister in Atlantic Canada.
A: But you have a head of ACOA, you have extraordinary people who work at ACOA, the dedicated minister for all development agencies is our minister of innovation and science.

Q: But Minister Bains’ mandate letter doesn’t even mention ACOA or Atlantic Canada, this is only your second visit to the Island since you were elected. Are you taking Atlantic Canada for granted?
 
A: On the contrary, we continue to work extremely hard, I’ve met with Wade (MacLauchlan) many times, we have a tremendous level of agreement on the things we need to work for – the power line agreement with New Brunswick and Western P.E.I., that’s something that dragged on for close to a decade before we were able to settle it. Whether it be the Northumberland Ferries, whether it be social housing, infrastructure, whether it be just our approach on working collaboratively on reflecting the priorities and the needs of Islanders and Canadians.
The fact that the minister of agriculture for the entire country is Lawrence MacAulay from right here in Cardigan doesn’t mean he is not able to think about and be very strong on his leadership across the country, but it remains that he is a strong Islander and who is a very compelling voice around the cabinet table on Island issues.
I wish I could be everywhere across Canada more often, but as we know it’s a big country, I’ve got an awful lot of ground to cover, a lot to do in Ottawa and I’m glad to be back every time I can.
 
Q: Former prime minister Stephen Harper once called Atlantic Canadians “defeatist.” What would you call us?
 
A: Optimists. I see an extraordinary, bright future for Atlantic Canada, one that doesn’t minimize the real challenges, but looks at the opportunities that come with transforming workplace and global economy as a chance to step up.
When we’re looking at broadband across the Island, as an example, we recognize that location can be incidental in terms of participating in the global economy.
We have extraordinarily innovative and obviously hard-working folks and excited about having a government that recognizes their potential and is going to focus on creating ways to fulfill all that they have to offer Canada and the world.
 
Fort Amherst

Q: There was an announcement about Langevin Block being renamed. In P.E.I. there is a national historic site called Fort Amherst and local Indigenous leaders have been calling for this name to be removed. Jeffrey Amherst advocated for the eradication of First Nations using smallpox. So far, their calls to Parks Canada have fallen on deaf ears. Will you do the same thing here that you’ve done in Ottawa?
 
A: We are open to hearing these concerns and listening and working hand-in-hand on reconciliation. Part of reconciliation is recognizing the terrible mistakes of the past and figuring out how to move forward. While we remember them, we shouldn’t be celebrating those mistakes. I’m open to having discussions in how we can move forward in a way that is respectful.
 
Q: Will we see that name removed?
 
A: That’s not my decision to make this morning. We have processes, we have consultations, we have a path that I’m serious about taking on reconciliation. But it can’t be top-down from Ottawa, it has to be something we engage with as communities and as partners.
 
Basic income guarantee
 

Q: Why won’t your government fund a basic income guarantee pilot program for P.E.I.?
 
A: One of the issues we had when we were sitting down to develop the platform, when we talked about the challenges around poverty and in particular families living in poverty and what was going to be the best thing we could do to help families, and the anti-poverty activists we spoke with and we worked with really settled on the Canada Child Benefit as being a meaningful and significant way of lifting hundreds of thousands of kids out of poverty.
So that was the thing that we looked at right away, not as a pilot project, but to implement right away across the country. That has been a significant initiative in fighting poverty, but it hasn’t been the only one.
On top of that we’ve got back involved in a national housing strategy, after the previous government pulled out of housing entirely. We’re excited to be moving forward on that because that’s going to make a difference. We’re also moving forward on child care, and the premier mentioned to me that how appreciative he was of the way we’ve been able to work together in creating more child care spaces and more options for families.
But there’s always more to do, and we have various departments and ministries engaging in different solutions and we’re always open to hearing about places we can start up more pilot projects.
 
Q: You promised real change for middle class Canadians, but many people in this region are not even middle class. They can’t meet their basic needs.  Experts have said a basic income guarantee could be the solution and the P.E.I. is a great place to do a pilot because of its size. Will you commit to funding this program for P.E.I.?
 
A: I’m always looking to help not just the middle class but those working hard to join it, and we recognize that with our changes to E.I. with other changes we’ve made –the particular challenges facing Islanders and indeed Atlantic Canadians, we will continue to work with people to deliver on the kinds of opportunities and the real and fair chance to succeed that we know people need. And I look  forward to continue reflection on the best ways to help. We’ve done a lot of things already, we know there’s more to do, and these are conversations that we will be having as a government.


teresa.wright@theguardian.pe.ca
twitter.com/GuardianTeresa

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