October 19, 2013

Building Healthy Communities: A Q&A with Peggy Nash

In order to live healthy lives, citizens need to be given the appropriate tools to participate in community building. Elected officials such as city councillors and members of provincial and federal parliaments can help facilitate this process. 

Drew Williams of HEAL4Life and I had an energetic discussion on civic engagement with Peggy Nash, Member of Parliament for Parkdale-High-Park. 

Peggy is a lifelong community activist who started as an airline union organizer and was North America’s first woman to lead negotiations with the automotive industry before becoming MP from 2006 to 2008 and again since 2011.

Rob Z: What motivated you to enter politics?
Peggy: I entered politics because it’s not just about elections, but also an
opportunity to engage people on the issues, make a difference, and propose ideas.

Rob Z: Could you provide an example on how you connect with constituents?
Peggy: Our constituency office recruits volunteers to go canvassing to check on constituents and listen to their issues, even those under provincial or local jurisdiction. Every constituent is different, but most are nice and willing to stop and talk.

Rob Z: While canvassing, which key issues have Parkdale-High-Park residents raised and how do you address them?
Peggy: Some of the issues include mandatory truck side guards for cyclists’ safety, protection of the Humber River, clean trains for the Union Pearson Express, food security, and affordable housing. Many constituents are only able to sign petitions to show support, but our office can connect those wanting to make a more meaningful contribution to meetings, events, and volunteer opportunities. I act on these issues in Ottawa by presenting bills, making member statements, and participating in committees. Commitment by constituents and community groups is critical for determining whether change is going in the right direction.

Rob Z: You are currently the deputy chair of the Standing Committee on Finance. What is the role of this committee and its members?
Peggy: The role of committees is to hold government to account. In the Finance committee, there are 12 members including myself and we meet at least two times per week for two hours. Certain items such as omnibus bills require meeting more frequently. Committee members review and debate legislation, as well as hold pre-budget hearings across Canada with witnesses determined by lists from each party. After such hearings, Library of Parliament researchers prepare a draft report of the testimony and recommendations, which gets debated and voted. Sometimes, a yes vote includes a supplementary report.

Rob Z: What was your most significant challenge as Member of Parliament?
Peggy: I feel it involves dealing with the Harper government’s omnibus budget bills. They contained many changes unrelated to the budget including the removal of the Inspector General for CSIS, which lead to committee members working around the clock reviewing clause by clause. While the Chrétien government tried better to balance opinions, the Harper government under a majority has a “my way or the highway” approach with a strict focus on their own agenda, which can make the process frustrating.

Rob Z: How else does your constituency office communicate with constituents?
Peggy: Newsletters are sent to all households four times per year. Certain one-pagers will also be printed. Constituents can subscribe to my Facebook page, Twitter feed, and e-mail list. They can access my website, as well as contact my office by phone or e-mail to get updates on various issues. I make myself as accessible as possible by attending community events (e.g. Jane’s Walks, Roncy Rocks art festival, Ukrainian festival), buying local, and holding impromptu chats.

Rob Z: What message would you give to someone interested in getting involved?
Peggy: Never underestimate the influence you have as a community member and as a voter. Small changes can make a big difference and having more ways to engage can help build a healthier community.
This discussion proves politics is more than elections and the dramatizations of Question Period. If you have not already, I recommend meeting your elected officials, either at their constituency offices or during community events. You will never know how they can help you with civic engagement and community building.

Rob Z (e-mail)


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