Jennifer Feinberg, Greg Knill
Hope had the ear of the former leader of the Federal Liberal Party on Feb. 28.
Stéphane Dion, on tour through the new Chilliwack-Hope riding, popped by city hall to meet with politicians and business leaders.
Dion is a Liberal veteran. A member of Parliament for St-Laurent-Cartierville in Quebec since 1996, he is also the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and was Leader of the Opposition from 2006 to 2008.
Hope Mayor Susan Johnston said the meeting was a chance to highlight some of the concerns and priorities communities like the District of Hope have. And while federal and municipal responsibilities differ, there are common concerns in areas like fiscal stability and economic growth.
The group emphasized the need for continued infrastructure support, she said, particularly in areas like transportation and tourism. And they highlighted concern that continued belt-tightening at the federal level inevitably trickles down to the municipal level.
During his visit, Dion also met with local First Nations leaders – part of his focus to the region. That evening he was keynote speaker at First Voice — an evening at Squiala Community Centre in Chilliwack to “involve, inform and inspire” First Nations youth, sponsored by the Chilliwack-Hope Federal Liberal Riding Association.
The Liberal Party is courting the youth demographic, particularly First Nations, by making it clear they’re welcome to bring their aboriginal culture and perspective to the national political scene.
“I would say that Canada needs its aboriginal people to succeed,” Dion told Black Press.
“Our First Nations represent a large sector and more than ever we need them to be part of the winning team. There is no ‘us’ and ‘you’ in this.”
He met with First Nations representatives and with students from University of the Fraser Valley during his tour.
“At the university, the topic was the environment. The students asked about pipelines and why the environment has to be sacrificed for the economy.”
Students and First Nations everywhere he goes talk to him about the need for “sustainable development,” and how to encourage growth that is safe for communities.
“They said they are entitled to have both, jobs and growth, and as well as health and protection of the environment. Why would we sacrifice one for the other?”
The Conservatives’ weakening of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is a misstep, he said, as the emphasis on the National Energy Board, which is “too close to industry.” Dion is also critical of how scientists have been muzzled under the Harper regime.
But the Liberals are not ideologically opposed to pipelines, he underlined.
“We are not against pipelines. We have to move oil from one place to another. If not by pipeline, it will be shipped by truck or by rail or by barge. So no to pipelines if it can’t be done safely. But yes if they can operate in a way that is safe for our communities.”
Diversity is a key plank for the Liberals.
“I’m still a Quebecker with a strong accent, but I also know that Canada is strong because of its diversity.”
Dion is not the first high-profile Liberal to tour the region, traditionally a Conservative stronghold. Both MP Ralph Goodale and current party leader Justin Trudeau have made stops in the riding.
Why the interest? “They may hear an idea that makes them want to connect with the Liberals,” Dion said. “And if we show an interest in the development of a community and the well being of its people, it’s a better approach.”
The Chilliwack-Hope Riding Association has had successful run of fundraisers and is gearing up for a future election.
The last time a Liberal was elected was under the Pierre Trudeau leadership.
“So now with Justin Trudeau, we have the next generation of Trudeaus,” said Dion.
For some it may be time for another look.
“People need to know that Mr. Trudeau is incredibly sincere. He’s not playing games with people. He’s willing to listen and has a lot of empathy. I think Canadian need that since the Harper government has been so secretive and manipulative.”
The themes of equal opportunity, cooperation and development were mentioned, alongside fiscal responsibility, a clean environment.
“So I would say there is a long list of reasons why the people of Chilliwack and Hope should consider Justin Trudeau and the Liberals,” he said.