In first extended interview since his election last November, Ontario’s youngest MPP sits down to discuss range of issues
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
One day during the summer of 2016—neither of us is sure precisely when—I took Sam Oosterhoff on an elevator ride. I was then a tour guide on Parliament Hill, and one of our tasks was to operate the Peace Tower’s elevator, ferrying small groups up and down, explaining the bell system as we went. Oosterhoff was a legislative assistant for an MP, a role whose primary summer task was (I am only partially joking) taking constituents on tours of Centre Block.
Last week I met now-MPP Sam Oosterhoff at Conversations Cafe, appropriately enough, a spacious and austerely modern coffee shop in Beamsville. He had just gotten a haircut, but apart from that he looked pretty much the same. But of course very little is the same about Sam Oosterhoff compared to a year ago. After shocking Progressive Conservative party president Rick Dykstra to take the Niagara West – Glanbrook nomination opened by Tim Hudak’s resignation, last November Oosterhoff became the youngest MPP in Ontario’s history. (No longer a teenager, Oosterhoff turned 20 two weeks ago.)
Nearly ten months into the job, he has given no lengthy interviews that the Voice could find. When the paper approached his staff about doing an installment in our Conversation series, Oosterhoff said that he was open to the idea, as long as it wasn’t intended to be a “gotcha” effort. At a barbecue he and MP Dean Allison jointly held recently, I assured Oosterhoff that we had no interest in trying to make anyone look bad—only to give him an opportunity to reach readers in his own words.
Oosterhoff was certainly thinking for himself as we spoke. Not until the end did he lapse into party talking points. In a profile earlier this year, Maclean’s magazine suggested that Oosterhoff “harbours a hint of cockiness,” and surely there must be comments to the media that he’d like to have back. “That’s for me to know, and you to find out,” he once responded when asked for specifics about scholarships he received at Brock University.
But even if Oosterhoff still has the faint aura of a kid who, looking around, is surprised to find himself eating off the fine china at the adult table, he seems more interested in proving that he belongs at that table than in smirking at those gawping at his ascendance to it.
He’s a natural when it comes to so-called retail politics. As we stood to leave, Oosterhoff was hailed by an elderly woman nearby who announced herself to be a supporter. He spent a few minutes speaking with her, pointing out shared connections as they came up, and so enraptured the lady that, as he finally said goodbye, had she offered him a bite of her cake no one would have been surprised.
Oosterhoff was in good spirits during our talk. He spoke thoughtfully on the state of decorum in politics, and displayed a particular passion about environmental issues. Unsurprisingly, his expression visibly hardened when we moved on to the topic of homosexuality. Though he resisted the label of social conservative, instead describing himself as a “comprehensive conservative,” it does not take a seer to divine Oosterhoff’s positions on many social issues. And anyway, “comprehensive” conservatism logically implies a social conservatism within it.
To those party members who put emphasis on the “progressive” part of the PC name, Oosterhoff’s positions are a liability. Even he, perhaps, is aware of this. His vagueness on these issues is not accidental.
But above all, Oosterhoff is a politician, not an activist. He was keen to return repeatedly to the PC’s present attacks: debt, taxes, schools, hydro, hospitals. He stipulated that many of these social issues are federal matters, and I was left with the distinct impression that despite any deeply-held convictions he may have, he is more concerned with contributing to Patrick Brown’s attempts to build a PC party that can win.
He—and the rest of us—will soon find out how successful these efforts may be.
The following has been edited for clarity and brevity, with some answers condensed or merged.
PICCOLO: You’ve been MPP for about nine months now—and I know when we spoke at the barbecue a few weeks ago you made a joke about it being an “entry-level job.” But of course, it’s not. For many people, this sort of position is the pinnacle of their career. Considering that, if you work at it and want to keep running, this could conceivably be a job for the next 20 years. How does it feel to have already achieved something that some people take decades to reach?
OOSTERHOFF: I was actually talking with [former MPP] Tim Hudak about this, just a few weeks ago. I talked to Tim about how it felt when he was first elected. He was just 27, which is pretty young by a lot of standards. And when Tim was elected, he said the he felt the same way that I did. You’re overwhelmed for a bit, just by the fact that you’ve been given that responsibility—you’re representing your family, your friends, your neighbours, your constituents, and not just those who voted for you, but also those who may have voted for other parties, and you have to be that unifying factor in the riding. We were talking about how a year had changed me and changed things in general—I mean, we have Trump as President in the US. I started campaigning on the twenty-second of August last year, so it’s almost exactly a year ago that I started my nomination campaign. And that led to Niagara West-Glanbrook residents placing their trust in me, and this is not something that I take for granted. It was a huge honour, and I am working very hard every day to continue to earn that trust going forward. Tim said that the years go so fast, and that it’s incredible to have served the region in many different ways, and incredible to see how much the region has changed, how much it has evolved, how it’s really grown into itself and become a destination for people. I’m looking forward to seeing how it will change. I’ve already had a good relationship with [MPPs] Wayne Gates, Jim Bradley, and Cindy Forster. They may be from different parties, but we’re all here to promote Niagara, and to see what we can do to improve the lives of families, seniors, students, and everyone in between. So I don’t have a definite idea that I want to be here for 20 or 30 years. I want to improve the lives of people in my community, and to see what we can do together to make that idea a reality.
I’m glad you mentioned the other MPPs from Niagara, because that’s another thing that I noted when we spoke at the barbecue. You said there that you’d been impressed by how you’d been able to work together with those other members behind closed doors. But you are in partisan politics, and you participate in press conferences and question period. Do you ever feel that this part—question period and the partisanship—is a big performance? That maybe if politicians, including yourself and the other three MPPs from Niagara, spoke to each other in public as they do in private that politics would be better off, and perhaps society would be less divided?
I think there’s definitely a need for improved decorum within the parliamentary setting, both at a federal and provincial level. There should always be a respect for the constituents that placed a member in the house, a respect for the office and for its duties and responsibilities. I think there is a level of theatrics within question period or the press conferences that might be a little exaggerated or overdone. But at the same time, there is a need to emphasize and accentuate the reality of certain differences that we might have, or the variances in perspective that otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get across in a meaningful way. We live in an era of seven-second clips, of a hundred-and-forty-character tweets. We don’t live in an era of narratives or Shakespearean dialogues, and it would be false if we pretended that we did. So I think there’s a need to call people’s attention from the millions of distractions, and be able to say, “This is something that’s important, something that matters to your constituency, something that matters to your life. Pay attention.”
So you’d like to see improved decorum—
Improved decorum, but I think there’s also a place for strong, passionate dialogue.
Pithy, yes. But the art of rhetoric has, unfortunately, been kind of lost, which I regret.
You’re going to bring that back?
I’m going to do my best.
Obviously you’re a conservative. You’re a member of the Conservative party—
Progressive Conservative party, yes—and in the word itself—there’s the idea that something is being conserved. Conserve, conservative. But the meaning of conservative has become more complicated. I’m thinking specifically of the corporate —or explicitly capitalistic—conservatism. I could, for instance, put on my Milton Friedman voice and say, “Greed is good. Greed runs the world.” Or even someone like Kevin O’Leary might be a better example, who isn’t interested in anything socially. It’s more “Economics 101. Money, money, money.” What does conservatism mean to you?
To me, conservatism means that we’re looking forward to the future without fear, but we’re also retaining the best of the past. And that means not being afraid of cherishing our traditions and values while keeping our eyes wide open to the future. Being a conservative means embracing personal responsibility, but also promoting personal freedom, liberty, and human dignity for everyone. And those are values that I think all conservatives do share. There’s an unfortunate perception of conservatism as being corporate. I think we need to change that perception, because I firmly believe that we’re the party that takes our direction from the soccer moms, from the hockey dads, and from the coffee shops and the Legions. We’re not the party that’s having $1500 cash-for-access dinners. That’s not the conservative way. We’re the ones who are interacting with people and hearing their day-to-day concerns. So to me a conservative is someone who respects the institutions and traditions of our nation, and also promotes free trade and free markets, and has a real desire to see individuals thrive. It’s more about the individual than the collective.
But, at least to my perception, you’re someone who cares about community. And not in some clichéd way. Your church community is a big reason why you were elected. Not the only reason, you knocked on a lot of doors—
Over ten thousand doors, just during my nomination.
Right, there were other reasons, but your church community was a big reason, especially in the initial stage. So how, in your party, can those two elements be reconciled? What case will you make to corporate conservatives that they need to be more conscious of fostering community, and not just providing circumstances for this pursuit of individual gain?
I think that you go back to the basic governmental unit, the family. That’s the first government that we’re born into. So you have the authority figures, your parents, and you have to learn how to interact with them when you’re growing up. It would be disingenuous if we acted as if utilitarianism is all that drives us. And if it is all that drives us, then that speaks very poorly of us as a nation, and speaks very sadly for our future. Within the party and the conservative movement there’s a broad range of beliefs. You have your fiscal conservatives—maybe you want to term them corporate conservatives. I don’t know if I like that phrase. Anyway, you have your social conservatives, you have your democratic conservatives, a wide variety of people. We need to unify around these central ideas of opportunity, responsibility, and freedom. At the same time we have to recognize that we need to be putting forward a compassionate conservatism, and that means caring for the most vulnerable in our communities. It means respecting and protecting human rights both at home and abroad, and realizing the need to give a hand up to those who need it. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t pay at least lip- service to that, but I think that perhaps as a movement we need to do more to engender a tenacious reaching out to those [vulnerable] people. We haven’t always done a good job at that. People sometimes question conservatives’ intentions. And we need to go back to intentions, because the reality is that I’m not a conservative because I think that big corporations should make lots of money. I’m a conservative because I believe that the values of opportunity and responsibility are the ones that will allow freedom to flourish, allow people to flourish, and allow the economy to prosper.
The writer Matthew Crawford said that what conservatives have to remember is that you want free people, not free markets.
And sometimes you need free markets to have free people, but sometimes you don’t. Especially in an environmental sense. I meant to mention that earlier, because with conservatism you’d think, “Conserve…the environment.”
Absolutely, we should be.
But there’s also a general perception where conservatives are known to put the environment at the expense of business.
I agree. I think that’s highly unfortunate. That’s something we need to be working very hard on, because conserving the environment is a very conservative thing. Our rural communities—and in Ontario you can almost see the rural-urban divide just by seat colour—are often conservative, where they understand the importance of family farms, of small businesses, of being able to go out for a hike on the Bruce Trail. When we are talking about conservation, talking about protecting the environment, we need to be thinking not simply of broad corporate responsibility, but also about a very personal thing. Each and every one of us has to be making those choices, too. I think this is something that conservatism promotes just by promoting personal responsibility, while liberalism seems so obsessed by the collective, with the idea that the government will take of this, the government will take of that—it will figure out all the world’s problems. You might try that, but the government isn’t omnipotent, it’s not omnipresent, and people are going to have to make their own decisions. Now, let’s inform them about those decisions. But let’s not be a nanny-state. Let’s not force people, as perhaps some on the left would want to do into this sort of collective straitjacket. One of the beautiful things about the “Big-C” conservative movement is the ability to have these discussions, to debate about how we are going balance these things. I don’t want to be too partisan, but often it seems that on the liberal side of things there is the monolithic “You will do this, and if you don’t, we will demonize you.” I think that’s unproductive. You might be able to force someone to do something, but if you’re forcing them all the time, then behind your back they’re going and dumping all their shingles in the Back Forty, then is that really productive? Having the discussion leads to a greater understanding and a greater tolerance and broad-mindedness.
Even while you have this job, you’re still studying at Brock. What sort of emphasis do you have on continuing to learn? You talked about having those conversations—what sort of personal ethic do you have for always thinking about your positions and why you have them, and for listening to other people?
Like I said during my campaign, I always try to surround myself with good people from a wide variety of areas with a lot of different perspectives, from every aspect of the riding, every aspect of the party, every aspect of the province. And they may completely differ from me on a lot of issues, but hearing their voices and having those discussions is necessary, it’s something you have to be doing. That governs my approach towards knowledge, that I will never know enough, and therefore I might as well learn from as many people as possible.
During one of your first big press scrums, a number of reporters tried to get you comment on the matter of homosexuality. One reporter brought up Facebook posts that you had allegedly made linking to articles that may have asserted that homosexuality is a sin. Now I appreciate that those reporters were clearly trying to get a juicy headline by picking on the new kid—half the PC caucus skipped, or shall we say strategically missed, that vote [involving same-sex parenting]. They didn’t have a big press conference with [social conservative MPP] Monte McNaughton. At the same time, you repeatedly took their questions on your own tack. Consider this an opportunity to go on the record with a candid answer. Because at the time, all you did say, I think, was, “I believe that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.”
I believe absolutely that everyone is equally worthy of dignity and respect, and should be equally valued in all aspects of society. That includes, obviously, members of the LGBT community. I have done my best, and will continue to do my best to treat everyone with dignity and respect.
Respect is an interesting idea, though since it’s almost a negotiation. To some extent, it seems to be respect when both sides agree that it’s respect. Now there are some exceptions to that. Some people may make ridiculous claims as to what respect is—if I were to say respecting me is giving me $10,000, that’s not respect. That’s a ridiculous request. But what does respect and dignity mean to you? Considering that many in the [LGBT] community don’t consider your response to be respectful.
I think that’s unfortunate. I think I’ve been clear that I’m working with the PC party to improve the lives of every Ontarian, and I would never exclude any group or self-identifying community from that work.
So for you, respect and dignity is included in the idea that you’re working to improve the lives of everyone.
You know what, high hydro bills impact everyone, including members of the LGBT community.
We’ve been talking a lot about the big tent of the conservative movement, though it’s clear that the secularization of the public sphere has affected conservative parties. I mean that with respect to that bill [on same-sex parents], where it would appear that social conservative members of the PC caucus strategically missed the vote, so that their opposition wouldn’t be evidenced in public. Patrick Brown marched in the Pride parade. It’s clear that as far as the public debate goes, on social matters, be that matters of abortion, be that matters of homosexuality, the secular position has largely become the public position, and there isn’t much debate on it. For many years, Stephen Harper did not allow those social issues to come to the fore in Ottawa, and it seems as though Patrick Brown is taking a similar approach in Ontario. So as a social conservative, how do you reconcile that social conservatism with where the public conversation is?
I’ve been pretty clear that I identify as a comprehensive conservative. I wouldn’t put myself into one certain category. I think that it can be dangerous to categorize people into boxes. I’ve been open about my beliefs on certain issues—I’m pro-life, I’ve always been very open about that. I think that’s is valuable to me to belong to a party that is a big-tent party, where there is still the ability to have debate around matters of conscience and deeply-held issues that matter to a lot of people.
It seems as though a lot of the focus is going to be on hydro rates, on those economic issues that everyone can relate to.
Patrick is very focused on what unites us. And [hydro, manufacturing, debt] are issues that we can unite around we can celebrate and move Ontario forward for everyone.
You think that there’s a way to focus on those issues that unite while still having meaningful debate on the matters of conscience?
Everyone has a conscience, in how we address matters that just arise in our day-to-day life, in how we interact with people. If they do come up—and many of them are federal, most of these are not provincial issues—there obviously needs to be a place for people of faith, for people of conscience to be able to speak and to bring forward their concerns.
Behind closed doors, even though you may differ from Jim Bradley, Wayne Gates, and Cindy Forster on those issues, it doesn’t stop you from having meaningful debate [on other matters]. But sometimes it seems that in the public sphere, these issues become walls. There are probably a lot of people that wouldn’t speak to you on those common issues [hydro, etc]. And perhaps there are a lot of social or comprehensive conservatives who would see those issues as complete borders from the other side. So what kinds of strategies can we use to not get caught up on the divisive issues?
I think that we need to be willing to hear each other out without immediately resorting to name-calling and polarization. There is a danger that the public sphere has become monolithic with how it responds to voices that differ from the ordinary. I’m not referring to extreme examples—we should condemn extremism, and rightfully so—but the need to protect freedom of expression and freedom of speech is something that we need to be always conscious of. The majority tends to not like to hear things that might make them uncomfortable. We need to be working to make sure that as a community and as a province, not just as a conservative movement, that we have the wherewithal to hear the other side of the story, even if we disagree with it, and to speak about it calmly without attacking the individual. We have to be willing to actually debate the idea. Let’s have a discussion about these ideas, see where we differ, and maintain respect for each other and maintain a willingness to disagree without condemning the other.
When do you think that a position—and I mean this more in the general than in the particular—moves from being something that should be included in the conversation to something extreme. To give a particular example: in the United States, sixty years ago, the segregationists had to be given a seat at the table. The position wasn’t all that extreme. It might have been fairly common, say, in Alabama at the time. But now that’s no longer necessary. That segregationist position has become extreme over time.
Of course, we have to condemn racism whole-heartedly.
Yes, of course. But some people would say that certain positions that are more controversial now than they once were—positions on gay marriage, positions on abortion—are extreme and shouldn’t be included in the conversation. Obviously you disagree with that. When does a position that was once part of the conversation become extreme?
I would have to say that it’s a hypothetical question that I can’t answer. It would have to depend. It’s a really big question. I would have to see as instances came up.
Okay, fair enough. This is a complicated matter in the abstract. People write books on it. We’re running up on time. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Well, you haven’t really asked me what I’ve been doing. I’m actually working on a private member’s bill on palliative care. This is the type of issue where we can get a wide variety of people—NDP, Liberals, social conservatives to social progressives and everyone in between knows that this is about allowing choice in end-of-life care. This is about creating a comforting environment for those at the end of life, to be surrounded by family and friends and loved ones, and not have to be concerned about pain and the reality of dying to the same extent. So I’m putting forth a bill in the upcoming session to create a provincial strategy to deal with palliative care. Those are the types of issues that we should be working towards unity on. Those are the issues that we can all get behind and speak about from a human dignity and human worth perspective.
Is that something that constituents have come forward on?
Yes, it’s definitely something that people have come forward on and said that they want to ensure that we have proper access to home care and to home palliative care. It is especially a concern in this area, with the number of senior citizens. We have, I believe, next to Victoria BC, the second-highest percentage of seniors in Canada.
Beyond the palliative issue, are there any other issues on your horizon?
I’m always pushing for investment in infrastructure in the Niagara region. That includes health care infrastructure in the West Lincoln Memorial Hospital, fighting to keep open the Welland Hospital, making sure we have the GO Train on time. The Niagara region is exploding like none other, and one of priorities has been to push for continued investments. One of my personal passions is fighting to value those who are impacted by Down syndrome. There’s not a lot of understanding of those who are impacted by it. They’re wonderful contributors, not just to society, but to the workforce, to education and they deserve to be celebrated. They’re beautiful human beings, and they’re created in the image of God.
I know you said that you preferred the constituency to Toronto, but you must be excited to get back in the action. It’s a big year ahead.
Yeah. It’s going to be incredibly tense. There’s already this tension between the government and the opposition that just fermenting under the surface, and I think that as we get closer to the election tempers are going to rise.
Even in the party, too. There are high expectations—many in the PC party thought that 2014 was a wasted opportunity. I think that early polls showed a comfortable lead—
Resounding lead. Everyone’s excited to get rid of fifteen years of Liberal mismanagement, and actually start improving Ontario and turn it back into an economic powerhouse like it once was.
All right then. Thanks for your time.