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THE CONVERSATION: Curtis Fric

Curtis Fric. SUPPLIED PHOTO

Niagara West NDP candidate rounds out the riding’s youthful contenders

BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
The VOICE

Unless the Liberal Party drafts an elderly tortoise to run under the red flag in next month’s provincial election, Niagara West will assuredly possess the youngest average candidate age across Ontario. Progressive Conservative incumbent Sam Oosterhoff is 20. Green Party candidate Jessica Tillmanns is 18. And now the NDP is in the barely-legal game, nominating 20-year-old Curtis Fric to run for the party in the riding.

Fric, who grew up in Jordan and just completed his second year of a political science degree at Brock University, is self-evidently a politics nerd. Though his nomination was just a week before our conversation, it was obvious that he had begun learning the party platform well before, reeling off numbers and dates with an impressive fluency.

In the by-election that propelled Oosterhoff to Queen’s Park, the Liberal candidate garnered just 15 percent of the vote. With anecdotal assessment of the Liberal Party’s popularity in the riding hovering at about the same as for spring ticks, it’s safe to say that if anyone has a chance to beat Oosterhoff, it’s Fric. (As of press time, less than a month before the election, the Liberal party hadn’t even bothered to nominate a candidate in Niagara West.)

Fric is a worthy opponent for Oosterhoff. He is confident and knowledgeable—the policy wonk to Oosterhoff’s philosopher, a preference for polls over Plato. The debate will be on May 22. This election is an important one. The debate may prove unusually influential.

PICCOLO: Is this your first-ever interview?

FRIC: Yes.

You were just nominated last Friday?

Yep. And we got the papers in yesterday. So more or less we’re officially on Elections Ontario now.

You grew up in Jordan?

I grew up in Jordan, I’ve lived there my entire life. We definitely know our neighbours, we’re community people, but outside of our little area, not too much.

You were nominated pretty much right before the campaign started. Had you known for a while that you wanted to run? Was this last-minute?

Politics is always something that I’ve had an interest in. I never really took it seriously until the Democratic campaign kicked off in the United States.

The presidential campaign.

For the primaries, yes. I followed Bernie Sanders very closely because his message was the one I preferred. I felt that if I was an American citizen I’d be very much intending to vote for him. I paid attention to the 2015 Canadian election but I wasn’t really on a side.

You’re twenty now, so you’d have been seventeen then?

Yeah.

So you couldn’t vote.

Couldn’t vote. The first time I voted was in the by-election in Niagara West.

Are you and Sam Oosterhoff the same age?

Yes. He’s eight months older than I am.

There was the Democratic primary. Had you followed politics before?

On and off. I think the first time I really followed politics was the 2014 Ontario election. Still on and off. It wasn’t until the American election that I really started.

It took that seismic activity.

Essentially. To be fair, I think that a lot of people started paying attention to politics that way. For better or worse the American election has had an impact on Canadian politics.

You’d have been graduating high school in the midst of that campaign. You go to Brock now?

I go to Brock. I just finished my second year of political science—that’s a four-year undergraduate degree.

Does provincial politics especially appeal to you? Or are you involved with this because that’s where the action is going on right now?

It’s a mixed bag. I take a strong interest in provincial politics because it’s much more direct than federal politics, in my opinion. But federal politics also has a lot of—when it comes to the environment, when it comes to foreign policy—things I’m really interested in. You don’t get much of that at the provincial level.

That’s a good point. A lot of people are inherently attracted to federal politics, because it’s the biggest scale you can go to. On a daily basis, the most important might be municipal, because that’s your garbage and your roads, but over the course of a lifetime, it’s provincial. Education, health care—those are the two biggest things, and they’re provincial.

Yeah, those are the biggest.

I think it was actually Sam who told me well over a month ago that he heard that NDP was going to run someone young. We have Sam, who’s twenty. I interviewed Jessica Tillmanns from the Green Party, and she’s eighteen. The Liberal Party—do they have a candidate?

They’ve not put anyone up. They have until next Thursday, or they don’t have a candidate for this riding.

Well that would be embarrassing.

A little bit.

We have a twenty year old, an eighteen year old, and another twenty year old. This has to be the youngest in all of Ontario.

Yep. A lot of people I’ve told have said, “You’re pretty young.” And I say, “Well our sitting MPP is twenty, and the Green Party candidate is eighteen. So…you know.” If you’re not a fan of young people you’re going to have a real issue in this election.

I think it was almost as if Sam broke the seal on that. So when you do tell people that, and they tell you that you’re young, does the conversation end there? Do they push a little further?

Not usually. The vast majority say, “Good for you. We need more young people in politics.” I’ve heard a lot from older people who say, “It’s kind of time for our generation to get out, and your generation to get in.”

I asked Jessica the same thing. Sam once told me that he meets some young people who tell him that they disagree with him on everything, but because they think there should be more young people in politics they still voted for him. And he meets some older people who say that they agree with him on everything but that because he’s so young they can’t vote for him.

Young people like to vote for young people…older people like to vote for older people.

I read an article recently about young people in this election. Young people are the great unknown when it comes to voting, whether they’re going to come out to vote or not. Of course in 2015—

They turned out en masse for the Liberals.

Right. But in 2011 that didn’t happen. May have happened for the NDP in Quebec, but certainly didn’t happen for the Liberals in the rest of the country. They’re this great unknown. Older people, and especially older conservatives—who make up a lot of this riding—are much more reliable. What’s your message for younger people who might not be there on election day?

I think young people should know that this election at the provincial level is the first time that young people outnumber our parents’ generation. We’re the largest voting block in the province.

How are you defining young people?

I believe it’s 18 to 34. That general range. We are the largest voting block. Young people often say they don’t hear issues important to them being discussed. All I can say is that at least in Niagara West you have candidates from most of the major parties who are going to take care of your concerns directly, because we understand what it is to be a young person in the modern age and the modern economy.

What are the big concerns from young people that you’re hearing?

Affordability. You hear young people say that they’ll never leave home. I’ve even said it, my brother has said it. The jobs available to most people getting out of school—you either get a well-paying job or you get stuck with lower wages, and you’re not able to afford to rent a place without rooming with two or three other people. Housing affordability is the big one. Low wages that have stagnated for the last few decades is another problem that has impacted us profoundly.

Niagara used to be a pretty affordable place to buy a home. Now, at least in wide swaths of it, that’s not the case.

It’s gotten very expensive.

In some senses, it’s puzzling why things are so unaffordable. The economy is doing stronger than it has in a long time. Well over a hundred thousand jobs added in Ontario last year. Latest monthly unemployment numbers under six percent, the lowest in decades. And yet there are still these issues of affordability. This is when the economy’s strong. This is when the economy is probably at close to a peak. What attracts you to the NDP’s plan to make things more affordable?

Definitely when it comes to low-wage workers. The one thing that’s good is increasing that minimum wage. It has not gone up over time. Up until the 1970s, when more neo-liberal policies came into place, wages started stagnating while the productivity of workers continued to sky-rocket. Before that time the two were linked together. They went up at the same time. We haven’t seen that, and that’s why we have such disparity in wages and income inequality. The NDP has the place for low-wage workers, to hike minimum wage to closer to a living wage, so that at least people making minimum wage can get by and not be considered working poor. Affordability issues—pharmacare’s a big issue, as is dental care. Paying for prescriptions out of pocket can get very expensive, especially if you have medication that you need to take daily. It’s either you take your medication or you get sick and end up in the hospital. That strains our hospital resources. That goes in to another issue, with our health care funding not being where it should be. Of course the same thing with dental coverage. It’s good for your health, and preventative health care is always the cheapest. It’s little things that the NDP wants to do to save money in people’s lives, that we believe the government can take on as a whole and make cheaper while being very effective.

In this election it seems that the Liberals are trying to crowd out the NDP in the same way that the Liberals very effectively crowded out the NDP in 2015 federally. Other than saying, as Andrea Horwath has said consistently, that the Liberals have had fifteen years to do this sort of thing and only now are getting around to ideas that the NDP has always propagated, how does the NDP effectively differentiate itself from the Liberals? The sentiments are the same.

Take pharmacare as an example. When people ask me what the differences are between the Liberals and the NDP when it comes to it—yeah we have a similar goal, but I like to say that the Liberals take half measures while the NDP takes a full step forward. Pharmacare will save us money in the long run. But the Liberals are doing it by age groups, instead of all at once. It’s great that they want to cover people under 25, and it’s great that they want to cover people over 65. But you’re missing a giant chunk of the population. There’s a lot of people that need prescriptions there. The NDP wants to the first 125 most common prescription drugs. We would bulk buy it, and because we’re bulk buying for the entire population, not just small segments—the Liberals plan doesn’t really cost effect very well. In regards to how it differentiates, it’s that half step versus the full measure. Now we see with Hydro One, or more recently with the Liberals talking about privatizing part of the TTC in Toronto, or transit in general, that’s another place where the Liberals and NDP differ greatly. We know that public services are for the people, and that when the government controls public services such as transit and the electricity board, things that people rely on, it makes things cheaper. We’ve seen the impact of the sell-off of Hydro One. We now have a CEO at a mostly privatized corporation, where the CEO is making six million dollars a year. People are mad about that, and rightfully so, because no one was in support of selling off Hydro One. I think the Liberals have taken some very strong liberties.

Leaving aside hydro, and focussing on your ‘half-measure’ comment with pharmacare. I think a lot of people would say that it’s easy for the NDP to be on the outside and say that the Liberals are only doing half-measures. When you’re not in power you don’t have to make hard decisions. You don’t have limited resources and have to divvy them up between all these different things. If you look to NDP governments that have been elected—in Ontario we really only have one example. Bob Rae gets elected in 1990, and he comes in with a very full NDP platform. Within a few years, he’s abandoned some of his pledges. He gets Peter Kormos very angry with him. I don’t think that relationship ever recovered.

Probably not.

Then Rae gets voted out of office and throws up his hands and becomes a Liberal. If you look at a place like Alberta, where I imagine the NDP was at one point more roundly opposed to the oil sector. Once elected the necessities of operating a government take over. In Ontario it’s not the oil sector—but the point is that: Is it too easy for the NDP to make these half-measure arguments when, within your lifetime, they’ve never had to be in the driver’s seat?

I think when it comes to the NDP or any party that’s not in power, it’s easier to judge than to actually be the ones running things. But at least the NDP, we judge something that the Liberals are doing wrong, but we come forward with a policy point to say, this is why it’s wrong, but here’s what we would do. Here’s why. Some parties just go off and say, “What you’re doing is wrong, it doesn’t work.” And then people will say, “What do you want to do in replacement?”

And they say they’ll find six billion in efficiencies?

Essentially. I think that’s how we’d describe it. Bob Rae had the unfortunate situation—and the same thing with [Alberta Premier] Rachel Notley—came into power and then major recessions hit.

Well with Notley it had already started before.

It had started. But the point is that NDP governments have this bad habit of getting elected as the economy tanks. They get blamed. And then people use that as a justification to say, “We can’t have an NDP government, because the last time the economy tanked,” even though it wasn’t their fault.

You could probably say the same thing about the federal Conservatives. They take power in 2006, the economy tanks in 2007 and 2008. They sort of boomeranged that to their advantage. But fair enough. Certainly with Rae, the shock treatment from NAFTA, the recession of the early nineties, that all worked against him. On the NDP’s platform, going back to the higher minimum wage, pharmacare, and dental coverage—in talking to people all around, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who said that they thought pharmacare was a bad idea, or that dental care was a bad idea. Always they return to the idea of paying for it. People look at the debt of the province, and they see that already eight cents of every tax dollar is put towards interest payments. Might as well be trashed. It’s not going towards any program. And that’s when rates are low. They’re creeping up, and inevitably they’ll be higher. Maybe not to eighties levels, but higher. So people say that we already have thirty-six percent of our provincial GDP in debt. And it keeps going up. Pre-recession it was in the twenties, and then it jumps up when governments have to stimulate the economy. But it never goes down again. Eventually we’re going to have another recession and the provincial government’s going to have to spend a lot again, and it will jump up. People do not think that the NDP is fiscally responsible. I’m not saying they’re necessarily right, but that’s the perception. How can you counter that?

That’s been great talking points for the Liberals and the Conservatives for the longest time. At the provincial level across the country—you can’t do it too well in Ontario, because we’ve only had one NDP government—I believe the track record for NDP governments is that about fifty percent of the time we end up balancing the budget. Conservatives and Liberals balance the budget about thirty-six or thirty-seven and thirty percent of the time. So technically speaking we have had a better time at balancing the budget at the provincial level. Never had to do it at the federal level. But we’re not going in to this election saying that the money we have now is what we’re going to use to pay everything. We have a fiscal plan. Raising taxes for those making $220,000 or more a year by one percent, those making $300,000 or more a year by two percent. The corporate tax rate we’d raise from the current twelve percent to thirteen percent, so a one percent increase. We’d tax tobacco by value, not volume. The way it works now is that if tobacco prices go up we don’t tax according to the value, we just do it by how much comes in. Cars worth $90,000 or more, we will put in a surcharge. I believe it’s four percent. We would close tax loopholes so that large corporations can’t take advantage of tax breaks meant for small businesses. We have a wide array of tools that we want to bring to raise the money. We’re still going to have a deficit. It’s the situation that we’re in. When the Auditor General comes out and says that the Liberal government either mismanaged or lied about the $6 billion dollar difference—when you get that information afterwards…you’re going to have issues. We’ll make it work.

To the NDP’s credit, I think that you’ve said that you’re going to take the Auditor General’s recommendation about how they account.

Yeah. We’ve said that if we’re elected to government we’ll restore the Auditor General’s powers what they were before the Liberals basically stripped the position of all its power.

The key point that jumps out to me in the NDP’s tax plan is that it hits only the upper tier.

They are for the very wealthy.

One percent. That can add up over time, but you’re saying basically that those people won’t notice too much of a hit.

Yeah. We’re not going to raise taxes on those people struggling to get by, the low income, the working families. They don’t need a tax increase on them. If there is a tax increase, and again our plan is for the very wealthy, it’ll be the people that can afford to pay for it, who aren’t feeling what it’s like to rub dimes together to get bread on the table.

On the corporate rate, a lot of economists have said that you have to be careful, especially with the reduction of rates in the US. In the past, manufacturing corporations have made very big investments in factories. Very stationary capital investments. But capital is now more mobile than ever. You have corporate work that’s all intellectual—they can very easily up and move somewhere else. Is the NDP confident that the one percent increase and the closed loopholes isn’t going to dissuade—

If we were going to say that we were going to jump it by ten percent, then sure I could see the concern. The idea is that when you lower the corporate tax rate, they’ll take that money and invest it. But we have seen big corporate CEOs, like Mark Cuban, who have said, “When you lower the corporate tax rate, we give it to our shareholders. Period. It doesn’t go into investment, and if it does, it’s extremely small and it doesn’t create the jobs that the idea is supposed to bring.”

To be fair, Ontario has the lowest corporate tax rate in the country. So by saying we’re going to raise it one percent, I don’t think we’re scared about scaring off large corporation. For small businesses, I believe that we’ll have some sort of tax incentive.

In the article about young people voting I referenced earlier, it alluded to some polling that showed the young people are by in large much more interested in social issues.

Very much so.

That’s probably always been the case. That’s why you have this perception of people doing a shuffle to the right as they get older. They have savings accounts, and mortgages, and real estate investments. When you talk to them, do you find that young people are interested in the nuts and bolts of finances, and the taxes? Because the perception among older voters is that young people want to spend all this money and want to cover social issues. But when they get older…they’ll see.

It’s always, you’ll become a conservative when you’re older. But for some it’s like, “No, we’re going to go further left than that.” Young people on the whole, at least in my friend group, are are little more politically knowledgable. We don’t disregard the economics of things. We know that things have to be paid for, and that we have to be reasonable when it comes to it. Yet we are much more focussed on social issues because, you can make the argument we aren’t really paying that much in taxes. We want to know how things will be paid for. It’s on our minds.

On social issues, we talked about the 2016 American election—there’s a very disturbing polarization of politics.

Very divisive politics.

There’s been a fair bit of conjecture that Doug Ford is the Ontarian Donald Trump. I briefly interviewed Doug when he was here a month ago, and I went to one of his rallies. I think that there’s reason to be bothered by some of what he said, but to be honest I didn’t feel that Trumpian vibe. In the GTA, especially, Ford supporters are very diverse. In 2014, when he ran for mayor of Toronto, his support among immigrant Canadians was higher than among what you would call “white Canadians.” How do you see the Doug Ford phenomenon? All—or at least most—polls indicate now that he’s going to be the next premier.

I would argue that there are plenty of Doug Ford supporters like there are Trump supporters on the social issues much more conservative—

But is Doug socially conservative? He said, “I’m not a Bible-thumper.”

It’s weird. Doug may not come off that way, but you have to see who he’s surrounding himself with. You had Tanya Granac-Allen for a while. Even before she got let off the ballot by Doug—the things that she was let off for, she’s said them before. The guy that Doug Ford appointed in London West, the former Rebel Media host, who said a plethora of different things, from being Islamophobic, I believe he was anti-Semitic in some cases, he was sexist. It’s very bothersome. So Doug Ford may not personally be that. But you definitely have to pay attention to the people that a leader surrounds himself with. To the point before, many Ontarians are worried about affordability. In the south in the United States—when Hillary Clinton came out and said about half of them were “deplorables” I think she was talking about those people who follow those crazy ideas that Obama was a muslim, oh, Obama’s a terrorist.

I’m sure it’s a choice of words she regrets.

I’m sure she does. You look at the polls that were done, and it’s about fifty percent of Trump supporters who think Obama’s a muslim, Obama’s a terrorist. I don’t know. Maybe technically she was right. She definitely could’ve chosen her words a lot better. The other half of Trump supporters, like Doug Ford supporters, they’re middle-income, they’re low-income, they’re worried about the affordability of things. It’s debatable to say that there are quite a lot of people who park their vote with the PCs. That’s why we see them where they are in the polls right now. But we’ve seen over the last twelve days or so, from April 30 to today, the NDP has jumped four percent in the polling averages. The Liberals dropped one percent, the PCs have dropped 2.8 percent. A lot of the shift in polls there went from the PCs to the NDP, so maybe people just parked their vote with the PCs and that’s why there as high as they are. Who knows, right.

It seems as though there’s more flexibility between the NDP and the PCs. A Liberal voter might become an NDP voter, and an NDP voter might become a Liberal voter. And a PC voter might become an NDP voter. But a PC voter won’t become a Liberal voter.

I guess it really depends on the situation.

Now with Kathleen Wynne being as personally unpopular as she is—

Kathleen Wynne is very personally unpopular. You can argue that Doug Ford is also very personally unpopular. The NDP has this nice storm brewing where people want a change government, but at the same time one of the two change parties is not an option. We’ve heard a lot from very conservative individuals, who have said that either they’re not going to vote because they don’t like Doug Ford, or they’re voting NDP. I remember when Patrick Brown was the leader, and there was the issues with the PCs and their nomination meetings, where some of them were pretty rigged in how they were done. And you had riding presidents from the PCs saying, “We’re voting for the NDP, because we know what’s going on in our party, and this is not what we signed up for.” So you have the core voters, who’ll only ever vote for one party. But there’s a lot of lean voters in each group. It’s a matter of how the leaders present themselves.

Now that we’re about a month away from the election, what does the next four weeks look like for you? Debates? Are you going to be door-knocking?

A lot of door-knocking. That’s predominantly what we’ll be doing. There are going to be debates—the first one was supposed to be yesterday for Cogeco, but that got pushed back to the twenty-second of May. There’s also a health care debate put on by the health care coalition.

Are you looking forward to the debates? I was talking to Jessica about this too. She was hoping that there would be two so that she’d be able to improve. Have you debated before? Is that something you’ve done?

Plenty of online debates. We all know how those go. Very non-formal debates among friends. In that case it’ll definitely be a step up.

Sam has the advantage of having practised in the legislature for a year and a half, so he’s gotten a lot better.

You’d hope so. We’ll see.

Are you looking forward to it?

I’m looking forward to it. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous about it. I’m sure all of us are nervous about debates, even for those of us who are much older, like Jeff Burch or Wayne Gates.

Anything we didn’t talk about that you think is important? If you’re unsuccessful will you be back at Brock?

I will definitely be back at Brock if I’m unsuccessful. I would be looking towards the municipal elections, possibly running there—

In Lincoln?

In Lincoln. I don’t know what I’d run as if I’m unsuccessful here. Probably Alderman. Best case scenario, I’ll be successful here and I’ll represent the people of Niagara West. We’ll see. Not making any permanent long-term plans just yet.

Okay. Thanks for your time.

Thank you.

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