NL Election 2021 District Focus: St. John’s Centre

Find out where candidates stand on issues including the province’s changing demographics, paths forward for its troubled economy, climate change, and more.

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St. John’s Centre has been a New Democratic stronghold for the past ten years. But energetic campaigns from both the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals make this a district to watch during the 2021 provincial election.

Jim Dinn, running for the NDP, is the district’s incumbent since his election in 2019. Gerry Rogers, leader of the NDP from 2018-2019, had previously held the seat since 2011.

Dinn is a former teacher who has taught in both rural and urban schools. He served as President of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association (NLTA) from 2013-2017 and serves on the Board of Directors and Finance Committee of The Gathering Place. 

He is up against Gemma Hickey, who is running for the Liberals. Hickey is a well-known community activist and author who founded the Pathways Foundation along with ArtForceNL. They were instrumental in challenging Canadian institutions to issue official documentation for non-binary individuals.

Robyn LeGrow is running for the PCs. LeGrow has been engaged in social advocacy work focused on improving health and educational outcomes for children in the province through the Jimmy Pratt Foundation, her family’s not-for-profit organization.

The three candidates shared their ideas and perspectives over phone interviews with the Independent this week. Read on to find out where they stand on issues including the province’s changing demographics, paths forward for its troubled economy, climate change, and more. 

Why are you running for your chosen party?

Jim Dinn (NDP)

That’s an interesting question. When I was first choosing to run, people would say to me ‘you think you would have run for a party where you would have been able to do something, like the PCs or Liberals.’ But I chose the NDP because I think, in many ways, they most align with my sense of social justice. And they’ve been very much focused on rooting for the underdog, for those who are in many cases disenfranchised. So that was just a natural fit for me. 

Gemma Hickey (Liberal)

Well, I’m running because I really believe in Andrew Furey. I’ve known Andrew since I was 13 years old, we went to high school together and we stayed in touch. And I am just so inspired by him. I feel a real connection to the work that he was doing overseas [with Team Broken Earth] because I’ve done some international work myself. And I really feel encouraged by the social policies of the Liberals.

I’m running in this district because I run a charity on Cookstown Rd. called ArtForce. And during the pandemic I was dropping food and even blankets off to many residents who come to the centre. And the majority of them live in this district. And when I saw some of the conditions that they were living in, it really propelled me to run.

So, really, my decision to run was based on the fact that I really connect with leader Andrew Furey. And I also felt propelled to run because I know that I can be a great advocate for the people in St. John’s Centre.

Robyn LeGrow (Progressive Conservative)

I never had political aspirations. I’ve been an advocate. I’ve been advocating directly with government for the last ten years, mostly for early childhood education and most recently moving into the child protection system. 

Over the last five years, I noticed that the doors that used to be open, from the deputy minister to the assistant deputy ministers and directors, were starting to close. Opportunities for collaboration that we had no problem accessing between 2010 and 2015 were no longer becoming available. We saw things happening with [the Department of Children, Seniors, and Social Development] and [the Department of Education] that left us feeling concerned. And when we approached government about it our concerns were dismissed. 

So I watched this happen most notably in the past two years. And then when Covid struck, we had been working on a project to try to do a public conversation about our child protection system. We had been facing major pushback in the lead-up to that. And then of course Covid disrupted any ability to work on that and push that forward. 

So what we decided to do then was to focus on the immediate need of food security and children. We know that there are many children in this city, most specifically in my district, that really get the majority of their food from either going to school in the school programs, and then in the after school programs from the Boys and Girls Clubs or the community centres. So we stepped in and we started ensuring that families with young children had access to food. That’s when it expanded to seniors because we did a community food helpline. And through all of this experience, we were part of the government task force on food insecurity. But we were also working directly in the community even more so than I had ever done before. And so what I witnessed was a dramatic inequality between how people were surviving the pandemic. And despite many requests to government to take a look at it, we continued to be denied.

Growing up, my family was always Liberal. I have voted for all three parties in my lifetime, so I’ve never really been partisan. I’ve never been a member of a political party. Gill Pearson asked me to speak at the PC annual general meeting in October. And the topic was population growth and retention. I talked about how we can talk about population growth all we want, but we’re really not doing a good job on retention. I used some stats—I’m 42. So when I entered kindergarten in 1983, there were 9500 students. When we graduated in 1996 there were 8400. And ten years later there were 8000 kids who started school, and when they graduated there were 7500. And so in 2019, we only had 4500 kids start kindergarten. So we’re having less kids, the kids that we’re having are not staying in the school system. Either they’re leaving the province or they’re dropping out. And so we’re developing less and less qualified citizens who are going to be tax-paying citizens as opposed to tax-consuming citizens. 

After that talk they called me the next day and asked me to run. The rest is history.

Who are your constituents, and what are their specific needs in this district?

Jim Dinn (NDP)

You can walk from one end of my district to another in about an hour or less. Yet you see a wide diversity—you’ve got middle class families. You’ve got families who are on income support. Those who are working at minimum wage jobs and trying to get by. 

You’ve got a mixture of a lot of local businesses, some small. I think of the Urban Market, they’re just starting up. And you’ve got other large businesses such as Browning Harvey. You’ve got a mixture, you’ve got ordinary families and people who are dealing with addictions and homelessness. 

So many of the calls I take are basically people who are calling on housing concerns, medical concerns, looking for proper housing or homes or care for their elderly loved ones. It’s quite a diverse district in the middle of the city.

Gemma Hickey (Liberal)

Well in the district of St. John’s Centre we’ve got people from all walks of life. Income support recipients, students, working class people, upper middle class people. There’s a number of community organizations here and centres. Small businesses, heavy industry in the downtown area. Varying needs because of the mixed demographic, but there’s a strong sense of community here. 

Robyn LeGrow (Progressive Conservative)

St. John’s Centre is extremely diverse. I live on Long’s Hill. Another reason why my viewpoint has changed in the last five years or so, since I moved here in 2015. I grew up in a very privileged background. I’ve always worked in soup kitchens and my family started the Jimmy Pratt Foundation down at George St. church over 20 years ago. So we’ve been serving food down there for 20 years, the whole family’s been a part of it. But I still had no idea until I moved down here. 

And you’re witness to everything here. You’re witness to daily untreated mental health and addictions. I witness the police response which is not adequate whatsoever. I see the people from the Gathering Place shelter who don’t have anywhere to go during the day, so they’re sitting around the Rooms passing the time. There’s a lot of lost souls. And most of them live in St. John’s Centre and some in [St. John’s East-Quidi Vidi]. But the Field Street, Pennywell Road, Cabot Street, Brazil Street. And from everyone I talk to, things are just becoming more bleak. 

My residents don’t feel like government talks about them. They don’t feel like there are decisions made with their best interests at heart. So I want to make sure that there’s someone fighting for them. I also have a lot of young families more towards Forbes Street and Columbus Drive. So it’s very diverse—there’s artsy downtown people too. So we’re very diverse, but we’re very much a community.

Given the province’s current financial situation, what, in your view, should be its economic path forward?

Jim Dinn (NDP)

Well, first thing. One of the things that we’ve been doing with the district association for the last two years since we’ve been up and running—I’ve got a very strong district association—we’ve been doing a project called spotlight on local businesses. So what we’ve been trying to do is, at least once a month, highlight a business within the district that’s locally owned. They might be also owned in some cases by immigrant families that have started a business, and just about all the businesses are locally owned businesses. Small, neighbourhood businesses—small family businesses—that are having an impact.

So, for me, I think the way forward is we need to start focusing on how do we grow small businesses? How do we encourage them? How do we support people who are looking to start up? I think that’s probably one of the key ways forward. 

Secondly, I think we’ve got to look at some way of supporting those who are currently without proper dental care. Without proper housing. So many of the issues we’re facing I think in regards to mental healthcare are related to those issues: to poor diet, to inadequate housing, to lack of proper drug coverage, and so on and so forth. And those are the issues that we deal with mostly in our office. And when I say in our office I mean between me and my constituency assistant Susan. Those are most of the calls we field.

Gemma Hickey (Liberal)

Well, I think that there are a number of ways forward, and I look forward to listening and collaborating with people, especially on the ground. I’m hearing a lot of different issues at the doors and lots of different ideas. And there’s a number of ways that we can move forward together. So I look forward to hearing more concerns as I meet more people at the door about what their aspirations and visions are for the future. 

We’re definitely in a trying time, and the pandemic has changed our way of life. But I’m committed to listening and learning, and especially representing the people in the district should I be their MHA.

Robyn LeGrow (Progressive Conservative)

I look at it quite broadly. I think we need to invest in our people. Period. Investing in our people means looking at the poverty reduction strategy and getting that back on track. I don’t have many good things to say about Danny Williams, but he had an award-winning poverty reduction strategy that I have referred to many times in the last few years. But that was completely dismantled by the Liberals. So when the PCs left power in 2015 we had a poverty reduction office of about 12 people, and now there’s one person. We have to focus on getting this stuff back on track. If we’re not focusing on lifting people out of poverty, that means that we are allowing ourselves to be spending money on no outcomes. 

Our government works in three year cycles, because the other year that they’re in power they’re focusing on electioning. So we need to start focusing on strategic long-term plans with outcomes assigned to them. And that’s what Danny Williams’ poverty reduction strategy was all about. It had a 10 year plan, it had deliverables that were attached to each other over the years. We have to be working towards something. And lately with government they’ve been throwing out funding announcements hoping something’s going to stick to the wall. But nothing is cohesive, nothing is really thought out over a period of time of what this is going to mean in five years’ time, in ten years’ time. 

So I really think that we need someone at every conversation that’s happening within government about spending. We need someone there that’s going to have that lens to say: what does this mean down the road for our environment? What does this mean for our children? What does this mean down the road for our marginalized people? So we don’t find ourselves making decisions where we’re constantly living in regret, which is par for the course in Newfoundland politics.

Do you support raising the minimum wage to $15/hour?

Jim Dinn (NDP)

I think we’ve got to start looking at that, yes. We’ve spoken to End Homelessness St. John’s, and if you want to reduce poverty then you’re going to have to put money in people’s pockets. And where are they going to spend it? They’re going to spend it locally. They’re going to spend it on making sure there’s food on the table. 

It’s interesting, when the CERB [Canada Emergency Response Benefit] payments were being dispersed, the usage of food banks dropped significantly. Now, probably part of that was because of Covid-19. But we know that on the Food Hotline, the number of calls dropped significantly. When CERB payments were discontinued, the calls to the Food Hotline increased significantly. So that tells me one thing: people weren’t able to afford to eat. I know one gentleman we were helping, by the time he finished paying his bills was living on $40 a week for food. 

So from my point of view, when we’re looking at people who are working at minimum wage jobs, when they can’t afford to put food on the table, when they can’t afford to pay the rent, when they’ve got to go to a food bank to feed their families, then yes. We’ve got to start looking at not only a $15 minimum wage, but a living wage. One that’s able to help people survive.

Gemma Hickey (Liberal)

You know, I believe it will get there by taking a balanced approach. One that works for business owners and their employees. I’m committed to reviewing how to responsibly address this as we transition into economic recovery.

Robyn LeGrow (Progressive Conservative)

So my party is making me be very careful in how I answer this question. But I will tell you that I’ve sat down and met with Mark Nichols. I have very much been a part of the $15 dollar fairness conversation. I understand all the outputs, I’m actually having a zoom meeting soon with Mark and Heidi Janes and Doug Pawson just to talk about guaranteed basic income and what that would mean and possibly minimum wage conversations into that as well. 

I fully believe that our income support programs are not successful. And I think if we were smart and reviewed all of our income support programs and looked at using that money to support perhaps small businesses to be able to support a $15 minimum wage. I think we can be creative and make this happen. 

But without guaranteeing any stance, I will say that a major focus of mine is ensuring that people working in Newfoundland [and Labrador] are working with respectful laws that support them.

How will you address the province’s demographic situation of an aging population in your work as MHA?

Jim Dinn (NDP)

That’s a good one. First of all, I think we’ve got to find some way of keeping younger people here. I’m fortunate I’ve got three children who wish to stay in the province. One is working away at the moment in Alberta with Parks Canada—to be honest with you I’d like to see him come home. It’s about having a reason to come home; I know he would like to be working back here as well. So first of all, how do we make it more affordable for young families to live here? And then that goes back to looking at the minimum wage and the services that they need as well.

I think immigration is going to have to be encouraged significantly. I talk to a lot of families who’ve moved here who are also struggling with whether or not they can afford to stay here in terms of economic outcome, in terms of their economic reality. Going back to what I said earlier, we’re going to have to start looking at building the economy from the ground up. With regards to, again, how do we support small local businesses, and start going at it from that way. Now, I’m no economist. But I do know from walking around the district that there are an awful lot of small businesses that are in many ways the engine of the province. And from there we can start looking at growing other industries. 

You look at the tech sector, I think there’s growth opportunity there. In terms of green energy, the green economy. We have an incredibly intelligent, innovative population. We’ve just got to find a way to start supporting other industries, other economic development beyond resource extraction. So it’s got to be something that encourages diversification if that makes sense. Another part of it, too, is an awful lot of our items are shipped out without secondary processing. Even in aquaculture, a lot of the product is shipped out head-on, gutted. It’s not processed here the way it should be. So in many ways we need to start capitalizing on the resources we have and how to get the biggest bank for our buck on them. 

Gemma Hickey (Liberal)

I think it’s really important to consult with people who are seniors. I’m meeting with a lot of seniors as I’m going door to door and I’m hearing that they have varying needs. And for some of them there’s accessibility issues as well. So there are all kinds of issues that are going on for seniors, especially during the pandemic. Many of them are feeling isolated. Many of them are dealing with mental health issues. But seniors really need a seat at the table and we need to listen to what their needs are. So I look forward to doing that as I continue to go door to door.

Robyn LeGrow (Progressive Conservative)

Well most of my advocacy has been in early childhood education. So I firmly believe that we need to do a better job of supporting young families. And so that means access to childcare. It means access to quality childcare. And universal—we need everybody to be getting the same experience. We need children to be starting school, all of them, on the same level playing field. And that’s not happening now. If we provide a safe and healthy environment for people to raise their children, then we will have no problem attracting young families. 

The other thing is that we have to take a serious look at our perceptions towards immigration in this province. So there’s a lot of misconceptions and there’s a lot of racism. I’ve heard about it on the doors—going through Buckmaster’s Circle the other night many biracial families, many new Canadians, talking about how the schools are not safe for their children. Their children are bullied there because of their race. So there are systemic issues that are happening within the home that are causing this cycle of racism that we have to do something about. Because if we can’t provide, again, a safe and comfortable place for children to grow up in and for new Canadians to feel like a part of this province, then we are not doing our job and we’re wasting our money focusing on trying to bring people in if we can’t keep them here.

How will you address climate change in your work as MHA?

Jim Dinn (NDP)

In St. John’s Centre, obviously when you look at it it’s densely populated. One of the things that we did ask for in the House of Assembly had to do with the $400,000 road tax that the province collects from the city for maintaining roads that are maintained by the city. So we asked for that money to be given back to the city so that they could reinvest in the metrobus service. If you remember at that time, the city was looking at cutting back the services on metrobus to live within the budget.

So first of all we’ve got to find a way to invest in our public transportation system. And that’s going to have to start with certainly promoting it as a viable alternative. We, as a city—and this is a larger problem—if you take a look at St. John’s we are doing what a lot of other major cities have: urban sprawl. We depend very much on cars to get around. So somewhere along the line we’ve got to look at finding ways so that people can live within the community, can buy what they need in that area. We’ve got to find a way to encourage and promote our public transit system. And that means putting more money into that. And right now those buses run on diesel, that sounds counterintuitive. But if you have more money you’ve got a way to invest in electric vehicles, maybe electric buses that don’t rely on fuel to run. And also within the city we have the opportunity to start putting infrastructure up for electric vehicles. So that at least within the city limits, where a lot of the driving occurs, we can encourage the use of electric vehicles. 

Also, how do we make it safer for our pedestrians? As you know, there’s been a huge outcry, especially during the winter. And I walk myself and it can be lethal at times. So how do we make this city more pedestrian friendly? More cycling friendly? And encourage people to use the metrobus much more.

And the other part is, I think we’ve got to start looking at development that doesn’t require us to rely on cars so much. So the urban sprawl has got to stop. We’ve got to look at maybe greater density within the city itself. I know on the mainland in certain places, they’ve got dedicated lanes for example for buses on the highways during rush hour. So anyway, they’re small ideas. But I think that if you’re doing more to make a public transportation system more convenient for people, that’s a start right there within the city.

Beyond that, I think as a province we’ve got to find a way to start developing green industries and a green economy. And start looking at a transition from oil to another economy which is going to be more sustainable and longer lasting.

Gemma Hickey (Liberal)

Well this is a very important issue for me personally. I’m trying to make changes in my own life. But in terms of being an MHA, I want to ensure that the mining and offshore [oil and gas] industry continues to reduce emissions. I’m really proud that we’re the second province in Canada to ban single use plastic bags. And I’m encouraged that the government put [in place] the Made-in-Newfoundland Climate Action Plan that includes the price on carbon. The province has also committed to net-zero by 2050.

Robyn LeGrow (Progressive Conservative)

I will fully admit that my focus has never really been on the environment. Of course I am conscious of all of that. My childhood best friend actually just wrote a book on the oil industry and how provinces like Newfoundland, Alberta, and Saskatchewan can move on. So if elected, I’ve already talked to her about how she and I can start having discussions. Social policy is my area of interest and I’ll fully admit to that. 

But if I do become an MHA and climate change becomes something that needs to be in front of me and I need to understand in terms of policies, I’ll just approach it like I do everything else. Do the research and hear all sides, and talk to the people who are actually doing the research and know what’s happening. And get them to help me form my opinions around what policies need to be changed for the best. 

Why should constituents vote for you over the other two candidates?

Jim Dinn (NDP)

I’d like to think that all three of us are running for the district and that our hearts are in the right place. For me, I enjoy serving people. It’s been most of my life. I was at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which is a food bank. And when I was president we undertook a housing project, and basically that was in response to the dire conditions that many of the people we served were living in. To me, it’s about finding practical solutions. So I do work hard with Susan [my constituency assistant] in trying to resolve the issues of our constituents. 

As I used to say to teachers, when I was the president [of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers’ Association from 2013-2017], my biggest gift was my mouth. And I don’t mind using it. But I’m also able to work collaboratively with people when that time comes. I’m very committed to serving those who come to me for help, doing what I can, and leveraging my position as an MHA to help them in their situation.

Gemma Hickey (Liberal)

Because I’m an advocate to my core. And this is a boots to the ground district. I’ve been an advocate for over 20 years, I’ve been fighting for people. I’ve been standing up for what’s right. And I’m not afraid to challenge the status quo. And I know that I can do an excellent job representing people that have been marginalized, but also people that need someone to speak for them. 

I’m a builder of people and communities, and I want people to feel valued as individuals, [because] society benefits. And I really feel that I can be a voice for many people. And I know that I can be a great advocate for the people of St. John’s Centre. I’m not running as a politician—I’m running as an advocate. 

Robyn LeGrow (Progressive Conservative)

Well, I live in the district. I am very much a community member in my district. I’ve done a lot to improve the living conditions of my neighbourhood by starting a neighbourhood association focuses on revitalizing our parks and making this a safer place for residents and sex workers who work in this neighbourhood. I’m very supportive of them and I work directly with SHOP to ensure that I can be the most supportive, however they deem necessary. And I’m a young female, and we need more women in government. 

And I’m passionate—I think you can tell. I have a lot of energy. And my goal is really just the overall improvement of this province. And hopefully people will see all of that and lend me their vote. 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Photo: Candidates, L-R (Jim Dinn, Gemma Hickey, Robyn LeGrow).

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