After a Liberal MP resigned his seat, Toronto-Centre finds itself holding by-elections in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Candidate Brian Chang from the New Democratic Party (NDP) is running for the seat previously occupied by Bill Morneau. Chang is running on a platform promising income stability, tackling climate change and universal pharmacare and dental care. In an exclusive interview with Brian Chang, our editor Kajal Pawar explores the top priorities when it comes to health and economic crisis management and this by-election.
Chang is a Research Officer at SEIU Healthcare, and is hoping to become the new face of Toronto-Centre. In particular, his online profiles highlights We Own It and Keep Hydro Public among campaigns he is particularly proud of. Chang is not new to the game, either, and has been a former NDP candidate for the same riding back in 2019. He describes himself as “Queer” and “Racialized” and adding to the diverse face of the NDP.
Pre- and Post- Pandemic Priorities
As listed on his campaign website, Chang’s top 6 priorities for Toronto Centre include focusing on affordable housing, taking action on the “climate emergency”, ensuring pharma care for all, protecting workers’ rights, fighting for 2SLGBTQ+ justice, and investing in science and research. However, for most politicians, some issues have had to take a back seat while tackling the evolving priorities of the COVID-19 Pandemic. To that, Chang has a very different perspective. Chang emphasizes that the issues impacting his riding have always existed, but have merely been exacerbated by the COVID-19 Pandemic.
When asked how his riding was impacted by the pandemic, he responds “… it is the smallest geographic riding in the entire country and there are still over 100,000 people that live here. Well over 65,000 valid electors. The area has the second highest rate of child poverty in the country. If you can think of an issue then it is an issue here.” He mentions everything from the opioid crisis, precarious work, systemic racism, anti-indigenous sentiment and policing, all the main issues exist in his riding. He believes the real source of the problems has been caused by cuts to social services and public services by Liberals and Conservatives. The pandemic and its subsequent impact on the economy have only made things worse for residents of Toronto-Centre. “Many people who previously had work may have lost their jobs now, they lost extended health coverage and are now being forced to pay out of picket for pharmaceuticals.”
Long Term Change or Short Term Support
Change explains that much of the population in his riding are frontline workers “who have been powering the economy with retail jobs, grocery store positions, frontline healthcare services, working as taxi drivers” and other essential services. He says “these people did not have the luxury to isolate at home. They didn’t benefit from the shutdown. They had to keep going to work so that the rest of us could be safe.”
While he emphasizes on the importance of addressing the long-term, underlying problems of the area, such as homelessness and the opioid crisis, he also recognizes the importance of fast-acting policy measures to support residents through the immediate impacts of the COVID-19 crisis as well. Chang proudly shared that “it was the NDP that fought for the Canada emergency Response Benefit (CERB) that we see now. It was originally proposed for a much lower amount. NDP stood for the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), which the Liberals originally proposed for 10% and we ended up pushing it up to 75%. ” While he admits that Liberals did propose many of these pandemic-time policies, but he reiterates that it was the NDP that was able to get it enhanced for the benefit of Canadians.
Financial Setbacks of COVID-19
As someone who started at a new job earlier this year, and someone who is still on probation, Chang fully grasps the fear of losing one’s job as the country enters a difficult economic state with COVID-19. Chang explains the primary difference in financial security between someone working paycheck-to-paycheck versus individuals at higher-paying, stable jobs, in that the former are limited in how far along they can plan. Chang explains that, high-income households are able to plan for savings, retirements, and vacations, while people working less stable and less secure jobs are forced to only plan for the next pay cycle, with no guarantees of how they will get by if they lose their jobs. “Those with even fewer resources, such as the homeless individuals of the community, and forced to plan hour-to-hour.” He believes that these two resource-limited groups are most at risk of being impacted by the economic downturn of the pandemic. According to Chang, having a social safety net to fall on, in case someone loses their job, gives them the opportunity to get back on their feet. Similarly, guaranteed healthcare, where they do not need to spend out of pocket for medications, for instance, will ensure these people can keep on fighting to get their financial futures in order.
Message to Millennial Voters
As the only major-party candidate who is a millennial, Chang says he understands what it is like to work multiple jobs to make ends meet, not being able to plan far head, and fears that such unstable jobs are becoming normalized in Canada. The generation, he says, is told by politicians that millennials just need to “get used to it” and that it is just “part of getting the job”. The truth, according to him, is that this is not normal but rather causes by systemic forces. He explains that most millennials have the education, the skills required, they are working hard and working long hours but not getting the results through job stability and pay, because of a system where corporations “put profits before people”. “Corporations work you to the bone just so they can make their profits, while they avoid corporate taxes, or hide their money offshore, and then the government complains that they have no money”. He finished with the example of Netflix that does not “pay a single cent in corporate tax in Canada”.
Chang is proud of the diversity he brings to the NDP and that he hopes to bring to Toronto Centre. He shared “I Identify as Queer, I am racialized, my family is Chinese-Jamaican…” He believes “It is a beautiful moment for some interesting diversity to become a representative in this area, and that is what Toronto looks like.”