Nate Erskine-Smith relishes his role as a political maverick and it seems the safe flight simulator stage of his potential run for the leadership of the Ontario Liberal Party could soon go supersonic.
He has shown in his two-plus terms as a federal politician he has an independent streak and a willingness to speak his mind. He believes politics can be done differently. Spurred by what he considers an “incompetent conservative majority government,” the Beaches—East York Liberal MP is actively kicking the tires for a leadership run.
Erskine-Smith said he is cognizant of the reputation politicians get for pulling a disappearing act in the north once election day has passed and for that reason, he is forming a team that is mindful of and will help him tackle the issues that matter to northerners.
The potential leadership candidate's northern swing began with a trip to North Bay on Wednesday, Sudbury on Thursday, and Espanola on Friday. The exploratory tour has also previously visited Sault Ste. Marie, Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout, Kenora and Dryden. This is the third visit to northern Ontario.
Speaking with BayToday at an event at the north-end Twiggs Coffee Roasters in North Bay, Erskine-Smith promised he'll be back. "It's really important for any leader to represent the views of people across this province," he observed. "Trust me by my actions not just by what I say."
What does Nate Erskine-Smith, a highly educated lawyer and politician who represents a Toronto riding know about the human condition of northerners?
"My parents were teachers. I was the first person in my family to go to law school and I worked really hard to get there," he responded. "My dad is from Windsor and my mom is from near Hamilton but my grandfather is on Manitoulin Island. My father-in-law owns and works on a Lambton County farm that has been in the family since 1834.
"If I'm going to take this job seriously, I'm going to travel the province, meet people everywhere, and I'm going to build a team in every corner of the province that is going to reflect those communities back to me on a regular basis. I am in relentless team-building mode."
He spent Wednesday in North Bay meeting with students and administrators from Canadore College and Nipissing University and, while many topics were covered, Erskine-Smith said housing affordability was the number one issue on the minds of students.
"We've seen major growth in housing prices these past number of years across this province," he said, "It's not only a generational fairness issue but it's also a productivity challenge. People are not able to afford to live or buy homes or rent in the communities they grew up in. If they are not going to stay in North Bay, that's a productivity challenge for all of us."
Ontario Liberal Party officials are in the midst of figuring out when a new leader will be elected. Asked if this change in focus was the result of a rift that had developed between him and the federal Liberals under the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Erskine-Smith, despite a record of voting against his party on key issues, said it's more about his desire to make the biggest impact.
"How does one make the biggest difference with the time one's got?" Erskine-Smith asked. "Find me something that makes a bigger difference. I think people are distrusting of politics. People are, at best, apathetic at times. For my part, politics is the most important way to make a difference in the lives of those around us, and I want other people to see it the same way."
Erskine-Smith said he doesn't see a jump from MP to the leader of a provincial party as outside his capabilities in any way, saying he proudly stands by his track record in federal politics.
"I've got seven-and-a-half years of doing politics a bit differently. Of telling it like it is. Of having an independent track record and being a little less partisan at times, of working across party lines to get things done and working within my own caucus to get things done.
"And, I've got a track record of delivering, whether it's supporting low-income workers with Canada Child Benefit or its legislation around treating drug use and the opioid crisis as a health issue, I've got my fingerprints," on many federal files. "I hope people see a track record of having made a difference with the role I've got and there is a huge opportunity to make an even bigger difference at the provincial level with even more responsibility."
Drawing a direct parallel to the current situation in Ontario provincial politics, Erskine-Smith said, “I got involved," at the federal level "because the Liberal party was in third place and the Conservative party in power was incredibly frustrating."
His goal, he added, is to “displace a really frustratingly incompetent government,” which he said hasn’t adequately addressed such issues as housing affordability, health care and education.
“The tools to address housing affordability mostly reside at a provincial level, so there’s a huge opportunity to make a difference.”
Sudbury.com also met with Erskine-Smith on Thursday to ask him about his potential leadership run, and where the Greater Toronto Area-based politician’s aspirations might fit Northern Ontario’s political landscape.
“Integrity matters more than geography, and how you act matters more than where you’re from,” he said.
Born in east Toronto, raised in east Toronto and representing east Toronto federally for the past seven and a half years as a Liberal MP, he said there’s no denying where he’s coming from.
“The only way I do this seriously is by building a team of people absolutely everywhere, including here in northern Ontario,” he said.
Various issues affecting Northern Ontario are common throughout the province, he added.
For him, mental health and addictions, the opioid crisis, limited access to primary care, and housing affordability all immediately come to mind.
“These are challenges that are acute in Northern Ontario, and they exist in Windsor, they exist in the GTA, and any serious provincial government’s got to be addressing issues that affect every single community, including here in Northern Ontario,” he said.
Police should be focused on things such as violent crime, he said, adding that addressing mental health and addictions will also protect public safety.
“The answer is to ensure there’s on-demand treatment available for when they are ready to seek treatment so they get the help that they need when they need it. We know what the answers are, but the answers need to be funded.”
It is undeniable Nipissing is both recently, and traditionally, a Conservative stronghold. Erskine-Smith noted having a strong local candidate can flip votes but the party itself must find its identity after disappointing results.
"We have to emphasize we are not just the 'not-Doug Ford party.' What do we stand for? In my view, we stand for a strong economic agenda and fiscal discipline, we stand for compassion for those in need, and we carry ourselves with integrity. I think if we do that, we're going to get buy-ins from a whole bunch of people from across the province."
Erskine-Smith expects the Ontario Liberal Party leadership race to officially launch as soon as May. He believes it is imperative to get the process underway.
"If we don't have a leader in place at least two years before the election, we are doing the party a disservice and we're doing the province a disservice."