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Hub Dialogue: Nathaniel Erskine-Smith on moonshots and empowering MPs

Podcast & Video

In this Hub Dialogue, part of our new policy in action series, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, the member of parliament for the riding of Beaches-East York in Toronto.

This new series of dialogues will be removed from day-to-day partisanship or the “who’s up and who’s down” focus of the mainstream media, instead focusing on candid conversations with parliamentarians who are leading different issues that are important to Canada’s future.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

MP Erskine-Smith, if I can just start with a general question about how you’ve come to think about your role as a member of the government caucus, a representative of a Toronto-based constituency, and somebody who came to public office with deeply held views on a number of public policy and governance issues.

Can you reflect a bit on how you’ve managed to strike a balance between being a constructive and valued member of the government caucus on one hand, and yet, on the other hand, reflecting the views of your constituents and your own conscience in such a way that’s led you to vote against government legislation more than any member of the governing caucus in decades?

MP Erskine-Smith

I’m not sure I’ve always struck the balance right. But I would say that at the outset, I got involved in politics, in part, because then leader of the Liberal Party and now Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had promised to empower parliamentarians. He promised to provide greater freedom for parliamentarians to disagree respectfully. That in practice really established a system of whip votes only in relation to platform promises, human rights and charter rights issues, and confidence matters. It creates a lot of freedom for a parliamentarian who wants to see that freedom.

The idea is that I’m there to be a trustee in the public interest, to be a voice for constituents, but also to my own conscience and finding the right answers where I can find them. I’m there to hold the government accountable at times: I take those ideas seriously. Many people can be effective in Parliament in a number of different ways. But those are the sort of competing considerations that I bring when I do disagree, and I try to do so respectfully and constructively. I try to ground my disagreement and ideas as much as I can.

Sean Speer

Before we get into some of those specific ideas, if I can just follow up on the role of parliamentarians and the potential tension between representing your constituents or abiding by your conscience within our current electoral and parliamentary systems.

You’ve been a champion of both electoral reform and parliamentary reform. Can you set out some of the changes that you think could enable parliamentarians like you to strike a better balance in these different roles and, as a result, carry out your responsibilities more effectively?

MP Erskine-Smith

I think there are some big changes that could be made along the lines of electoral reform. I have been a strong advocate for electoral reform because I think it creates open lists versus closed lists [in terms of possible candidates], which can matter a great deal. But if you look to more proportional systems, including the single transferable vote model, we see a greater degree of independence in those systems that I think is valuable. We also see a permanency to minority Parliaments, which engenders cooperation in a more serious way.

There are also parliamentary rules changes, even minor ones, such as giving the Speaker of the House greater freedom to allocate time in to individual members or to empower committees to be more independent that would strengthen our system. But these types of changes would also require that they properly resource MPs [in terms of staff and research capacity] so that they can better hold governments accountable.

Is there any number of rule changes that matter? Fundamentally, what I have come to learn is that as important as rule changes may be, cultural change is also incredibly important. We do need to reflect on our own conduct and ensure that we’re conducting ourselves as we want the institutions to be. Rules and culture are intertwined and build upon each other in different ways. Rule changes can be hard, but the culture change lives within us. So, I’ve really thought a lot about how I conduct myself as a parliamentarian, and how it relates to my decisions on voting and really representing my constituents in my advocacy.

As well of course as making sure that I’m focused on rule changes like motions on electoral reform when they come about for votes in the House.

Sean Speer

May I just ask one more question along these lines: What has been the feedback from constituents about your approach? Do your constituents — including different partisans — generally support your efforts to de-emphasize partisanship and instead prioritize collaborative policymaking?

MP Erskine-Smith

It’s interesting because the feedback I receive has changed over time. I remember knocking on doors and hearing some negative feedback early on from quite partisan Liberal voters, saying, “Well, you should agree with our party.” I articulated to them how I am very much supportive of many of the issues we’re putting forward. I’m supportive of our election agenda and our platform. And, as far as values are concerned, I’m certainly supportive of our action on climate change, poverty reduction, and more. Over time, as these constituents get to know me and my work, they can see that, in many ways, I’ve been a really strong team player.

Yet, at the same time, I think many constituents have also valued the more non-partisan nature of the work. Canadians overwhelmingly are not hyper partisan. Those of us in Ottawa forget that sometimes. It is a very partisan place: there are team dynamics at play, and it very much is about positioning and winning issues, and ultimately winning elections. I don’t think the vast majority Canadians see politics and policy issues in the same light.

So most of my constituents see someone who goes off, fights the good fight and is willing to stand up on their behalf, but also acts in the interest of the evidence; not simply to say yes to everything for the sake of saying yes, and for the sake of getting ahead. Rather, to be constructive, to be respectful, but also to be forceful in holding the government accountable for the promises we’ve made, and in pushing the government to act on ideas and to pursue the evidence as much as reasonably possible.

Sean Speer

I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that you do share the government’s broad principles and values, and that on the vast majority of policy questions have supported its agenda.

That said, if it’s okay, we’ll spend the remaining time focused on some high-profile issues where you’ve advanced ideas or priorities that might diverge slightly from the government.

Let’s start with drug decriminalization. You supported the government’s cannabis legislation and regulations in 2017, but it’s fair to say that you’ve made the case it ought to go further to advance drug decriminalization. Can you just reflect on your reasoning behind supporting drug decriminalization, and what a more ambitious decriminalization agenda would mean for those who are touched by substance abuse issues?

MP Erskine-Smith

I became more aware of this issue when I was a law student at Queen’s University when I came across the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. It was made up of former police officers, prosecutors and judges, largely from the United States, who had been fighting the war on drugs. They were educating many people that the war on drugs was an abject failure. It was eye opening to me.

There are these moral questions about drug use and the harms associated with drug use, and there’s judgment against people who use drugs. But the evidence is overwhelming — it’s been overwhelming for quite some time — that the war on drugs has failed, that we need to treat drug use as a health issue, and that we need to make sure there’s adequate supports. We need to make sure that we are moving away from criminalization which, if anything, harms the very people we want to help and gets in the way of people seeking the treatment that they need. And so, in terms of my own advocacy in Ottawa, I introduced legislation calling on the government to decriminalize all drug use for simple possession, and to expand treatment options.

I would say we’ve seen progress. We’ve seen an expansion of safe consumption sites all across the country; we’ve seen hundreds of millions of dollars committed towards addressing the opioid crisis through a public health approach; we’ve seen expanding treatment options; and we’ve seen an expansion of safer supply, which is critically important given the thousands of Canadians are dying because of a poisoned drug supply.

Decriminalization is no silver bullet; the Prime Minister said as much. But he said it in order to discount the idea itself, which I think is unfortunate, because no one holds it out as a silver bullet. It’s one aspect of a comprehensive suite of policies required to respond to the overdose death crisis. And so, we have a national campaign via Health Canada, to destigmatize people who use drugs. The number one stigma is the criminal sanction, and we need to end the criminal sanction for people who use drugs.

Now, I haven’t seen all the progress I wanted to see, despite the significant progress that I mentioned. I’ve introduced a number of bills on this, and one of the bills was an evidence-based diversion framework that would de facto decriminalized drugs and make it virtually impossible to prosecute drug possession successfully. The government, to its credit, took my private member’s bill and copy and pasted my bill into Bill C-22. It’s not perfect progress, not exactly where I want us to go, and not as quickly as I’d like us to get there, but it’s significant progress. I hope, in part, it’s because of my advocacy. Although, I know it’s largely because of the advocacy of so many public health experts and people with lived experience. And tragically, we’ve seen so many people lose their lives.

Sean Speer

Another issue where you’ve diverged a bit from the government was on Bill C-7: Medical Assistance in Dying legislation that made its way through Parliament in 2020. You described the bill as “unduly restrictive” and “inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Carter.” Do you want to just elaborate a bit on your decision to oppose Bill C-7, and what you think ought to ultimately come forward on the subject of medical assistance in dying?

MP Erskine-Smith

When I did my master of laws at Oxford, my thesis focused on Section 7 of the Charter, in relation to prosecuting cannabis and assisted dying. So, I’ve read case law around Section 7, but also the Carter decision [from the Supreme Court of Canada] forward and backwards.

I was opposed to the initial legislation that we put into place in the first Parliament that I’ve been a part of, because it was unduly restrictive since it set this additional criterion of reasonable, foreseeable death to be eligible for medical assistance in dying. I saw that as unduly restrictive because there are any number of people who have sought access to medical assistance in dying and have been rejected because their death has not been “reasonably foreseeable,” despite the fact that they are grievously and irremediably suffering, and have an incurable illness that is deteriorating. Driven by compassion, but also respect for autonomy and individual rights, I think individuals should be able to make these fundamental decisions for themselves where they have capacity, and where they are in this position where they’re suffering so incredibly.

The bill we saw in this current parliament was a significant improvement. It dashed the original criterion and set a new framework for individuals whose death wasn’t reasonably foreseeable to access medical assistance in dying. It also created one element of an advanced request. Once one meets all the eligibility criteria, and if one loses capacity, that request will still be respected. These were important steps.

Now, it still fell short in my view, because it completely excluded individuals who suffer solely from an underlying mental illness. I challenged that prohibition on a number of different grounds, one of which is that we already allow access to medical assistance in dying for people with mental illness, so long as there’s a comorbidity and there’s a physical illness present. Already, we’re in the arena of assessing complicated mental illness considerations that might impinge upon capacity, and we trust the medical health professionals to make these determinations. And by the way, they make determinations around capacity, all of the time in complex situations. So, they’re certainly capable of doing this.

Second, there was one case at the Alberta Court of Appeals, before we put our law in place, where a woman was seeking medical assistance in dying for a sole underlying medical condition, and unanimously that request was accepted. Her kids were comfortable with it, her spouse was comfortable with it. She was suffering incredibly, came to the terms with the situation, and had the capacity to make this decision on her own. The Alberta Court of Appeals signed off on it, and yet our law would have precluded her from accessing medical assistance in dying. The goal of the law should be to enable individuals who are suffering incredibly from incurable illnesses and irremediable illnesses, to have access to a regime, while also protecting against coercion and protecting vulnerable individuals being taken advantage of. We are able to do both.

I was glad to see the Senate make changes along the lines of what I’d asked for. So, the final version of Bill C-7 very much reflects what I had hoped to see. The Minister of Justice worked with senators, including Senator [Stan] Kutcher, to establish a framework where we now have an expert panel looking at what additional procedures might need to be put in place for individuals who suffer from mental illnesses exclusively, but are seeking out medical assistance in dying. The goal is to ensure that we are allowing access, but also protecting against abuse. And so, I’m confident that expert work is underway; probably with some additional safeguards, but we’re going to see access for everyone who deserves access.

Sean Speer

If I may just ask one other question, on a subject that you’ve expressed policy interest in, around innovation, privacy, and technological development. What has drawn you to these questions? Where do you think Canada is doing well, and what areas do you think require greater attention and focus?

MP Erskine-Smith

I would tackle it from a few different fronts. I’ve come to it largely by virtue of an initial interest in privacy and through work on the Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics Committee — going down the rabbit hole of Cambridge Analytica, alongside my committee colleagues, where we, from all parties, worked collaboratively. I hope it’s a good example of how committees can really function well when looking at large technology platforms and social media platforms, and asking, “how should we update our regulations in keeping with the reality of increasingly living our lives online?” Our privacy legislation is now outdated and need of improvement. And so, we put a lot of work into making recommendations for how that legislation could be reformed, updated and modernized.

This led me to the industry committee this year, where much of my work has been focused on consumer issues within the economy. We’re a country of oligopolies, unfortunately. There’s some stability that comes with that, but it’s not really consumer friendly, nor is it innovation friendly.

So much of my thinking has been driven by looking at reforms for the Competition Act, looking to some of the work that’s coming out of the United States and the EU in relation to antitrust, and looking to the EU’s Digital Services Act, how they’re currently looking to bring some transparency to the way algorithms and artificial intelligence are deployed. I’ve turned my mind to those challenges and try to bring some advocacy to address them.

I also have increasingly turned my mind to the question of industrial policy, as it relates to research and development, and supporting particular sectors. Whether it is in clean tech, or whether it is in nascent agricultural work around cellular agriculture.

I think there are particular sectors where there’s increasingly private sector interest, but still the public sector can play a really important role. And I think the government has done an increasingly good job of at least turning our minds to these questions of how the federal government can play a strong partnership role with the private sector on clean tech, as we look towards hydrogen, rare minerals and battery development and strategy. As well, the net zero accelerator is a really important idea. I would love to see us carve off $500 million from that $7 billion program to establish a breakthrough fund. I think the role the public sector can really play to take a look at this notion of moonshot approaches: high risk, high reward. The private sector may not take those shots, but the public sector can assist in doing so.

Sean Speer

Well, thank you both for your work as a parliamentarian on these wide range of issues and for your insights today. Thank you so much.

MP Erskine-Smith

Thank you.