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Carol Baird Ellan: Judging the Harper Decade

NDP frontrunner swaps courthouse for Burnaby North-Seymour doorsteps.

By Crawford Kilian 28 Aug 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

With a lifetime in the law, Carol Baird Ellan thinks a lot about the legal misadventures of the Harper government.

A former lawyer and judge, Baird Ellan in 2000 became the first woman to sit as a Provincial Court chief judge. She's faced some tough cases with political overtones; one of the toughest was when she trusted aboriginal woman who said another provincial court colleague, David William Ramsay, had sexually abused her and other aboriginal women and girls as young as 12. She took Ramsay off the bench, the women signed statements, and Ramsay died in jail in 2008.

When the BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell started shutting down courthouses across the province, Baird Ellan fought to keep them open. "It gave me a little taste of the political arena because I was outside the comfort zone of a sitting judge," she recently told Canadian Lawyer. "There were cuts and I was striving to exert the independence of the judiciary -- it's a fine line judges are required to walk when they speak out about those kinds of issues."

Retired from the bench since 2012, Baird Ellan is running for the New Democrats in Burnaby North-Seymour, and she sees similar threats to judiciary independence in the actions of the Harper government.

"They must have had plenty of legal advice on the weaknesses of their legislation," she told The Tyee in a recent interview. "But they went ahead anyway, knowing they'd lose in the courts. Then they played to their base by blaming the courts, and even the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court" -- an unprecedented attack that baffled critics.

Baird Ellan says she's getting a lot of support from people in the legal professions for just that reason -- both generous donations to her campaign fund and active foot soldiers. In her own door-knocking, Baird Ellan told The Tyee, she's getting a similar sense that people don't like the way things are going in Ottawa.

Frontrunner in tight four-way race

Baird Ellan says the NDP national office sees Burnaby North-Seymour as a "battleground riding" for New Democrats and Tories. She knows that New Democratic Burnaby has more voters, but Conservative Seymour voters actually turn out.

The Liberals and Greens are also fielding remarkably strong candidates this election: Terry Beech began his career as a teenage city councillor before launching two tech companies, and Dr. Lynne Quarmby is a renowned SFU scientist who has pledged to stop Kinder Morgan's controversial pipeline expansion.

For encouragement, Baird Ellan looks to an Insights West poll that suggested Liberal and Tory support has imploded while the NDP has held steady at 35 per cent. (A late-August vote projection suggests it's at 39.4 per cent.) But the same Insights West poll put the Greens at 19 per cent in May -- representing a much larger share of the region's progressive vote since 2011.

Strikingly, Baird Ellan finds that the proposed doubling of the Kinder Morgan pipeline is not the major issue in Burnaby North-Seymour. Instead, it's the day-to-day grinding problems of the "sandwich generation" -- affordable housing, childcare, care for seniors, student loans, as well as doing something about climate change.

"Every day," she told The Tyee, "people are telling me their biggest concern is affordability. Whether it's the cost and accessibility of education, housing, health care, child care, or elder care, middle class families are working harder and getting further behind." 

She also hears voters wanting an end to billion-dollar oil and gas subsidies, more investment in renewable energy, and a leader that will attend the UN climate change conference in Paris "with a clear plan for climate change accountability."

'We should practice what we preach'

Unlike many candidates, Baird Ellan is willing to speak her own mind online. When Conservative MP Wai Young said, "Bill C-51 reflects the teachings of Jesus," Baird Ellan responded very personally on Facebook:

"My work in marriage counselling and family law was always informed by my Catholic faith," she wrote. "I am saddened when MPs use their faith to justify policy, instead of basing it on evidence. We should practice what we preach in our daily lives, but listen to our constituents and represent their needs and wishes, regardless of faith."

A few hours later she mischievously posted another response to Young's assertion: an image of The Last Supper, with Harper as Jesus and various Tories as the Disciples.

Beneath the mischief, Baird Ellan sees a genuine spiritual aspect to politics and her campaign. She told The Tyee that she and her husband are converts to Catholicism, and she's greatly impressed with Pope Francis's recent encyclical Laudato Si' as well as his support for the poor on his tour of South America.

In the pre-campaign campaign before the writ was dropped, Baird Ellan and her competitors got to know one another at various events. She finds them all likeable -- ambitious young Beech for the Liberals, Quarmby for the Greens, longtime municipal councillor Mike Little for the Tories. She's ready to show up for all the all-candidates' meetings that the riding can provide.

Baird Ellan told The Tyee she's also ready for the consequences of winning. Her husband is also retired, their five children are grown, and they're ready for the red-eye flights to and from Ottawa. And if the NDP wins the election, Carol Baird Ellan looks like natural cabinet material in Canada's first New Democratic government.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

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