OTTAWA — Liberal candidate and former Toronto police chief Bill Blair says it was the NDP who first approached him to run for Parliament.
In an interview with The Huffington Post Canada, Blair, a veteran of the police service and the top cop in Toronto for the past 10 years, said he rebuffed offers from NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair and Conservative emissaries before agreeing to run for Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
“I had conversations with them all, and, actually, Tom was the first one to come to me,” Blair said, declining to discuss precise details of the conversation.
“Most of the other conversations were about … ‘We are going to win, and you can win a seat and you can be part of the government,’” Blair said.
His conversation with Trudeau, he said, was different.
“[It] was all about values. I was asking him, ‘What do you stand for? What do you believe in? And what is it you are trying to achieve? We talked a lot about that.”
They talked about earning the trust of the people you represent. They talked about the importance of inclusiveness and social cohesion, and the politics of fear.
Blair, who was told last summer that he would not get a third term as Toronto’s police chief, suggested he was looking to serve in elected office but was unwilling to join the NDP for several reasons, chief among them the party’s position on national unity.
“The Liberal party historically has taken a much stronger position with respect to federalism in Canada,” he said, “and I believe in those principles.”
Blair, 61, said that he admired late NDP leader Jack Layton as a city councillor who worked tirelessly for his constituents and that the two worked closely together when Layton represented Regent Park.
“Jack and I were neighbourhood guys,” Blair said, and Regent Park was a neighbourhood that was beset with difficulties.
“There was a lot of low-income [issues], a lot of poverty. A lot of violence was taking place, mental health issues, the homelessness issues, poor housing, lack of affordable and supportive housing for those who really needed it, and I was responsible for policing and the safety of that community and Jack was its elected representative. ... We were partners.”
But Blair and Layton did not share the same ideology, he said. His personal politics were more aligned with the Grits — “if I have personal politics.”
“I tried to show not any of that while I was a police chief,” he said. “I tried to work really closely with everybody.”
Blair also suggested that he rejected advances by the Tories because he disagreed with their position on law and order.
“I think there is a world of a difference between tough talk and smart action on public safety and national security,” he told HuffPost.
Blair was one of the most vocal proponents of keeping the long-gun registry — although he now says he accepts that it is gone, and he has no plans to push for its return.
He spoke favourably of the Liberals’ position on C-51 and the need to balance oversight with what he believes are necessary increases in information sharing for security and intelligence agencies, as well as process that makes peace bonds easier to obtain.
Blair said he felt the Liberals were a more collaborative team and that the skills he’d learned over 39 years of policing would be welcomed.
“There was a much less indication [from the NDP or the Conservative party] that there was an opportunity to have a little bit of input, or at least offer an opinion, on policy or platform,” he said. “Whereas, with Justin, he was really interested in different perspectives and experiences and listening and learning. And he’s the leader, and ultimately the leadership of the party will make decisions, but I do have a sense that if you have something to contribute, they are listening.”
Blair said he told Trudeau he wanted to run in Scarborough, where his family’s roots are, and in the riding of Scarborough Southwest in particular, even though he doesn’t live there.
“The reason I wanted to [run] there was because I think it’s the place I can contribute the most and make a difference for that community,” he said, of the culturally diverse riding.
“I don’t think the community has been well served in the past,” he said. Scarborough Southwest is currently held by NDP MP Dan Harris. Before Harris won in 2011, however, the riding was firmly Liberal.
“I’m not pointing fingers at anybody; I just think we can do better,” Blair said. “Quite frankly that part of the city has not seen a lot of investment…. Local jobs are on the decline and have been on the decline for some time.”
The riding is filled with a lot of people who are trying to make their way and who could use “a bit more help than they have been getting,” Blair said.
The Liberal candidate talked about the high number of working poor, of unemployed individuals, and of new immigrants who are looking for opportunities for their kids, and trying to establish themselves like the upper middle class families who also reside in the riding.
An early poll suggested Blair would easily beat Harris.
Ten days ago, however, at a campaign launch, popular fellow NDP MPP Jagmeet Singh recounted his experiencing being carded in the city. Many Torontonians hold Blair responsible for a police practice of asking people — often men of colour in disadvantaged areas — for information about themselves as a way of keeping tabs on the individuals and the goings-on in the community.
Some NDP supporters have also raised concerns about Blair’s actions during the 2010 G20 summit meeting in Toronto and the detention of more than 1,100 protesters.
Blair told HuffPost he is not surprised that his new political foes are attacking him.
“I’m a new politician,” he said, “but I’m not new to politics. It goes with the turf. It was suggested that the job I held was probably the most political non-political job in the country, and I think that’s probably true.”
Blair said he made himself available after the G20 summit ended to answer questions from the public and from Parliament because “that was my responsibility.”
“That was a very difficult weekend. Ultimately, I don’t think that I was at fault for everything that might have gone wrong that weekend, but I was responsible.”
Although he said he is getting positive and welcome reactions at the door, Blair is visibly annoyed by accusations from his political foes that he has just “dropped in” to the riding.
“I never dropped out,” he told HuffPost. “I’ve been a police officer in that region for nearly 40 years, and I was their police chief for 10. So 24/7, 365 days a year, I was responsible for safety and the delivery of police services in that community. I never left it.”
Blair was raised three blocks outside the riding, went to elementary, high school and university in Scarborough, bought his first house in Malvern, and raised his family near Nielson and Ellesmere roads. “All my family is from there,” he said, meaning Scarborough.
Blair currently lives in a home near Avenue Road and St. Clair. After decades of commuting, he said, he moved downtown five years ago to be closer to police headquarters.
“Now I’m commuting [from] downtown to Scarborough.”
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