Koczwarski brings experience in engineering and city planning, prioritizing fighting climate change
This interview is part of our series of articles profiling the Ottawa-Vanier candidates in the upcoming provincial byelection on Feb. 27. Each candidate was asked the same set of questions for consistency. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
The Fulcrum: What do you feel your strongest quality or skill would be as an MPP?
Benjamin Koczwarski: I think my background in engineering and city planning is really the strongest quality that I bring. I know what it takes to build sustainable cities. I’ve actually been there in the field, I’ve worked on construction projects. I have really dedicated my career toward becoming an engineer with a sustainability focus. So when it comes to setting policy and funding programs that will help cities to reduce overall emissions, put in place sustainable transit, I’ve been there, I’ve worked on the ground. So I think the thing that makes me unique among the candidates too is my practical background. Some of the candidates have less experience, some of the candidates have more of a background in law, whereas a lot of Ontarians are ready for projects to be delivered and not cancelled.
The Fulcrum: How do your background and past experiences make you qualified to be an MPP?
BK: I’ve worked at the strategic planning level and at the policy level in urban development in many areas around the world, not just in Ontario. I’ve also worked internationally; I’ve worked with UN Habitat for Humanity, I’ve worked for a project that was funded through the International Development Research Center (IDRC) in Bolivia, which was a solid waste management project. I have really been at the intersection between policy and implementation, which I think is what sets me apart.
The Fulcrum: Why did you choose to run under your party? Why should voters support your party?
BK: I think that the Greens are on the rise. It’s difficult to break through the Liberal-Conservative dichotomy, but I think that conversations in Canada are turning. People are tired of promises without action, especially when it comes to the environment. Global emissions have doubled by almost 50 per cent since 1990. The Kyoto Accord; there was a huge international agreement back in the 1990s to reduce global emissions below 1990 levels, so we’re actually increasing significantly above where we were even after that accord was put in place. So my strategy is to make massive investments in sustainable technology and sustainable industry here in Ontario. So it’s time to bring in the next evolution of jobs, which will be higher-tech jobs, and higher-tech manufacturing jobs.
That’s sort of a provincial level, but we’ll also see that there are a lot of benefits around what we can do here locally in terms of rebuilding and making sure that new construction is built in sustainable ways. And a lot of people ask me about that, they say “well, how can new manufacturing and new building be good for the environment?” and the truth is that there are a lot of new standards in place; a whole building standard that looks at the embodied carbon in a structure and it’s actually possible to build a structure that’s carbon negative. So you can build a new building that takes carbon out of the atmosphere, through the process of construction. If we focus on using technologies that we know exist, and we invest in them, instead of reinvesting in the old carbon-centric ways of doing things. There is a lot of reinvestment in the old ways of doing it and a severe lack of investment in the new ways of building and engineering the economy, so the Greens are really about unlocking that sustainable, systemic future.
I think that the biggest threat to Canadian politics is a two-party system. We’ve seen what happens in the U.S., when people feel caged into one party or another and they end up voting against what they actually want, and I think a lot of people share the priorities the Green Party has. We’re not a party about tearing things down, we’re not radical environmentalists or destroying the system to bring about change. We are about significantly redirecting how we use things and how we go about building our cities and managing things. British Columbia has shown that it’s possible to reduce your emissions while still growing your economy. Norway has shown that it’s possible to get eighty percent of people to choose to buy electric cars. The long term costs-and medium 10 to 15 years costs-of sustainable investment is lower than the long term costs of continuing to emit and continuing with extract of the economy. Liberals and Conservatives play this political game where they really search for the short term gains, and people feel roped into voting for them because that four-year political horizon somehow favours them.
The Fulcrum: How do you plan on using provincial powers to benefit people in Ottawa-Vanier?
BK: Significantly. I’m here running as a local representative, I’m not here running as the party from somewhere else. I identify closely with the issues of Ottawa-Vanier. It has some of the greatest economic diversity in the province; it’s got some of the wealthiest households, and some of the poorest. It’s got a significant portion of the city’s homeless population, it has significant public transport struggles, which can be supported through provincial funding. It also has the University of Ottawa, which is a huge asset for the city and for the province, so making sure that provincial funding for universities is protected (from the Doug Ford government), is a really important thing for the party. There are a lot of really important local issues in this riding that connect directly with the things that I believe in the most.
The Fulcrum: How will your plans address issues that affect young people and students, who make up a sizable chunk of the riding?
BK: Housing affordability is one really big issue for me. I’m in my early 30s, at the point in life where you start thinking about buying your first home, and as I’m getting there, the housing market is running, sprinting away from me. I am experiencing this first hand, though I was lucky enough to get an apartment in Ottawa two years ago, and that was before the rental market took off. My cousin was looking for an apartment and it was impossible to find one. It’s not that hard to build more housing, it’s just a question of building it and if we want to build affordable housing, we need a little bit of government intervention and support, especially with skyrocketing land values. I currently work on programs that are designed to build sustainable, affordable housing and I will continue to ensure, as a top priority, that the province is funding that, as well as new construction of rent-controlled housing. Housing is one big issue, and obviously not letting tuition run away from us and continuing to let our universities be fully funded.
The Green Coalition government in British Columbia created a no-interest student loan policy, and implemented it, and backdated all existing student loans. It’s policies like that that can ease the burn of tuition a little bit.
The Fulcrum: What is the biggest issue impacting people in Ottawa-Vanier? How do you plan to address it?
BK: I think the three biggest issues of our time are housing, transit, and climate change. There is a huge housing shortage across Ottawa, and a lot of the housing in Ottawa-Vanier is old and falling apart, so we really need to start thinking about how we’re helping homeowners to reinvest in their homes; how we’re helping landlords to make sure that their housing is livable and not overpriced; and how we’re helping to unlock new construction for affordable and market rental housing. Housing is a huge issue.
Transit… unfortunately Vanier got a little bit underserved by the route that was chosen, where the O-Train goes around Vanier, not through the Ottawa-Vanier riding. We have a great opportunity coming up with the new Montreal Road reconstruction that is going to be happening, where maybe we could look at improving bus transit on this really important route. The buses that go through this area are always full, and it’s not the fastest way to get around. I commute by bus and it isn’t convenient. Getting the O-Train back up to a performing level is also a high priority. We’ve just, unfortunately, got to put good money after bad right now and create a system that people can actually depend on. We’re investing billions in expanding it right now, so let’s make sure we get the expansions right.
The last thing is climate change. Ottawa’s been hit hard by climate change over the past two years. We’ve had severe flooding twice. I was out sandbagging; we had a tornado that destroyed many homes, and a friend of a friend had his entire home — almost brand new, with all of his possessions — completely destroyed by it. And you can say “ tornadoes happen from time to time and they’re not linked to climate change,” but the point is that all of this is getting more severe. If we don’t want Ottawa to continue being at higher risk of climate change, we’ve got to take strong, deliberate action on emissions right now, and we’ve also got to invest in protecting ourselves against future floods. The City of Ottawa is putting in place a strategy to mitigate flood risks in parts of Vanier, and it isn’t a funded plan (as far as I know). It’s near the U of O (parts of the Byward Market and just east of the Rideau River that are at risk of flooding), and so putting forward funding for that is certainly something that the province can do to step up and help this area.
The Fulcrum: Any final statements?
BK: I think the big final statement that I have is that it’s time for people to start voting with their conscience. They need to stop voting strategically and they need to start voting for the parties and the ideals that they actually support. The Green Party is the only party that puts green values at the center. We weave the environment through everything that we do, we think systematically about it all, and we are serious when we talk about economic growth that doesn’t hurt the environment — and that’s good for society! We can’t break out of this sort of vicious two-party political cycle that we seem to be getting in, if people don’t take the Greens seriously, and if the Greens don’t take themselves seriously. So this is really a good opportunity to show your values and make a real change because we’ve got great momentum across the province, and here in Ottawa-Vanier, here right next to the U of O, we’re actually making a difference. We would really love to see is more volunteers from the U of O if anyone is willing to come work on the campaign. We have a great team of volunteers already.
The other thing is, the Greens are a very strong opposition voice to Doug Ford. Mike Shriner from Guelph, the only Green MPP in Toronto, is standing up in a big way to a lot of Doug Ford’s policies, and Doug Ford has shown that he is willing to back down on some key environmental issues. He stopped going after the Green Belt. He actually agreed on a piece of legislation that Shriner put forward, so now there are more protections for EV parking spots, which is great. So the Greens are the only party that has really been able to work in the context of the existing government and put forward some strong positions that have changed the direction of the government. It seems to me that the other two parties are sitting back a little bit more. Adding another Green right now would really reinforce the opposition voices in Toronto and make sure that Doug Ford is really considering the priority issues before pushing forward with legislation that damages us — hurts us and our priorities.