Andy Fillmore has calloused hands. Peeking out beneath a dark blue blazer and a crisp white shirt, these work-worn hands seem out of place. But the story behind them makes a bit more sense: in the months leading up to his election as Halifax’s new Member of Parliament, Fillmore and his team knocked on over 40,000 doors. His hands are still rough from the wood of thousands of Halifax homes.
On Monday, the Gazette sat down with Fillmore to discuss his plans for the future, and how he will represent Haligonians on Parliament Hill. It’s only been a week since the Dalhousie alum’s election, and he leaves for Ottawa in just a few days.
Gazette: At the Youth and Student Issues Debate in September, each candidate gave a fun fact to the audience. You mentioned there that, to your family and friends, you’re known as a karaoke all-star. What is your favourite song and why?
Andy Fillmore: The one that started it all was Rhinestone Cowboy (by Glen Campbell), believe it or not. That was the one that I finally broke through and found that I could finally be a karaoke somebody. I knew it very well from when I was a kid, and it’s just a really uplifting song and when that was starting I was still at the city, doing urban planning stuff there, and the city was in this really optimistic moment with HRM By Design, and it felt like things were changing in the city, and the song just kind of embodied that.
G: Megan Leslie was extremely well known and well recognized as an MP in Halifax. At the debates, some of the other candidates made comments along the lines of “when Megan Leslie wins,” treating her re-election as inevitable. Is there a single factor that you would say contributed most to your sweeping victory last week?
AF: We’ve been working at this for 15 months, and if you add the thought process of deciding whether or not to become a nomination candidate, we’re almost at two years. So all of that thought, I don’t think that I, that my wife, that my team, would’ve stuck with this for so long and with such tenacity if we didn’t think that we could have done it. We always felt like we could do this.
The hard work of the team, the literally 40,000 doors that we knocked on — I knocked 20,000 … the connection that we’re making with the community is really what turned the tides here. We knew, starting before the momentum, even back when the national polls told a very different story than they did in the final weeks, we knew that the story we were hearing at the doors, the informal polls that we take every day when we’re knocking on those doors, is that people were ready for something different.
It was never about “Megan did something wrong,” it was always about, “What does the city need now?” We’re at a moment where the city is so incredibly important for all those things that you’ve heard me talk about: traffic and transit and building confidence for business innovation and all those things that people felt there hadn’t been a focus on for a long time, and through successive members of Parliament, successive governments. So that was really starting to resonate. My sense of it was, had that momentum not kicked up at the end of September, we would’ve won, but it wouldn’t have been such a margin.
G: As a new MP for a riding with so many universities and colleges, what are you planning on doing in order to keep students who have spent their time and money in Nova Scotia in the province after they graduate?
AF: It’s a great question, and it’s one that I’ve been working with for a decade through many different aspects of my work here. There are some very specific things and then there are some more general things, but I’ll start by talking about the strength of the Liberal Party platform.
There are very specific things about helping student debt, about helping employers to hire graduates and interns, but then there’s more than that too: there’s what happens where people are working. I mentioned a moment ago about creating the conditions for innovation to succeed. And there’s a lot (in the platform) about a favourable small business tax rate, but there’s also something about the way the city celebrates success and holds people up and supports people who are trying to do something great and different.
I was at an immigration summit this morning down at Pier 21, and I was having this conversation with a few people, that there are so many things that we need to be doing, but we also need to make a place that people just want to be in. We need to make a city that’s beautiful, a city where the transit works, a city that’s got great architecture, where there’s a theatre to go to, where there’s a great art gallery, where the sidewalks are clean and not cracked and broken.
We have to be able to compete internationally as a place, as a city, in order to be able to retain people. It’s not just about creating student loans — that’s part of it — but it’s about so much more than that.
G: The Board of Governors at Saint Mary’s University has recently allowed for up to $1,620 in undergraduate tuition hikes over the next three years. This is allowed due to the provincial Liberal government’s deregulation of tuition fees in March. If you were speaking to a Saint Mary’s student, what would you tell them about that lack of correlation in the promises made by the federal Liberals and what is going on here in the province?
AF: I would say that the provincial government is facing a lot of difficult choices right now, and education is one of them. It’s no secret that the province is broke, so the choices that the premier and the cabinet are having to make are — I hate to even put them in the balance — but are things like early childhood education, or hospice care, or keeping tuition rates down or keeping roads safe so that people don’t get killed in head-on collisions. I can’t imagine the difficulties that the Premier and his cabinet must have making those choices, given the limited resources that they have.
The major impact of the Liberal Party’s platform, the way it can impact here in Nova Scotia especially, where we are among the most depressed economies in the country, is to fuse a tremendous amount of new wealth and opportunity into this province so that the province has to make fewer tough choices, so that then the province can ultimately begin to ratchet back up its share of contribution to universities, which means that the universities can ratchet down tuition costs and so forth.
We’ve spent so much time in Nova Scotia fighting over the pieces of a relatively small pie, and there are always going to be losers, people are always going to go hungry in that scenario. What we want to do now is grow that pie, make the pie much bigger so that there’s a proper piece for everybody.
G: In the less than a week that you’ve got left here, as well as in the week since you’ve been elected, what has your top priority been?
AF: It’s interesting: there’s a looking forward piece to that and there’s a looking back piece to that. I’m very focused right now on wrapping up the campaign: there’s a significant amount of paperwork and things that we have to get done. There are also many, many people to thank, people that have given thanklessly of their time, that have missed hours and hours on weekends with their families and have contributed to this. It really is an enormous team of people that have given so much over a long period of time.
Looking forward, we’re busy trying to establish our constituency office in town here. No news on that yet, but stay tuned. And then it’s also getting ready to go to Ottawa: we leave a week from yesterday. There’s a swearing in ceremony, a lot of information sessions covering all aspects of the job of an MP, and that is filling every spare minute, all those things.
G: Continuing to look forward: a year from now, what do you hope to have accomplished that will reflect Halifax in Parliament?
AF: That’s great. As one of two urbanists among the MPs in the Liberal Party now (Adam Vaughan is the other), we are going to work very closely to develop the National Housing Strategy that we talked about, and the National Transit Strategy. There will be work on the National Infrastructure Plan as well, so those are far-reaching national initiatives that are going to resound very loudly here in Halifax.
To be able to improve the housing offering, putting CMHC (Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation) back to work the way it used to work for many decades in Halifax will be enormous to think about. From modernising our transit system to getting money into our schools: those are the city-building pieces, but there are other things too, like the help for students that we are going to be doing.
Imagine how much our world has changed that Justin, within a week of being elected, has got all the Premiers and has invited all the leaders of the parties to go to Paris with him (to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference): to be able to support that effort is going to be enormous as well.
G: With all these things that you have to look forward to in the next few years, what do you think the biggest challenge will be that you’ll be facing?
AF: It’s the economic challenge, I think, and it’s going to be immigration as well. We’ve got a lot of work to do to remove the road blocks that have been dealt over the last ten years nationally, and their impact locally as well. There’s no question in my mind that, as a capital city of Nova Scotia and as, ostensibly, the capital of Eastern Canada, we really need to model the behaviour for all of our communities in the east of what it means to be a welcoming and inclusive community, and all the hard legislative work and rule-approving that goes along with that.
G: And of all the thousands of doors that you knocked on over the past few months, was that a concern you found people here were sharing as well?
AF: You hear all points of view on that; you hear all points of view on every issue. But the large majority, without question, of people in the Halifax area understand the importance of increasing rates of immigration and are supportive of that, and that’s where the government will be placing a lot of effort. And that will move very well with the great efforts that are underway at a provincial level right now.
G: You mentioned the idea of Halifax as the capital of the Maritimes. Of the new Liberal party platform and of all these new changes that are being made, which of those do you think will be most beneficial to people here in the Maritimes?
AF: I think it’s the community building and city building. We are in a condition now where much of our infrastructure is falling apart. Infrastructure is a boring word, but it means things like the VG (Victoria General Hospital) which had a terrible flood a couple of weeks ago, it means things like the terrible housing shortage that we have in the city, but it also means the more uplifting things.
The topic of a new Art Gallery of Nova Scotia has been talked about for a long time; a new performing arts centre has been banded about for a long time. There are folks who would like to see a stadium built somewhere in the municipality, and there’s no question that there is a suite of major investments that we need to make in order to be a competitive world city.
We’ve got a couple of them already: the (Halifax Central) Library was an incredible start, and the Nova Centre will show itself to be a similar element of that network of major public infrastructure, but there’s more that we need.
G: By the end of your term as an MP, what is one goal that you really hope to accomplish?
AF: I’d like to pause for a minute on that … when I was campaigning, someone sent an email one day and said, “Andy, where do you see Halifax ten years from now? What is your vision for the city?” So maybe that’s what I’ll tell you about.
My vision for the city, and what I am going to work tirelessly to help to realize, is a much greener city than we have now, a city that is running in large part on renewable energy sources.
We have this whole Cogswell Interchange, 14 acres of downtown land that could have all of its energy needs met by the waste heat from the sewage treatment plant that is next door. That’s an incredible opportunity.
A city that’s more walkable, so fewer people are driving in their cars, a city that has better transit, a place where there are job opportunities for people close to where they live, so they can walk, so their kids can walk to school.
An incredibly diverse city, a city where the arts and culture are held high like they once were 120 years ago. This was an arts and culture capital of North America at one point, and we’ve let that slip away. So those are all goals to strive for, and I’m going to work very hard to achieve them.
G: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
AF: Well, I’ll say that we’re going to have our constituency office open in the next few weeks. The door will always be wide open and I look forward to hearing from students on any issue at all that they’d like to discuss and just to say hello.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.