Back in 2003 when the B.C. government asked Nicholas Simons to investigate the death of a 19-month-old aboriginal child, he had no idea that it would propel him toward running for leader of the B.C. NDP.
The previous year, Sherry Charlie died after a savage beating by her great uncle, Ryan George. An aboriginal social-services agency had earlier placed the Port Alberni toddler in his home, even though he had been previously convicted for violent offences.
In a recent interview with the Georgia Straight, Simons said that he learned during his probe how politics and poorly crafted public policies led directly to the girl’s demise. “Basically, that made me realize how important it was to pass legislation that was well thought out and contemplated,” he stated.
Simons, a former director of health and social development with the Sechelt Indian Band, completed his report in 2003. However, he claimed that the B.C. Liberal government tried on numerous occasions to change the content and style of the document, which wasn’t released until after the 2005 election.
He said he entered politics because he felt there was a need for politicians who recognized that expediency shouldn’t trump sensible policy-making. In 2005, Simons was elected as the NDP MLA for Powell River–Sunshine Coast, and he was reelected in 2009.
On January 5, Simons announced in Sechelt that he is running for leader of the B.C. NDP. In his earlier interview with the Straight, he said that he sometimes thinks that all social policies should be seen through the eyes of a child, though he acknowledges the idealism in that remark. “We can’t simply have a plan to reduce poverty in 10 years because there are kids in poverty now,” he declared. “And I’ve been close to people who are living in vulnerable conditions. I think that we can do so much better.”
He also emphasized that there is a direct relationship between child-welfare policies and child poverty, pointing out that a disproportionate number of cases of neglect occur when there are “minimal” options for obtaining assistance from other family members or community programs. “We need to make sure our communities are healthier and have strong volunteer networks and youth programming,” Simons added. “Those are communities where kids do better.”
At times, Simons doesn’t come across as a polished politician practised in the art of delivering one-liners. When asked why he is seeking the leadership of the B.C. NDP, he offered a lengthy explanation on the shortcomings of the democratic process. He’s definitely not a command-and-control politician like Premier Gordon Campbell or Prime Minister Stephen Harper, saying he would heed the recommendations of legislature committees.
“People are looking for a style of leadership that is actually representative leadership—not leadership that says, ”˜This is what they’re going to do, these are the decisions they’re going to make,’” Simons said. “I think what people want is leadership that says these are the principles we operate by. Our decisions are ones that are made with the best consultation, with the most open democratic processes, so that, in fact, legislation and policy reflect the best interests of the community. I think we’ve gotten away from that. In my political career, which is not very long, I have not seen that.”
When asked about his capacity to oversee the B.C. economy, he replied that being a good leader involves having the right people around him who can add expertise where it may be lacking. He quickly added that he oversaw a health and social-service agency with a multimillion-dollar budget that introduced progressive programs without running a deficit.
“Specific policy stuff, I’m going to unveil as I go along,” Simons said. “It’s how you get to good economic policy. You don’t just make it up.”
He contrasted this with Premier Campbell’s “flippant kind of approach” in suddenly announcing a large tax cut last year without public consultation. “That, to me, doesn’t symbolize good management,” Simons claimed. He has a master’s degree in criminology from Simon Fraser University, and his thesis was on the history of liquor-control regulation in Western Canada. He said this reflects his long-standing interest in how laws can have an effect on society.
“We’ve seen legislation that impacts our restaurant and bar industry in a massive way”¦that wasn’t unrolled in any way that reflected the public interest,” Simons noted. He added that the harmonized sales tax is another example of a B.C. Liberal policy developed “completely devoid of public participation”.
“It’s the antithesis of the kind of decision-making I would support,” he said.
Simons is also a cello player who won a gold record for performing on an album by the Chicago punk band Rise Against. His father was a voice professor at McGill University, and Simons has three siblings involved in the music industry. His partner of nine years is the country musician Slim Milkie.
Simons said that being gay gives him an awareness of what it’s like to be part of a marginalized community, but insisted that this is not what “defines” him. He mentioned that most people are beyond making a big issue out of a person’s sexual orientation, and it’s never been an issue in his constituency.
“I hope people ask me: ”˜You’ll be the first cello-playing premier?,’” he quipped.