April 2, 2014 3:05 pm
Updated: April 2, 2014 4:42 pm

Toronto NDP candidate backs down on anti-oilsands rhetoric

Social activist Cressy to seek the NDP nomination for Trinity-Spadina, Olivia Chow's old riding.

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OTTAWA – The NDP’s expected candidate in the upcoming Toronto byelection is backing down on some of his harsh criticisms of Alberta’s oilsands.

Joe Cressy, a former environmental activist who is expected to be nominated next week in Olivia Chow’s vacated Trinity-Spadina riding, has called the oilsands “dirty oil” that have no place in the Canadian economy.

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The former campaign coordinator for the Polaris Institute also helped develop a tar sands video game, targeting the Liberals and Conservatives, that is still accessible online.

Cressy now says his “approach” has changed.

“The debate over the oilsands has changed over the years and certainly my approach has changed,” he told Global News in an interview.

“I have serious concerns, as do many people in my generation, about the environmental impact of unregulated development.”

Cressy said he also worries about the impact on downstream First Nations communities.

When asked if he still believes what he said previously, Cressy said, “I think I just answered your question about four times.”

His apparent reversal comes as the NDP is fighting another byelection battle in the heart of oilsands country – Fort McMurray, Alta.

It could serve as a window to the party’s shifting attitude towards oilsands development. NDP leader Tom Mulcair has taken a softer tone than his predecessor, the late Jack Layton, who said in 2011 he would cut fossil fuel subsidies for the “tarsands.”

Mulcair directed questions to his assistant Wednesday and left a scrum after being asked about the challenges facing the NDP regarding its candidates’ oilsands stance.

WATCH: NDP leader Tom Mulcair defers questions about his candidate’s oilsands comments.

In an emailed statement Mulcair said he supports sustainable development in the region.

“The position of the NDP is clear. Our natural resources are a tremendous blessing but they have to be developed in a sustainable way. That means making polluters pay for the pollution they create and rigorously enforcing environmental laws,” Mulcair wrote.

The NDP-nominated candidate in Fort McMurray-Athabasca, Lori McDaniel, said she was not aware of Cressy’s past comments but such an attitude does make it more difficult for candidates out west.

“To be here is something different,” said McDaniel.

“It’s a necessity. We need to do this. It’s something that everybody should be on board with. And yes, there always has to be awareness of the environment, of course.”

For the past six years, McDaniel has worked as a heavy equipment operator at Suncor Energy, which specializes in production of synthetic crude from the oilsands.

She said she joined the NDP because the party’s thinking is in line with her company’s: sustainable development, environmental responsibility, and giving back to the community.

“No matter where you’re from, or what stripe you are, this is something that is a good thing for the economy and for a lot of people in a lot of places,” she said.

“At the same time I also agree that this country shouldn’t be reliant as much as it is on this either.”

McDaniel also said she wants to see more financial benefits for her area from the federal government.

“I’m shocked at the lack of attention that the actual communities get in this region, for such a profitable place,” she said.

For his part, Cressy said the federal government shouldn’t be promoting the oilsands abroad.

“We have a federal government that’s spending millions of dollars to advertise the oilsands abroad, meanwhile here in Canada, and certainly in cities like Toronto, we have a range of issues that require urgent and pressing attention, from public transit to housing to childcare to infrastructure funding,” he said.

As for how he wants to see the oilsands developed, Cressy said, “I’ll leave the specifics for another time. I’m not going to get into an in-depth policy conversation here.”

There are now four byelections waiting to be called: Fort McMurray-Athabasca, Trinity-Spadina, Macleod, Alta. and Scarborough-Agincourt in Toronto.

Macleod must by called by May 17.

 

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