Bur­rill: ‘San­ders of the North’

NDP leader leads party back to left wing roots

Cape Breton Post - - Cape Bre­ton / Prov­ince -

The way Gary Bur­rill tells it, his jour­ney to so­cial­ism be­gan at a clap­board church in Har­bourville, a small Nova Sco­tia fish­ing com­mu­nity on the shores of the Bay of Fundy.

His fa­ther was a preacher there — a re­mark­able one, Nova Sco­tia’s NDP leader says.

On Sun­day af­ter­noons, the two would head to the small church, where Bur­rill would sit, the wooden pew hard on his small back. He was usu­ally the only child in the room, but he was al­ways en­rap­tured by his fa­ther’s ser­mons.

“At that time, he was at the height of his power,’’ Bur­rill said in an in­ter­view from his down­town of­fice over­look­ing Hal­i­fax har­bour.

“The core thought of my fa­ther’s ser­mons was that we’re here with a pur­pose to im­prove the world ... I ab­sorbed this truth into the fi­bre of my char­ac­ter. It wasn’t a very big move for me to be­come a so­cial­ist.’’

Bur­rill is now vy­ing to be­come the 29th pre­mier of Nova Sco­tia in the May 30 pro­vin­cial elec­tion.

The 61-year-old cler­gy­man wears wire-rimmed glasses with an open-col­lared shirt and speaks can­didly about the in­ter­sec­tion of reli­gion and pol­i­tics in his life.

“I re­gard my po­lit­i­cal work as an ex­pres­sion of my min­istry vo­ca­tion,’’ said Bur­rill, a for­mer mem­ber of the leg­is­la­ture who won the party’s lead­er­ship in Fe­bru­ary 2016, and is now run­ning in Hal­i­fax Che­bucto, once an NDP strong­hold.

At the root of his be­liefs is a con­cept in Chris­tian­ity called the King­dom of God, im­parted on him through his fa­ther’s ser­mons in that United Church on the coastal side of North Moun­tain.

“The core idea I in­gested as a boy is that peo­ple ought to have a bet­ter life,’’ he said. “We are not put on this earth to have 50,000 meals and 20,000 sleeps and move on. We’re here with a pur­pose to im­prove the world.’’

Bur­rill has been de­scribed by some pun­dits as the Bernie San­ders of the North, a ref­er­ence to the U.S. sen­a­tor who en­er­gized last year’s Demo­cratic lead­er­ship race by openly talk­ing about so­cial­ism. Like San­ders, he is ex­pected to fo­cus on left-wing is­sues.

He was left out of cabi­net when for­mer leader Dar­rell Dex­ter took the NDP to power for the first time in Nova Sco­tia in 2009, and ran a cen­trist govern­ment that fell from grace after a sin­gle term.

Bur­rill lost his seat when the party was re­duced to third place in the 2013 elec­tion, but he de­cided to throw his hat in the ring for the lead­er­ship of the NDP last year.

With­out a seat, he de­feated two sit­ting mem­bers of the leg­is­la­ture — per­ceived front-run­ner Dave Wil­son, a for­mer cabi­net min­is­ter, and Lenore Zann, in a tight three-way race.

“The sit­u­a­tion called for us to se­ri­ously ex­am­ine our pur­pose and our mis­sion,’’ Bur­rill said of the NDP’s ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis and lead­er­ship race. “We needed to fo­cus with re­newed sharp­ness on so­cial, eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice.’’

The preacher, a grad­u­ate of Har­vard and Queen’s Univer­sity in Kingston, Ont., says his com­mit­ment to so­cial jus­tice comes from work­ing in hard-scrab­ble com­mu­ni­ties in Nova Sco­tia.

“The strug­gles of the peo­ple were daily and deeply ap­par­ent to me,’’ he said. “There is a deep sense among peo­ple that some­thing isn’t work­ing.’’

As a man of the cloth work­ing in com­mu­ni­ties across the prov­ince, Bur­rill con­fronted ris­ing poverty, in­come in­equal­ity and lengthy waits for long-term care.

For Bur­rill, soar­ing tu­ition and crip­pling stu­dent debt are chal­lenges that have grown ex­po­nen­tially worse over time.

With the in­come from a min­is­ter’s salary, Bur­rill says his par­ents saved enough money to pay for the higher ed­u­ca­tion of their four chil­dren.

“We were for­tu­nate enough to have six or eight de­grees be­tween us,’’ he said. “Our to­tal in­debt­ed­ness was not much more than what you would need to buy a van.’’

One gen­er­a­tion later, Bur­rill and his wife, De­bra Per­rott, saved the ex­act same, in­fla­tion­ad­justed amount for their four chil­dren. But the out­come was wildly dif­fer­ent.

His chil­dren — Eva, a clin­i­cal ther­a­pist, Fred, a his­to­rian, and mu­si­cians Clay­ton and Rosanna — now owe a quar­ter-mil­lion dol­lars.

“You can speak to any fam­ily in Nova Sco­tia and you’ll find par­al­lel things,’’ Bur­rill said. “Some­thing over the space of a gen­er­a­tion gave us a very se­ri­ous op­por­tu­nity deficit.’’

The NDP’s anti-aus­ter­ity plat­form in­cludes elim­i­nat­ing tu­ition for com­mu­nity col­leges, rais­ing the min­i­mum wage to $15 an hour and hir­ing more doc­tors.

He said the bal­ance-the-books ap­proach to pub­lic fi­nances — some­thing his own party was guilty of when it held power — is out­dated.

“We are in a new mo­ment,’’ he said. “There is a role for govern­ments to do stim­u­la­tive spend­ing, which calls for some­times short- and medium-term deficits to be run.’’


Nova Sco­tia NDP Leader Gary Bur­rill, right, chats with Howard Ep­stein, a se­nior ad­viser and for­mer MLA, as he makes a cam­paign stop in Hal­i­fax ear­lier this week. The pro­vin­cial elec­tion will be held Tues­day, May 30.

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