Local MP vying to lead NDP

[attach]5544[/attach]What a difference a year can make in the life of Peggy Nash.

Last March, the longtime Roncesvalles resident could be found knocking on doors and volunteering at local events.

Not 12 months later, Nash is a member of parliament, representing Parkdale-High Park.

Give it another month and she may well be leader of the official Opposition.

Nash is one of six candidates vying to replace the late Jack Layton as party leader of the New Democrats.

Quite a turnaround from when she was ousted from her House of Commons seat by Liberal candidate Gerard Kennedy in 2008.

“Even when I lost the election, I didn’t stop working in the community,” Nash says over peppermint tea at a local café. “It’s actually been kind of challenging during this leadership campaign to be away for so much.”

Last May, Nash was swept up in the so-called New Democrat wave that saw the party become official Opposition.

Today, she is campaigning in all corners of the country.

But on the trail, Nash says she is increasingly finding she is a product of her west-end roots. The West Humber graduate grew up in Rexdale, and she and husband Carl raised their three sons in Roncesvalles.

“When I go to the north end of Vancouver Island, or I go to northern Ontario and speak to First Nations communities, I listen, I learn,” she says. “It’s important for me to understand their concerns, but I guess I bring to the campaign the issues that I’ve heard at the doorstep when I’ve talked to members of my own community.”

What she’s heard in Parkdale-High Park has been concerns surrounding transit, housing, affordability and job creation. Those concerns have echoed across the country.

“Yes, we’ve lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs, many of them right in the Toronto area, but it’s different from if you’ve got a one-industry town,” she says. “A whole town is threatened when you lose that industry.”

At home, Nash is continuing to work with provincial counterparts on the issue of the GO diesel trains in the west end.

When she won the election, Nash was fighting to reverse the decision by Metrolinx, a provincial transportation agency, to purchase diesel trains for a proposed rail link between Pearson Airport and Union Station. With other local representatives such as MP Olivia Chow, Nash is urging the federal government to help electrify the line.

“It’s an ongoing issue,” she says, adding she’s addressed the matter in the House of Commons and brought local petitions to Ottawa.

Nash says residents also expect to see more investment in transit, including fleet renewal and modernization.

The decision to run for the leadership was a tough one, says Nash, who previously worked as a labour negotiator. After the May election, Jack Layton gave her the post of finance critic.

“I had promised him I wouldn’t let him down, and people felt I was doing a very good job as finance critic and so I really had to think through ‘Do I stay doing that or do I run for leader?’ ” she says.

“But the other thing was … somebody said to me as new leader you may not be finance critic, but when you’re leader you can talk about finance or any other darn thing you want to,” she says with a laugh.

She plans to build on Layton’s vision of economic strength and uniting progressives in Quebec with the rest of Canada.

Nash is well aware that as leader, she has three years to strengthen the NDP so it is poised to take government. She’s laid out a plan to build on the party’s infrastructure.

She is targeting 85 priority growth seats, and if elected, plans to beef up the role of critics and focus on recruitment for riding associations.

“The leader has to chart the path, they don’t do it alone, they work with a team and they consult with people. But ultimately the leader’s accountable,” she says. “People very badly want to take the next step and win the next federal election.”