‘People ought to have a better life’: NDP Leader Gary Burrill’s quest for a new Nova Scotia

Editors Note: Profiles of all major party leaders will be released throughout the week. 

The way Gary Burrill tells it, his journey to socialism began at a clapboard church in Harbourville, N.S., a small 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.

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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,” said Burrill 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.

READ MORE: All our Nova Scotia election coverage

Religion and a political life

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, 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,” he said.

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.”

READ MORE: ‘I didn’t train to be the premier’: Liberal leader Stephen McNeil as he prepares for Nova Scotia election

Family and the state of Nova Scotia

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, inflation-adjusted 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.”

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