Posted in Features

Q&A with provincial NDP candidate and SFU alumna, Katrina Chen

Running as the Burnaby-Lougheed candidate for this May’s provincial election, Chen discusses SFU and politics

British Columbia’s provincial election is fast approaching, and political parties are working hard to make their rounds and present their platforms. Among the nominees for the NDP is Katrina Chen, one of the few newcomers to B.C. politics in her party and an SFU alumna.

As the potential representative for the area surrounding SFU, pertinent issues for the Burnaby-Lougheed MLA and riding include funding for public education, housing and cost of living, and the Kinder Morgan pipeline project.

Currently residing as school trustee for the Burnaby Board of Education, Chen would be the first Taiwanese-born representative in the province if elected. The Peak sat down with Chen to discuss her SFU experiences, what it was like immigrating to Canada, and getting involved with her community and politics.

The Peak: What did you study at SFU?

Katrina Chen: Political science and history — how typical is that? I was a poli sci major, and I took a bunch of history courses at the time, so I decided to do a minor in it.

P: How did you first get involved in politics?

KC: After I graduated from SFU, I worked for Acorn — a local community organization. I think it really opened my eyes about how there’s so many issues locally that we need to fight for. I would say that was sort of my first introduction. I always did political science while I was at SFU, but I focused more on human rights, international relations — I was always interested in becoming a human rights activist.

My SFU years, they made the foundation, but my focus at the time was about the international. I wanted to work for a non-profit internationally, things like that. That was my dream. But the Acorn experience gave me the local. I was realizing that, though I wanted to go to an orphanage in China, there are issues right here, too. And it really surprised me. I think combining with my SFU studies and global issues, I thought, “Well, why don’t I start locally?”

I worked for Acorn for maybe six months or so. I volunteered for a period of time as well and then I met Peter Julian, a local member of parliament, I met Raj Chouhan — he’s the MLA and a counsellor — he was not a counsellor at the time. So I happened to meet all the Burnaby folks. They were happy to find someone who’s bilingual and had a poli sci degree — I kind of just happened to fit the profile at the time. I got my job at [the] Peter Julian and Raj Chouhan office. That was my first NDP contact.

P: Were there any extracurricular activity groups/clubs that you were involved with during your SFU career?

KC: I was involved with the Taiwanese Association [. . .]. I was still a little shy at the time, I have to say. That was the first club, because I had more confidence in my Mandarin/Taiwanese, since English is my second language. Later I joined a global speakers group — I don’t think they exist anymore.

The group, they recruited students with diverse backgrounds to visit local high schools to talk to them about how, though English is not your first language, you can still strive, still go to post-secondary. We used our experiences to encourage the high school students and also make connections. I really enjoyed that. I visited about four or five schools.

P: What are the major changes that you most want to see made, that inspired you to get involved with politics?

KC: I’ve worked on the front lines for the past 10 years. I’ve worked with thousands of residents here in Burnaby [and] I’ve been a School Board trustee in Burnaby. I’ve seen the management side of how things could work with limited budget. Public schools are always facing chronic underfunding. I think if you want to ask me what would be my bigger, one vision, I would say that a government should really know how to connect with local residents. That’s huge — they need to work towards the local residents’ best interest. Whatever issue it is, they need to listen.

We are simply citizens’ representatives. It’s not about our title, it’s not about our job. Being a school trustee, it’s a privilege, but at the same time, I need to remind myself that I’m representing the students and the parents and the community. I need to do what they want me to do. I think hearing and listening is very important, so for my primary issue, I need to remember my frontline work.

If we’re talking provincially, I’ve been knocking on a lot of doors. Some of the top issues I’ve been hearing from the local residents are definitely affordability — it’s huge. Housing, cost of living, it’s a combination of everything. Housing is very unaffordable, even students are struggling to find housing, things are getting expensive: transit fees, hydro, everything is getting crazy.

Affordability is one, and then education is [another important issue]. Not just K–12, but post-secondary education as well. We want the government to invest in education. Where you talk about jobs and economy, education is the foundation. I would say that’s the second one.

Health care, of course, comes up every election. It is an important issue, and this time the Kinder Morgan project has been one of the top issues, I have to say. Especially near the SFU/Burnaby Mountain area, everyone talks about Kinder Morgan. People are really mad. And that, again, is another example of how the government is not listening.

P: You mentioned being against the KM pipeline, and it’s a big issue for the SFU community. If elected, how would you go about opposing it?

KC: We need to continue to work with our local residents. The community as a whole is powerful. Sometimes we feel like ‘Oh, we’re the only one out there’ — no, we have a community behind us. I plan to work closely with community members, because again, I am their representative, I need to advocate on the issues that they care about and continue to fight for it.

Hopefully the NDP will become the government and, of course, as one of the MLAs, I’ll definitely push my colleagues to continue to fight. I know a lot of my colleagues are very concerned about the issue. Together, we can really make a huge difference. I think it’s the collective actions that will make it happen.

P: People tend to be engaged with provincial politics comparatively less than federal. What are some of the issues that you think more people should know about that are dealt with in provincial politics?

KC: I talked about affordability — I think that’s huge to many students nowadays. Tuition fees have doubled (or more) during the past decade — it’s been crazy. And then, at the same time, we also need to understand that the struggles come from provincial funding. The BC Liberals actually lifted the tuition freeze that protected students from rising costs. The current provincial government has significantly cut the public share of the local university and colleges’ budgets.

They invest less and less. It’s similar to K–12 public education that I’m familiar with. When I was looking at the post-secondary education funding I was like, “Wow, this really went down significantly during the past 14–15 years.” And that is part of the reason why colleges and universities need to try to balance or sustain their costs, so that does effect your tuition fees. And then, the cost of living is also higher at the same time.

I know in SFU, a few years ago, the Louis Riel student housing for families was closed. That was a huge impact on student housing options. But, at the same time when that’s happening, when the government should be supporting the student housing issue, they decided in 2002 or 2003 that a university can no longer borrow a mortgage to build student housing. How can universities not have a mortgage for building student housing?

So since then, I think there’s only been one student building project that was built by UBC. SFU cannot afford any housing projects because they cannot borrow a mortgage.

The NDP made an announcement last year that they want to change that policy so that universities can take out a mortgage. Students are competing with the regular housing market. That’s unbelievable. Universities want to support student living, but if they cannot borrow a mortgage, then there’s no way to do it. The cost is really high to build housing, as we know.

Transit is another thing. Many people in the Forest Grove area, and around SFU, talked about transit. I’ve heard from some students that especially if you have morning classes, it’s crazy in the morning. You just have to wait and wait for the bus to go up and the bus is super slow. I think that we need to support students with transit as well, and the cost of transit fares [is] unbelievably crazy.

The other day I went up to SFU and was looking for parking, which is equally crazy. I think there’s a lot of issues that we need to keep working at, and if we care about our jobs and economy, then we need to make sure that we support our student[s] with the ability to afford their education, so that they’re not coming out of schools with huge debt. I have a lot of friends who spent so many years just trying to pay off their student loans.

At the same time, people talk about this often nowadays, that you have to have a post-secondary education degree to find a good job, then at the same time the government is refusing to invest in your education. I was at an elementary school yesterday, and even the elementary students told [me] about their concerns with going to post-secondary education, because their parents talk about it.

I hope our students will really pay attention to who you are choosing for your government, because everything the government does makes a huge impact on our daily lives.

P: You immigrated to Canada from Taiwan about 16 years ago. Were there any experiences that you feel were different from your Canada-born colleagues in getting involved with politics?

KC: I worked really hard to settle here. I came here by myself and I went to school and I’m very lucky that I got the opportunity. I was an international student at first, I was very lucky that I finished my education here and I decided that this was the best place where I can raise a family.

I think my Acorn experience really affected me because I came to Canada thinking that this was the best country in the world, right? It’s the most beautiful country. But then I realized the problems and issues going on here, and that it wasn’t perfect.

And that’s when when I decided that I’m going to start here, if I want to do work as a human rights activist — although I’m not really on that track anymore — but if I want to do something that I think is meaningful, then I’ll start locally.

So I worked hard and decided to settle my family here and I went through a lot of difficulties as a young immigrant. My whole application process, trying to find a place to live, trying to find a place to settle. I was very lucky that I had my family’s support, but my husband and I worked really hard just to save our first down payment to buy our first home. But again we’re lucky because we started early. But it still has not been an easy journey.

And so what would be very different to me from my other colleagues that were born in Canada, I might not be able to cherish fully what I have now.

I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve seen different things in Asia. British Columbia is still beautiful, I know, despite the challenges that we’re talking about, people are hard working, they’re friendly, they care for each other. It is really one of the best communities in the whole world. We need to make sure we keep it that way.

I have a young son, he’s three years old, and I want him to enjoy this for the rest of his life, not see it deteriorating like we’ve seen over the past 16 years. People sometimes feel like politics isn’t important. It’s a slow change, but it is huge. Like with cuts to education, if this continues, by the time my son goes to university, I don’t think I can afford for him to go to university. I think we’ll be struggling with his tuition fees.