Interview – Over a cup of coffee with Ben Sanders

I met Ben Sanders at the StarBucks to talk about his recent announcement of jumping into the race of the Liberal nomination. Here is the dialogue that unfolded over a cup of coffee: Gurdeep Pandher


YT: How did the idea of jumping into Liberal nomination get started?

BS: Well, I used to work in the House of Commons, so I had a first-hand view of politics at the federal level. And, you know, I hear a lot of people complain that it’s not working very well, that politics is broken, that it needs a reboot or an upgrade. And I got to see that up close, so I know exactly, you know– I have a visceral feeling for that being true. And, you know, I feel as though I’m at a point in my life now where I’ve learned how to take some big ideas and make them happen in industries where it’s very hard to do so. And I’m hoping to apply myself politically. I really want to get people more engaged; I think that they’re turned off. So at the very least, I have some new ideas for how to build a new type of politics, to try and make it more exciting for people, and more relevant too.

YT: Are you a long-time politician, or you just started experimenting with it?

BS: Definitely not a long-time politician, and not a regular politician. I’m going to be a different type of politician. This is my first time running for federal, you know, for office officially in Canada. But I do have that experience having worked in the House of Commons. And I think I bring a different type of experience, a breadth of experience to the job. I’ve built a couple of environmental NGO’s, I’ve bicycled across Canada, I’ve helped build a tech company in Silicon Valley, and I helped build the Blackberry and the Canadarm, and the particle physics accelerator at CERN. So one thing I think that politics needs is people who look at fact-based, evidence-based decision making a little bit more, and who bring a bit more of a builder type of perspective to it. And that’s what my engineering background will do. I think, in some sense, people don’t like politicians who are kind of career politicians. And I’m hoping to kind of get in for a while and get some stuff done, but then leave before things get too comfortable and the level of activity drops.

YT: You want to do things differently?

BS: That’s right, yeah. And I think that’s what people are looking for. I think they’re tired of the status quo, ’cause it’s not working, and they want to see politics be more positive, more accessible, more cooperative, more transparent, and more inclusive. And they want to see something get done. I think that’s what people like about me; I have strong track record of getting things done.

YT: Why did you choose the Liberal Party? Is there any reason?

BS: I think that the federal political scene is what’s most broken. I’m very distressed about the way in which Harper is currently leading the country. I used to work in the House of Commons when he was the opposition leader, so I’ve seen him and I’ve seen how he operates. And I think that a lot of Canadians are very concerned about the direction he’s taking the country in. I think he’s taking the ‘Progressive’ out of the Conservative Party, and I feel very compelled to stand up and fight for the Canada that I remember, the Canada that I believe we can be again. And the best way to do that is to get involved, and here in the Yukon, to try and make a difference. I think, you know, I’ve never been a hugely partisan fellow. I’ve worked on various campaigns before as a volunteer, both for Liberal and NDP – I’ve worked on Jack Layton’s campaign. And my feeling is that Justin Trudeau is building a new team, and he’s trying to build a new type of politics. And sometimes that means taking some risks, trying some things differently. And sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I like the fact that he’s willing to try and build it in a better way. And that’s why I’m seeking the Liberal nomination, federally.

YT: You talked about Justin Trudeau. What do you think of Justin Trudeau and his politics, as he’s going to be your leader?

BS: I think that, like a lot of Canadians, we’re eager to see him evolve and grow into the job, you know. I think that he is doing some things that have motivated me and have made me excited that he’s actually taking action and not just talking about doing things differently; he actually is. So, earlier this year, when he made the changes to the senate – to free the senators, so that they were no longer part of the party, that they could be senators in a more bipartisan way – I think that that’s really important, you know. And I think anytime you see a leader relinquish power, give more power away, that’s a positive sign. I think that’s healthier for democracy. He’s also made strides to open up the nominations more than they ever have been before for the Liberals. And I think that’s really exciting too, because it means more people will get involved. And I think having a race for nominations is healthy thing, so I’m glad to see that too. And I think he’s taken some strong stands on some issues that Canadians feel passionate about, and he’s not shying away from engaging Canadians in a dialogue about those ideas.

YT: Do you think that Liberals will be able to form the next government in Ottawa?

BS: I hope so. What I hope for is to see a change. Again, like a lot of Canadians, I’m very unhappy with the direction that Harper is taking, increasingly so, and I feel we need a change. And that’s why I’m standing up, to try and help be part of that.

YT: Let’s come to the Yukon. How do you believe that you can do better than the other two Liberal candidates who are in the race?

BS: Yes. You know, I think there’s even more who are exploring the idea, and I think that’s healthy. The Liberals are going to use a ranked ballot to pick the candidate here, and what’s exciting about that is: there’s no negative repercussion from having a lot of candidates. So I’m hoping to see even more step up and join. The ranked ballot does away with vote splitting and it leads to more positive campaigning, ’cause you have an incentive to be your other candidates’ second choice. It’s a system that’s used around the world, and I would like to see it adopted federally in more places in Canada. I was part of a team that helped move it forward at the municipal level in Toronto. And I think that that in particular is a very progressive move. Again, I don’t see this so much as a race against other candidates for the Liberal Party. I’m excited that together we’re getting more people involved and engaged, and I hope to see more people come out and vote. And I think that I offer something new and different, and I think that after politics as usual for such a long time, I think a lot of Yukoners are looking for change, and they’re looking for something new and fresh. And I’m hoping to get some new ideas off the ground.

YT: If you’re elected as an MP, what will you do for the Yukon?

BS: There’s a lot of things that I want to do, but I’m certainly aware that it’s a system where it isn’t easy to make quick changes overnight. They’re adding thirty new members of parliament, so in the next parliament there will be 338 MPs. Which means that, first and foremost, I want to represent Yukoners’ voice very loudly in Ottawa. I think that a lot of Yukoners feel very critical that right now, sometimes it’s more that Ottawa has a voice here in the Yukon, and I think people want to see that change. So I want to stand up for Yukoners and fight for what’s important to them, and make sure that we’re heard in big decisions for Canada. Especially on things like the environment, climate change here in the North. Those impacts are even more strongly felt, and so we have a big role to play in shaping some of those policies and shaping the vision of the future for Canada. I have presented a number of ideas that are important to me, and so I’m hoping to advocate and push for those. But, again, really I think the first step is to try and introduce a different type of politics that engages people better. I think that politics needs to be more visual, so I’m going to try and share some of these big decisions with people in a way that’s more digestible, more palatable, easier to understand. I want to engage people better and find some ways with technology perhaps, to allow people to have their voice. So doing more ranked polls with Yukoners, so that I understand more their opinion in a factual kind of way on certain issues. So that when I represent them and vote, in certain ways, that I have more than just a subjective understanding of their thoughts on certain issues. And I think in the past, Yukoners sometimes feel like their representatives haven’t stood up for issues that were important to them, so I want to do that better. In terms of specific policy ideas, again, I have some that are very close to my heart, but I think it’s important for people to understand too that it will take time to bring those to the forefront.

YT: The issue of the Peel watershed development has been a widely discussed issue in the Yukon recently. What are your view about it?

BS: So I think, for me, the larger issue there is that a lot– I’ve been talking to a lot of Yukoners who feel that their voice wasn’t heard in that process, you know. That there was a well-described process where the government here said that they were going to capture feedback from the public. It seemed to me anyway that there were some very clear, strong opinions and a pretty broad consensus on the way that that should move forward, and I don’t know that Yukoners feel necessarily that that voice was incorporated in the plan moving forward. I do certainly recognize that industries like mining are very important in the Yukon, and they have helped grow and shape the economy here. And I don’t think that we can turn them off overnight, but I also recognize the incredible importance of protecting and preserving our environment. And I think that there’s a way that we can grow the economy without having as negative an impact on the environment. Those are some of the ideas that we talked about, that I would like to propose, as another way to diversify the economy. And that’s what I haven’t heard in the debate so far: a way to kind of find a middle ground, and that’s what I’m hoping to push for.

YT: What will you do for the mining industry for the Yukon, if you are elected?

BS: I’m really motivated by some of the leadership that I’ve seen from Shawn Ryan and his team. They’re using technology in some really innovate ways; world-leading techniques that are making exploration have far less impact on the environment. It’s making their costs lower, it’s making them more effective at pinpointing good places to do some mining, with less environmental impact. So it’s a great example of how technology can help improve mining in many ways, and I’d like to see more of that evolve. And I think that the Yukon could become a leader in mineral exploration that is less harmful to the environment. So, again, I think that there’s a common ground there that we need to find and strive for.

YT: You’re a tech guy. Please tell me more about that, about your tech background?

BS: Yeah, I spent several years building a tech company down in Silicon Valley with some friends, and saw first-hand how that community embraces the notion of failure. And I think that sometimes in government, there’s too much of a concern placed on playing it safe, and that prevents new ideas from being realized. And I’d like to try and shift more of that focus so that there is a greater acceptance for trying out some new ideas. Knowing that if we try ten ideas, maybe only a couple of them will really work out to be successful. And there’s ways to pilot and test those to get feedback in a tangible way, without planning, and planning, and planning forever, and never really learning quickly from those iterations. I think that Silicon Valley is kind of an epicentre for seeing creative new ideas emerge in a practical manner. And that’s something I think politics lacks, and it’s an experience that I bring that I would like to introduce increasingly to that area.

YT: Do you want to bring Silicon Valley to the Yukon?

BS: Well I don’t think the Yukon will ever be a Silicon Valley, but I do think that a hundred years ago we had the Gold Rush, and one way to diversify the economy would be to build the Yukon ‘Code Rush’. The idea there is to help support the growth of more web-based businesses, who can scale very easily and who can export their product to the world without any detrimental impact, without as much of the restriction as if they were trying to build a physical, tangible product. Because, with the internet, if it is indeed fast, affordable, reliable – those are things we need to improve on for this to work – then Yukoners could build businesses here and compete on the world stage. And it’s a great example of helping to grow and diversify the economy without hurting the environment. And I think those are the kind of innovative ideas that we need to look toward for the future.

YT: How did you get involved with YuKonstruct?

BS: I was part of the early team that got YuKonstruct off the ground. I have seen the model of a ‘makerspace’, which is essentially a place where you can go and share tools and share ideas with other inventors and builders, to create new things. I’ve seen that model work well in other parts of Canada and around the world. And I was meeting with a lot of Yukoners who have great ideas – there’s no shortage of innovative ideas here – but a lot of people either don’t have the space, or the tools, or the expertise to get their idea off the ground. So over Christmas, on my personal vacation, I went and toured six or seven makerspaces across Canada, ’cause there’s thirty in Canada, and nine hundred around the world. And I wanted to better understand how that could be applied here. I was able to bring some of that back here and have an event to see if Yukoners were interested in it. And we thought twenty or thirty people might come, but ultimately there were over two hundred who came. Moving forward on that momentum, a nonprofit was built, and that group was able to take this idea and build it in fewer than four months, which is remarkable – to take an idea and make it happen in under four months. I think that’s an example of the kind of leadership that I bring in being able to, again, have less talk and more action, to get things done. And there’s a lot still to do, to make sure that that idea continues to survive, and blossom, and thrive. But I think it’s exciting to see the space evolve, and more and more tools are coming in, and more members are joining up. And I’m hopeful that this will be a space where Yukoners can see their ideas materialize, and hopefully help grow the economy too – start some new businesses, get some new jobs going. There’s a lot of benefits that could come from it.

YT: What are your hobbies? What else do you do apart from tech and politics?

BS: I love the outdoors. When I came to the Yukon, I had one bicycle, and now I’ve got three – one for every season, you know. So I try and spend as much time as possible outside. I really love the opportunity to live here, to be so close to access this world-class wonderful nature that we’ve got, and that’s one of the best things about living here.

YT: When did you come to the Yukon?

BS: So I am coming up on my first year, and sometimes people say: “Wow, how will you be able to represent the Yukon if you’ve only been here that short while?”. And my response to that is– I think some people are saying: “Well, look at how much he’s done with the short amount of time he’s been here. Imagine what he could do with even more time”. I have been to every community in the Yukon, I’ve purchased a home here, and I’ve helped build YuKonstruct – a new nonprofit. So I think that’s an example of what I’m able to deliver, and I’m hoping to continue investing in this community. I’ve decided this is where I want my home to be, and it’s part of the reason I’m running – I want to make it a really great place, an even better place. But, again, I’m no stranger to the North; I was born in Northern Manitoba, and taught science in Northern Quebec. So, in many ways, this is a very fitting place for me to end up, of returning to the North.

YT: I think that’s it. I wish you all the best, Ben!

BS: Thank you. You too, Gurdeep. It’s great to talk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *