Announcing the 2022 Jack Layton Prize Winners at the University of McGill

The Douglas Coldwell Layton Foundation and McGill Univeristy's Max Bell School are thrilled to announce the inaugural winners of the Jack Layton Essay Prize for a Better Canada.

Anyone who met Jack Layton or was familiar with his powerful speeches knows he had abiding passions—for the urgent need for action on climate change; for an end to violence against women; for economic and social equality; for good, affordable, and liveable cities; and for an end to homelessness.

Layton witnessed homeless people freezing to death on Canada’s winter streets, and that filled him with rage. He worked across party lines to try to do something about it, with some success—which filled him with hope. He was successful in his political career, leading the NDP to official opposition status in the 2011 federal election. He was, alas, not successful in his battle with the cancer that then took his life—leaving much still to be done. In a memorable final letter, Layton urged young people to carry on.

Earlier this year, on the 10th anniversary of Jack Layton’s passing, the Douglas Coldwell Layton Foundation and the Max Bell School were honoured to announce the launch of a new University-wide essay competition for graduate students, designed to encourage emerging McGill scholars to engage—with similar hope, optimism and passion—in the leading issues of our times.

“Jack Layton dedicated his life to the pursuit of social justice and public policies that would create a better Canada for all,” said Dr. Chris Ragan, director of the Max Bell School of Public Policy. “In Jack’s memory, the Douglas Coldwell Layton Foundation has generously sponsored an annual essay competition at the Max Bell School, with each year’s topic to focus on a challenging policy issue with importance for the wellbeing of all Canadians.”

In 2022, the competition centered on the complex issue of how to address the ongoing crisis of housing affordability. Prospective competition participants were instructed to define the scope and nature of Canada’s housing crisis, to identify its likely causes, and to advocate for the use of three practical solutions that could effectively address the problem. The panel of expert judges included Jayne Engle, Mylene Riva, Evan Siddall, Brian Topp, and Chris Ragan.

Twenty graduate students from across McGill’s many faculties, departments, and schools submitted excellent essays with diverse approaches to the problem posed. We’re thrilled to introduce you to the two winners of this year’s competition:

In first place is Chris Erl, with his essay The Homefront Strategy: Democratizing Housing in Canada. A doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at McGill, focusing on Canadian municipal politics and candidate diversity, Chris holds a Master of Planning from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University), and both a Master of Arts and Honours Bachelor of Arts from McMaster University.

“Canada is experiencing a housing crisis that threatens the country’s economic stability in the long term,” explained Erl. “Despite this, policy makers continue to rely on flawed ideas and place too much trust on the market to solve its own problems.”

Erl argued for nothing less than a complete rethink of what housing means to Canadians.

“We must reconceptualize home and housing by looking to democratic alternatives and offer Canadians alternatives for their personal financial well-being. Local participation in the housing market, an emphasis on housing co-operatives, and a revitalization of programs aimed to help Canadians in their retirement can help to ease the strain on Canadian households.”

Our second-place winner is Philippe Fournier with To Fix Housing For Good, We Must Stop Treating It Like A Piggy Bank. Philippe holds a Bachelor of Architectural Studies from the University of Waterloo and is currently pursuing his Master of Architecture degree at McGill. He has worked for architecture firms in New York, Toronto, Vancouver, and Kitchener.

Fournier’s arguments came from both the demand and supply sides of the housing market. “The most pressing issue in the Canadian housing market right now is rampant speculation, coupled with a chronic shortage of housing supply due in large part to over-restrictive zoning laws. The latter exacerbates the former, so I argue policy should address both at the same time in order to be truly effective in the short and long term.”

The two winning essays have been published as part of the MAX Policy series; you can read Chris Erl’s essay here and Philippe Fournier’s here.

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