OTTAWA—Adam van Koeverden, Canada’s most decorated Olympic paddler and two-time national flag bearer at the Games, will make the splash into politics and seek the Liberal nomination for next year’s federal election in the GTA riding of Milton.
In an exclusive interview with the Star on Wednesday, van Koeverden said he relishes the steep challenge he would face in the suburban riding west of Toronto. The seat has been held since 2008 by Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, the high profile former Harper cabinet minister who is now the party’s deputy leader.
But the political neophyte said he’s ready to take on the veteran — and win.
“I’m really, really excited about the amount of hard work this is going to be,” he said.
“I know that I can offer a brand of hard work that I don’t think Canadian politics has ever seen before.”
Van Koeverden became a household name in 2004, when he won a gold medal in the 500-metre kayak race at the Athens Olympics, Canada’s first for a paddler in two decades. He was also awarded the Lou Marsh Trophy that year, which recognizes the best Canadian athlete as decided by a panel of journalists. He went on to win world championship titles in 2007 and 2011, as well as silver medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
In more recent years, van Koeverden, now 36, has turned to advocacy work with organizations like Right to Play, which aims to teach children through educational games, and the David Suzuki Foundation.
He said he is passionate about sport, physical activity, the environment — values he sees meshing well with those of the governing Liberals under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Asked about Suzuki’s recent criticism of the Liberal government over its purchase of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, van Koeverden said he believes Ottawa is doing a good striking a tough balance between economic and environmental priorities.
“I consider myself an environmentalist, but like most Canadians I still have a car and I need to heat my home,” he said. “Striking that balance is a really difficult thing to do, but I think this government is doing a really good job.”
Van Koeverden does not live in the riding he wants to represent in Parliament, but said he’s open to moving there. He grew up in nearby north Oakville, where he lived in community housing with his single mother and younger brother. He recalls memories of cross-country running to the Milton city sign, as well as skiing and mountain biking in the local hills.
He got his first taste of public organizing as a teenager, he said, when he sat on his neighbourhood’s junior board. “Growing up there I got a real sense of what working families need to make ends meet,” he said.
In terms of the issues he wants to champion for people in Milton, van Koeverden said affordable housing and transportation will likely be important. But he was quick to note he doesn’t want to presume the community’s priorities before hearing from local citizens.
“My first priority is getting to know the community of Milton a little bit more, and earning their trust in the nomination,” he said.
Raitt, the incumbent Conservative MP was re-elected in Milton for the third time in 2015, though she won the seat by a relatively narrow margin — 2,438 votes — as a wave of Liberal support crested across Toronto and much of the GTA.
“Do I believe that it’s winnable? My answer is that I wouldn’t enter a race that I didn’t think was winnable — unless it was like a charity 5k,” he said.
“This is not a charity 5k.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga