Canada needs an urban-tree strategy and the New Democrats are the party to give us one, Ottawa Centre candidate Paul Dewar said Wednesday morning.

It’s both just about the dippiest of Dipper promises you can imagine and exactly the sort of thing Dewar should be doing as his party’s major candidate in Ottawa. Ottawa Centre voters have been lucky to have Dewar and his Liberal challenger Catherine McKenna making intensely local commitments like this one. Other ridings haven’t.

“Trees are, to use the jargon, a value-added proposition. Other G7 countries have recognized this and prioritized the expansion of urban tree coverage,” Dewar said outside Library and Archives Canada on Wellington Street, where Dutch elm disease has recently taken out several dozen previously nice old trees. He set up his lectern — jury-rigged from a small bookcase with an election sign tacked to it — by a planter from which one of those trees used to grow, now capped off like a dry well.

Dewar linked the neglect of trees to one of his party’s bigger philosophical arguments that cities need more federal funding, because they’re forced to skimp. “Here in Ottawa, we saw what happened on Preston Street in Little Italy. Trees were planted, but there was no funding for maintenance and care,” he said. “The trees all died.”

The shrinkage of the urban tree canopy is a coast-to-coast-problem, Dewar said. Bugs and fungi that once didn’t survive cold winters are spreading from year to year, taking out trees weakened by hotter summers and droughts. He insisted there’s a place for the federal government in co-ordinating a national response and researching what trees can thrive in a changed climate. A Tory government created a non-profit foundation called Tree Canada back in 1992, he pointed out, but the feds stopped funding it in 2007.

“I think of things like the ice storm (of 1998), where we went through a major event that was in a short period of time. We learned from that. We learned about how to better deal with shortages of power, of food. Emergency preparedness. I think we should learn from this, too,” Dewar said, indicating the remains of the elm. “To look at how the federal government can be a player, can use our resources well to deal with it.”

It’s the kind of promise that probably doesn’t move many votes: if you’re inclined to vote NDP, you’ll like it, and if you aren’t, urban tree strategies are probably one of the reasons why. But either way, it’s a specific pledge we can attach to Dewar’s name, and that’s a useful thing.

McKenna, the Liberal who wants Dewar’s job, has kept up a hectic pace of such announcements for weeks now. She’s pointed out that her party’s big infrastructure fund might help pay for a new central library, for a light-rail spur to the airport, for new footbridges across the Rideau Canal and Rideau River. Dewar has been a little less active, though the other day he made a show of joining the Ottawa Renewable Energy Co-operative.

This is all terribly small ball, even if you live in Ottawa Centre. But showing how their personal principles and parties’ platforms translate into practical measures is what local candidates ought to be about. The Liberals promise to build $120 billion worth of actual stuff over 10 years — OK, like what? McKenna has some answers. The New Democrats tout their environmentalism, and Dewar explains what that would actually mean in the neighbourhoods he’d like to keep representing.

Not only does it make the parties’ pledges concrete, it gives us specific commitments we can hold these people to. If McKenna should become an MP in a Liberal government and four years from now the feds are playing silly buggers with a city request to help pay for a new library, that will be her problem. Dewar can be held accountable for his tree promise with some fairly simple counting.

Candidates who just read their policy books to us announce that they’re representing their parties to us, not the other way around. They commit to voting their party lines and not much else. That’s great if you like every single thing a party stands for, but as a rule, we’re better off with politicians who can think for themselves.