Terry Farrell and Scott Stanfield
More than 500 people packed the Sid Williams Theatre on Monday evening for the Courtenay-Alberni All Candidates Forum.
John Duncan (Conservative), Gord Johns (NDP), Carrie Powell-Davidson (Liberal),
Glenn Sollitt (Green) and Barbara Biley (Marxist-Leninist) were all on hand to answer a series of seven questions relative to the local riding.
The audience was respectful for the most part, although moderator Andrew Gower did have to remind those in attendance of protocol, when some jeering erupted after Duncan’s opening remarks.
The first question related to First Nations, and candidates were asked how they plan on assisting and advocating for First Nations within the riding.
Biley opened by saying she assisted with the Walking With Our Sisters art installation (commemorating the 1,181 murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada) that came to the Comox Valley this summer and while she supports a full enquiry into the missing women, more must be done.
“We need, in Canada, a renewed constitution to establish nation-to-nation relations between the federal government and First Nations. We need redress for … all the crimes committed against First Nations since the founding of Canada and it can’t be just a matter of an apology and then the same thing goes on, day after day.”
Duncan said his relationship with the FN groups is solid and he will continue to support and advocate on their behalf.
“The priority of the band can very readily become my priority, too.”
As for the missing and murdered aboriginal women, he said statistics show that the solve rate for missing and murdered aboriginal women is the same as the solve rate for non-aboriginals. Duncan said it is a societal issue, not only a FN issue, and the solution is to “catch the bad guys,” as opposed to establishing an enquiry.
Powell-Davidson disagreed and said the Liberal Party is committed to an enquiry into the missing and murdered aboriginal women. From a local standpoint, she said she has already begun to form relationships with the First Nations communities in the riding and she plans to continue.
“At the local level, that is my plan going forward – to build those relationships and work together and have that respectful dialogue.”
Sollitt said that the Green Party supports a national enquiry, and locally, he would champion
regular meetings with local First Nations groups (along with the other levels of government), to guarantee firsthand understanding of their issues.
Johns said the NDP favours an enquiry but said the only way to resolve the FN issues, is to address the basics.
“Chasing criminals is not a strategy in this instance – it’s about finding the root causes to the problems.”
He added that the current system is failing.
“I’ve seen firsthand the Conservative policies and how it is affecting (FN communities) and how it is not working. We are going to choose to empower First Nations people, instead of mismanaging poverty.
Veterans issues were next on the agenda.
“The way our veterans have been treated in this country over the past few years is inexcusable,” said Powell-Davidson.
She said a Liberal government would be committed to providing $80 million per year for post-military re-training education purposes, would re-open all nine Veterans Affairs offices and open two new centres, including one specializing in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Sollitt said the Greens would re-open the offices, get rid of the lump-sum payments, all treat all vets equally, regarding pension size.
Biley said it is important to reverse all the cuts that have been made over the past 10 years.
Johns stressed the NDP’s plan to invest more than $450 million into veterans’ services.
Duncan backed his party’s record with veterans, saying “since 1997 things have gotten better, much better.
“We have not cut funding for veterans affairs. As a matter of fact, the number of veterans has decreased, spending has gone up and we are now spending 35 per cent more per veteran.”
Gower then asked the candidates whether they would ever consider voting against party policy in the greater interest of their constituents.
Johns acknowledged the NDP reputation of voting united, as a single voice, but said he would not be deterred.
“You are my priority,” said Johns. “I have proven … that I will stand up for my community first.”
Biley said the problem lies with Canada having an antiquated electoral system.
“Why is it that we have a political system where we elect a representative of a political party? We should be electing representatives of ourselves. We should be electing our peers. We should be voting to empower ourselves, not political parties.”
Powell Davidson said when she first considered running as a Liberal, that was one of the first issues she looked into.
“I can assure you that Mr. Trudeau is very committed to having free voice in Ottawa for his party members. I will take your voice to Ottawa.”
Duncan said it was “a heck of a question to ask of the party whip. On government business, I will always support the government.”
He added that on private members bills, records show the Conservatives have the “free-est” voting among any party.
Sollitt pointed out that the Green Party is the only one without a party whip, so he has no one to dictate how he votes.
“I absolutely will represent my constituents. I will not be told by anyone how to vote.”
Duncan said the federal Conservatives have done “a lot of things” regarding housing affordability. He notes home ownership in Canada, for the first time, is higher than it is in the U.S. Over the next decade, he says government has a mission to create 700,000 new homeowners.
But Johns is not seeing a lot of projects in the works without a national housing strategy — something that was championed by former federal NDP leader Jack Layton.
“We will bring that forward,” Johns said. “We will be building 10,000 affordable housing units. It (strategy) needs federal leadership.”
Powell-Davidson also feels a better partner is needed at the local level. She says the Liberals will run a small deficit over the next three years while investing hugely in infrastructure.
“That includes housing,” she said. “We have so many seniors…But what we really have a problem with is homelessness. We need to have a partner. We need to have transitional housing with all the services that come along with that. Housing is not a problem, it’s a solution, and that’s what we’re committed to working on.”
Sollitt said the Greens want to invest $800 million a year for infrastructure, particularly for First Nations for housing and fresh water. Another idea is an infrastructure bank to finance underfunded municipalities.
Biley says the Harper government did not re-negotiate the Health Care Accord but instead unilaterally decided on a new funding formula to reduce the increase in yearly funding starting in 2017. On the other hand, she says the Tories claim more money has been invested in infrastructure and seniors housing. But she says all of that money is going to private operators which reduce staff, flip contracts, and hire temporary foreign and low-paid workers who need two or three jobs to survive.
“The care that seniors is provided with is no longer government’s responsibility,” Biley said. “That’s an unacceptable situation. We need new arrangements to make that effective.”
In terms of developing the local economy, Biley suggests changing direction to develop resources domestically instead of exporting raw logs.
Duncan said there are sawmills on Vancouver Island, and that the forest industry is seeking laborers because they can’t find them.
“I can tell you that the forest sector is on its way back,” he said. “The industry is now profitable again…We have innovation going on in mills as close as Port Alberni.”
Johns says raw log exports have gone up tenfold on the Island over the past decade.
“I haven’t seen a lot of Help Wanted signs in Port Alberni,” he said. “Unemployment is extremely high there. A third of the children are living in poverty. They’re desperate…We need to diversify our economy.”
“Yes, Canada is a natural resource economy but we cannot put all of our eggs into that basket.”
She advocates investing in manufacturing, sciences, technology and entrepreneurism.
“We obviously need to bring jobs back home,” Sollitt said, noting the Greens want to set up a Canadian Sustainable Generations fund to fuel a quicker transition from a hydro carbon-based economy to something more sustainable. The party also advocates increasing tax on large corporations from 15 to 19 per cent while lowering small business tax to nine per cent.
Johns suggests we cannot have an economy or healthy communities without a healthy environment.
“Climate change is going to cost us a lot of money if we don’t get on top of it,” he said.
Biley said we need to restore the situation where science is used to decide public policy, as opposed to public policy being used to muzzle scientists.
Duncan is not sure where this narrative (muzzling of scientists) originates, but refutes it when he hears it. He says the Tories have grown the economy and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. He also notes aquaculture practices that are recognized throughout the world. In addition, Duncan said 91 per cent of DFO requests have been addressed by scientists.
Coast Guard issues
As for the pending closure of the Comox Coast Guard station, Duncan said the four major coastal stations and one in Vancouver are being centralized in Prince Rupert and Victoria without any job loss. The rationale is efficiency, in terms of software development and better technology.
Biley pointed out the Victoria station would be evacuated under a tsunami warning.
“I don’t mind a lack of efficiency when it comes to keeping our boats and boaters safe,” Sollitt said. “We would advocate to keep the local facility. We would re-open the Kitsilano facility. I think as local as we can possibly attain our services the better off we are.”
“I’m mad as heck, and I hope you are too,” Powell-Davidson said. “We’re surrounded by water. How dare our government take away those facilities that protect us.”
Johns said the NDP would restore cuts to the coast guard.
“The whole thing’s been a complete boondoggle,” he said.