STELLARTON — More than 400 people attended the Central Nova federal candidates’ debate on Thursday at the Nova Scotia Community College’s Pictou campus.
They came to hear the five candidates who attended: incumbent Liberal MP Sean Fraser, as well as challengers George Canyon of the Conservatives, Betsy MacDonald of the New Democratic Party, Green Party of Canada candidate Barry Randle and Al Muir of the People’s Party of Canada.
The audience fulfilled a request by moderators to withhold comments or clapping during the debate. However, those attending ended the event with a standing ovation to reflect its approval for the format and the respect the candidates showed one another through the two-hour debate.
“Outstanding!” former local MLA Clarrie MacKinnon exclaimed. “This was the most respectful debate I have ever seen. There was not one bit of talking over one another. I’m so proud of the audience and the fine candidates.”
Both MacKinnon and former Central Nova candidate Jim MacConnell drew comparisons with the televised English language debate last week.
“I found it great,” MacConnell said of the local event. “The forum was great.”
Jessie Conrad said she was glad she attended.
“It was very educational,” she said. “It’s my first time ever at a debate. I would do it again.”
Dodie Goodwin said she enjoyed the event.
“I was impressed with the quality of the people willing to serve,” she said.
The debate was hosted and organized by The Advocate, with Vision Fire, Pulse Pictou County, the Pictou County Chamber and the NSCC Pictou campus as presenting partners.
It began with opening statements from the five candidates.
Canyon said he could think of no greater opportunity than to serve Central Nova.
“We believe in small government. We believe in focused government,” Muir said. “What you have to decide is what is important to you.”
Randle and MacDonald emphasized the need for Canadians to address climate change.
“We didn’t heed the science (in 1984),” MacDonald said. “Here we are in 2019. I want a better future for (my child.).”
Fraser said working abroad opened his eyes to solutions to problems that can be applied in Canada.
“I want to continue to help solve those problems,” he said.
Five themes were offered to the candidates to discuss. They included health care, encouraging more people to vote, combating climate change, the future of Northern Pulp and international trade and the diplomatic relations between China and Canada.
Candidates were also given an opportunity to voice what they feel are the biggest problems facing Canadians.
Candidates were given paddles to signal their desire to give a rebuttal to an issue.
Regarding health care, Muir stressed how the cost of health care has doubled in the last 13 years. He said successive Liberal, Progressive Conservative and NDP governments have not found solutions for Nova Scotia.
“It’s not really a case of throwing money at the problem,” Randle said. “It’s not being spent wisely.”
He advocated for adding more seats in medical schools and offering doctors incentives to come and stay in the area.
Canyon said doctors need more time to practise medicine and spend less time on administration.
MacDonald decried the lack of mental health service at the Aberdeen Hospital. “Maintaining the status quo is not good enough,” she said. “It hurts our economy when people are sick.”
Fraser noted federal funding already rolled out to address mental health and in-home care in Nova Scotia.
Regarding voter turnout, Randle and MacDonald voiced strong support for reducing the voting age to 16. Randle also sided with proportional representation to get more people voting.
“A lot of people feel their votes don’t count,” he said. “The kids are leading the climate change revolution. We have to listen to them.”
Canyon opposed reducing the age and said social media can engage more Canadians to vote. He also cited a Conservative promise to complete Internet access in Central Nova.
Fraser said he and his election team have reached out to nearly all the 38,000 voters in Central Nova.
Muir said Canadians have soured on voting due to government inaction.
“They’re tired of being told health care will be fixed and it isn’t,” he said.
On the subject of the environment, Canyon shared the Conservatives’ campaign pledges that include a home tax credit to make them more energy efficient, while ending the Liberals’ carbon tax.
He said the tax will rise over time and cripple Canada’s economy. Fraser said it will rise if nothing else is done.
How climate change is addressed will determine our future, Randle said.
“It’s not all about what we have to do but what we have to stop doing,” he said, while adding that Canada needs to shift from coal, gas (by fracking or otherwise), oil and other fossil fuels.
“We have to leave that stuff in the ground,” he said.
Fraser said climate change is impacting every facet of society, while pointing to campaign promises that include a 2050 net zero pollution target, retrofitting homes and planting two billion trees to capture more carbon.
“I want Canada to do more than just do its part,” he said.
“Two billion trees won’t hide your pipe line,” MacDonald responded, with reference to the Trans-Mountain project to move Alberta bitumen to the West Coast.
Muir said green options will not meet our energy needs.
Northern Pulp’s future was the next issue, with the overarching sentiment to close Boat Harbour on January 31, 2020.
MacDonald and Randle said workers affected need to be retrained and pensions need to be honoured.
“It’s going to hurt as we move to a green economy,” Randle said.
MacDonald also voiced the need to diversify the forest industry and apply methods that add value to wood.
Fraser noted the $100 million in federal funding to help clean up Boat Harbour and repeated his position, based on the information he has seen, that he cannot approve the pulp mill’s effluent pipe proposal.
Canyon said he has “never seen a community so divided.”
“If this mill closes, we need to come together as a community and be there to support each other,” he said.
As for what candidates see as the biggest problem, Muir said it’s health care, while MacDonald and Randle voiced climate change.
Canyon said it’s Canada’s debt that he pegged as $768 billion. “Today’s debt is tomorrow’s taxes,” he said.
Fraser said it’s important to defend democracy and be able to engage with people on all subjects and issues.
Audience member Debbie Reid said the debate helped her decide how she would be voting.
“I’ve never been so interested in politics as I have been for the last two elections,” she said. “I came as an undecided voter, but I can honestly say I was very impressed with the candidates. I now feel it’s a toss-up between two of them.”