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Bay of Quinte candidates focus on issues facing youth in online debate

By Tom Harrison
Bay of Quinte provincial election candidates squared off in an online debate Tuesday night that focused on youth issues, hosted by the United Way Hastings & Prince Edward Youth2Youth.

The four mainstream party candidates were in attendance, while Rob Collins from the New Blue Party and Noah Wales from the Ontario Party both sent regrets.

In his introduction, incumbent MPP Todd Smith noted he’d been elected since 2011, and has represented Bay of Quinte as a Progressive Conservative since the new riding was formed in 2018. Smith acknowledged the focus of the debate on youth, noting he was probably the oldest participant, but heard “a lot of what young people are up to” because he is married to an educator, and they have young daughters.

“What it comes down to is being able to deliver results for the Bay of Quinte riding,” Smith said.

Emilie Leneveu, Liberal candidate, described herself as a 2018 graduate and valedictorian of Loyalist College representing the Ontario Liberal Party. In her early 20s, she holds the distinction of being one of the youngest candidates in the election. She described the focus on young people as “one of my favourite topics,” noting that many youth across the province are voting for the first time.

Alison Kelly, representing the NDP, described herself as a Mom and public-school trustee. She pointed to her recent work with Prince Edward Recreation Outreach Centre to highlight her commitment to youth issues.

“You can have a government that focuses on things that are important to you. The NDP is about putting people first,” she said, adding “nobody and no youth left behind.”

Green candidate Erica Charlton is back on the campaign trail after carrying the banner for the federal party in last year’s election. She expressed disappointment that a lot of the provincial issues were the same as in 2021. She said the “Green Party has new solutions to old problems,” emphasizing that she grew up in the region and was dedicated to making sure today’s youth had the same opportunities as her.

Charlton emphasized the signature environmental focus of the Green Party.

“We’ve seen this week the effects of climate change. Some of us weren’t so lucky – as we come to dealing with these more frequent and extreme climate events,” Charlton said, referring to the damaging storm that hit central and eastern Ontario last Saturday.

Candidates were presented with five pre-set questions and given two minutes each to respond.

The first question addressed cost of living.

Leneveu noted affordability is “top of mind” for voters saying it was “the number one thing heard at doors.” The Liberals plan to increase minimum wage to take into account regional wage needs. She also mentioned the Liberals’ ‘Affordability Pledge’, implementing rent control and their commitment to slash transit fares to a dollar throughout the province.

Smith said that making life more affordable was a “key plank” of the PC platform. He noted electricity prices are down over the last four years and the Conservative government had opposed the carbon tax.

“There are better ways to fight climate change,” Smith said, noting PCs also plan to cut gas prices by 5.7 cents a litre for six months. He added the PCs have scrapped drivers licence fees and have plans to build more housing.

Kelly took issue with Smith’s comments saying that getting rid of “licence plate stickers doesn’t help non-drivers” and that capping gas prices would not address more fundamental problems like the need for dental health and pharmacare.

The NDP plans to cut auto rates by 40 per cent, give new home buyers up to 10 per cent of their purchase price for a down payment, raise minimum wage by $1 a year every year to get it to $20, and to end rental evictions during the health crisis.

The Green candidate noted that housing, transit and inflation are peoples’ biggest costs. Charlton said Greens will reduce the cost of living by tackling these issues simultaneously and to build affordable, supportive and community housing. The Green Party would also increase the minimum wage, electrify transit and keep money within community by supporting small business and helping farmers.

The next question touched on what each party would do to address inequity.

Smith described the establishment of the Premier’s Council on equality of opportunity and noted that a lot of young people were involved with the discussion. He acknowledged there was a “changing face in Quinte” but that overall Ontario was very multicultural. He pointed to his work with indigenous communities to bring opportunities, including energy projects in northern Ontario as evidence of his work in this area

Alison Kelly noted that equity was woven into the NDP platform and said that “racism, xenophobia and homophobia are problems in our community – no one should have to face fear or hate when they leave their homes.”

The NDP plans to collect race-based data, to end carding, will treat anti-black racism as a public health crisis and ensure health care is culturally appropriate. She also committed to amending the school curriculum and said that as a trustee there were “youth in our community who are not feeling welcome.”

Charlton said the Green Party would advance and protect equity by implementing standard recording for incidents in schools and seek to reflect diversity in staffing. The Greens would also update curriculum, restore indigenous curriculum funding and include topics like colonialism, residential schools and treaties.

“We do have a racism problem, that needs to be addressed,” Charlton agreed with Kelly.

The Liberal candidate said “it’s so imperative that we focus on equity but also intersectionality” and noted the many contributions and varying backgrounds of those who built the province. Leneveu committed to Indigenous reconciliation, to restore the curriculum and to make sure everyone was treated equitably, including those in the francophone community.

The third question asked the candidate’s positions on mental health, particularly in light of the increased challenges presented by the pandemic.

Kelly noted that with her past work at the ROC youth centre and as trustee, she saw “so many struggling with addictions and mental health.” She said the NPD believes essential health care includes mental health and that people, especially children, should not be put on waitlists for months. The NDP will bring health care under OHIP, declare the opiate crisis a public health emergency, set up pharmacare, hire more doctors and institute 10 paid sick days for workers.

For her part Charlton noted that mental health challenges from the pandemic disproportionally affect vulnerable communities. She said the Green Party would ensure that everyone has access to examinations and medications. The Greens also plan to bring mental health treatment under OHIP and to reduce wait times for children to 30 days.

Leneveu started her response by stating that one in five youth will struggle, but only one in four will get help.

“This is unacceptable,” she said.

She noted the Liberal party also prioritizes the mental health of nurses and doctors and would re-instate recent cuts to mental health and add supports. The Liberals’ plan to repeal Bill 124, which recently imposed wage limit increases on nurses.

Smith noted that PCs continue to invest in health care and expect a 3.8 billion increase to mental health over the next few years and that the provincial government had appointed a stand-alone minister responsible for mental health.

The fourth question addressed the environment.

Charlton noted the Green Party’s major commitment to addressing the environment and the climate crisis saying “at end of day we will not be able to buy our way out of the climate crisis regardless of how much we save at the gas pumps – we need immediate action now.”

For her part, the Liberal candidate mentioned the past elimination of coal plants and the importance of putting a price on cost pollution. She said she “hoped carbon pricing is here to stay,” but also noted the desire to keep things affordable. The Liberal platform promises to cut greenhouse gases by 50 per cent by 2030.

Smith emphasized the importance of targeted investments to eliminate coal-fired steel production, describing their replacement with electric arc furnaces at places like Algoma, which he says will substantially reduce emissions. The Conservative candidate also highlighted the development of small modular nuclear reactors that will help in the future.

Kelly criticized the actions of the Ford government which she said had “gutted the conservation authority,” and “ripped out vehicle charging stations”. She emphasized the NDP plan for a retrofit program, and the intention to hold big corporations accountable by making them pay for pollution.

The last pre-set question addressed the education curriculum, especially in light of the gap created by a lack of comprehensive sexual health education.

Charlton said that the Greens will work to ensure children have information and tools so they are safe.

“Reverting to 1998 curriculum put our children at risk,” she said, noting the old program was silent on consent, gender diversity and how to navigate in the online world. “If we want our kids to be safe they have to be informed,” Charlton added.

Kelly addressed the PC incumbent directly on this question saying she had raised this issue with Smith in 2018 and had felt he “completely disregarded genuine concerns [she] had.” She went on to say the NDP supports a curriculum that reflects the reality of youth today by teaching them about consent and safety online.

Smith asserted that curriculum needed to be updated and that it was.

“It’s important to change curriculum to address human trafficking and dangers of things like internet stalking and phishing online,” he said, but added that schools “really need to get back to things to ensure [students] could get a job” like enhancing youth apprenticeships and emphasizing skilled trades.

A few additional audience questions rounded out the evening. The first focused on challenges with housing.

Kelly noted the NDP regards a house as a human right and has plans to give 10 per cent of the purchase price to new homeowners as a down payment.

The Liberal candidate expressed doubt that she would ever be able to afford a home, but noted the Liberal plan to build 1.5 million homes in the next 10 years.

For the Greens, Charlton highlighted the need for rent control, to changes to zoning for density to encourage multi-unit construction and for efforts to deter the conversion of living spaces into short-term accommodations.

Smith pointed to numerous pieces of housing legislation passed by Conservatives over the last few years, noting they are already seeing results, but that it will take time for these efforts to have an impact.

Candidates addressed further questions about costs for small businesses in raising the minimum wage, which all but Smith expressly supported.

The evening ended with a question dealing with the government’s handling of education and autism. Charlton noted the autism wait list, and indicated a desire to establish a community centre that could provide a wide range of supportive services. The Liberal candidate noted her party’s commitment to an independent review of services.

Smith agreed that youth centres generally needed more support and expressed support for meeting with the community to develop a plan to address the autism file.

Kelly challenged Smith directly, saying “your government promised a fully-funded program by 2020 and you failed autism,” also saying it was important instead for clinicians and parents to decide services, and not governments.

In closing remarks, Smith said, “we’ve been working together to accomplish a lot in spite of the pandemic.” He noted improvements in infrastructure, an expected new local YMCA, as well as several new schools.

Kelley finished the night by talking about some of her own recent advocacy to change municipal bylaws, and to allow youth to vote on municipal committees. She criticized the PC government’s priorities, including in building “a highway to nowhere” as well as Smith’s involvement in these decisions.

Charlton urged people to join the Green Party, noting it was not just about climate change but had a plan that could “offer real answers to old problems.”

For her part Liberal candidate Leneveu ended by noting that Premier Ford’s PCs have made lots of wrong choices.

“I want to make sure no one is left behind,” Leneveu said, to “truly invest in the next generation.”

Though the race has tightened since the start of the campaign, most polls still show the PCs with a comfortable lead, followed by the Liberals and NDP in a close race for second, followed by the Greens.

Advance polling locations are already open every day until May 28th. Polling locations and times can be found at Elections Ontario online. Election Day is June 2.

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