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Bay of Quinte candidates meet for final debate under the stars

Story and photo by Tom Harrison
“According to the polls,” says Prince Edward County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Lesley Lavender, “the election is currently a toss-up.”

With these words Lavender introduced the Bay of Quinte federal election candidates, who gathered under the stars last Thursday night at the Eddy farm in Wellington for a final local election debate. The event was the last in a series organized collaboratively between three Chambers of Commerce, including Belleville and Quinte West.

With one final chance to sway voters, candidates responded to questions while sitting under a tent on a raised and lighted stage in one of venue’s back fields. Despite a few bugs, the weather was ideal for the approximately 100 people who occupied wooden chairs, all apart from one another. The policy discussion stayed relatively civil, though had a couple of pointed moments.
Audience members represented a wide range of local residents. Cameron Main attended to support the Chamber of Commerce, as a local business owner of Compass Rose Suites in Milford. He is interested in policy issues about the economy and is concerned about “the alarming rise of social conservatism,” He also saw the debate as a “chance to get to know the candidates” individually.

Prince Edward County Mayor Steve Ferguson said the federal government was a critical player in several County issues. He identified housing, like the Wellington arena project, as well as infrastructure, as local areas of special concern. He said that the cost of re-surfacing Highway 49 alone was likely to be about $22 million, which would require support from other levels of government.

At the start of the debate, moderator Paul Martin reminded the audience to maintain social distance and masking protocols. Throughout the event, Martin deftly enforced time limits for questions, responses and rebuttals. Each candidate was given two minutes to make opening remarks.

Incumbent MP Neil Ellis represents the Liberal Party led by Justin Trudeau and got the first spot in a random draw. Ellis is seeking his third term as MP in Parliament. The former Mayor of Belleville (2006 – 2014) most recently served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food. The MP noted the cordiality that had developed between the candidates over the campaign, but said he would be “glad to have it over.”

To support his re-election, Ellis noted the 450 million Federal government dollars devoted to the Bay of Quinte over the last few years. Local initiatives include affordable housing and broadband internet. In his view, Liberals offer a “pragmatic plan for the future”, addressing significant challenges like climate change.

Next up, Stephanie Bell spoke on behalf of New Democrats, led nationally by Jagmeet Singh. This is Bell’s second kick at the can, having finished 3rd after running in the Bay of Quinte in the 2019 federal election.

Bell expressed exasperation at the current state of politics in Canada, describing the major parties as just the “same-old, same-old.” She went on to say, “we can be better, be different and find a new normal.” In appealing for support, she said that NDP party leader, “Jagmeet, inspires me every day.”

The candidate for the Conservative Party, led by Leader of the Official Opposition Erin O’Toole, went next. Ryan Williams is the President of Williams Hotels and past-president of the Bay of Quinte Tourism and Living Council, a key player in starting Belleville’s ‘Pop-Ups’ on the Bay.
“This is the most monumental election in 150 years,” Williams said. He listed a range of issues he thought presented a clear choice that favoured Conservatives, including affordable housing, mental health, and the pandemic recovery. “This is Quinte’s decade”, he said, also noting Conservatives had a “tremendous plan” to address local challenges.

Lori Borthwick spoke next for Green Party candidate Erica Charlton. Borthwick noted Charlton was unavailable to attend because she was self-isolating after a possible Covid exposure. She said the Green Party addressed climate change “like no other party in Canada.” Borthwick also pointed to the importance of starting to manage the transition to a “green economy”.

Last up was Janine LeClerc, the candidate for the Peoples’ Party , led nationally by former Conservative cabinet Minister Maxime Bernier. She noted the People’s Party was “fighting to re-gain freedoms” and called for an end to lockdowns. She accused current politicians of “violating every right known to man” and quoted right-wing news sources that accused the Canadian government of establishing what she described as “Hitler-like” internment camps.

LeClerc’s comments earned a rare rebuke from the moderator who urged the PPC candidate to keep the discussion reasonable, in particular by not invoking the name of the former Nazi leader.
Chamber of Commerce members initially presented three prepared questions. Jill Dennis-Raycroft from Belleville went first asking how each party would address the needs of rural residents by protecting access to daycare.

Ellis noted the Liberal plan for 10 dollar-a-day daycare, that currently has the support of seven provinces and one territory, though not yet Ontario. The NDP candidate expressed doubt the Liberals would ever deliver on their daycare promises and emphasized related needs for affordable housing and a basic income policy, each of which would support women’s independence.

Ryan Williams expressed support for women who he said deserve “every opportunity that men do”. He said the Conservative childcare plan is the better option since it “gives money back to parents.”

For her part, Green Party spokesperson Borthwick said women needed a guaranteed livable income, and noted continuing gender-based pay disparities.

Peoples’ Party candidate LeClerc said her party valued diversity, and also that women deserved the same pay for the same work.

Susan Andrews from the Quinte West Chamber asked candidates the second prepared question about how they would support businesses, especially to open back up given the public health crisis, as well as to protect workers.

The NDP’s Bell responded first by noting her long engagement in the service industry. She said it was important to provide clear information to businesses and workers, and expressed commitment to affordable housing “so people can live where they work.”

The Conservative candidate noted it was important to keep people safe, but also for businesses to be open. He spoke about his party’s proposals for different supports including training and increased pay for workers. He underscored the immediate challenges to businesses, describing a recent example of a restaurant in Picton that had to close because it didn’t have enough staff.
For the Green Party, Borthwick observed her own experience as a health care worker and expressed dismay at the “very real” consequences of the pandemic on people, saying it put her in a position to “see the true effects” of COVID-19. She emphasized her Party’s position to support and follow public health policy.

The Peoples’ Party candidate proposed to address pandemic-related needs by scrutinizing current plans in place by hiring an assessment team, which she said would identify the immediate financial needs of businesses. LeClerc also described proposals for low interest loans, with extended payback periods to help local companies.

The Liberal candidate pointed to a number of current government programs established to help Canadians and businesses. Ellis noted that 15,000 people in the riding had taken advantage of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB). He also highlighted the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). He said the program has helped 450,000 Canadian businesses so far, and indicated these measures would continue if needed.

Stephanie Bell rebutted the Liberal candidate’s remarks by noting the value of the CERB payments to individual Canadians at a higher level than originally proposed, up to $2000 a month, occurred only after the NDP advocated for the increase in parliament.

For the PEC Chamber, Lavender presented the final prepared question, asking candidates to address specifically how they would each deal with the local housing crisis.

Williams said solving housing problems would take some time and require a range of initiatives. He indicated his desire to work with municipalities to address the issue and also called for what he described as “innovative” solutions, like building ‘tiny homes’.

Borthwick said the Green party plans to support the construction of multi-unit dwellings to address the housing crisis. She emphasized the need to build affordable homes near public transit, as well as the need for rent assessment.

The PPC candidate observed the “difficult time” that seniors faced in accessing housing, and said there was a need for fair rent assessment. LeClerc also noted issues with the fair treatment of landlords, who may be unable to evict tenants under the current system.

Ellis pointed to the government’s National Housing Strategy, and indicated the support received locally for building more affordable housing provided about affordable 300 units in the riding. The Liberal candidate also pointed to support for the Wellington arena re-development, and the ability of Canadians to use their Tax Free Savings Accounts (TFSA) funds to buy homes.

To address the need for more homes, the NDP wants to build up to 500,000 new homes sustainably, Bell said. She also noted her Party’s plan would seek to retrofit older homes, with construction completed over the next decade.

Once prepared questions were finished, the moderator opened the floor to a wide range of audience questions.

Sherry Karlo of Karlo Estates winery highlighted her commitment to sustainability, and the production of the first certified vegan wine in the world. She asked about each candidate’s commitment to reducing carbon, and shifting to plant-based food security.
The Liberal candidate congratulated Karlo, and pointed to recent changes to the Canada Food Guide, that now emphasizes more plant-based food proteins. NDP candidate Bell pointed to her own experience running an organic business growing vegetables and re-iterated her promise to work to “make the right choices for the land.”

Ryan Williams earned some laughter from the audience when he noted his appreciation of the issue, gained from his nutritionist mother. He asked if the products were vegan, “does that count as eating a salad when you drink that wine?”

For her part, Green party representative Borthwick noted the connection to agriculture and climate changes, saying the shift to more plant-based foods could play an important role. She also suggested that a new agriculture policy should provide subsidies to farmers including paying to grow more cover crops to sequester carbon.

PPC candidate LeClerc characterized the discussion about climate change as “alarmist”, stating statistics suggesting climate change was not as big a challenge as described. In response the Green representative disputed LeClerc’s her figures. Borthwick acknowledged the current high levels of carbon in the atmosphere that led direct to numerous “devasting effects”, like more serious hurricanes.

Several candidates continued to respond to the issue, but the exchange provoked the moderator to intervene to stop the debate. Before moving on, Martin indicated that “the debate stage is not a place to determine the science” of the issue.

Peter Dudding asked the candidates about their support for oil subsidies and pipelines. The Conservative candidate expressed support for the oil industry and pointed to the safer transport of hydro-carbons by pipeline rather than by rail. Williams acknowledged the eventual need to reduce reliance on oil but said “we should use a dimmer, not a light switch” to ease the transition to other forms of energy.

Borthwick was unequivocal in her response, stating the position of the Green Party supports transitioning to a greener economy. “No more subsidies; no more pipelines,” she said.
PPC candidate LeClerc supports pipelines and indicated the value of oil revenue to Canada, the number of jobs the sector supported, and the benefits to the country of being energy self-sufficient.

The NDP candidate said the support for the oil industry should stop “if we are going to take the climate crisis seriously.”

The biggest audience applause for the night came for a young woman, who described herself as a “proud third generation dairy farmer”, who asked about government support for agricultural policy.

The PPC candidate indicated support for farms and stated her view that the Canadian border should be closed to US products.

Liberal Neil Ellis recognized the negotiation of compensation for farmers in existing trade agreements and promised there would be no more trade concessions on Canada’s system of supply management, which helps to regulate agricultural supply and price.

The NDP candidate mentioned the party’s support for a ‘National Foodways Strategy’, which their party website indicates would take a “whole-of-government approach to address regional needs and priorities by investing in agricultural communities” through various means.

Williams noted the Conservative Party support for the current supply management system, while Green Party representative also asserted the importance of the current regulatory regime.

One of the more pointed exchanges of the evening came after an audience question over vaccination, asking what the government would do if civil servants refused to get the treatment.
Representatives from the four parties all indicated support for the current public health policy, with varying levels of acknowledgement of a possible need for accommodations in some circumstances. The PPC candidate expressed her opposition to vaccination, and suggested current public health policy was comparable to racial segregation. She claimed the only reason support was so high for the current policy was that the media “had been bought by the Liberals.”

In response, a few audience members voice their objections, at least one shouting “get vaccinated” in reply.

As the moon rose over the event, and the darkness lengthened, the party representatives finished answering a few more audience questions, and, for the final time in debate in the 2021 campaign, summarized their last pitches.

In conclusion, moderator Paul Martin thanked the audience, the owners of the Eddy Farm, the Chambers of Commerce, and the candidates.

Afterward, the PEC Chamber Executive Director said she was pleased with the event. Lavender appreciated that party representatives took the time to try to address substantive matters.
“I really liked that the answers were about policy and not [just] funding,” she said.
If the tight polls are accurate, then local results may be a repeat of 2019’s close race in Bay of Quinte, which was one of the closest electoral battles in Eastern Ontario.

The election is on Monday, September 20, and polls are open for 12 hours from 9 am till 9 pm.



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