It was the second last stop for the Skeena Bulkley-Valley election candidates in their long trek across the riding to participate in all-candidates debates, but for Prince Rupert, it was the one that really mattered.
All five riding candidates, including NDP incumbent Nathan Cullen, Conservative Party of Canada candidate Tyler Nesbitt, Liberal Party of Canada candidate Brad Layton, Green Party candidate Jeannie Parnell and Christian Heritage Party candidate Don Spratt, took part in the Prince Rupert All Candidates Forum at the Lester Centre of the Arts on Wednesday night.
Hosted by the Prince Rupert and District Chamber of Commerce, the forum featured opening remarks from each participant, a question and answer period from media members and the audience, and a brief summary.
The candidates’ opening remarks didn’t stray much from their parties’ platforms and featured few surprises. While no new potential policies were announced at the forum, each party’s candidate tried to differentiate themselves from the other choices available.
The Christian Heritage Party’s (CHC) Don Spratt got things going with a strong vision for a country with a large spiritual connection to God, and took a pro-life position to the CHC’s primary policy of abortion or sanctity of life.
“Canada was founded on principles that recognize the supremacy of God … or the natural law or law of nature,” said Spratt.
“Where [we] haven’t believed in God, it hasn’t gone very well.”
The Liberals’ Layton took the microphone next and challenged the federal Conservative government over a lack of good-paying jobs with benefits, housing problems in the Northwest, a gutting of the environmental assessment process for reviewing major industry projects and a lack of transparency behind the government’s decisions.
Layton also took the first shot of the night, saying “the local MP (Cullen) has not presented a plan that will work for our riding … but work more for [his own and fellow politicians’] futures rather than your future”.
The Conservatives’ Nesbitt stressed his upbringing in the city and connection to First Nations through his wife’s family, which includes three women of Nisga’a descent.
Nesbitt pushed the LNG industry as a responsible alternative to coal and took a shot at the provincial Liberal government, saying “Provincial mismanagement by Liberals has forced kids to move away from their parents [here]”. He continued to reiterate that the economic opportunities here with large industry knocking at our doorstep is a way for children to stay in town after graduating and receive high-paying jobs. Nesbitt also mentioned “only a Conservative government can protect our fragile economy for the next four years”.
NDP incumbent Cullen next spoke and detailed his visit to the schools in Prince Rupert, saying that parents should be proud of the kids in the region, as they asked a number of intelligent questions to the candidates.
Cullen thanked the audience for coming out despite “attack ads and gutter politics”.
“Telling the story of the Northwest to the rest of the country has been a privilege,” said Cullen, who has been in parliament for 10 years for the riding.
“It’s a story that the rest of the country needs to hear.”
Prince Rupert’s Parnell rounded out the introductions for the Green Party, and she focused heavily on the environment and First Nations’ issues that affect the riding.
“A lot of our own people are in poverty. I would like our federal government to ensure all our basic needs are met, including housing, clean water and having healthy food to eat,” she said, adding with 300 missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW), she’d call for a national inquiry.
Parnell finished by saying “violence against women is not acceptable and it needs to stop by men standing up and saying it’s not OK to treat women so disrespectfully”.
The question period of the night began with the recently signed Trans-Pacific Partnership by the Conservative government – a trade agreement between the Pacific Rim countries concerning economic and foreign policy.
Spratt had no prior knowledge of it, but said he is all for free trade.
Parnell mentioned how she didn’t appreciate the secrecy of the details behind the agreement, but added it may give corporations the right to sue governments over environmental protection laws “which may hurt the region”.
Nesbitt talked up the deal, saying the forestry industry will greatly benefit, with exporters having better access to customers, along with having reduced tariffs and it makes manufacturers more competitive (including lumber, shrimp, herring and mining materials).
Layton said the Liberals are in favour of trade, but not if the government sells out agriculture and the country’s food supply.
“If we bring in food from elsewhere, then what?” he said, adding he also doesn’t like the hidden details that have yet to be revealed.
The NDP’s Cullen said “if the government was confident about what’s in the deal, then they’d show us the deal” and that “’Just trust me’ is not enough to give confidence to [Prime Minister] Mr. [Stephen] Harper. Cullen blasted Harper for losing 450,000 manufacturing jobs over his tenure and having a high trade deficit.
Cullen was asked his views on the current environmental assessment process that the federal government uses. His response indicated a lack of faith in the entire review process, due to a “gutting” of the procedures by the Conservatives, with the public not being able to ask questions, a fish habitat not deemed important [for the proposed Pacific Northwest LNG facility] and the Conservatives’ basing their decisions on politics and not actual science.
The Conservatives’ Nesbitt was asked why there hasn’t been a national inquiry over missing and murdered Indigenous women by the federal government.
Nesbitt referred to his family, who have Nisga’a descent on his wife’s side and also having near and dear friends of First Nations descent. The candidate said that an inquiry may not necessarily be the way to go about the issue, while injecting funds into prevention of family violence programs and similar initiatives.
PTSD, Mental Illness
Cullen noted the figures of Canada losing more soldiers to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than combat in Afghanistan and said measures to help returning war veterans need to be enhanced.
Layton agreed, saying there has been a trend of disappearing mental illness care since the 1970s and that the Liberals would devote billions to treating mental illnesses such as PTSD and others.
Nesbitt offered some numbers, saying the Conservatives have opened seven new operational stress-injury centres and have expanded access to family-resource facilities, saying returning veterans “are the bravest people among us. They have scars, but they don’t always show it”.
Parnell stressed the holistic health policy of the Green Party and the suffering of First Nations people having to endure residential schools and colonization has led to a significant mental health problem within Aboriginal communities.
Spratt said that a spiritual decline has been happening in Canada for years now, which has led to a moral decline of the family, which leads to mental illness.
“If we’re not dealing with that, then we’re dealing with the leaves and not the root,” he said.
Barbaric Cultural Practices Hotline
Nesbitt was asked who is defined as needing assistance under the Conservatives’ proposed barbaric cultural practices help hotline. The candidate responded by saying those under threat of female genital mutilation or forced marriages need someone they can go to, and the hotline will support them in those situations.
“People think Conservatives aren’t passionate. That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Nesbitt said.
Children with Autism
Cullen began the discussion about the needs children with autism have, and said that the federal government has cut billions in federal health transfers and didn’t negotiate a new health accord, but just cut funding to provinces, saying “suck it up”.
“If you don’t have bodies on the ground and professionals [helping], treatment won’t work,” said Cullen.
Nesbitt challenged Cullen, saying health transfers to provinces are at record levels and will continue to stay that way.
Cullen and Nesbitt battled over the recent niqab debate that is garnering headlines nation-wide. Cullen noted that the issue of a woman covering her face for religious reasons during a citizenship ceremony is “Distraction Politics 101” only affecting two women in the country and is “dog whistle tactics”. He stated that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being upheld in court, but not by the government [who challenged a judge’s decision to not ban the niqab on Muslim women during the ceremony].
Nesbitt said it is appropriate to show your face and that the timing of a judge’s ruling with different political leanings and the subsequent challenge by the Conservative government just happened to align with the election.
“Other countries are entitled to their culture [and behaviour in a citizenship ceremony] and we’re entitled to ours,” Nesbitt said.
First Nations Title
The candidates were asked about how they view First Nations rights and title to the land they occupy. Cullen began by saying industry projects seeking social license for their facilities need prior and informed consent and need agreements in place with the First Nations bands that reside in the area.
“The government calls people names – ‘foreign-funded radicals’, ‘enemy of the state’. I don’t know how this is supposed to improve relationships … We don’t need more conflicts or more courts, we need recommendations and respect,” said Cullen.
Layton added that rights, respect, co-operation and partnership are crucial in establishing rights and title and a Liberal government would have a renewed relationship with Indigenous populations and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau would meet with First Nations leaders each year that the Liberals are in power.
Nesbitt said that with the Conservatives’ position of delegating powers, the party empowers First Nations groups.
“That may surprise you, but that’s our/my position,” he said.
Parnell said that she absolutely recognizes Aboriginal rights and title, while Spratt said that the federal government has a responsibility to facilitate honest debate, and while dozens of groups across the country shouldn’t have veto powers, the country needs to get its resources to market.
“But the federal government needs to be fair,” he said.
The bulk of the debate at the end of the forum was focused on the proposed Pacific Northwest (PNW) LNG terminal off of Lelu Island near Port Edward.
Spratt didn’t know the area too well, but said LNG has a safe record behind it, there’s a big market for it and the nation needs to take advantage of it, while making sure the environment is protected.
Parnell noted that the Tsimshian Nation have a say in the location and the salmon-spawning grounds need to be protected.
For Nesbitt, the candidate supports the LNG export industry, because it brings benefits to countless people in the riding.
“If you care about climate change and how we do it, send a product that burns half the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions as coal. Let’s get Asia off of it,” he said, adding that the First Nations that have signed on the various pipeline and export terminal agreements recognize this.
Layton offered his take that the Liberals support economic development, but the process also needs sound environmental practices. He noted that four other terminal facilities were being considered by PNW and he would like to know where those were, which might be used as an alternative to the Lelu Island site.
Cullen strongly noted the importance of the $140 million per year wild salmon economy and said that the eelgrass environment is crucial to the area as salmon breeding grounds.
“There’s still opportunities for the company to correct course and get it done,” said Cullen.
Cullen vs. Nesbitt
The LNG debate spurred a heated discussion between Cullen and Nesbitt.
“If you want to kill LNG, vote NDP,” said the Conservative candidate.
Cullen responded by saying “It’s fair to raise questions about projects. I don’t think it’s fair that raising questions vilifies you … It’s called intelligent discussion”.