It was a south-end debate, but it had a broader scope than that.
Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection candidates debated numerous issues for more than two hours Monday at an all-candidates’ meeting at the Harbour City Theatre hosted by the South End Community Association.
The question-and-answer format did not allow for rebuttals, so a lot of topics were covered over the course of the evening, including the fentanyl crisis and First Nations reconciliation.
During discussion of the opioid crisis, NDP candidate Bob Chamberlin called for more stringent customs inspections to try to get at a source of the problem.
“It’s the lives of our next generation that we’re watching fade away…” he said. “We have to start by cutting off the heads that feed the dragon of the fentanyl crisis that we’re facing.”
Michelle Corfield, Liberal candidate, replied that the Liberals have increased border security and introduced new customs measures. She pointed to her government’s recent investments in research around opioid testing and said a multi-faceted strategy is needed.
“You have to A, stop it, but B, be able to treat it while you’ve got it and be able to deal with the issues at hand today,” she said. “So today, naloxone. Today, screening.”
Jennifer Clarke of the People’s Party of Canada replied to the fentanyl question by criticizing Canada’s border security and said it’s because Prime Minister Justin Trudeau invited refugees from the U.S.
“We’re going to be tightening up the borders and make sure that there’s a bus waiting for them – we’ll make sure it’s an electric bus – that they can get back on and go back home to upstate New York,” she said.
She said the PPC would get tough on crime and drug dealers with stiff minimum sentences.
Progressive Canadian candidate Brian Marlatt said he was disturbed that other candidates were focused on enforcement and the supply of drugs.
“What we need to be doing is addressing demand and what causes people to use drugs,” he said. “We have enormous problems with poverty. We have enormous problems with social dysfunction. We have enormous problems with people who are outside of society whose conditions cause them to act in ways which are not in their own best benefit.”
Green Party candidate Paul Manly suggested trying to enforce fentanyl coming into Canada through the ports “is like trying to find a needle in a haystack” and said the focus should be on separating criminality from hard drug use.
“The crime lords, that’s who’s regulating the market and they will continue to regulate the market until the government steps up and does the right thing and starts to look at the models that are successful around the world to treat addiction like the problem that it is – it’s a social problem; it’s a health problem,” said Manly.
John Hirst, Conservative candidate, said his party will get tough on organized crime and better resource police, while ensuring social supports on the other side of the issue.
“I will personally advocate for more addictions and mental health services for our community, always…” Hirst said. “It’s always a system of continual improvement and if we save just one life then it’s worthwhile.”
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Candidates were asked about truth and reconciliation with the Snuneymuxw First Nation, but Corfield pointed out that there are three other First Nations within the Nanaimo-Ladysmith riding, as well – Snaw-Naw-As, Stz’uminus and Lyackson.
She said the fedearl government has invested $8.1 billion in “First Nations issues,” sits at 85 recognition tables and has forgiven loans related to treaty negotiations.
“This government is more committed than any other government to address First Nations issues,” she said. “Every single mandate letter contains them.”
Chamberlin said Conservative and Liberal governments have taken the “narrowest possible view” of indigenous rights. On truth and reconciliation, he said he would wish to work not only with First Nations governments, but also cultural leaders, elders and school districts to try to create and expand understanding.
“And that way we can start to begin to look at a longer-term societal change, a longer-term view of this country becoming all it can be,” Chamberlin said. “And I believe that by doing this societal reconciliation, it’ll remove reconciliation from a political platform into something that is actually what this country is about – equality, justice and recognition of all people’s human rights.”
Clarke said the PPC wants to honour First Nations and recognize aboriginal right to fisheries, oceans and land.
“Our No. 1 priority is to unite all Canadians – First Nations and everyone from all different backgrounds – together, because we are all Canadians first,” she said.
Marlatt said the benefits for indigenous and non-indigenous people are advanced when First Nations are “fully engaged in Canadian society” and suggested the notion of “nation states” is divisive.
“The ethnicity of certain peoples is not really where we should be even focusing, but rather on their shared culture, their shared contributions to Canada…” Marlatt said. “I want to see Canadians of all backgrounds being able to work together, live together in harmony rather than pitting one Canadian against another.”
Manly gave examples from his filmmaking work of how he’s listened to and heard First Nations and First Nations elders.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a whole bunch of recommendations that need to be brought forward, but I take my own personal level of reconciliation with First Nations seriously and I’ve done it for years,” he said.
Hirst suggested that he respected the wisdom of the candidates with First Nations heritage, and added that the Conservative Party supports the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.
“As a party we support that and harmonizing that with the laws of the land,” he said.
Some of the other topics discussed at Monday’s all-candidates’ meeting were transportation infrastructure, affordable housing, climate change and coastal waters protection.
The Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection is May 6.