Short, efficient answers and partisan tensions were in no short supply during the civil yet at times passive-aggressive all-candidates debate for the Chilliwack-Kent riding on October 14.
During the opening statement segment, Incumbent Laurie Throness (B.C. Liberals) came out of the gate with a defensive stance against his opponents painting him as a strong advocate for conversion therapy.
“That’s just wrong,” Throness said of the allegations. “In fact, I’ve never made a statement about conversion therapy, and I decry and oppose any course of practice to change another’s identity.” Throness went on to use his opening statement to tout his championing of “the dignity and worth of every British Columbian.”
The October 14 debate marks the first The Observer has heard from Eli Gagne, the riding’s Libertarian candidate. Gagne has lived in Chilliwack for the past 20 years and is by his own admission new to the world of politics but throughout the debate has expressed an openness for suggestions and an eagerness to learn.
Gagne managed to stay out of the partisan bickering the other candidates exchanged throughout the debate. However, he has expressed dissatisfaction with the status quo.
“I haven’t been very happy with the way things have been going, so here I am, an everyday, working man to see what kind of differences I can make,” he said.
Touting his experience in Chiliwack City Council and the Fraser Valley Regional District, Independent candidate Jason Lum said he believes Chilliwack-Kent deserved better and pledged to put forth the riding’s specific needs if elected. This drive for Chilliwack-Kent specificity is a factor that came into play with a number of Lum’s arguments throughout the evening.
NDP Candidate Kelli Paddon agreed that everyone should have a voice in Victoria, stating the choices the government makes now affects the future generations and wants to ensure that “Chilliwack-Kent’s voice is heard and that everyone here is represented in those choices.”
B.C. Greens candidate Jeff Hammersmark was not present during the debate. The B.C. Greens and Hammersmark have yet to return media inquiries from The Chilliwack Progress and The Observer concerning Hammersmark’s stances and the confirmed status of his campaign.
On LGBTQ rights
Gagne, Lum and Paddon were firm in their commitments to support any legislation that improves the recognition of rights and quality of life for LGBTQ individuals. Throness, as well, stressed his personal stance on equality for all, but he took a different approach.
“Every piece of legislation is a unique thing,” Throness countered. “You have to look at the legislation before you decide whether you can oppose or support it. I don’t at all rule it out that I would support legislation in this area, but I would have to look at it. I think that’s only logical.”
“I think it’s telling that Mr. Throness has to start the debate in his introduction already defending some of his views and some of the things that have been said about him,” Lum said. “It’s simple – LGBTQ rights are human rights. Trans rights are human rights.”
When asked about the top infrastructure projects in the riding, Throness stressed the need for diking for flood protection, $50 million to refurbish Chilliwack General Hospital’s emergency department (which he said has been committed already) and Cultus Lake wastewater infrastructure.
Paddon did not have specific projects in mind but stressed her pledge to bring voter voices to Victoria.
“I would be asking, representing Chilliwack-Kent, on why [are infrastructure projects] stop in Abbotsford?” she said.
Lum agreed with two of Throness’s three points, adding transportation issues to the Cultus Lake and flood protection issues. Gagne, like Paddon, had no specific projects listed but wants to investigate education and transporation needs.
On the opioid crisis
Regarding harm reduction versus safe supply methods in fighting the opioid crisis, Gagne stated he was in favour of safe injection sites.
“We’re a party that is not about necessarily telling people what they can and cannot do,” he said. “They should at least have a safe place to do it.”
Lum said he supports both harm reduction and safe injection sites, adding he has also long advocated for outreach services and assistance for those with mental health and addiction issues.
“It’s unacceptable we live in a society where so many people are falling through the cracks,” he said.
Paddon agreed the issue required more than the two facets mentioned to battle addiction in the province, stating the NDP has started the groundwork by doubling youth treatment beds, for example.
Throness slammed the NDP’s approach, saying monthly opioid deaths have increased under their watch. He said safe supply should be an exception rather than the rule, stressing the need for long-term residential treatment. Paddon used her first of two rebuttal cards to call the B.C. Liberals and Throness himself out.
“I do find it very surprising that Laurie would say that harm reduction is for emergencies. This is an emergency,” Paddon said. “The failure to recognize this as an emergency shouldn’t be surprising because it took the B.C. Liberals until 2016 to call it an emergency.”
On First Nations community relations
This user-submitted question asked the candidates about how they will represent their respective First Nations communities in Victoria.
Gagne is First Nations by ancestry and said it’s important that they are recognized and is open to suggestions. Lum prided himself on working hard to better understand First Nations cultures and needs and pledged to work harder to build those relationships. Paddon, too, looked forward to continuing her education on First Nations issues.
Throness took a jab at his fellow candidates saying he’s been “doing tangible things,” such as voting for legislation to give First Nations communities a share in the lottery benefits. He said he also advocates for a number of issues concerning local First Nations including protection of Stó:lō burial mounds, access to logs for Seabird Island and reliable power for the Sts’ailes First Nation.
On senior care and needs
Concerning addressing the needs of the aging population, Paddon and Throness agreed that the pandemic has exposed a lot of weaknesses in the structure of province-wide senior care.
Throness said the Liberals have promised $1 billion to refurbish senior homes across B.C. and tax credits to allow seniors to live at home for longer; despite what’s been done, he acknowledges efforts to this point have still fallen short.
“We need to take further, stronger steps,” he said.
Paddon was quick to blame the Liberals for “16 years of cuts and neglect” that brought the senior care system to its present state.
“We’re fixing under-staffing, we’re fixing the problems the B.C. Liberals left behind and we have a plan to care for seniors,” she said. “I’m very surprised to hear plans to inject funds into seniors coming from the B.C. Liberals when many of the issues that came up, exposed by the pandemic, that we are in the process of fixing, they came up during the 16 years of cuts to support and funding.”
Lum asked both Paddon and Throness for projects they’ve touted specifically for the riding. There were no rebuttals.
Gagne said his father passed away in May and had his own issues with the current care system and wants to investigate the issue on a deeper level.
“He could’ve had a better quality of life and maybe a longer life if things were in place as far as senior care goes,” he said.
On highway widening and transit
The user-submitted question asked about widening the highway out to Chilliwack-Kent and about the current policy to allow only certain unions to bid on public projects.
All candidates agreed widening Highway 1 would help ease congestion and environmental issues surrounding highway travel. Gagne said he didn’t see why those outside of the currently allowed unions should not be allowed to submit their bids.
Lum pointed out neither the NDP nor the Liberals before them ever got the widening project to the bidding stage, but he pledged to advocate for what was fiscally responsible. He pointed out the highway widening wasn’t the only option and would love to see the addition of light rail and rapid bus systems.
Paddon said the current NDP government has already committed to widening and modernizing out to Abbotsford and that hiring local workers would be best.
While Throness agreed that the current bidding system needs to stop, he again slammed the NDP for setting up the system in the first place and pointed out the B.C. Liberals have promised to widen the highway to Whatcom, farther than the NDP has pledged.
Lum used his first rebuttal of the evening to point out Chilliwack-Kent is still left out of the equation.
“With all due respect to Mr. Throness, he said today’s B.C. Liberals have committed to widening the highway out to Whatcom Road. Actually, yesterday’s B.C. Liberals committed to widening the highway out to Whatcom Road as well,” Lum countered.
Throness shot back that while it’s true the Liberals promised this in 2017, they did not form government and the NDP – which he says promised the same thing – has also failed to deliver.
On economic recovery
What was originally the final question concerned economic recovery and helping those vulnerable populations especially affected by the social issues during COVID-19.
Throness said the Liberals would keep spending on education and healthcare and outdo the NDP on child care spending. He further touted the economic stimulus that’s supposed to be brought on by the proposed PST cut.
“We have a real eye on the bottom line to get a balanced budget in five years,” he said. He wants to hire more mental health workers for the homeless population in addition to building more affordable housing.
Paddon countered that the PST tax cuts would only help those at the economic top, saying the cut won’t help pay for groceries, rent or housing. Paddon said the NDP will be focusing on the populations who need recovery the most, highlighting the tourism industry and small businesses in particular.
Lum again scoffed at the partisan fighting, calling Paddon and Throness out and asking what specifically is needed in Chilliwack-Kent.
“I think you ensure those vulnerable don’t get forgotten by holding powers accountable,” Lum added. “It’s easy to have a party line and deliver it tonight. What’s harder is after the election is won…to deliver on some of those promises.”
Gagne agreed with Paddon that assisting small businesses is paramount to local economic recovery.
Throness used his second and final rebuttal to counter Lum, announcing again that the Liberals will devote $50 million to refurbishing the Chilliwack General Hospital emergency department.
“This is the beauty of being a part of party that link arms together, makes a plan together and actually forms government and makes that plan happen,” Throness added, taking an obvious swing at Lum’s independent status.
Extra question: on tightening conservation regulations
The first “bonus” question – one of the few that drew no outright cross-party blows – aimed to address the need for better protection of the wilderness areas in Chilliwack-Kent from illegal dumping, violations and overuse.
Gagne did not have a specific answer but was open to suggestions. Lum said he’s been advocating for this, saying violations of this nature should have quadruple the current fines and there should be more Conservation Services officers in the back country to ensure its preservation.
Paddon agreed that the efforts to preserve the natural lands would require multiple levels of government working together and that she is eager to learn more from the people directly affected by such violations.
Throness said the Liberals have promised to double camping spaces in B.C.
“During the COVID time, people flocked to the Chilliwack River Valley because they wanted open spaces and the provincial parks were closed, so they really clogged the highway and left a lot of garbage.” He added the hosted campsites are much more orderly and stressed the need to create more in the riding.
Extra question: on climate crisis
The final question concerns incorporating climate change measures into economic recovery.
Throness said the Liberal government has already done much and that 93 per cent of the province’s electricity is clean.
“Ours was a revenue-neutral carbon tax in that we gave back in tax relief,” Throness said. “The NDP took over $1 billion per year to have more big government programs.” Throness added he hopes to add more infrastructure for electric vehicles as that market continues to develop.
Paddon embraced the current government’s initiatives, heralding the NDP’s efforts as the most ambitious climate change plan in North America.
“We’ve set amazing targets and we’re very excited about the investment in technology and learning that we’re making to make sure that happens,” Paddon said. She added the B.C. Liberals ignored the recommendations of an environmental action panel the Liberal government assembled.
Lum for the third time asked for Chilliwack-Kent specifics from both Throness and Paddon and said he’s been an advocate for the protection of natural assets and conservation through his work with the Fraser Valley Regional District and with Chilliwack City Council.
Gagne again took an investigative approach, aiming if elected to further investigate why further action has not been taken.
Viewers selected and submitted questions for the candidates via the online polling platform Slido. The debate originally had candidates answer seven questions, but due to candidates frequently being under their allotted time, there was time for two extra questions.
The Chilliwack riding debate saw more than 150 user-submitted questions roll in.
William Klassen, Chilliwack Chamber of Commerce president, served as moderator. As of the Thursday following the debate (October 15), the 3.5-hour-long video had more than 1,400 views.
If elected, Gagne, Hammersmark or Lum would be the first members of their respective parties to be elected to this riding’s MLA seat.
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