Four of the five candidates for Courtenay-Alberni’s federal government seat made their pitch at a public forum in Tofino Tuesday night.
The Marxist-Leninist Party’s Barbara Biley, NDP’s Gord Johns, Liberal’s Jonah Gowans and the Green Party’s Sean Wood laid out their platforms and answered questions from the audience during the two-hour event. Conservative candidate Byron Horner was also invited, but did not attend.
The Westerly News streamed the event live on its Facebook page www.facebook.com/WesterlyNews.
The four candidates were cordial with each other throughout the evening and unanimously agreed on several topics, including moving open-net salmon farms out of the ocean and into land-based, closed containment systems, acknowledging and acting on the global climate crisis and not allowing their party leaders to make them vote against their constituency’s wishes.
The conversation around voting in line with their political parties brought the only instance where one candidate interrupted another as Biley suggested that too often politicians vote against their own campaign promises after being elected, citing Liberal MP’s elected in B.C. who voted in favour of the Trans Mountain Pipeline as an example.
“The reason it happens is not because the individuals are rotten, it’s because the system is rotten. The system requires that parties have the power, not you; not the people,” Biley said. “We’ve heard both Gord [Johns] and the Conservative candidate [Byron Horner] make reference to the fact that, if you want something, you should elect somebody that’s going to be part of the ruling party…”
“I never said that. I don’t believe that. I would never say that,” Johns quickly interjected.
Biley immediately retracted the statement and apologized to Johns for the misrepresentation, while Jonah Gowans quipped, “Byron did say that.”
A microphone was set up so that members of the event’s modest audience of less than 100 people could speak directly to the candidates facing them from the community hall’s stage and the West Coast crowd took that opportunity in full, causing the event to run through its scheduled mid-way break and past its 9 p.m. end time.
One of the evening’s most powerful moments was provided by 80 year-old Ahousaht First Nation member Vera Little.
“I’m asking about housing for Indigenous people, not just on reserve but surrounding areas,” she said into the microphone.
“We haven’t been getting that,” she said adding a lack of housing is forcing multiple generations of families to live in one home. “We’re doing our best we can to fix that, but it needs a lot of funding and money.”
She cited promises by the Canadian Government and agreements made to ensure Indigenous people would receive funding for medical costs, housing, education as well as hunting and fishing rights, and said those promises have not been delivered.
“I’d like us to come back to the table and let them keep their word because we’ve kept ours,” she said. “I would truly, truly, in my lifetime, like to come back to the table and say we never asked for any changes because our ancestors were really smart and covered the most important areas.”
Gowans was the first candidate to respond and he emphatically agreed with Little.
“I want to thank you for that. That was absolutely critical to hear and you’re right. We have not, as a government, lived up to our word to you and there is no way to go back and make that right. The only thing we can do from here is to go forward and recognize all that we have done wrong and work to make it as right as possible,” he said. “Those five promises have been broken and need to be brought back to the forefront…The recognition of those five promises would be a good first step on the way towards reconciliation. I agree entirely with you just said.”
Johns said the federal government must invest more in First Nations communities.
“It’s really hard to talk about reconciliation, when you don’t have safe housing, when you don’t have a healthy place to live, when your healthcare isn’t adequate, when you don’t have clean drinking water in some Nations,” he said.
He added he has seen the cramped housing situations in Ahousaht firsthand and that partial funding from the federal government is not enough.
“A project comes forward and you need $1.8 million to build a six-plex and the government says, ‘We’ll give you $1.2 million.’ That’s clearly not enough, so you build substandard housing and not for enough people. It’s shameful,” he said adding the Liberal Government has been too slow to fund vital projects.
“They’ve got to get elected twice to spend the bulk of the money. They haven’t been getting the money out the door. Our plan is to get the money out the door right away.”
Wood said it was “heartbreaking” to listen to Little’s question.
“I’m a settler-colonist. My ancestors were part of the problem definitely more than part of the solution. As an MP, my job would be to listen and see the problems that are going on and try to work with First Nations first-hand to try to get the help that we need,” he said.
Biley said the situation Little described “really brings home to me that words are cheap” and suggested that people, not politicians, will be the source of change.
“To think that any political party in power is going to solve the problem of the First Nations is to have delusions. Keep pushing. Keep fighting. Idle No More was a very, very, big advance in my opinion in terms of First Nations standing up against government and rallying everyone in support of their legitimate claims,” she said.
“I’d like to say that there’s some party that’s going to bring about some changes, but I don’t believe it. I believe the changes are going to come from the fight that the people of this country wage to put an end to colonial relations once and for all.”
Curtis Dick, who was recently hired as the first zone coordinator for the new Indigenous Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, earned loud applause from the audience when he raised the struggles Ahousaht is facing to receive sufficient funding for emergency response and asked the candidates how they would help small communities.
“In my community, we’re struggling to have volunteers come forward to transport medical patients,” he said. “One of the things that we pride ourselves on is that we’re first on the scene. Boating accidents are always going to happen on the West Coast.”
He said the creation of the Indigenous Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary was a good step, but gaps still remain.
“I’m not speaking for just Ahousaht, this is just our story, which resonates in other small communities across the province of B.C. But, being here on the West Coast, we need more attention to the smaller communities,” he said.
He suggested B.C. holds a large portion of Canada’s Indigenous voters and urged the candidates to listen, learn and act.
“You guys talk about truth and honesty and integrity. Don’t just talk about it. Don’t just look good in front of these people here,” he said. “You guys are just one part of the puzzle, but you guys do represent us…Please hear our voice as we’re talking tonight. Don’t go walking away saying, ‘Goodbye, I’ve got other people to serve; bigger fish.’ We’re a piece of the puzzle too.”
Johns referenced Tofino’s Leviathan II whale watching disaster of 2015, after which the Ahousaht First Nation received a Medal of Good Citizenship from the provincial government for the community’s life saving efforts.
“It took a tragedy for us to get the attention of Ottawa,” Johns said.
He said he worked on the creation of the Indigenous Auxiliary, has experience “being a squeaky wheel” and is committed to fighting for First Nations support.
He added that first responder agencies need more resources, funding and paid positions.
“We have to invest now because climate emergencies are coming more and more,” he said.
Wood said he spent five years as a volunteer firefighter in Parksville.
“In that time, you see things that you would have rather not seen, but you were there to help someone on their worst day and that’s a good feeling,” he said. “It takes a lot of training. It takes a lot of work.”
He said he’s proposed an increase in federal funding that would provide volunteer firefighters, auxiliary coast guard and search and rescue volunteers larger stipends.
“Right now, if you work 200 hours, you get what works out to be $450 of your own money [annually] that you don’t have to send to Ottawa. I’d like to see that be $2,450 a year that you don’t have to send to Ottawa,” he said. “I think that’s the least that the federal government can do to make sure that first responders across Canada are well taken care of. It’s a little bit of a thank you for those people who volunteer their time, their lives, risk PTSD and carcinogens.”
He suggested 83 per cent of the firefighters in Canada are volunteers.
“This is how Canada works. It depends on volunteer firefighters,” he said.
Biley said she had nothing to add to what Dick had said.
“I have more questions than answers,” she said, adding she’d like to talk to Dick further.
Gowans also told Dick he’d like to speak with him directly, and added that he earned experience with federal funding during his time volunteering on Parliament Hill while receiving his Political Science degree at the University of Ottawa.
“Gord is the most experienced one on this stage, none of us are going to deny it or lie about it, but I’ve been around the federal government for the last 10 years. I’ve spent time around it. I understand how it works and I understand how to get funding,” he said.
He added that “The West Coast of Vancouver Island is basically one of the only places in Canada where there is an actual tsunami threat,” and promised to work on bringing funding to help the region’s tsunami preparedness.
After the forum, the Westerly News asked Dick what he thought about the candidates’ answers to his question and he suggested they could have been more direct.
“I believe that they sort of answered it politically correct and what I told them I’d like to see is actually how to trickle down to us…I’d like to see them be a little bit more truthful and honest, honestly answering us ‘This is how I can actually help you guys.’ Right now, it’s just a generalization,” he said.
“Us on the West Coast are left out from a lot of the things that happen in the interior and I’m always going to be an advocate for the smaller communities that can’t speak. Partnerships, I feel, are very important. Build them now. Climate change is coming.”