Federal election drama at the Evergreen theatre

The Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce all-candidates debate was often feisty during the two-hour exchange.

There were cheers and jeers, jabs at party platforms and track records, and even an uninvited candidate yelling from the rafters.

That was the political drama that unfolded last night (Thursday) at the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce debate for contenders in the Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam riding, another type of theatrical performance in the Evergreen Cultural Centre that moderator Dave Teixeira had predicted would take place before the spats begun.

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The often-feisty exchange between the five candidates — the NDP’s Christina Gower, Nicholas Insley for the Conservatives, Liberal MP Ron McKinnon, the Green Party’s Brad Nickason and the People’s Party of Canada newcomer Roland Spornicu — was seen by around 200 people, some of who were unable to get a seat in the theatre and watched the action from a lobby monitor.

The candidates, all wearing their party colours, opened the night by explaining their backgrounds and reasons for seeking elected office.

Gower, the only female on the stage, spoke of the need to support people with mental illness, opioid addictions and housing challenges. A psychiatric nurse at Royal Columbian Hospital, she also talked about how the federal government’s failure to transfer healthcare payments to provinces has hurt the system and as resulted in a flood of nurses leave their profession.

Insley, a young father, said if the Conservatives win, they will focus on families and public transportation. He reminded the audience of Andrew Scheer’s recent visit to the Evergreen, where he pledged the Tories would invest in infrastructure to shorten commute times. Insley credited the Conservatives for bringing the Evergreen Extension to the Tri-Cities.

Backbencher McKinnon said the country is better off under the Liberals. Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he said, there’s been a strong economy that, he said, has lifted 900,000 people out of poverty and done more for the First Nations “than any government in 50 years.” He was also the only candidate to recognize the meeting was taking place on unceded Indigenous territory.

Nickason spoke passionately about the environment and the need to steer away from fossil fuel dependence. On climate change, “We have people that deny this issue. We can no longer do that… We have answers that are based on evidence.”

And Spornicu — a recent replacement for original candidate Brian Misera, who was forced out of the party last month for criticizing leader Maxime Bernier for not calling out racists within the party’s ranks — said he brought his family to Canada from Romania and found a political party that matches his values.

Among them, he said, are expanding the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion into B.C., allowing gun ownership for “mentally sane” Canadians and the need to reinforce a strong Canadian identity with “no forced multiculturalism.”

The candidates fielded prepared questions from the Chamber on such topics as small business growth, trade and sustainable investment; nearly all candidates called for reducing red tape, cutting taxes and creating jobs by retrofitting homes with green technology (Spornicu said the PPC would also abolish corporate welfare).

But it was Insley and McKinnon who often traded barbs about each other’s parties: McKinnon questioned why the Conservatives had “squandered” former Liberal prime minister Paul Martin’s budget surplus while Insley retorted, “When do you plan on balancing the budget?”

Later, when asked about seniors' living, Insley took another shot at McKinnon with a comment that drew boos from supporters. “The government in Ottawa is not spending responsibility. That’s where the Liberals have failed,” Insley said.

Insley also taunted McKinnon for his party’s lack of movement on electoral reform, though McKinnon champions proportional representation. The Tories, Insley said, have “no plans to change the current voting system” and the Liberals’ failure to follow through on a campaign pledge “is just another example of how the Liberals have broken the promise,” Insley said.

Nickason, meanwhile, blasted candidates on their promises to promote an environmental friendly economy while relying fossil fuels. “I’m amazed at the amount of greenwashing tonight,” he said, in exasperation.

Indeed, according to a Chamber poll, the top three issues influencing respondents’ choice at the ballot box are the environment and climate change (88%); followed by housing affordability and cost of living (33%); and economic growth and good jobs (22%).

As the debate ended, Coquitlam army veteran Dan Iova, who is running in Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam under the Veterans Coalition Party of Canada banner, publicly challenged Chamber officials for not inviting him.

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