RECAP: pharmacare, reconciliation, mental health and pipelines dominate discussion at Prince Albert candidates forum

From left to right, Randy Hoback (Conservative), Estelle Hjertaas (Liberal), Harmony Johnson-Harder (NDP), Kelly Day (People’s Party of Canada) and Brian Littlepine (Veterans Coalition Party of Canada) wait for a question from moderator Richard Ahenakew during the 2019 Prince Albert candidates forum. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

It wasn’t a WHL championship rematch featuring Bowen Byram and the Vancouver Giants, but Tuesday night’s Prince Albert federal election forum still drew an impressive crowd.

Roughly 100 people came out to hear five of the six local candidates address a number of topics, including pharmacare, reconciliation, mental health and pipelines.

The Prince Albert and District Chamber of Commerce sponsored Tuesday’s forum, and chamber CEO Elise Hildebrandt said she was pleased with the turnout, all things considered.

“I do understand and do acknowledge that the Raiders trump everything in our community,” she chuckled when asked about having to go up against Tuesday’s WHL Finals rematch. “I hope they are winning tonight.”

The chamber originally booked this date at the beginning of June, just before the WHL announced their schedule for the 2019-20 season. Despite the conflict, Hildebrandt said it was encouraging to have such a large crowd show up and listen to candidates Kelly Day, Estelle Hjertaas, Harmony Johnson-Harder, Randy Hoback and Brian Littlepine.

She was also happy with how the candidates conducted themselves, especially considering how rambunctious Monday’s federal leaders debate was.

“After listening to and watching the debate yesterday (Monday) I knew that’s not what we wanted here,” she said. “The Chamber at all times is non-partisan and wants everybody to have that opportunity to speak, so when I sent the layout for tonight to confirm that everything was good, I asked that everybody would treat each other with respect.”

“We’re all here to listen to what the other has to say in the room,” she added. “If you just talk over each other you don’t hear anything, so I am so proud and so happy with our candidates.”

Tuesday’s forum opened with a four minute speech from each candidate, followed by two questions from the Chamber of Commerce. The first chamber question focused on reviewing and reforming the Canadian tax system, while the second was about support for a national pharmacare program.

Audience members were allowed to submit questions following a short break midway through the forum. Candidates were asked for their views on nuclear power, mental health services and reconciliation, among other questions.

Harmony Johnson-Harder (NDP)

NDP candidate Harmony Johnson-Harder opened the forum by urging voters to think locally this election. She argued Prince Albert lacked supports and services in multiple areas, including housing, mental health and reconciliation.

She reiterated the importance of affordable housing, and touted the NDP’s plan to build 500,000 affordable housing units across Canada over the next decade while also reinstating 30-year mortgages. The NDP has committed $5-billion to start building those 500,000 units.

“Affordable housing is a huge concern,” she said. “People have shared with me that the cuts to housing are putting many at risk. This is creating vulnerabilities where none need to exist.”

During the question period, Johnson-Harder strongly supported national pharmacare and mental health care programs. She said mental health workers aren’t being paid enough, and called for more investment in basic needs like housing.

The NDP has promised a to spend $10-billion on a national pharmacare program, with provincial governments continuing their own drug coverage programs. They say the program will be in place by 2020.

On reconciliation, Johnson-Harder said Canada needs to recognize and honour the spirit of the treaties, and called for the next federal government to follow the lead of the MMIWG National Inquiry and declare the tragedy a genocide.

On the environmental file, she declined to support nuclear power as an alternative to oil and gas because it’s not as safe as other technologies.

“It’s long-term poising for a short-term buck,” she said. “We have the technology to live sustainably with solar, with geothermal (and) with wind.”

Kelly Day (People’s Party of Canada)

PPC candidate Kelly Day used her opening remarks to criticize both current and previous federal governments.

She called Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “the greatest hypocrite in Canadian history” for judging and shaming regular Canadians for being concerned about immigration, even though he had scandals of his own such as recently uncovered blackface photos. She also took aim at Conservative leader Andrew Scheer for not doing enough to distinguish himself from Trudeau in policy areas like immigration and the environment.

“The existing parties play a game of rhetoric,” she said. “They vie for victory in a vain horserace where the track is the same, the rules are fixed, and the outcome is pre-determined. Where, I ask, is the representation for those who want to play a new game? The answer lies in the PPC.”

Day supported building more pipelines, and said the PPC is open to nuclear power, although they don’t think it’s necessary right now. She opposed a national pharmacare program, partly because Canada can’t afford it while the deficit is so high, and partly because there were bigger healthcare concerns such as wait times.

When it comes to mental health, she said those solutions need to come from the local level, not the federal, because the local advocates and healthcare workers know what Prince Albert needs better than someone in Ottawa.

On reconciliation, she said the next federal government should listen to Indigenous voices before moving forward, especially since previous federal efforts, like the Indian Act, have been a disaster.

She also defended the PPC from claims they were anti-immigrant, arguing that some of their candidates were recent immigrants themselves, and took a strong stance against current climate change policies.

“Many climate crises have been promised over the last many years,” she said. “I know that I am saying something unpopular, but this is something we have been told about again and again that has not come to be.”

Brian Littlepine (Veterans Coalition Party of Canada)

VCP candidate Brian Littlepine was the third speaker to introduce himself during Thursday’s forum. He emphasized the grassroots nature of the Veterans Coalition Party, as well as his own roots in the community of Prince Albert.

He presented a few party policies, like the VCP plan to reduce MP salaries by 20 per cent upon taking office. However, he spent most of his time talking about the cost of living, which he said is too high for residents in the Prince Albert area.

“I see these seniors and some of them have to go live with their families because they can’t afford to be paying their bills or buying groceries and paying rent at the same time,” he said. “These are things that we want to change.”

Littlepine said a national pharmacare program would go a long way towards helping Canadians who can’t afford basic living expenses.

When it comes to mental health, he said there are a number of successful programs out there that aren’t being used in Prince Albert.

On reconciliation, he said a lot of progress has been made since the treaties were originally signed. However, he’s concerned treaty history isn’t being taught in Canadian schools. He believes implementing such an educational program would be a good next step.

The VCP is pro-pipeline, provided they are properly maintained and tested, and is in favour of using nuclear power, although Littlepine said more research is needed.

His biggest concern with many new environmental policies being proposed was the effect they would have on low-income Canadians.

“When we start talking about other forms of energy, or the electric car, well, who’s going to afford a $200,000 car?” he said. “In Prince Albert you can buy a house for $200,000, last time I checked.”

Estelle Hjertaas (Liberal)

Estelle Hjertaas said she’s proud to be the Liberal candidate for Prince Albert, and spent most of her introductory speech promoting the government’s record after their first four years in office.

Hjertaas argued that the Liberals have fulfilled or are in the process of fulfilling 92 per cent of their campaign promises from 2015. An academic study released in August by researchers at Laval University found the Trudeau government had entirely fulfilled 53.5 per cent of its 2015 election promises, while partially fulfilling 38.5 per cent.

Hjertaas pointed to the government’s $180-billion in infrastructure investments as its biggest legacy. That spending includes contributions to two major projects in Prince Albert: $24-million for a new rink and aquatic centre, and $6-million for a new water reservoir.

“These infrastructure investments make our communities better places to live, more attractive for business, and thus help grow the economy, and that’s part of the reason we’ve had such strong economic growth the last four years,” she said.

Hjertaas also briefly defended the Liberal plan to create a federal carbon pricing system, which she argued is not a carbon tax, but “a fuel levy on gas and also an output based emissions system.”

She said the Liberals are prepared to establish a universal pharmacare program, along with a new government department called the Canada Drug Agency, to make medication purchases less costly and delivery more efficient. The pharmacare program is part of a four-year, $6-billion healthcare plan.

On reconciliation, Hjertaas agreed with the VCP suggestion that more treaty education is needed in Canadian schools.

She said mental health and addictions is one of the biggest reasons she’s running, and promised the Liberals would set clear mental health care standards across the country, which would give everyone the same care no matter where they lived. She also touted the government’s investment of $350-million for mental healthcare and homecare in Saskatchewan.

Randy Hoback (Conservative)

Prince Albert’s incumbent MP was the final candidate to give introductory remarks.

Hoback said residents are angry and frustrated with how Prime Minster Justin Trudeau acts on the world stage, and with how the oil and gas sector is struggling back home. He reiterated to plans to scrap the Liberal government’s plan to implement a carbon pricing system, which he said amounts to little more than a tax.

“It is not a carbon plan. It is not an environmental plan. It is a tax, full stop,” he said during his opening remarks. “It does nothing to reduce emissions. Countries around the world have tried it—France has tried it, Australia has tried it. They got away from it right away because it made their industries so uncompetitive the couldn’t compete on the global stage.”

Australia introduced a carbon tax in July 2012, but repealed it just two years later. France tried to introduced a carbon tax in 2010, but wasn’t able to do so until 2014 because the original bill excluded certain industries. It was scrapped in December 2018 after yellow vest protests against rising gas prices.

When it comes to national pharmacare, Hoback said he’s not opposed to the idea in theory, but believes Canada can’t afford the extra cost. He said the country already faces a shortage of doctors and nurses, and that’s where any extra healthcare funding should go.

On reconciliation, Hoback admitted he needs to do a better job of listening, as do all Canadians. He’d like to see plans for action come from Indigenous people rather than the federal government.

Hoback supported a housing first approach when it comes to mental health and addictions because it’s unrealistic to expect people to get better when they don’t have a place to live. He was also open to using more nuclear power, which he said has become cheaper and safer since the 1970s.

Hoback also made no apologies for mailing updates to constituents. During the audience question session, one attendee asked if anyone would commit to ending the practice because it wasted trees. Hoback said it’s the easiest way to communicate with residents who don’t have computers or email addresses. He also said most constituents say they want to hear from him more often, not less.

Green Party candidate Kerri Ward was not in attendance for Tuesday’s forum. The 2019 federal election is scheduled for Oct. 21.

A full video of Tuesday’s forum is available on the Prince Albert Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.