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Candidates square off at debate in Stratton

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It was a full house of listeners and people asking questions at the all-candidates’ debate in Stratton last Wednesday evening.

Each candidate was given three minutes to outline their party’s platform. Taking a different tact on things, the first one to do so was Russ Aegard of the Green Party.

“I feel rather than putting a spin another party’s ideas, I feel I should compliment them when they have a good one,” he told the crowd.

Aegard said he is running in the Jan. 23 election because he wants a better life for his 20-month-old daughter. He also noted his party has changed.

“We are no longer pot-smoking hippies . . . well, I guess some are,” he noted. “However, most of us are from all walks of life and we have candidates running in every riding.”

Meanwhile, NDP hopeful John Rafferty said while others played games in the last Parliament, Jack Layton and the NDP got things done for people.

“I feel we can get things done, especially for farming,” he stressed.

Rafferty spoke of how out of 11 Northern Ontario ridings during the last election in June, 2004, the NDP either won or finished second.

He hopes this time around that constituents will send a block of NDP MPs to Ottawa to defend the interests of the region.

“I am tired of Northern Ontario being taken for granted. We can create a force to be reckoned with,” Rafferty said.

David Leskowski stuck to the Conservative Party platform and read from his pre-printed flyer the five points party leader Stephen Harper has been pushing during the campaign.

“We will clean up government . . . provide real tax relief . . . make streets safer . . . help parents with cost of child care, and work with provinces to reduce patient wait times,” he promised.

Liberal incumbent Ken Boshcoff spoke on his 17-month record, noting that people in the riding had been concerned that the west end of it would be forgotten after the last election when Rainy River was separated from Kenora and joined to Thunder Bay.

“I did my best to be accessible, approachable, and accountable,” he said. “You know I act and act quickly.”

Next came questions from the floor (there were 23 in all, which have been grouped in the following broad themes):

< *c>Agriculture

Trish Neilson, president of the Rainy River Federation of Agriculture, which sponsored the debate, and Rainy River Cattlemen’s Association president Peter Spuzak asked the candidates how they felt about improving farmers’ bottom lines.

Boschoff said he would support maintaining existing supply management systems and already has begun working on getting a similar system for cattle producers.

Leskowski said he would try to do more to help farmers get more for what they sell. “We have been looking at agricultural opportunities with countries other than the U.S.,” he remarked.

Rafferty said the NDP always has supported family farms and would continue to do so, citing the hardships farmers face when it comes to profitability.

“It is not just a rural issue but an urban one,” he said. “Farmers feed the cities.”

He also claimed that under Liberal rule, farm debt has doubled and the country has lost 30,000 family farms.

Aegard said the Green Party supports local level economics and family farms fit that bill.

Amos Brielmann asked the candidates what their position is on the introduction of Terminator Seed in Canada (terminator seed is genetically modified so it only will grow once and then not reproduce).

Leskowski said he would encourage farmers not to buy it and that he personally is against it, as are Rafferty and Aegard.

“Terminator seed is a freak of nature,” the latter noted.

Boshcoff said he does not know enough about the issue but would be happy to look into it.

Spuzak then asked what the candidates would do to get the local abattoir project clear of red tape and up and running.

Leskowski agreed there is too much red tape. He also suggested looking at a mobile abattoir.

For his part, Rafferty accused the Canadian Food Inspection Agency of being interested only in big meat-packing projects.

“I support an abattoir and CFIA needs to change,” he argued.

Boshcoff said he has supported the abattoir and has worked hard on it, noting that the project “has been moved further along than ever before.”

Aegard said he supports local business.

< *c>The environment

Penny Shumaker of Rainy River asked what the candidates would do to prevent the proposal to divert water from the Rainy River/Lake of the Woods basin by U.S. interests.

All spoke out against such a move, but none said what they would do.

Rick Neilson of Stratton, meanwhile, asked if the candidates would support setting aside tracts of forest for future generations rather than allowing logging to continue as it is.

Rafferty said he would—and also would like to see for the first time ever a “real Northern Ontario wood audit done.”

“The Earth cannot support us taking and taking without a plan,” replied Aegard, who feels such planning should be in the hands of local loggers, not big companies “who are only interested in profits.”

Boshcoff said he would support such a plan while Leskowski said he would not support the government getting too involved.

“Government interferes too much in our lives,” he argued.

Rather, Leskowski said he would support a privately-driven management plan.

Jill Wilhite of Morson asked what the candidates’ views were on global warming and water quality are.

Rafferty said his party is the only one that will ensure environmental protection. Aegard begged to differ, noting his party was founded on environmental principles.

Boshcoff said his background is in environmental studies and that he was known as “The Environmental Mayor” when he was mayor of Thunder Bay.

Leskowski spoke of his background in developing bio-gas digesters. “I believe in greenhouse gas reduction in a practical way,” he remarked.

< *c>Government

Ken Hyatt asked the candidates how their plan would be fiscally responsible.

Leskowski said the Conservative platform has been costed out and to deliver all its promises will result in a $3.5 billion surplus each year.

Rafferty said the same, but did not reveal what their surplus would be—only that there would be no corporate tax cuts.

Boshcoff said the Liberals have been fiscally responsible, going from the highest amount of every dollar (38 cents) down to 18 cents in the past 13 years due to good fiscal management.

Aegard again reiterated that power should be in the people’s hands, not big corporations.

“Corporations used to contribute 48 percent of the taxes into the system, now only 11 percent,” he noted.

Brielmann asked the candidates, and especially the Conservatives, about their plans to expand the Canadian military. Specifically, he asked what Canada spends now on its military and what our rank is in terms of size of armies.

Leskowski said he does not know what is spent presently, only that his party would expand the Forces to 75,000 to ensure Canada can maintain its role as a peacekeeper abroad.

He said that would amount to a $5.3 billion increase in military spending.

Rafferty agreed that Canada’s focus should be on peacekeeping, but he did not know the amount being spent on it now.

Aegard said the Green Party does not believe in conquering or occupying countries, but added he likes the idea of helping others and feels the military is underfunded.

Boshcoff said the current budget for the Canadian military is $12.5 billion annually. None knew the rank of the army with respect to the world.

Brielmann said Canada is ranked seventh.

Richard Short of Rainy River was concerned the political system in Canada does not allow MPs to vote freely on behalf of their constituents. In other words, they must follow the party line.

He asked what candidates would do to rectify that situation.

Leskowski said his party will allow free votes on just about every issue except confidence motions like budgets. Boshcoff noted his party does allow free votes—just not on every issue.

“While I believe in the party’s platform, I am not going to vote with the party on every issue and I have told Jack Layton that,” responded Rafferty.

“The chances of me getting elected are slim, so [it]s hard to answer that,” said Aegard.

Corrina Smutz, who is not old enough to vote yet, said she feels her vote will not mean anything in the current first-past-the-post electoral system. She asked them what they would do to change that.

Both Rafferty and Aegard said they would support proportional representation. Leskowski said he would like to see a “single transferrable vote,” which would see voters rank their choices.

“Proportional representation is an issue whose time is coming,” agreed Boshcoff, noting that declining voter turnout is evidence of that.

< *c>Other issues

Frank Books of Rainy River referred to the recent sale of forest near Thunder Bay to a U.S. firm by Abitibi-Consolidated and asked what candidates would do about foreign ownership of our resources.

Leskowski just said it was a big wake-up call while Rafferty charged both the feds and province dropped the ball on that sale. He said his solution would be that if there are no local jobs tied to the sale, then it should not go ahead.

Boshcoff said he would work towards establishing a “First right of refusal” policy and also to tie wood rights to local jobs. “It is time to get involved,” he remarked.

Rick Boersema asked what the candidates would do to get tough with the U.S. on issues like the softwood lumber fiasco.

Leskowski said the Liberals are going to let the U.S. keep part of the illegal duties collected on Canadian softwood. “We won’t let that happen,” he vowed.

He also said the Conservatives will work on developing other markets (than the U.S.) for Canadian wood.

Boshcoff said that it is not easy dealing with the U.S., but noted that the Canadian government has done a good job at “embarrassing them” and winning court cases on the issue.

Rafferty agreed the answer is to sell the wood to other countries and when the price of homes goes way up due to a lack of supply in the U.S., things will change on that front.

Wade Desserre of Pinewood asked what the candidates would do about the high cost of energy.

Rafferty said the region has to decide if it wants to keep paying for Toronto or go its own way electricity-wise. Aegard said he believes in promoting green renewable energy.

Boshcoff said he has been working with communities like Emo on green energy projects like the biomass dump there.

And Leskowski said he likes the way the U.S. thinks. “If we produce excess energy, the local grid should take it up,” he noted.

Ken Hyatt later asked if the candidates had a child they could not raise if they would be comfortable letting a same-sex couple do so. Both Aegard and Rafferty said yes, Leskowski said no, while Boshcoff said, “I have no kids.”

That prompted Hyatt to ask Boshcoff, “Are you gay?”

That question sparked scorn from the moderator and other candidates saying, “That was not called for.”

Boshcoff later said, “For the record, I am not gay.”

The last question of the night went to the moderator, Linda Armstrong, who asked what the candidates would do about the fact that there no longer is any way for people to get from Rainy River to Winnipeg or Fort Frances by bus.

She asked if there is anything that can be done about it and if not, suggested residents here should get isolation pay.

Boshcoff said he asked all the municipalities and reserves affected by the cancellation of the Grey Goose service if they were interested in teaming up to fight the cancellation.

“Only three replied—two said yes and one said no we should not interfere in private enterprise.”

Leskowski said he supports “modern, efficient transportation.”

Rafferty said he feels the crux of the matter was the loss of freight shipments due to stricter U.S. regulations at border crossings. He thinks that there could be a way to seal the buses at one point and the open them at the other border point to get the freight moving again.

(Editor’s note: That is what was done before but was not good enough for U.S. Customs after 9/11 changed things).

Aegard noted this riding is very vast and that people in the west end of the district should have their own MP.

In their closing remarks, Leskowski said he will vote freely and “stand up for the district.” He will oppose a northern recession and re-open rural schools.

Rafferty vowed to “jump in with both feet on any issue if elected to be your MP.” He wants to see more accountability in government and proportional representation.

Aegard said he would like to see more rural schools and noted he came to the debate not expecting to get elected but “to spread ideas.”

“I am disenchanted with the mainstream politics,” he remarked.

“We need an MP that champions rural causes,” said Boshcoff. “I can do a better job than any other candidate drawing from all my prior (political) experience.

“This allowed me to start the job running after the last election and I hope you allow me to continue to do that,” he added. “It has been an honour to be your representative.”

Local Marijuana Party candidate Doug MacKay did not attend last Wednesday’s debate in Stratton.

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