Three of the five people running in Beauséjour appeared Wednesday evening at the federal riding’s first all-candidates forum, held at Mount Allison University.
Liberal Dominic LeBlanc, who is recovering from surgery in a Montreal hospital, and People’s Party candidate Nancy Mercier missed the forum, which was organized by the students’ union and attended by about 200 people.
Conservative Vincent Cormier positioned himself as someone who believes in the values of hard work, thrift and persistence; the Green Party’s Laura Reinsborough identified the climate crisis as the campaign’s key issue; and New Democrat Jean-Marc Bélanger emphasized the importance of being an advocate for the oppressed and vulnerable.
Conservative Vincent Cormier
In his opening statement, Cormier appealed directly to many in his audience.
“As a student, I know your pains and your struggles,” he said. “I had to quit university because I didn’t have the money,” he added, “but I came back and I graduated at the age of 29, two kids, full-time job.”
On the issue of support for students, Cormier said later that he favours interest-free loans and rebates for graduates who stay in the province rather than the free tuition advocated by his opponents.
“Everything that is given for free is not respected,” Cormier said, adding that he values the things in his life most that he worked hard for and earned on his own.
Cormier closed with a traditional Conservative warning about growing government debt and said that while issues such as fighting climate change, supporting students and improving health care are all important, the government should not be borrowing more money to finance them.
“To borrow money to address our current needs is not only immoral, it is totally irresponsible and it is stealing from the future generations,” he said with an added warning that the country can’t afford the promises in the other parties’ platforms.
Green Laura Reinsborough
In her opening statement, Reinsborough said she was born and grew up in Sackville and, after spending a relatively short time in Toronto, she has chosen to raise her family here.
“So this election, the single biggest issue has been and will be the climate crisis,” she said. “That is the core of why I have chosen to step up and make a change at the federal level.”
Reinsborough repeated the Green promise of free tuition for post-secondary students and relief of existing, federal student debt.
“We firmly believe that a public that is informed, that is skilled, that is well educated is something that benefits us all,” she said, adding that colleges and universities are important institutions for building a strong, green-economy workforce.
“We know that even in an incredible institution like Mount Allison University, it is difficult to actually fill up the number of spots available,” Reinsborough said. “There are not enough people being able to access education and we know there are ways that we can put solutions in place so that is not a barrier.”
Reinsborough ended by saying that Beauséjour “can go Green” especially since the riding already has two Green members in the provincial legislature. “We need to send Green MPs to Ottawa this election in order to avert the worst of the climate crisis and in order to build that green future that we know is possible,” she concluded.
New Democrat Jean-Marc Bélanger
The NDP’s Bélanger told the forum that during his career first as a social worker and then as a professor of social work, he met many people, including students, who want things to be better for Canadians and that’s why he’s entering politics now.
“After a lot of thinking and reflection, I felt that the opportunity was here to advocate for the most oppressed, underprivileged and vulnerable people of our society,” he said.
Bélanger said the NDP believes the government needs to invest in people, later pointing to the party’s promise to implement a universal prescription drug plan as well as national dental coverage partly financed by higher taxes on corporations and the rich.
He said an NDP government would eliminate interest payments on student loans, for an average saving of about $4,000 per student. He added that the NDP would start working toward establishing a post-secondary education system with no tuition fees.
“So that our children and young adults can go from kindergarten to a university career without having to get into the workforce already in debt,” he said.
“Our youth are facing incredible challenges in their generation,” Bélanger said. “Climate change is very scary.” He added that as young people press governments for action on climate change, it’s important for politicians to listen.
One of the most interesting exchanges of the night happened after Mt. A. politics professor Mario Levesque, who was serving as moderator, asked the candidates: “What’s your favourite pizza topping?”
“Green peppers,” said Laura Reinsborough as the audience laughed. “I love that question because it brings me back to growing food in my Dad’s garden here in Sackville in our backyard.”
Reinsborough went on to talk about how growing their own food is a strength in rural communities where people are connected to the land. She went on to mention that she works for Food For All NB, a provincially funded organization that helps make sure people have enough to eat.
“So many people do not have access to food on a regular basis,” she said. “Food is an entry point into those bigger conversations about health, environment, economy, and the irony of it all is that we have enough food to feed everybody,” she added. “What are those barriers that are actually preventing that?”
Jean-Marc Bélanger also drew laughter when he ducked the pizza topping question saying it gave him a chance to talk about “our social safety net.”
The NDP candidate referred to the growth of food banks starting in the early 1980s and he questioned why an affluent country like Canada needs them. “Why are people struggling?” he asked. “Why can’t we have better access to good quality food?”
Bélanger said it’s “totally inappropriate” that people can’t always get healthy food. “Food banks are not enough, our social security system should be really revamped,” he said.
For his part, Vincent Cormier replied that his favourite topping is pineapple.
The Conservative candidate said the question gave the candidates a chance to relax and be themselves.
“Look around you here tonight,” he told the audience. “We’re in this together whether we want to admit it or not,” he said.
“We need to help ourselves; we need to share,” he added, before telling the story of how people in his small community of Saint-Paul worked together to build a hockey rink.
“And that’s what we can do in Beauséjour if we all work together and if we all respect that we have different needs.”
As for his love of pineapples on pizza, Cormier said: “Don’t ask me why. They just taste good, and they also make a nice mix for a drink.”