COVID-19 recovery, vaccine mandates and climate change were some of the big topics federal candidates for the Niagara Falls riding debated in Niagara-on-the-Lake Tuesday night.
The debate, hosted by The Lake Report at Ravine Vineyard Estate Winery, had an interesting start.
New Democratic Party candidate Brian Barker cancelled his appearance late Tuesday afternoon after experiencing COVID-like symptoms. Karrie Porter, a municipal councillor in St. Catharines, stepped in for Barker to represent the party.
She was welcomed with boos by a small contingent and one woman said if Barker wasn’t there then Porter shouldn’t be in his seat.
Porter responded that public health officials ordered Barker to isolate and he is doing the right thing.
Liberal candidate Andrea Kaiser apologized to Porter for having to endure the boorish behaviour.
“We truly appreciate that (you are here) and I’m sorry that the comments and the booing were made. We, and I, value you being here,” Kaiser said to Porter during her opening comments.
Porter noted she appreciates "a civil debate and I think it’s incredibly important that we have these civil debates during election time.”
But moderator Patrick Little ensured levity throughout the nearly 90-minute debate.
After applause breaks every time a candidate spoke, Little addressed the time-wasting habit.
“Curtail the applause in total or at least shorten it so we don’t spend most of the evening listening to applause,” he told the crowd. His request was met with resounding applause from the packed event space.
Little held his head in his hands and said, “Be careful what you wish for.”
The debate kicked off with candidates staking their ground on the issue of climate change.
Conservative candidate Tony Baldinelli, the incumbent, drew attention to his party's platform released in April, saying the Tories will invest in nuclear, natural gas and hydrogen technologies as well as accelerate the deployment of carbon capture technology.
He claimed the Conservative party would reduce emissions by 29 per cent over the next nine years.
Kaiser offered no specifics for how she would address climate change but said the issue is what got her involved in politics.
“There’s no question that this is a crisis we are facing,” she said.
She touted the Liberal plan as an ambitious but pragmatic one, saying the New Democratic plan was overly optimistic and the Conservatives didn’t go far enough.
She mentioned Dr. Mark Jaccard, an economist at Simon Fraser University, who graded the Liberal climate plan an 8 out of 10, and gave the Conservatives and New Democrats a 5 and 2, respectively.
During an interview on the YouTube channel Energi Media, Jaccard said the Liberals have succeeded in implementing necessary but tough measures such as a carbon tax. Jaccard used a modelling device from Navius Research to conduct an empirical analysis of the party's plans, buffeted by his judgment calls on the data, he said.
Porter said the NDP would address the climate crisis but wouldn’t do it on the economic backs of average Canadians.
“Large polluters need to pay their share,” Porter said.
“We’re going to create thousands of good jobs by investing in clean energy. The Liberal and Conservative plans rely on fossil fuels.”
People’s Party of Canada candidate Peter Taras approached the topic from a different standpoint.
Taras spent most of the debate espousing the importance of personal freedom and criticizing big government. His comments were often met with rowdy cheers from a small group of purple-clad supporters seated together at the venue.
Taras said the entire climate movement is hypocritical, since the Paris Climate Accord was signed by politicians who flew in on jets.
If elected, he said his party would withdraw from the Paris accord and argued that if individuals want to do something about climate change then it's up to them alone.
Candidates were asked how they would help the Niagara Region and NOTL recover from the economic impact of the pandemic.
Baldinelli said the Conservatives would cover up to 50 per cent of the cost of a new hire to help businesses find workers. He also said they would maintain the wage and rent subsidy programs longer than the Liberals would.
Kaiser said by pushing vaccinations the Liberals will help the province avoid further lockdowns and help businesses get back to normal.
Porter spoke about the issue of large companies profiting from the pandemic while the average Canadian struggles financially.
“Small businesses pay tax, working people pay tax. It’s time for the people who have profited during this pandemic to pay tax. That is how we are going to get out of this recession from the pandemic,” she said with a reference to Amazon.
Taras said the restrictions brought about by the pandemic, such as lockdowns and wearing masks, were needless and did more harm than good. He referenced the United Nations worldwide death statistics to prove his point before saying his party would completely open up the Canada-U.S. border.
Candidates were asked if Canada needs a federal vaccine passport and how they would comfort people afraid of getting vaccinated.
Porter said she understands vaccine hesitancy, as she went through the same fear when her children were required to get vaccinated. At the time, there was misinformation circulating that vaccines could cause autism, she said.
But she emphasized she worked with a doctor to understand the issue and said society has a responsibility to protect the vulnerable.
“(COVID-19 has) killed people that I know. It’s killed people I know who’ve been previously healthy. I do support a vaccine certificate,” Porter said.
“Compassion and understanding are important but we also have to put people's lives first and protect them. COVID is real.”
Taras said his party does not support vaccine passports and referred to the measure as “medical apartheid,” saying it should be each individual's choice.
“Even if it’s going to make me stronger, smarter and taller, I should still have the choice to take it,” he said.
He also questioned the seriousness of COVID, claiming it has been exaggerated.
Baldinelli also said his party supports Canadians' right to choose.
“However, vaccination is a safe and effective tool to stop the spread of COVID-19 and we encourage everyone who is able to take one,” he said.
He said he did not support the Liberal plan to make a double dose of vaccines mandatory for travel or for federal workers, saying his party would ensure people take tests and prove a negative result before boarding a plane or train or going to work.
Baldinelli did say a Conservative government would work to implement a vaccine certificate for international travel, noting the inevitability that governments around the world will require proof of vaccination for incoming travellers.
Kaiser pointed to the suffering of anti-vaxers dying from COVID as a reason to get vaccinated.
“At the end of the day, a COVID test saying you have COVID is too late. It’s really as simple as that,” she said to loud applause.
“It’s time to do our part. It’s time to get vaccinated and to protect each other. It’s not a new concept. We vaccinated babies when we had polio.”
Kaiser also spoke about her children needing vaccines to attend public school and emphasized that vaccine certificates have a long history in Canada.
* Watch The Lake Report debate video on YouTube at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cpbs8OZAaAc.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report