Key takeaways from byelection all-candidates meeting as vote draws near

Candidates vying to become MPP for one of the London region's largest ridings squared off Tuesday night in Watford, leaving only two more scheduled head-to-head meetings ahead of the May 2 Lambton-Kent-Middlesex byelection. Brian Williams runs down the highlights.

The all-candidates night for the Lambton-Kent-Middlesex byelection was organized by the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario – an organization that advocates for family farm entrepreneurs and policies that encourage Christian stewardship, according to its website. The event was touted as a chance to engage community dialogue, and a place voters could meet with candidates and hear about their visions.

Five of the eight candidates on the ballot were present: Liberal candidate Cathy Burghardt-Jesson, NDP representative Kathryn Shailer, Keith Benn of the New Blue Party, Cynthia Workman with the Ontario Party and Stephen R. Campbell of the None of the Above Direct Democratic Party. Absent from the event were Progressive Conservative candidate Steve Pinsonneault, the Green Party’s Andraena Tilgner and Family Rights Party candidate Hilda Walton.

Held in the gymnasium at the recently renovated East Lambton Community Complex in Watford, about 80 people showed up to engage with candidates over refreshments and snacks followed by a question-and-answer period.

To kickstart the event, each candidate was given two minutes to introduce themselves followed by a question-and-answer period. Candidates were given 90 seconds each to answer questions, the first two of which they were given in advance, followed by questions posed by audience members and vetted by organizers. Candidates were permitted two minutes each to address the audience to close the forum.

The significance of agriculture and the importance of preserving farmland was brought up at numerous points. Candidates expressed the need to keep rural lands for agriculture, as opposed to paving it over for development. Burghardt-Jesson said: “We have to look at land use planning that takes all sectors into consideration,” adding it was important to have municipalities involved in discussions to balance the power of developers, so “precious agriculture land can’t be changed on a whim." Shailer said preserving “prime agricultural land” was essential, “because once it’s gone, it’s gone.” Benn said “greenbelt-type protections for prime farmland” were necessary.

Nearly every response by each candidate regarding protecting farmland was met with positive cheers from the audience. When a health-care question was brought to the candidates, Burghardt-Jesson was met with applause for her view that Queen's Park must better address the shortage of health care workers by “opening up more spots in medical schools” and streamlining ways for immigrants with medical backgrounds to attain certificates to work in the medical field. Benn found it “mind-boggling” that the Doug Ford government hasn’t brought back health care workers who lost their jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic, when vaccine requirements were in place.

Although the evening moved along cordially, Benn referred to the NDP as “one word: Marxism,” in his closing remarks adding that he feels he represents “the only choice for voters who seek a return to common-sense conservatism.”

The riding has been held by the Progressive Conservatives since 2011. The byelection is being held to replace Monte McNaughton, a cabinet minister who exited politics last fall. It's one of two in Ontario on May 2, the other being in Milton to replace former cabinet minister Parm Gill. The byelection won’t change the power structure in Queen’s Park, where the Progressive Conservatives hold 78 of the legislature’s 124 seats. The opposition NDP has 28, while the Liberals hold nine, not enough to qualify for official party status. Trailing is the Green Party with two seats and independents with five. Although McNaughton had a firm grip on the riding and the Tories should be considered a favourite, byelections can give voters a chance to send governments a message – making them unpredictable.

May 2: Byelection day, polls open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. See your voter card for voting locations.

Until May 1: Voting allowed by special ballot at returning offices. For more information, go to Elections Ontario's website.

April 26: Deadline for voters to apply to Elections Ontario to vote by mail.

April 21 to 26: Voting by advance polls. See your voter card for locations.

Brian Williams, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press