Prince George's first mayoral debate of B.C.'s election season on Wednesday night focused on how candidates will handle challenges facing the city's downtown core that are familiar to voters throughout the province: housing affordability, public safety and the toxic drug crisis.
Six people are campaigning to replace Mayor Lyn Hall who, after two terms, is not running for re-election.
More than 200 people attended the CBC-hosted forum at the downtown library, where the candidates faced questions drafted by community members on issues that directly affect their lives.
Like other urban communities, Prince George — which serves a population of nearly 90,000 people and acts a service centre for central and northern B.C. — has seen a proliferation of homeless camps over the past four years, one of which the city is legally barred from shutting down until it can demonstrate enough appropriate housing is available for people to move into.
It has also recorded a particularly high death rate from illicit drug toxicity, with more than 67 lives lost per 100,000 people in 2022 so far, according to the B.C. Coroners Service — considerably higher than the provincial average of just under 42 deaths per 100,000 people.
The only candidate with previous municipal government experience is Terri McConnachie, who is hoping to make the jump to mayor after two terms as a councillor.
McConnachie pitched her work ethic and said her focus would be on listening and bringing the community together to tackle the overlapping challenges facing the city.
When a business owner asked how she would handle the impact mental health issues and homelessness are having on the downtown area, McConnachie acknowledged that businesses are worried about public safety, but urged people to think about the lives lost to the toxic drug crisis.
"We need to listen to each other, see each other," she said.
She also pointed to the increase in shelters and multi-family dwelling in the city over the past four years as signs of positive change she'd like to continue.
Candidate Roy Stewart, a former lawyer and longtime community volunteer, said he would support more RCMP patrols downtown, an increase in security cameras and rapid response to property crime.
Lisa Mitchell and Adam Hyatt made similar remarks in support of more RCMP foot patrols.
Mitchell advocated a "tough love" approach, comparing people experiencing homelessness to unruly children.
"Like the city being the parent, and the homeless being the children. You wouldn't let your children get to this degree," she said, adding that a similar approach was needed to make people stop using drugs.
She said her own nephew died of an overdose and described it as "a stupid waste of a life."
"We need to stop enabling these people," she said — a remark Stewart agreed with.
Hyatt said there needs to be more focus on treating the root causes of addiction and said he would lobby the provincial government to convert the city's youth detention centre to a treatment facility.
He put forward a financial argument for a "housing first" approach, arguing it would be more cost effective to house people than have them pass through the criminal justice system.
In his campaign material, Hyatt says he would work to make life "uncomfortable" for unhoused people who don't seek treatment or help in order to motivate behaviour change.
Another candidate, engineer Simon Yu, said the issues downtown are complex but solutions should start with housing. He proposed building emergency relief shelters like ones he says he helped build in Indonesia following the 2003 tsunami.
"They need a home. They need a place to sleep. As a builder, as an engineer... I can get it done within four years," Yu said.
In a different vein, Christopher Wood proposed "decentralizing downtown" in response to concerns over social issues. He wants businesses struggling with the impact of the overlapping crises to move out of the downtown core so the city can build housing in their place.
He also proposed an emergency housing protocol similar to what is used during natural disaster.
Wood said there is a need to approach people who use drugs "from a position of respect," and recognized the need for a safe supply in order to avoid fatalities.
The full debate is available to on Facebook.