Election candidates vying for the South Okanagan – West Kootenay came together for a spirited Zoom forum hosted by the Penticton and Wine Country Chamber of commerce Friday, Sept. 10.
On the subject of immigration, the NDP, Conservative, Liberal and Green candidates broadly agreed that, in the context of the labour shortage gripping the riding’s tourism sector, Canada should make it easier for newcomers to obtain citizenship, regardless of skill level.
“If people want to stay here and are doing jobs that Canadians don’t want to, or who are working at jobs we obviously need to run our economy, that’s when we know that we should have a dedicated stream for those people,” NDP incumbent Richard Cannings said.
The Grits’ Ken Robertson highlighted the past Liberal government’s success in handling the Syrian refugee crisis, but stressed that pandemic recovery should be a top priority.
In an apparent dig at the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), the Conservatives’ Helena Konanz insisted, “We need that stream of immigration, but we also need to look at why Canadians are staying at home.”
Many Canadians are “not working right now that we need to get up and going,” she added.
Between criticisms of government measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, People’s Party candidate Sean Taylor struck an entirely different chord on immigration and the CERB.
“A People’s Party government will significantly reduce immigration quotas from the 400,000 (per year) planned by the Liberals to about 100 to 150,000 per year,” Taylor said in response to a question about housing solutions. This would greatly ease housing demands in urban centers like Vancouver and Toronto, “where 40 per cent of these immigrants tend to go.”
Taylor, who tuned in from a room half full of unmasked supporters, meanwhile said CERB had been propped up on the “presupposition that the (spring and summer 2020) lockdowns were necessary, which I don’t think they were.”
CERB was “an absolutely necessary support for workers who suddenly found themselves without wages and without income,” Cannings said.
The program has been adjusted so that it now functions along the lines of Employment Insurance, he said, noting the emergency benefit now pays “less than minimum wage.”
“I really don’t believe that a lot of people are sitting at home collecting CERB that really want to work,” he told moderator and Chamber president Jonathan McGraw.
Seizing on this statement, Konanz suggested her New Democrat opponent was out of touch.
“I’d like to know how our former member of parliament … would think that everything is okay” when many businesses in Penticton couldn’t operate at full capacity due to the labour shortage.
“I did not say there wasn’t a labour shortage. I said it wasn’t caused by the CERB and every labour expert would agree with me,” he retorted.
Konanz came under fire at several points from the Green’s Howse, especially on the labour shortage.
Fully 750,000 women could enter the job force if they had access to affordable childcare, Howse said, but the Tory budget would gut federal investment in any such program. “We need universal childcare, Ms. Konanz,” Howse prodded.
To this, the former Penticton counsellor answered, “I’m the only candidate here who’s actually worked in a position in policy-making to bring in childcare spaces in her community.”
Not to be left out, Robertson calmly brushed aside Taylor’s assertion that the riding was on “the unceded territory of Canada.”
This drew loud cheering from Taylor’s supporters, to which Robertson, who hails from a Kamloops First Nation, said, “I do come from an unceded territory.”
He qualified his remark by saying, “We’re all in the same country. We all breathe the same air; we all cherish our children’s future.”
Advanced polls opened even before the candidates met on the digital stage. They will run from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. through weekend voting stations in Grand Forks, Greenwood, Rock Creek, Oliver and Osoyoos.
Regular polls open nationwide on election day, Monday, Sept. 20.