The three NDP leadership candidates that faced off against one another at the party's debate in Victoria Wednesday pledged to improve the quality of life for Canada's Indigenous population, tackle affordable housing shortages and make Canada's trade relationships fairer. 

The debate's format, which gave candidates from 30 to 60 seconds to answer dense policy questions with only a few open exchanges, made it difficult for the leadership hopefuls to describe in detail how their policies differed from that of their fellow candidates. 

The candidates who attended Wednesday's debate were Quebec MP Guy Caron, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Ontario member of the provincial legislature Jagmeet Singh. 

Timmins-James Bay MP Charlie Angus, who is also running for the leadership, did not attend the debate. He chose to remain with his sister, who is receiving palliative care. 

Angus spoke briefly through a video message at the outset of the debate, telling the NDP supporters that he was sorry he could not be there, but he could not leave his sister's side.  

The first question of the evening asked the candidates to weigh in on the rising price of housing in British Columbia and present their solution to help people in the province find an affordable place to live.

Singh said a national housing strategy was a must, arguing that housing shortages can, in part, be blamed on people treating housing as a tradable commodity that puts money before people, something he would work to end, though he did not offer specifics on how. 

Caron echoed an earlier point of Singh's, that affordable housing was a national issue, not just a B.C. issue, and said he would task the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation with playing a role in ending the problem.  

Ashton said her platform would earmark $10 billion annually to build 40,000 new social and affordable housing units a year.

"It's clear that housing across the country needs to be addressed," she said. "We need to put a stop to those that are benefiting from exploiting housing insecurity across this country."

Indigenous consultation

Asked how each of the candidates would work with Indigenous communities on resource exploitation projects, Ashton said she would start by adopting the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Singh said the federal government's plan to push ahead with the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline was a betrayal, because it did not consult and get consent from all Indigenous communities affected by the project.

"We have decisions like the federal government's betrayal of the people of B.C. to go ahead with something like Kinder Morgan, something that I am firmly opposed to and something that I know that all B.C. activists, environmentalists are opposed to as well," Singh said. 

Caron said that Indigenous people needed to have the tools to control their own destiny by being given a leadership role in the resource industry.

Opioid crisis

The candidates were also asked how they would deal with the opioid crisis in B.C. and other parts of the country. 

Caron said the federal government was "sleeping at the switch" when it came to dealing with the opioid crisis. He would help to end the crisis by strengthening the border to halt trafficking and would show more compassion toward those addicted to the drug.

"What we need to do at this point is to ensure that we will have some control at the border," Caron said. "And we need to ensure that there will be help for people on the ground who are a victim of this." 

Singh said the first step he would take is declare the opioid epidemic as the "national health crisis that it is." He would develop policies to decriminalize drug use and make it easier to open new supervised injection sites.

Ashton backed Singh's call for a national health emergency to be declared, saying Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has helped to move Canada's drug policy toward a more progressive model, but much more needed to be done.

Ashton and Singh on sex-education1:58

During a direct exchange between candidates, Ashton asked Singh why he had said that Ontario's recent update to the sex-education curriculum was "disrespectful to the diversity of beliefs" in Ontario.

Singh said he fully supported gay marriage and LGBT rights, but that the curriculum was rolled out without providing adequate information to all members of the public, in their own languages.

"We need to stand up in solidarity with all communities," he said.

There were a few rapid-fire sessions during the debate, including one in which candidates were asked what they would do with the GST if they were elected. 

Caron said he would keep it and would study the possibility of increasing the tax. Singh said he wanted to look at it again but did not provide specifics while Ashton said she would leave the GST where it is for now.

Free vs. fair trade

When it came to the assisted dying law Ashton said the law was not being applied equally to all Canadians and she would revisit the legislation to make sure that it works for people that need it.

Ashton did not, however, say what aspects of the law should be reopened. Caron backed the call to reopen the legislation to ensure that people currently refused access to a doctor assisted death would get that access but did not specify who was being left behind by the legislation.

Singh was similarly vague, acknowledging that the law was a sensitive one and if the right to a doctor assisted death existed then people needed to actually have access to the service.

Watch the full NDP debate in Victoria

The candidates were also asked how they would tackle a possible free trade deal with China if they were prime minister.

Caron said Canada has been going the wrong way on trade for a long time, because human rights, labour rights and environmental rights were not protected in China. He said he wanted to steer Canada toward a fair trade approach.

Singh backed that pitch, saying he would also push for a fair trade deal with China over a free trade deal.

Ashton said she was concerned about a future trade deal with China, and was critical of any move to loosen temporary worker rules that would allow foreign workers to come to Canada and work with less protection than Canadian workers get.