Candidate no-shows frustrating election forum organizers

Alberta election candidates are skipping forums intended to give voters of sense of where they stand, leaving organizers puzzled and frustrated.

'To have those two empty seats from those two local UCP candidates, I think spoke volumes'

Cypress-Medicine Hat candidate Drew Barnes dropped out of an education forum in Medicine Hat this week. (Helen Pike/ CBC)

Alberta election candidates are skipping forums intended to give voters of sense of where they stand, leaving organizers puzzled and frustrated.

United Conservative Party (UCP) candidates Drew Barnes and Michaela Glasgo both skipped an education forum organized by the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA) locals in Medicine Hat on Wednesday, even though both had initially confirmed they would attend. 

Organizer Scott Raible said Glasgo was invited first. He said Barnes, who is running for re-election in Cypress-Medicine Hat, dropped out after asking to be included in the event.

"To have those two empty seats from those two local UCP candidates, I think spoke volumes."

Raible said Barnes's campaign manager told him they felt that there was "very little value" in attending the forum and that the candidate would only appear at a chamber of commerce debate.

Glasgo, the candidate in Brooks-Medicine Hat, pulled out the day after the UCP announced its education platform, Raible said.

"We got a text out of the blue letting me know that Michaela would not be able to attend our forum and that her time during the week would be better spent doorknocking," he said.

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"If we had any questions, we needed to submit them to the Medicine Hat and District Chamber of Commerce event, and if we had any further questions about where she stood on education, we needed to visit the UCP education platform on Michaela's Facebook page."

Raible noted that other candidates did show up for the election forum, except for two Liberal candidates — Jamah Bashir Farah in Brooks-Medicine Hat and Anwar Kamaran in Cypress-Medicine Hat.

No UCP policy on forums

Other candidates are also skipping election forums.

Mark Smith, the UCP candidate in Drayton Valley-Devon, was a no-show at a forum organized by the Town of Devon on Wednesday. The seven other candidates attended the forum.

UCP candidates Kara Barker in Edmonton-Riverview, Leila Houle in Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood, Pat Rehn in Lesser Slave Lake, Hannah Presakarchuk in Edmonton-Rutherford, Jackie Lovely in Camrose, Len Rhodes in Edmonton-Meadows, Lily Le in Edmonton-Centre, Jason Nixon in Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, Nathan Neudorf in Lethbridge-East and Karri Flatla in Lethbridge-West have also skipped election forums and debates.

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Flatla took part in a debate that will air on Global Lethbridge this week and showed up for a forum sponsored by the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce on Thursday.

Flatla has missed other events, including an ATA forum on public education and an event organized by the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs. Flatla's main opponent, Shannon Phillips of the NDP, has been eager to point that out.

"I was at six forums in the last week, unfortunately UCP's Karri Flatla only showed up to one," Phillips wrote on Instagram.

UCP spokesperson Matt Solberg said candidates get many invitations to take part in forums, so it is not possible for them to attend every one. He denied the party has directed candidates to avoid forums that focus on issues like education in favour of business-oriented events like those organized by local chambers of commerce.

"The party does not have a policy for local campaigns when it comes to forums but we have reminded them that while local debates are valuable, candidates win elections by knocking on doors and having those meaningful one-on-one conversations with those whose vote they hope to earn," Solberg said in a written statement.

NDP no-shows

While much of the focus has been on UCP no-shows, candidates from the NDP have also missed debates.

Joe Pimlott was absent from a candidates forum in Calgary-Peigan Wednesday night, and Lori Sigurdson pulled out of an event in Edmonton-Riverview after the UCP candidate dropped out. The event was cancelled.

Paula Cackett, the NDP candidate in West Yellowhead, was a no-show at a forum in Whitecourt although she took part in an all-candidates event in Hinton.

Last week, Pimlott was forced to apologize for posting a meme on Facebook about jihadists and crusaders several years ago.

Katherine O'Neill. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC )

The NDP has not responded to questions about why the candidates pulled out. Calls and messages to the candidates' offices were not returned.

While candidates in some ridings get a large number of invitations, Alberta Party candidate Katherine O'Neill says that isn't the case in Edmonton-Riverview.

She was asked to attend two events — a casual Q&A session at a continuing care centre and public debate organized by the Parkview community league.

The Parkview event was cancelled after Barker, the UCP candidate, pulled out. Sigurdson followed hours later.

O'Neill said it was disappointing her two opponents didn't have the respect to show up.

"This is a job interview and it's a public job," she said. "And I think it's really important for your public officials to be held to account by the people who are electing them … it's showing people that you have ideas and that you can stand behind them."

The only candidate to show up for a forum on post-secondary education at the University of Alberta on Monday was the Marlin Schmidt, the advanced education minister and candidate in Edmonton-Gold Bar.

Prem Pal, the Alberta Party candidate in Edmonton-Strathcona, was confirmed but had to pull out due to illness.

No one from the UCP or Liberal Party sent anyone despite repeated attempts to get someone to respond, said Reed Larson, president of the University of Alberta Students' Union.

Larson is frustrated with the amount of time and energy put into organizing a debate for students, only for it to turn into a "fireside chat" with a single candidate.

Larson said political parties talk about engaging young voters but won't show up to an event for university students. 

"I would absolutely say that the apathy goes the other way," Larsen said. "Youth are absolutely trying to engage and we're putting in incredible efforts to do so."

"They need to have that engagement back. We need to have parties willing to engage with them as well and not in their own bubbles."

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