Manitoba

Northern federal election hopefuls face off in Thompson

People in Thompson got the chance to meet some of the candidates running to represent their riding for the first time on Thursday night at a forum focused on issues First Nations people will consider when heading to the polls.

Forum aimed to see where candidates stand on northern, First Nation issues

The event was part of the assembly's I'm First Nation and I Vote campaign, and was intended to highlight what the candidates would do, if elected, to address the concerns of First Nations people. (Ramraajh Sharvendiran/CBC)

People in Thompson got the chance to meet some of the candidates running to represent their riding for the first time on Thursday night at a forum focused on issues First Nations people will consider when heading to the polls.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) hosted a federal candidates town hall at the University College of the North's campus in the northern city, located about 750 km northwest of Winnipeg.

The event was part of the assembly's "I'm First Nation and I Vote" campaign and was intended to highlight what the candidates would do, if elected, to address the concerns of First Nations people.

Things got off to a heated start as Liberal candidate Judy Klassen's commitment to the north was put into question by Gillam resident Ross Martin. 

"When you got elected in Gillam, in that riding, you came to my door because I live there. And I never saw you again," Martin said to the area's former MLA.

"If you treat this federal riding the same way you do the provincial riding, then we're in trouble. What is your commitment to represent the people in the north, and are you going to live in the north?"

Klassen lives in Steinbach with her family, and is from St.Theresa Point First Nation, which is located about 465 km northeast of Winnipeg. She responded by saying she visited the northern communities many times, working behind the scenes. 

"I made a point to not go when the photo ops were being taken. I'm not a seasoned politician. I wasn't going in there when all the other parties were going for their photo ops, I went when the people were still suffering, in pain, and hurting," Klassen told Martin, adding that her husband was actively looking for work in the north so their family could be moving there soon. 

Klassen announced earlier this year that she wouldn't be seeking re-election as the Liberal MLA for the northern riding of Keewatinook, ultimately leading to the provincial Liberals being unseated in that riding by NDP candidate Ian Bushie.

The northern youth drumming circle played the drum at Thursday's forum. (Ramraajh Sharvendiran/CBC)

The Liberal candidate was joined by Conservative candidate Cyara Bird, Green candidate Ralph McLean, and incumbent NDP MP Niki Ashton.

In 2015, Ashton won the riding with 14,269 of the votes, while Liberal candidate Rebecca Chartrand trailed behind by 1,555 votes. 

Attendees brought up many concerns around access to health care, food and housing in the north. All candidates had up to two minutes to respond to each question, and took the opportunity to share their party's stance on the issues. 

AMC Chief Arlen Dumas wrapped up the forum by commending Klassen.

"Judy Klassen stood by her brother's hospital bed until he passed away, and he died from complications of diabetes. Then Judy left her brother's hospital side and went to the legislature and advocated on behalf of diabetes for the people of the north," Dumas told the attendees.

He then shifted focus to Ashton for his final remarks, criticizing her handling of the railway disruption to Churchill when Dumas sought out her support for a northern-owned railway.

"Because of your lack of effort and your lack of support you allowed for the further delay of that transfer by over a year," he said.

"And if it hadn't not been for the government of today to invest $100 million for that railway, we'd still be held hostage by the previous owners. You did nothing to support us. I asked you for a letter, and you didn't provide that letter, and the same time your father went and made a deal with a different community promising them that they, individually, could have the railway."

Ashton responded with surprise.

"I'm shocked at the framing of what you raised here," she said.

Attendees brought up many concerns around access to health care, food and housing in the north. All candidates had up to two minutes to respond to each question, and took the opportunity to share their party's stance on the issues.  (Ramraajh Sharvendiran/CBC)

Ashton then invited Dumas to discuss the matter after the forum. 

"Let's be very clear. The Liberal government of the 1990s privatized the port of Churchill and the railway, putting a community and region at risk," she said.

Ashton wrapped up by expressing her disappointment that anyone would question her commitment to Churchill, and noted the community was still getting back on its feet. 

PC candidate Bird, who has struggled with addictions herself, promised to advocate for better health services in the north including, "land-based healing camps for people with mental health illness, and land-based sobriety camps to help people get sober" to be run by elders.

On the Greens' side, McLean wrapped up his closing remarks by emphasising a vote for him wouldn't be a vote for his party.

"You're not necessarily voting for the Greens, you are voting for yourself," he said.

"So regardless of your political stripe — whether you're NDP, you're Liberal, you're Conservative — if I'm your MP on election night, you are my boss, I am your employee."

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