Cape Breton mayoral debate hears personal stories of poverty

A woman with a tragic personal story about poverty sent a debate between Cape Breton Regional mayoral candidates in an unexpected direction, as incumbent Cecil Clarke revealed details of his own childhood struggles.

Cecil Clarke reveals childhood poverty, challenger Rankin MacSween promises advocacy

Cape Breton Regional Municipality Mayor Cecil Clarke (left) and challenger Rankin MacSween at the student-sponsored debate at CBU. (George Mortimer/CBC)

A woman with a tragic personal story about poverty sent a debate Thursday between Cape Breton Regional Municipality mayoral candidates in an unexpected direction.

Cecil Clarke and challenger Rankin MacSween fielded questions at Cape Breton University about issues ranging from the cost of public transit to the lack of employment opportunities in CBRM.

But by far the most emotional question came from BBA student Charlene Nicholas of Eskasoni First Nation.

"My grandson was living in Sydney in the past month, and they had an issue of not having enough food," she told the candidates. "They had to travel around the city looking for food banks just to get through the month.

"My question is: How can you help those people that are that poor, that can't even feed themselves for the month or their children?"

Cape Breton University student Charlene Nicholas and her grandson. (George Mortimer/CBC)

'I grew up in poverty'

Clarke's response was deeply personal.

"I can tell you this. I grew up in poverty. I grew up in social housing and I know what it's like to sit next to your mother across the desk from a welfare officer to know if you can have a pair of shoes.

"I know what it's like to have Christmas Daddies bring a basket to your house at Christmastime." 

Clarke said he also knows what it's like to have a supportive community that lets you grow and "become somebody."

MacSween responded that it's important to give voice to those living in poverty.

Advocacy and cheaper transit 

On the rising cost of higher education, Clarke said "governments have a responsibility to train and educate the next generation."

MacSween said if elected, he would act as an advocate for CBU.

"We can say, on the one hand, what does a municipality have to do with rising tuition? On the other hand, this institution and this municipality share a common predicament and that is a predicament of challenges."

The debate was organized by the CBU students union and the Generation Vote campaign of the Canadian Federation of Students.

It was attended by 40 people including students and staff.