Nova Scotia·Video

CBRM mayoral debate briefly touches on racism and international students

The six candidates running for mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality debated topics including poverty, taxes, equalization funding and defunding police. But a question on support for international students raised the issue of racism in society.

Mayor says international students and Black and Indigenous residents regularly face racism in society

The six candidates running for mayor of Cape Breton Regional Municipality debated a wide variety of topics on Wednesday at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

The Cape Breton Regional Municipality mayoral debate on Wednesday briefly touched on racism during a question on what council could do to attract and retain international students attending Cape Breton University.

The six mayoral candidates gathered at the Membertou Trade and Convention Centre to tackle a wide range of questions put forward by voters in the CBRM. The debate was moderated by CBC's Information Morning Cape Breton host Steve Sutherland. There was no live audience, but it was livestreamed.

The candidates on the ballot for the Oct. 17 election are: Cecil Clarke, Amanda McDougall, Chris Abbass, Kevin MacEachern, Archie MacKinnon and John Strasser.

The debate can be watched below and on the CBC Nova Scotia Facebook page.

Chris Abbass, a Sydney resident who is retired from hospitality and sales, did not offer any suggestions on how to attract and retain international students.

"I don't see the foreign students being a big priority to the CBRM mayor and council," he said.

That riled Cecil Clarke, who said the island was founded by immigrants and that international students worked on the front lines during the pandemic.

"Shame on anyone that says a newcomer is not welcome or essential in this community," Clarke said.

Amanda McDougall, a first-term councillor aiming to replace Clarke, said Cape Breton's population grew last year for the first time in decades thanks to the students.

During fall election debates, Archie MacKinnon was one of two mayoral candidates who said CBRM was either bankrupt or on the verge of collapse. Experts say that's not so. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

John Strasser, a retired engineer and former president of a career college in Ontario, suggested council could talk to them.

Archie MacKinnon, a carpenter who surprised pundits last fall when he placed fourth in a field of seven, pulling in 14 per cent of the vote as an independent in the federal riding of Sydney-Victoria, said CBRM can't even afford to house its own residents let alone support newcomers.

However, Kevin MacEachern, who owns several small businesses, said 75 per cent of his employees are international students and they have proven to be hard workers.

Clarke said the question raised another important issue faced by newcomers as well as Indigenous and Black residents.

"We've got to deal with the racism that's in our society," he said.

The candidates faced questions suggested by the public that covered a wide range, including poverty, taxes, equalization funding and defunding police.

Amanda McDougall promised to allow citizens to speak during council meetings and to provide monthly progress reports. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

On a proposed container terminal for Sydney Harbour, most of the six contenders vying for the mayor's chair supported the initiative.

However, MacKinnon said he did not believe it would ever happen.

"If I get elected mayor, I think we'll just shut it all down," he said. "I think it's a waste of money."

On the potential for environmental initiatives, most of the candidates spoke about the need to review CBRM's landfill and recycling program, but Strasser said CBRM's biggest problem is people leaving garbage along the highways.

"We've got a bigger problem than making green trails," he said.

Incumbent mayor Cecil Clarke, who us looking for a third term as mayor says the CBRM needs a steady hand to guide it through the global pandemic. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Asked for their vision of the next four years, MacKinnon said he'd bring honesty to the mayor's office and demand honesty from councillors.

McDougall, who was a thorn in the mayor's side over the last four years and is also executive director of environmental agency ACAP Cape Breton, said it's simple.

"It's bringing people back into the municipal decision making process," she said, promising to allow citizens to have a say during council meetings and to provide monthly progress reports on major initiatives.

Clarke is a former provincial politician who was first elected mayor in 2012 and said after winning in 2016 that he would not run for a third term, but has since changed his mind. He said the municipality needs a steady hand to guide it through the global pandemic and said he wants to negotiate with the federal and provincial governments to get more infrastructure repaired and built in CBRM.

The Cape Breton Regional Chamber of Commerce is holding its own  debate on Oct. 6 and voting starts Oct. 7. The results will be announced after polls close on Oct. 17.



Tom Ayers


Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for 37 years. He has spent the last 19 covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at