Candidates respectful at Sudbury Chamber of Commerce debate

Devin Labranche says there’s no hard feelings towards Sudbury’s Chamber of Commerce over being excluded from the event.
People sit in chairs on a stage preparing for a debate.
Candidates sit before a mayoral candidate's debate at College Boreal on Thursday night. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

Devin Labranche says there's no hard feelings towards Sudbury's Chamber of Commerce. 

Labranche was excluded from the group's invitation-only debate at College Boreal Thursday night.  But that didn't stop the mayoral candidate from appearing front-and-centre, handing out leaflets and introducing himself to voters in the lobby outside Trisac Hall. 

"I'm running for mayor, I think that you need to be involved in all these processes," Labranche said. "I see it not as a fault, or something that needs to be negative. I see it as an opportunity to do things differently."

The chamber, on recommendations from its members,  invited five out of nine candidates to the event – Miranda Rocca-Circelli, Paul Lefebvre, Brian Bigger, Mila Wong and Evelyn Dutrisac.

Labranche, Don Gravelle, Bob Johnston and perennial fringe candidate David Popescu were not included. Bigger eventually withdrew from the race, bumping Gravelle to the main stage.

But Labranche and Johnston attended the debates anyway. Johnston – a poverty advocate and vocal critic of the city's response to its drug and homelessness crisis – was visible in the front row, shaking his head and audibly laughing when topics related to the downtown core were introduced. 

Labranche was also visible to viewers during the Chamber's live stream – he called it an exercise in "branding" – answering questions posed from the public in real time.

On stage, candidates carved through several topics – from the now-dead KED project, to red tape at city hall, to how Sudbury should support Laurentian University as it emerges from creditor protection.

Devin Labranche types on a cell phone.
Candidate Devin Labranche interacts online with voters during a live streamed debate hosted by the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

Rocca-Circelli said revitalizing downtown would be a major focus for her, if elected.

"Looking at cities like Halifax who have invested in the revitalization of their downtown, they've increased their population by 9 per cent since 2016," Rocca-Circelli said.

"The important part here is they had a failing downtown as well where they were dealing with many challenges that we're dealing with, with homelessness, with opioids, with human trafficking."

Evelyn Dutrisac said building a new arena – whether at the city's edge or in the downtown core – is not a priority.

"The arena is important, but not at this time," Dutrisac said. "I think we really need to take the time to set our finances and our budgets in place. We need to find efficiencies."

The arena debate was characterized as divisive by Evelyn Dutrisac and Paul Lefebvre. But it's something the former MP hopes to tackle from the top down.

"If council doesn't work together and move forward together with the rest of city hall, that permeates down," Lefebvre said. "For me, it's about working with each councillor, going to their wards with them."

"I've committed to hold town halls once a year to listen to the people from from each ward."

Chamber of Commerce chair Anthony Davis said he was impressed with candidates, describing the debate as educational for the audience. 

Anthony Davis stands in front of a blue sign in a dimly lit auditorium.
Anthony Davis is chair of the Sudbury Chamber of Commerce. (Casey Stranges/CBC)

"I felt that the candidates came prepared," Davis said. "They handled themselves respectfully and with grace."

Davis added that these types of debates – where candidates attempt to focus on issues through a particular lens, like small business – are important for voters.

"I think that the growth of our city really is on the back of our small businesses," he said. "We need to be able to leverage our skills, and what Sudbury is good at, and really make sure that we're there to support our businesses so we can grow our population, grow our economic base and ensure that our city prospers."