All-candidate debates, without all the candidates

A teacher who organized an all-candidates debate for two Toronto-area ridings says the Conservative Party's national campaign headquarters told its local candidates not to show up.

Tories deny organizer's claim candidates declined on orders from national HQ

A teacher who organized an all-candidates debate for two Toronto-area ridings says the Conservative Party's national campaign headquarters told its local candidates not to show up.

James Blair said he spoke to the campaign manager for Corneliu Chisu, the Conservative candidate for Pickering-Scarborough East, and was told officials in the national campaign war room instructed Chisu not to attend.

Chisu and a neighbouring Conservative candidate, Chris Alexander, did not attend the event at Dunbarton High School in Pickering on Monday.

Corneliu Chisu is the Conservative Party's candidate in the Ontario riding of Pickering-Scarborough East. (Courtesy electchisu.ca)
"The general sense was [the candidates] were very interested in attending but it was pretty well given to them that no, that's not the case," said Blair, a politics and physical education teacher who has organized candidates debates at the high school for the past three elections.

Blair said the directive "was not coming from their campaign but from on high from some place."

In an email, Conservative spokesman Chisholm Pothier said Blair is incorrect, and that Tory war room staff did not stop Chisu from participating.

"The [Chisu] campaign consulted with us and we supported their decision that his time could also be better used by campaigning directly with voters in his riding in this instance," Pothier wrote.

"We provide support for candidates to participate in candidates debates, but we don't instruct them not to attend debates."

Chisu's campaign manager, Peter Bishaw, agreed with the party's war room.

He told CBC News that because Chisu is not a "brand name" among voters, he needs to be out campaigning, not in debates. Bishaw also noted Chisu will participate in two other debates this week.

The high school draws its students from both Pickering-Scarborough East and Ajax-Pickering, where Conservative star candidate Alexander is running in a tight race against Liberal incumbent Mark Holland.

Blair said Alexander's campaign manager wrote him an email saying the candidate was too busy to attend.

'I just hope this isn't a trend'

Chisu is a retired Canadian Forces major and engineer. Alexander is Canada's former ambassador to Afghanistan.

Blair says he's had no trouble getting Conservative candidates to attend federal and provincial debates over the past six years.

"I'm hoping it was more of a miscommunication," he said. "I just hope this isn't a trend of the future."

Blair is also concerned about what the failure to show means for party politics in Canada. 

"This is not just the Conservative Party — there's a lot of gate-keeping that's going on (in all parties)," he said.

"I see one of the biggest problems is not the politicians any longer, it's the actual political process and the amount of power the parties have to dictate, and pulling the party line and saying what must happen and what is going to happen."

Cole Reid, a student who watched the debates, said he wasn't impressed by the no-show. 

"I think it doesn't really give the right message," he told CBC News. "If the Conservatives want votes they need to be getting out there. They need to be telling people that this is what we stand for instead of staying inside their offices and hoping we vote for them. 

"I don't think it's right."

Monique Freeman, 19, is planning to vote for the first time this election. 

"I thought it was kind of rude that the Conservatives didn't (show), ... considering that we are the generation that will be coming in and starting to vote, and a lot of these kids were really interested in the stuff that was being talked about today," she said.

"I think that it would have meant a lot more if they came, too." 

With files from Karin Marley