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Education issues split Chilliwack candidates

Liberal candidate for Chilliwack-Hope, Laurie Throness, answered tough questions at an all-candidates
Liberal candidate for Chilliwack-Hope, Laurie Throness, answered tough questions at an all-candidates' debate organized by the Chilliwack Teachers' Association. Below, Chilliwack riding candidates Chad Eros (left), Patti MacAhonic (centre) and Kim Reimer debated education funding on Thursday.
— image credit: ALINA KONEVSKI/THE PROGRESS

In a tense public debate, the nine Chilliwack and Chilliwack-Hope candidates argued over teachers' bargaining rights, the merits of the Liberals' proposed 10-year deal, and the underlying factors of B.C.'s high child poverty rate, at an all-candidates' forum on Thursday. The debate was organized by the Chilliwack Teachers' Association, and took place at Evergreen Hall.

Signed after a year-long standstill between the Liberal government and the B.C. Teachers' Federation, teachers' current two-year contract expires next month. How the various candidates vying for an MLA seat would handle teacher negotiations was on everybody's mind last week.

Liberal candidate for Chilliwack-Hope, Laurie Throness, extolled the benefits of a recent government proposal for teachers to sign a 10-year contract.

"Last year we were successful in further negotiating a one-year contract, and we'd like to build on that extended period of labour peace by striking a 10-year deal with the teachers, so that we can enjoy a decade of labour peace," said Throness.

When asked why the Liberals were pushing for the deal in the midst of a three-year contract negotiation between BCTF and the B.C. Public School Employers' Association, Throness replied that he "really [doesn't] know what's going on behind the scenes with regard to the three-year discussion," and is committed to the Liberals' 10-year contract plan.

His rival in the riding, New Democrat Gwen O'Mahony, called the decade-long promise of labour peace "fictitious." Patti MacAhonic, NDP candidate in Chilliwack, said a 10-year contract is "demoralizing" for new teachers entering the workforce.

On the issue of bargaining rights, the NDP candidates promised to undo the "wrongs" of the Liberal government, to big applause.

"The NDP is fully committed to restoring full collective bargaining rights for B.C. teachers," said MacAhonic.

"You want to restore a relationship, you need to right a wrong. You need to repeal bills 27, 28, and 29,"  said O'Mahony.

Sections of the 2002 bills were ruled unconstitutional by a judge in 2011, including those that prevented teachers from negotiating class size and composition.

NDP candidate Patti MacAhonicAudience members at the debate also questioned the candidates on their commitment to higher education funding.

The Liberal candidates stood firm that the government has been financially generous with teachers, and that current levels of funding for skills training are sufficient. Throness said that the government gave teachers a 16 per cent wage increase in 2006, and that the education system now costs more than it did in 2001, but with fewer students.

"I think the system has received a lot of funding," he said, adding that the relationship between teachers and the government is naturally adversarial.

The NDP candidates promised to re-instill needs-based grants, while the Conservatives said they will introduce interest-free loans to students who remain in the province for five years after graduation.

On the balance of funding between public and private schools, all candidates agreed that students deserve an equal, government-funded education.

Throness added that, while true, this doesn't preclude parents from topping up education spending.

"There's a basic education that should be funded and universal, just like our healthcare system. That does not suggest, though, that more could not be purchased. If you want your child to have a math tutor over the summer, I don't feel there's a problem with that," he said.

Another audience member requested that candidates consider why the province has Canada's worst child poverty rate.

MacAhonic said that this directly correlated with B.C. having the lowest corporate tax rate in the G7. The NDP is proposing to raise corporate tax rates by two per cent; the Liberals will raise them by one per cent.

Liberal candidate for Chilliwack, John Martin, said that high child poverty in the province was due to B.C.'s higher living costs, and that province-to-province comparisons are inappropriate.

Throness said that the Liberal's job creation plan will decrease child poverty, while Michael Henshall, Conservative candidate in Chilliwack-Hope, countered that B.C. has a poor job creation record and is losing workers to Alberta.

Ryan McKinnon, running as an independent in Chilliwack-Hope, spoke from personal experience, and said that funding preventative programs that keep children out of government care will improve their well-being.

akonevski@theprogress.com
twitter.com/alinakonevski
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