As guests were ushered into the Sto:lo Resource Building in Chilliwack by volunteers fully covered in blue leotards (the human “water droplets” make water visible, explained an organizer), it was clear that this all-candidates’ meeting would be slightly different.
All but one of the Chilliwack and Chilliwack-Hope candidates vying for an MLA seat this election turned out to talk water, environment, and First Nations’ rights at the debate Tuesday night, organized by environmental advocacy organization WaterWealth Project.
B.C. Liberal John Martin, running in Chilliwack, couldn’t attend because of a prior campaign commitment.
“I regret I cannot attend this one as I enjoy these types of forums and believe they are important to the democratic process,” wrote Martin to WaterWealth campaign director Sheila Muxlow a few weeks ago.
The debate brought in a full house of people who questioned candidates on the B.C. Water Act, juggling environmental protection with economic growth, the legality of aboriginal rights and title, tap water chlorination, fish farms, pipelines, and other topics.
One question had candidates set a vision for their community that balances environmental stewardship with economic development.
“Job creation and environmental stewardship are not mutually exclusive,” said Green Party candidate Kim Reimer, running in Chilliwack. “There are more jobs created for every dollar invested in clean technology than there are in fossil fuel technology. I think we just need creative initiatives and incentives by the government for us to start investing in these projects.”
NDP candidate for Chilliwack-Hope, Gwen O’Mahony, sees the answer in supporting small- and medium-sized businesses that are using greener technologies for common tasks, such as roofing.
Conservative candidate Chad Eros, running in Chilliwack, disagreed that there is room for government in creating green jobs.
“I don’t believe that the source of social responsibility comes from the government. The source comes from the free market,” he said. “The best cooperation that a government can give a company that’s committed to reducing greenhouse gases is to get out of the way.”
Laurie Throness, running as a Liberal in Chilliwack-Hope, said, “there is no such thing as zero risk if you want any economic opportunity,” and leaned on his party platform of a five-part environmental assessment process for evaluating development projects.
But several candidates mocked the existing environmental assessment regulations.
“Where’s the assessment?” said B.C. Excalibur Party candidate in Chilliwack, Michael Halliday, in reference to the fish farm industry, which he said has grown powerful while putting the wild salmon industry in jeopardy.
“Where was it when we OK’ed these salmon farms, and where is it now? When the evidence is pointing that it’s totally destroying our salmon industry,” Halliday said.
Patti MacAhonic, NDP candidate in Chilliwack, agreed that current environmental assessment procedures are not stringent enough.
“I have seen our environmental assessment process gutted in our province, and gutted in Ottawa,” she said.
Her NDP colleague O’Mahony thumped a copy of the 700-page Cohen Commission report on the table, in which the Department of Fisheries and Oceans is criticized for failing to protect wild salmon from open net feedlot fish farms, and said the NDP is planning to implement all of the report’s 76 recommendations.
Ryan McKinnon, running as an independent in Chilliwack-Hope, grew up watching river water levels in Hope decline after the Coquihalla highway was built.
“The water levels in the Coquihalla have drastically come down. When the fish are going up the river, they’re getting a sun tan because their backs are out of the river.”
McKinnon believes the B.C. Water Act needs to be updated.
On pipelines, Conservative candidate for Chilliwack-Hope, Michael Henshall, said that diluted bitumen pumped through existing and new pipes should be refined locally.
“I think refined materials are much easier to clean up, and the economic benefit for British Columbians..would be huge,” he said.
Some candidates seemed thrown when asked whether they personally supported aboriginal rights and title, and couldn’t answer directly. Liberal candidate Throness had the clearest grasp of the issue.
“The rights and title of aboriginal peoples are embedded in the Charter of Canadian Rights and Freedoms, and in multiple Supreme Court decisions…The question is, how far does that go.”
The answer, Throness said, is a case-by-case consideration of treaties by the courts.
Reimer welcomed the question as an opportunity to expand on her platform.
“I really stand for making sure that rights and title are respected, especially in regard to large projects that are really going to affect First Nations communities,” she said.
The WaterWealth Project’s push to have candidates sign a declaration for 100 per cent local control of home waterways faced criticism.
“What does 100 per cent local control look like? That’s what I want to know as an MLA. Because if you elect me and you ask me to sign a declaration, which I haven’t signed, I take it serious,” said O’Mahony.
WaterWealth filmed the debate, and the video will be online on Thursday.
In other news, B.C. Excalibur leader Halliday is holding a meet-and-greet on Friday from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., and on Tuesday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., both at Decades Coffee Club (45846 Wellington Ave., Chilliwack).