Civil debate, tough talk in Saanich-Gulf Islands

There was standing room only as more than 800 people filled the Mary Winspear Centre in Sidney for a civil all-candidates debate that tackled a wide range of tough issues concerning the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding, the nation and the world.

"We're very grateful for such a huge turnout," said Green party leader Elizabeth May.

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The debate, hosted by the Times Colonist, CHEK TV and CBC radio, kicked off with questions on health and affordable housing and soon waded into more controversial issues such as open-net fish farms, oil tankers on B.C.'s coast, the muzzling of federal research scientists, nuclear energy, and coalition governments.

The four candidates — NDP Edith Loring-Kuhanga, Conservative Gary Lunn, Liberal Renée Hetherington and May — more often than not lined up on the left with the Conservative candidate on the right of issues.

As was the case in two previous all-candidates meetings held in Victoria on Wednesday and Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca on Monday, the Conservative candidate was pummelled with the toughest questions. Judging by applause, the Green party had the most supporters in the audience.

"I don't want to pick on Gary," said one audience member. However, with no other members of Parliament on the panel, the man said he had no choice as he launched into a question about why Canada has entered so many conflicts around the world, harming its young men and women.

"You either believe in human rights or you don't," Lunn said. "We're part of an international force, there's no half measures."

All the candidates said they agreed to funding of the CBC, but to different degrees.

On the issue of a coalition government, May said she fully supports working with other parties, as did the Liberal and NDP candidate. Lunn agreed with working together but issued a caveat for the Bloc Québécois whose sole purpose is to break up Canada, he said. "I think you should think of the greater good of Canada."

Hetherington, a research scientist, said she is running not as a career politician or lawyer. "I'm just a person who cares." In reference to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's firing of nuclear watchdog Linda Keen, Hetherington won points with the audience when she said: "If he told me to fire Linda Keen I would have said to him, you fire me first." This election is about honesty, integrity and taking respect for your actions," she said.

Lunn, the incumbent, talked about the importance of democracy and said the airing of different opinions in the room were just that. He pointed to his service as a local MP, helping to save CHEK TV from shutdown, and obtaining funds to upgrade 21 municipal parks, the Royal B.C. Museum and Langford's sportplex, plus preservation of the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

In May's final words of the night, she asked the crowd "to make history" by electing the first Green to Parliament.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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