Northern Saskatchewan candidates (from left) Conservative incumbent Rob Clarke, Green Party Gabe Lafond and NDP Lawrence Joseph prepare for the all candidates forum in Prince Albert Wednesday evening. Topics raised were largely focused on aboriginal issues including education, rights, land claims and residential schools. Herald photo by Dave Lazzarino
PRINCE ALBERT — Three of the four candidates for the northern riding of Desnethé–Missinippi–Churchill River squared off Wednesday evening at the Senator Allan Bird Memorial Gymnasium in an all candidates forum.
All contenders in the race are of aboriginal descent and topics of discussion focused on issues facing aboriginal, First Nation and Métis communities. But despite the localized focus, strategy managed to somewhat mirror the federal battle taking place: Conservatives rested on their track record, NDP attacked Conservative and Liberal, Green Party bounced between all opinions and inserted the occasional piece of original thought. The only candidate who did not follow a party tack was Liberal Gabe Lafond, who was murmured to have been there at the beginning of the forum but ultimately did not show up.
Of course, there was some constructive debate to be had.
Conservative candidate and incumbent Rob Clarke opened by stressing the importance of jobs and education in the north. He pointed out his party's support of K-12 and the more than $130 million in federal funds he said he has brought to the northern riding.
George Morin or the Green Party followed with criticism for all parties, all of which he has held a card in, saying that they have delivered "a litany of broken promises" to First Nations people and a watering down of Métis rights. He said jails have been built without native issues in mind and added that he has lived the issues and can speak to them best.
New Democrat candidate and former Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations chief Lawrence Joseph began with possibly the most emphatic and condemning speech of the evening, accusing both the Conservatives and the Liberals of being absent for important issues like supporting First Nations University funding and generally neglecting First Nations people. He said the government should be focusing on housing in the north and not jails.
Following introductions, the candidates fielded questions from the roughly 30 people who had gathered to hear the speakers. One attendee asked whether the candidates would support re-introducing the Kelowna Accord, a series of plans to improve the education, employment, and living conditions for Aboriginal peoples through governmental funding and other programs, developed as a campaign promise under the Paul Martin government but not adopted by the Harper government.
Clarke defended his government by saying they have put more than double the $5 billion that the accord would have set aside for First Nations initiatives.
Joseph, on the other hand, said he would not re-introduce the accord. He said it was a good start but felt they could do better. Morin agreed with Joseph and briefly outlined the Green Party dedication to First Nations people.
A series of other topics were raised as well:
Education - Clarke detailed money spent on schools in the past two years; Morin promised to fight for better northern education in Ottawa; and Joseph criticized the cap on education spending, calling it "our buffalo."
Residential schools and language funding - Joseph attacked the Conservative all talk no action approach; Morin echoed that sentiment; and Clarke pointed to the track record of apologies made and money granted.
Land Claims - Morin said First Nations people should not have to claim something that is rightfully theirs to begin with; Joseph stated that every decision, including all future legislation passed, should be based on treaties; and Clarke hailed the Land Claims Tribunal Act as a Conservative success in parliament.
Other than debate topics, people were reminded that advance polls will begin next weekend and voters are encouraged to visit www.elections.ca to find out more information on where to vote and what is needed.
The print version of this story inadvertently switched some names. This version has the proper attribution.