The gloves were off among federal hopefuls at an all-candidates meeting sponsored by Southridge Senior School Monday morning, as they sparred in what was clearly the most animated debate yet on the South Surrey-White Rock campaign trail.
Open questions about Bill C-51 and Canada’s response to the plight of refugees, in particular, sparked heated exchanges at the meeting, greeted with audible ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ by a full house of students in the private school’s large assembly hall.
The meeting – organized and introduced by social-studies teacher James Knihniski and moderated by Grade 12 head boy Samir Saincher and head girl Megan Galbraith – was also open to parents and media.
After Grade 11 student Rianna Chu invited candidates to express opinions on the anti-terrorist legislation, Bill C-51, Conservative Dianne Watts was quick to defend it as a way to “give law enforcement added tools” to address the threat of terrorism at home.
Watts said the “head of ISIS” had declared Canada to be a target for terrorism and had encouraged attacks against the country.
But after Watts – who recently drew public debate for a ‘fight jihadist’ campaign circular – cited the death of a Canadian soldier on Parliament Hill and a plan to bomb the B.C. Legislature as evidence of terrorist activity indicating the need for C-51, candidates Larry Colero (Green), Judy Higginbotham (Liberal) and Pixie Hobby (NDP) went on the attack.
“There’s no clear connection between that and ISIS,” Colero interjected, adding that “myth and falsehood” had been used to justify the measure.
Higginbotham criticized the legislation as a “big omnibus bill” including both good and bad elements.
“Your party supported it,” Watts interrupted.
“We voted for it because we have never, and would never, support terrorism,” Higginbotham said, noting the Liberals vow to amend the bill should they form government.
Hobby said a review of the legislation by the Canadian Bar Association had concluded Bill C-51 did not add any new powers that are not already enshrined in existing laws, but would instead complicate the relationship between Canada’s security agency CSIS and the RCMP so that “they were stepping on each other toes.”
“It would look like a Keystone Kops comedy if we had to respond to a serious crisis,” she said, adding that the bill takes away rights of free speech to the extent that “a group of grannies could be arrested for protesting a fish hatchery.”
Colero said it was one of a series of Conservative laws – including the Fair Elections Act – that do the opposite of what their names suggest, comparing them to the “double speak” created by George Orwell in his novel, 1984.
Further debate was provoked when Grade 11 student Allan Hsu asked if, given the current refugee crisis, candidates would favour increasing the numbers of refugees and immigrants accepted into Canada.
Watts, former mayor of Surrey for nine years, said the city is the largest responder in accepting refugees in Canada, and that she had dealt with many cases of settling refugees in the community. But she said that any response to refugees must start by addressing the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people by ISIS, which can only be done by a military mission she said now involves 67 countries.
Responding to heckling from Hobby, Watts said “I don’t think anybody on the face of the earth wants to go in and bomb anybody.”
Colero said that when he last attempted to sponsor a refugee a couple of years ago he found it was “incredibly difficult… to claim refugee status and come to Canada.”
Higginbotham said the Liberals have committed to taking 10,000 refugees by the end of 2015, with 1,000 a year subsequently.
“Where are you going to put them?” demanded Watts.
Earlier that morning, responding to student questions tailored to individual candidates, Colero and Hobby spoke on environmental concerns, Higginbotham described Liberal policies that would benefit all ages of society and Watts talked about moves at all levels of government to address gang violence and the spread of illicit handguns.
The debate missed the presence of the riding’s two other candidates – the Libertarian party’s Bonnie Hu and the Progressive Canadian candidate’s Brian Marlatt, who announced his candidacy that morning on the final day of registration.