Get me to the church on time - Liveblogging an all-party debate on poverty and inequality

Unlike certain political parties, ITQ will be heading to the Dominion Chalmers United Church tonight for a five-four-party forum on poverty and inequality, organized by a coalition of social justice groups, including the National Anti-Poverty Organization, KAIROS, and the Canadian Labour Congress.  Check the link above for a full list of participating organizations.

Scheduled speakers include Martha Hall Findlay (Liberal), Francoise Boivin (NDP), Real Menard (Bloc Quebecois), Jen Hunter (Green Party) and Nobody (Conservatives).

6:31:38 PM
So, unless anyone objects — anyone official, that is, and if you fit that description and want to do so, I’d suggest emailing me at some point during the next half hour — I’ve decided to try something new: since the Conservatives didn’t send a representative to field questions on poverty and inequality on the party’s behalf, I’m going to see if I can do it for them, since by this point, I think I have a pretty good idea of what the talking points are for virtually any question that might arise. I’m going to play it perfectly straight – no caricatures here – but if any C/conservative supporters in the audience want to try their hand in the comment section, I say bring it on.

This could be interesting.

I’m here, by the way – tucked away in a corner pew, since I feel guilty taking up a seat that would otherwise go to an actual participant. I’m sitting directly perpendicular to the table on stage — which is now being stocked with bottles of water, and which will soon be populated by candidates representing four of the five parties invited to take part.

As churches go, this is a fairly sizeable one, based on my limited experience — it has a balcony, even — and it is rapidly filling up. The audience defies broad generalization; young, old; some in smart cashmere wraps, others in faded leather or tweed. There are two microphones – strategically placed in the middle of the aisle, on either side of the centre row. It doesn’t feel like a religious service — too much chattering, and even the occasional peal of laughter – but there is an air of purpose – commitment, even.

6:41:03 PM
I’ve spotted my first MP – that’s one thing that’s different from my all candidates’ meeting experience; the party representatives are, with one exception, elected MPs, which means I don’t have to scramble to read their respective nameplates. (The exception – Francoise Boivin, who is here to speak for the NDP – was actually a Liberal MP before the last election, so I will be able to recognize her as well.)

I’m not expecting much in the way of intraparty bickering — I suspect what is about to transpire will turn into a free-for-all crowdcritique of the current government. But we’ll soon find out.

6:46:34 PM
A bit of advice, for activists who approach the media to advance their cause: When it comes to opening lines, you might want to choose one that doesn’t implicitly accuse the object of your buttonholing of ignorance and/or apathy. A representative of a group which shall remain nameless just wandered over to my pew, held out – and then retracted – a pamphlet, with the exclamation: “You’re a journalist – you should write about this some time,” delivered in a tone that sent a clear message that, as far as he/she was concerned, I had already been judged, and found wanting. In this case, however, I actually *have* written about the issue in question, yet now I’m on the defensive. Bad idea. I’m not the sort to hold a grudge, but really, the way to win me over is not to force me to tell you whether it is me, or my editor who is responsible for my ostensible failure to dedicate sufficient time and energy to your pet issue.

6:53:25 PM
Green Jen! Remember Green Jen? Jen Hunter, that is – running for the Mayvolutionaries in Ottawa Centre. She’s representing her party during tonight’s debate, and she just came over to say hi. (I’d say I was shocked she recognized me, but considering I was the only person sitting crosslegged on the floor, tapping furiously through that all-candidates’ meeting in Westboro, it’s not surprising that she recognized me.

I’m not sure how many other reporters are here, if any. There are people taking pictures – in church! Is that even allowed? – but mostly using phonecams or other non-pro instruments. I hope I’m not the only journalist here. That would be depressing, somehow.

6:56:23 PM
Martha Hall Findlay and Francoise Boivin are now taking their seats at the table – Real Menard has been there for ages – and a guy in a baseball hat just asked the audience to take their seats. Silence fills the hall – not a tense silence, but definitely an anticipatory buzz of white noise.

6:58:34 PM
The man in the hat turns out to be one of the organizers – although wouldn’t you know it, I missed his name – and is a director of the National Anti-Poverty Organization. He lays out the rules for tonight’s debate — basically, be respectful to each other, and the candidates – and introduces the four people sitting at the table beside him. He also notes that the Conservatives decided not to send a representative, which produces a tentative, if heartfelt, chorus of “booo’ from the audience.

The moderator – Adrian Harewood – gets an enthusiastic round of applause, and when he appears on stage, the organizer greets him with a “Yo, Adrian!”

Oh, and before I forget, on the left side of the stage, a woman is signing simultaneous translation, which makes me feel as though I’m back on the Hill, watching the CPAC feed of Question Period.

With a quote from Martin Luther King, the moderator gets started with a few introductory remarks of his own.

7:03:50 PM
Harewood reminds the room that, twenty years ago, every party in the House of Commons supported a motion to end child poverty — but time is up (and then some) on that deadline, and there are still children and families living in poverty.

Oh, and he also thinks it’s appropriate that we’re having this discussion at the same time that the global economy is threatening to plunge into chaos, and notes that, for those who don’t have stocks, and who live from cheque to cheque (if that), it is always a crisis.

7:07:07 PM
Maybe my internal applause-o-meter is broken, but I couldn’t pick up on any substantial difference in the audience reaction to the different candidates.

7:08:05 PM
Opening statements, then five rounds of questions – with the curtain going down by 9:30.

7:08:35 PM
First up: Francoise Boivin, who delivers her opening remarks in French – which, of course, means you’re stuck with my somewhat flaky translation skills, but since this is just her boilerplate opener, you probably aren’t missing much.

7:11:27 PM
Next up, Martha Hall Findlay, who says she’s “really pleased” to be here, and — is that a French horn? Sorry, there appears to be a band practice going on in the room next door. Anyway, MHF joined the Liberal Party because they had both compassion, and common sense. She’s a former corporate lawyer, and she knows her Lester B. Pearson history – and now she is delivering a backhanded compliment to the NDP of yore, with which the Pearson Liberals were able to cooperate to bring Medicare and other good ideas to life. Unfortunately, it was the NDP – sorry, Jack Layton, personally – who brought down the Martin government, which was – bad. Yes.

Francoise Boivin looks miffed.

7:15:04 PM
Jen Hunter – Green Jen – thanks the organizations for putting this event together, and stresses that the Green Party is about more than just the environment – they are driven by six fundamental values: ecological wisdom, participatory democracy, sustainability, social justice, non-violence — and one other that I missed, because wow, those are some spectacularly multisyllabic values.

7:17:16 PM
Finally, Real Menard, who seems just a little bit bemused to be here, explains the Bloc Quebecois’ raison d’etre. In French, of course.

He gets a polite round of applause, and now it’s onto the first round of questions.

7:19:44 PM
Canadians are concerned about the income gap between rich and poor, says Harewood – they believe the tax cuts benefit the wealthy, and leave the poor behind.

First up: Martha Hall Findlay, who agrees that one in ten children living in poverty is too many, and notes that a few years ago, the Kelowna Accord was a “really big step” towards addressing the gap within First Nations communities; the Liberals would continue doing the work that was begun under Kelowna.

Next up, Francois Boivin, who takes the opportunity to defend her new party against the charge that the NDP brought down her then-party, which was the Liberals. She recalls being in the Women’s Caucus, and being forced to fight tooth and nail with cabinet for every cent that went to programs to help women, the poor and other groups.

The NDP, on the other hand – if elected – will eliminate the $50 billion corporate tax cut, and make people, not corporations, the priority.

Real Menard rails against the fiscal imbalance – too much money being horded by a hardhearted federal government, and calls for more funding for training, and – other stuff. I’m unsure whether any person sitting in this hall can actually vote for the Bloc, even if so inclined, but he gives it his best shot.

Finally, Jen Hunter reads from the Green platform, and touts the elimination of poverty via the guaranteed income supplement. She urges Canadians to help come up with a “reasonable” amount that would represent the minimum needed for survival. Oh, and free transit passes – to aid in mobility – and other initiatives. It’s time to come up with “real solutions.”

For some reason, Martha Hall Findlay gets a second opportunity to speak, and warns the audience that they’re going to notice a “theme” in her answers tonight, and that theme appears to be attacking the NDP, and Jack Layton, for aiding and abetting in the election of a Stephen Harper government. So – yeah, it’s going to be that kind of night.

Imaginary Tory: (I warned y’all): Cutting the GST helped all consumers, including those who do not pay taxes at all, and the Conservative Party has devoted considerable resources to combat homelessness, and poverty. Oh, and the child tax benefit, which provides all families with money for children under seven, and, if the government is reelected, will be indexed to inflation.

7:32:49 PM
Round 2 – wow, that went faster than I expected.

The question – comprehensive anti-poverty strategies, which have been employed by various countries other than Canada, with some success. Will the parties commit to public consultations to come up with a policy for Canada?

Boivin up first, and her answer is yes – well, oui – “definitivement.” She takes a few shots at both the Liberals and the absent Tories, and delivers the relevant bits of the NDP platform with conviction.

Real Menard — you know, I’m going to fess up; I didn’t get much of that at all. It seemed to be largely concerned with the federal government not getting in the way of provincial programs.

7:39:14 PM
Green Jen warns the audience that she is going to say something risky – this is a long term issue, and an approach that has to be reconsidered. It starts with how we measure health and wellbeing – if we did it on a wider scale, we would see the need for different investments. It’s also necessary to negotiate “coherent” policy with the provinces.

7:40:49 PM
And now, Martha Hall Findlay, who also says “oui” to the proposition – “absolutely”. She points out that all of the answers are fairly similar, because really, the parties do share similar views; just different ideas on how to address the inefficiencies. “Most people in the country did not want a Stephen Harper government,” she says – again – as Boivin grimaces. The challenge is which is the party which will be able to effect the change that Canadians want to see at a national level.

Imaginary Tory – I’m not sure what the right answer is here, as per party policy, so I’m going to go with one of the tried and true generalities: The Conservative Party consults with Canadians from all wallks of life on a wide variety of issues, and will continue to do so if reelected. On poverty, we believe the best way to help families is to put money back into their pockets through tax cuts, and to maintain a strong economy — not impose risky permanent taxes on everything, especially a carbon tax that will penalize the poor, the elderly and rural Canadians.

7:43:39 PM
Boivin gets the closer this time – and a spirited round of applause – when she points out that it’s day thirty, and she still hasn’t gotten to debate these issues with a Conservative. “If being a leader is forbidding your people to speak their mind, and tell the people of the riding what they intend to do…” She then suddenly remembers that she *did* debate Lawrence Cannon, and the only memorable moment was when he defended big oil. Exxon, perhaps? Seriously. It’s like anti product placement.

The moderator keeps warning the audience not to applaud, which seems – frankly, kind of pointless. What’s wrong with clapping? I mean, this isn’t a service.

7:46:20 PM
Round three: visible minorities are more likely to be affected by poverty. What’s the plan to deal with this reality, and the discrimination that is both cause and effect (at least in part)?

7:47:32 PM
Menard starts off this time, and touts the Quebec government’s efforts to end discrimination, and you know what, I really can’t fake it. My French is passable for basic comprehension, but not liveblog-ready. I apologize.

7:50:27 PM
Green Jen points out that she is a member of a group that is still a visible minority in the House – that would be women – to scattered applause, and then moves swiftly to call for more parliamentary representation from other minority groups, including First Nations, since right now, people feel like they’re “aren’t part of the conversation” – and that’s not right. That elicited a “whoo” from the back of the room.

7:52:14 PM
Martha Hall Findlay notes that when she was traveling the country, working on the platform, even when the economy was shuddering darkly, people told her not to forget social justice – which sparks a tentative round of applause – that she encourages. “Let’s clap, that’s a good thing.” She then segues back to Kelowna and child care, early learning, all those initiatives that died unfulfilled because of the NDP. She left out that last part, but I can spot a theme.

The moderator once again scolds the audience for clapping. Seriously, dude – relax. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional – genuine – round of applause. It wastes more time to scowl at all and sundry than it takes to sit through it.

7:54:29 PM
Boivin counters by pointing out that the NDP has social justice as its core, and goes into a little spiel about the “marvelous” NDP platform, and how, if “socialist” means she has a social conscience, then by all means, call her a socialist.

Imaginary Tory: Our government has contributed millions of dollars to cultural groups that celebrate the heritage of all Canadians, including – whatever amount fits for Black History Month. We have also righted historic racial wrongs by compensating the descendants of Chinese-Canadian immigrants who were forced to pay the head tax, and apologizing for the Komagata Maru tragedy.

7:58:53 PM
Fourth round! Wow, we’re just speeding through the pre-arranged questions. Housing – too much is inadequate or unsafe, and Canada needs a national strategy. Will the respective parties agree that such a strategy must be developed, under the aegis of a housing minister?

Green Jen: Housing is a right, and must be provided – and a national housing strategy must create new units, provide rent supplements, and come up with incentives to build high quality, low cost, energy efficient housing for seniors. She finds the idea of a housing minister to be “interesting”, but she hints that she has heard at least one thing that the Conservatives are planning to do, and found it “very disturbing.” She doesn’t, however, fill the rest of us in — yet.

8:03:22 PM
Martha Hall Findlay notes that she’s surprised Green Jen has heard anything from the government, since nobody else can get anything out of the Tories. She chides Harper for holding exactly one meeting with First Ministers – which lasted from appetizers to dessert – and stresses the need to work together with the provinces and territories.

8:06:48 PM
Francoise Boivin also stresses the need to invest in social housing, as does Real Menard, and man, Martha Hall Findlay was right – there really isn’t what you’d call a wide spectrum of positions being put forward on this stage tonight. They all agree on the fundamentals; any quibbles are over logistics – the fastest, most effective way to reach a shared goal.

Imaginary Conservative: Our government has invested (insert figure here) in affordable housing; meanwhile, the Dion Liberals are proposing a carbon tax, which will make it that much more difficult for lower income families to afford food and shelter. Higher taxes are not the answer. (That was a bit of a kludge, admittedly, but better than not showing up at all.)

8:09:16 PM
Jen Hunter gets a second chance at the mic, and predicts that if Canadians could share their collective wisdom, and agreed to dedicated resources to invest in housing, it would make the country a better place.

8:10:58 PM
Last set question: what will the parties do to address child poverty?

Real Menard calls for more support for provincial programs; Jen Hunter confesses that, of all the issues that confront her, this disturbs her the most. Martha Hall Findlay notes that children aren’t poor – *famileis* are poor. It isn’t their fault – it is an inequality that must be addressed, in terms of opportunities and self-confidence.
Imaginary Conservative: Under our government, the Child Tax Benefit provided needed support for all families with children under seven, and gave them the flexibility to choose how best to care for their children. Stephen Harper has also promised to extend parental benefits to the self-employed on a voluntary basis, and have worked hard to make our communities safe for all children.

8:17:27 PM
Martha Hall confesses that she really wants to see a prudent government – a government that understands the economy – but with compassion.

What scares the hell – her word (in church!) not mine – out of Francoise Boivin at the moment, however, is the fact that governments around the world are using the R-word — recession. She’s afraid that poverty will take a backseat, as the federal governments bail out the banks.

8:19:51 PM
That’s the end of that round, which means questions from the audience, which can be posed from the floor – at one of the two mics – or, if shy, they can go outside to the foyer and record it, or write it on a slip of paper.

8:21:26 PM
First speaker – wow, there is quite a line, now that I crane my neck – and she is disappointed in the lack of substance from all of the speakers; she is particularly dismayed by the focus on day care. “Farming out children is never the answer,” she says, to a small but forceful round of applause. There isn’t enough democracy, she complains – they need less federal involvement, and more local control.

“What real activity,” she wonders, will any of the candidates embrace?

I have no idea what she means, but Jen Hunter bravely grabs the mic, and asks why she – the questioner – doesn’t run. “From here?” the woman asks. Yes, says Green Jen, who invites her to come by her office to discuss the issue in more detail.

8:25:32 PM
Martha Hall Findlay takes a different, but equally brave tack — she argues that really, there are provisions in all four platforms that include “concrete measures” from more money for training, to changes to the tax system. “A cheque with real money in it is concrete,” she says – and once again, she notes, she’s speaking up for all four parties.

The questioner is getting surly – actually, downright difficult. She keeps shouting back from the floor, and doesn’t seem to want to hear the response. After being asked several times to surrender the mic, she finally, grudgingly does so.

8:28:33 PM
Next question – from the other mic – and it’s a three parter. First, would the candidates support a Ken Epp-stye anti-violence-against-pregnant-women; second, would they support a law against euthunasia, and — wait, apparently, this question is destined to go unanswered. The moderator informs the questioner, politely but firmly, that as important as these questions may be, they aren’t on topic for this debate, and – that’s it.

Disappointed, but resigned, the woman departs, leaving in her stead a self-described artist with a bone to pick about corruption in arts funding.

8:32:35 PM
Several minutes into what appears to be a wideranging rant about arts and culture – and a law that he claims was passed in “every city across the country” that forbids artists from displaying wares for sale (does anyone know what he means?), the moderator *tries* to wrestle the question into submission, at least long enough to give the candidates a chance to respond, which once again results in a heated back and forth with the questioner.

Anyway, he eventually prevails, and Boivin commiserates with his frustration, but reminds him that they – she, Martha, Real, Jen – have to work together. “I’m right here,” he calls from the audience, which leads to *another* back-and-forth with the candidates, who are starting to look somewhat frustrated.

8:37:03 PM
A woman with a plummy Australian – or possibly New Zealand – accent goes into a lengthy harangue about the lack of respect for aboriginal people, and ends with a plea for all parties to work together. Apparently, that’s not a question, because we move straight to the other mic, and a man who wants to know where the parties stand on discrimination based on gender identity and orientation, which continues throughout one’s life, and can result in seniors being forced back into the closet.

Oh, he is transgendered, and as such, he is one of the lucky ones – he says – since he has had the operation. But not a single candidate said anything about ensuring protection under the human rights code.

Bzzzt. The Moderator rules that one out of order too. Okay, you know what? I think that the organizers should have prescreened the questions, or allowed more of a free-for-all during the public Q&A, because this is just disheartening for everyone.

8:42:13 PM
Finally, a question that meets the moderator’s threshold – something about tax cuts – by federal and provincial governments – and the devastating impact on the social fabric of the country. The moderator throws to Martha Hall Findlay first, noting that it was her party that brought in some of the most substantial cuts – tax, and spending. She reminds the room of the need to ensure global competitiveness, and prosperity.

8:50:42 PM
This question isn’t as tricky for the representatives from the other three parties, for obvious reasons – they’ve not been in government (federally, anyway), and they respond as you can imagine.

“Those sounded like closing statements,” says the moderator. Really? Well, given the difficulty he had sorting through single-issue axegrinders, I don’t blame him for wanting to bail out early. The candidates concur, although Martha Hall Findlay makes a point of inviting all of the people still standing in line to contact their – the parties’ – respective offices, and share their views. Get involved, speak up – make your voice heard.

8:54:51 PM
One last word, from a NAPO Council of Canadians with Disabilities organizer, who calls the Conservatives’ absence “indicative of their platform” – which is also absent, like their social policy, and like she hopes their seat count will be on October 14th, which garners the predictable applause.

She thanks the candidates and the moderators, the organizers and the audience. With a last plea to all and sundry to vote – “check the platforms, look for social policy, and if you don’t see it, don’t vote.” Which seems to be a needlessly negative way of putting it, but hey, it’s her show.

And with that, I’m out of here.

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