A combined forum to hear both federal and provincial candidates in the coming elections attracted upwards of 100 constituents Oct. 21 at the Herman Prior Activity Centre.
The Portage Community Revitalization Corporation (PCRC) and Portage la Prairie & District Chamber of Commerce jointly hosted the meet the candidate forum that could fairly be described as unique.
Candidates were given an area to meet with individuals to ask questions and then faced the audience to answer questions posed to them from either the chamber or PCRC. There was no opportunity for rebuttal or additional questions from the floor.
“Yes, this is unique,” said Candice Bergen who is again running federally as Portage-Lisgar Conservative Party candidate. “There won’t be any debate between candidates, but we have a good opportunity to talk one-on-one with voters and answer questions directly.”
The chamber and PCRC directed questions to the candidates — mostly three minutes answers from provincial candidates and two-minute answers from federal due to time constraints.
One of the moderators, Chamber of Commerce President Guy Moffat, explained the questions were geared jurisdictionally and drafted from chamber and PCRC concerns in the foremost.
Federally the forum heard from Portage-Lisgar incumbent and Conservative Party of Canada candidate Candice Bergen, Liberal Ken Werbiski and Jerome Dondo for the Christian Heritage Party.
Federal Green Party candidate Beverly Eert and People’s Party of Canada candidate Aaron Archer did not attend. There has not been a candidate chosen for the federal NDP Party.
The provincial election takes place on Sept. 10, and the federal election is expected on Oct. 21, though the writ has not yet been dropped.
Incumbent Ian Wishart, Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba, Andrew Podolecki, New Democratic Party of Manitoba and Charles Huband with the provincial Liberals faced the electorate.
The following is a transcription of questions provincial candidates were asked and their answers.
Any error in transcription is solely the result of being unable to discern what the candidates said in the audio recording. There are very few occasions when this happened. Also, the transcription was edited for punctuation, grammar and conciseness.
“We know that about one-third of our citizens in Portage la Prairie are living at or near the poverty line. In addition to that, we recently found out from statistics that the average Manitoban only has a couple of hundred dollars left in their pocket after paying their necessities. We also know that compared to similar-sized communities, Portage la Prairie has the third-highest poverty rate in all of Canada. So our first question from the PCRC is what would your plan to be to assist Portage la Prairie in dealing with our issues related to poverty?
Ian Wishart: Now dealing with the issue in terms of what does Portage needs to deal with poverty as we move forward. It’s always been a challenge and it’s a complex issue: poverty in any community. Portage is kind of a special opportunity right now because we’re seeing the kind of growth in the community that we haven’t seen in many cases almost in two generations. So it provides an opportunity for a lot of people to get into the workforce and move forward. And so to do that we have of course to make sure that we have the proper training for those individuals to match up to the skill set that that is needed. I know that our government has been very aggressive in terms of training. They brought the number of people that are getting apprenticed, up trades in particular through the school system. We’ve also moved to train outside of the school system. Some examples are on First Nations. We have a couple of really successful training programs in the Sandy Bay community right now that are training for the meat cutting industry which both Brandon and Neepawa are in demand for that.
“So there’s great opportunities in terms of that.
“Really the best solution to poverty is really good jobs in the community. That said we’ve made some changes to make sure that those that do have low incomes will get to keep a bigger portion of that dollar so we’ve raised the personal income tax exemptions or you don’t pay taxes nearly as quickly as you do on that income.
“You know when you mentioned that the $200 dollars left at the end, that is something that we are very concerned about which is one of the reasons we’ve lowered the PST. We’ve eliminated from household insurance and a number of other programs so that people actually get to leave more money on the kitchen table. We leave (more) money in your hands. You’re the best judge of how it should be spent in the community; how it can work for you. So it’s those types of initiatives that have really made big progress. I know it sounds like a little piece every time but after so many of them and we continue to do that and leave the money in your hands so that you can prosper as a resident in the Portage la Prairie community. I like to think our open for business attitude that our government has exhibited has attracted a number of businesses and I know that there will be more coming in the future.”
Andrew Podolecki: “With issues of poverty and people just living so close to $200, yet it is an extremely complicated issue. There is no silver bullet to solving it. It will take many multiple fronts that will do that. I feel that the Manitoba Democrats have a plan to do that with our pledges of wanting to raise the minimum wage to $15. Considering what the cost is for just even a one-bedroom apartment these days. The current minimum wage just is too low to do that. The other was reverse the cuts on the rent assistance program. Many low income renters who are working saw their rent assistance be reduced and in some cases $50-$60 dollars a month. For people who are low income, that’s a lot of money when you’re really needing to pinch pennies Also the needs of those just starting for good education and good health care.
“The guy who else someone can succeed in life is also by the ways of their ability to get an education, whether they want to go into trades, commerce or IT that they’re able to access that good education from kindergarten to high school and also be able to do any university or college, and be able to affordably, so that maybe they’re able to stay home here in Portage and go to school instead of having to live in student housing for example because they’re able to push their dollars a little further you know keeping tuition affordable. We have a pledge to keep tuition frozen at or below the rate of inflation so that we can keep post-secondary education affordable for anybody who wishes to attend. It’s just there are so many pillars when it comes to solving the poverty issues. These are just some ideas of what we can do and then just finally also continuing investments in affordable social housing. I don’t want many, many communities across Manitoba, especially in small communities, there is this serious lack of affordable housing. An apartment or a townhome will pop up and it’ll be gone the next day. It’ll be that quick For people who don’t have a lot of money just finding an affordable home to live is a huge difference maker. We need to make these investments and I hope that the NDP we do have a chance to do that.”
Charles Huband: “I think that the first step is to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, something that the Pallister government refused to do and something it will continue to refuse to do in the future if history is any indication of their position. Secondly, improve social welfare payments. Instead of $285 a month or something of that kind, make it a liveable amount for people who are on social assistance. Thirdly, housing. Housing is an important element in lifting people out of poverty. I am associated with a company in Winnipeg, a charitable organization, that provides housing for low income people. What has happened to us, however, is that our work has basically been frozen in terms of new projects because Manitoba Housing refuses to give us the grants that they have done in the past. Why have they done this? They have said no! Westminster Housing Society is continuing to support low income people with housing because the Pallister government doesn’t want to pay any money to anybody or anything. And that’s the way it’s going to be. You’re voting for a balanced budget that is frozen in time, or you’re going to support elements of spending that make all sorts of sense like bringing people out of poverty.”
Question from Chamber of Commerce:
The Manitoba Developmental Center (MDC) is the third largest employer in Portage la Prairie with nearly 500 employees and generates around $70 million in economic activity annually. Over the years the buildings and grounds have been fully maintained but have not been utilized to their full potential with many of the buildings being vacant. What are your thoughts on how to maximize the use of this asset in our province while maintaining and growing the current level of economic activity and employment and maintaining the level of care for the remaining residents of the MDC?
Andrew Podolecki: “One of the main things that we’ve put in our platform is when it comes to affordable and accessible child care one of the things we’ve said is one of the ways that we’re going to pledge to afford affordable child care is the utilization of existing public buildings. Putting child care in schools, government offices. I know in my former employer at Concordia Hospital we have a child care facility in the hospital. It’s actually been widely successful because now parents, parents that work at the hospital, are able to put their children in that daycare. And for many parents, they see it as so wonderful to have such a great facility so close in that you’re able to check in on their kids literally in seconds. That’s one of those things that we’re able to do that for buildings that are underutilized that we can breathe new life into and it creates a new sector of jobs for people to come to. Child care employment is a way you can create new jobs because you’re having early childhood educators, social workers that work with each child care initiatives. It’s one of those big ones that I’ve always seen that has always been a very good one for using utilizing underused buildings.”
Charles Huband: “I do not disagree with the suggestion that child care should be a possible use of the facilities. It is a shocking thing for me as a relative outsider to be taken out to take a look at the spread of buildings that are so nice and so underused. It’s a shocking thing to think that someone has not done something to make better use of this complex of buildings that sits on the doorstep of Portage Prairie. What should be done with them? I don’t have all the answers other than I agree with my friend here that the daycare facilities would be a good use of some of the buildings. But I think that it has to go further than that and it requires careful consideration of what institutions could best utilize that purchase.
“I notice the Red River College has a facility here. That kind of an institution could be utilized as part of a complex and we’re talking about it. But I think that if we go in and look for other uses other than daycare and educational training is a likely component. So it’s up to the community to decide where the emphasis should be. But I say to you that it’s a shocking thing still to me to see these facilities so underused.”
Ian Wishart: “MDC is a great facility and we shouldn’t forget that there is a resident population there that needs to be looked after on an ongoing basis. That is a developmental center and as such there are restrictions on what can also be on site with them. There are special rules around that. The changing of designation needs to be expanded to include health care that would allow us to look at doing some addictions recovery on site and not only is it a physical facility but we have a resident population of trained people that are used to and trained to, deal with psychiatric history issues, so there’s great potential to do that.
“I made a point of having all of the ministers involved on that site at different times to make them aware of the facilities. So certainly it is getting a very close look. Nobody’s prepared to make any commitments at this point in time, but it’s a great facility, not only his physical aspects but because of the people. “There is great expertise in the community and we should be trying to use them.
“We all know that we’re dealing with some challenges when it comes to addictions, not only here in Portage, but across the province, So having additional sites like that would be a great asset. That’s certainly something that’s getting a good look at in regards that but it needs its designation changed. This is not unique. It’s very similar to the St. Amant Centre in Winnipeg that has dual designations. It’s just never been done under the previous government. We’re certainly looking at making those changes. That would be probably the biggest area in terms of opportunity.
“Always great to have child care in a community — we’re actually busy building right now at North Memorial School — an additional child care facility, 74 spots, that will certainly help with the pressure. There’s a never ending demand in terms of child care in a community. We certainly could use more. That might be something that could be looked at, but under its existing designation as a developmental center we couldn’t actually put that on site either. So the designation has to be changed for multiple reasons.”
“We know that addictions are often funded through criminal activity. And we also know that its meth (methamphetamine) use grows in our community and there’s no denying that it’s an issue here, we’re also seeing a rise in theft. Nearly everybody has a story to tell. We know that addiction is a health issue. But there’s also a feeling that we don’t want to let criminals off the hook. So I think the problem really is how do we get criminals with addictions off our streets and keep them off the street. So that’s the question. Now. How do we keep crime and also deal with the underlying issues which are things like addictions?”
Charles Huband: “I think the answer is not to treat the addictions as a criminal offence even though it leads to some criminal activities, but rather get to the fundamental undercut of what is causing all this. What is causing all this in my mind is poverty. If people can’t get good jobs that keep them above the basic requirements, you’re going to turn to crime, they’re going to turn to drugs to alleviate the stresses of what they face as a result of poverty. That I think is the only way that we’re going to make progress and progress is going to be slow. Not everyone is going to all of a sudden turn around and become good citizens because we say ‘give them a little more money in terms of social assistance or something of that kind’. But if the pressure is taken off in terms of how you’re going to live and how you’re going to prosper in the future, then I think that the degree of crime in the community will greatly disappear or greatly diminish.”
Ian Wishart: “This is a complex issue. There’s no question. It involves both public safety and addictions. So we need to try and deal with it in both regards. We put additional resources in terms of public safety. Some announcements just the other day about specifically rural types of increased policing. We’ve also put an initiative in place in the province to deal with gangs. Those threats are coming from somewhere. Someone’s profiting from it. We need to deal with that as much as we can in the community. The meth is not being made here in Manitoba. It’s coming into Manitoba so that there are opportunities that can help deal with that, but that long will not deal with the problem.
“We need to deal with the addictions issue. We need additional capacity. I mentioned a little bit of that earlier. We’ve increased the number of beds for addictions issues (for) both men and women in the community. We’ve also committed to a sort of cooling off site for people. Treating a math addiction is quite different than any other type of addiction out there. The first 30 days or so people are just plain sick. There really is little progress made in terms of treating the addiction so that whole cycle of treating meth addiction is about 120 days in duration just on the average. Other addictions are usually much shorter treatment periods— 50 to 60 days are much more common. So it is going to take additional capacity in the community. And it’s also going to take that sort of special health related treatment early on in the program to help get people healthy again before you can deal with the addictions. You have to approach this from both directions. Yes, poverty is an issue, and certainly we need to look at that, creating additional training the skill sets is a good thing to do in terms of getting people into the workforce and successful in the workforce; Housing First was one that has been mentioned in some areas. That’s a really good program we think very highly of that and it has been used somewhat successfully in Winnipeg. That particular approach might be something that that could be considered and there are some sites for instance at MDC. There are some buildings that are religious houses they could be attached and used it in that regard as Housing First to help people transition back into the community.
“They need supports to deal with their addictions so that they can get back into a successful life. We all want to help them. But we also have to out a role in terms of enforcement. Not only the police but the whole justice system has to do that.”
Andrew Podolecki: “It is an extremely complicated issue with what we’re dealing with, property crime and the drug addiction. And one of the big things as well is that we also have to humanize these people again. Many people who struggle with addictions they don’t feel that they can seek help because they feel that they will be completely isolated if they do. And then also just in the sense of better treatments just from start to finish. Also if they are able to seek the treatment they need and get the help they need, also the transition to be back into regular society because many folks when they complete their treatment, their kind of left on your own. You can kind of see how this easily falls back into how they could fall back into drug addiction. And one of these things is that maybe in our platform is the idea that we have The Mainstream Project; the ideas of safe consumption sites so that people have a place to go that they know that that there won’t be unnecessary deaths and that they will be able to have a place to go in the sense that if they want treatment they can. So that they’re not using up police resources or clogging our ERs and putting added stress of other social services. And then the other is also just in the sense of when it comes to the crime front and preventative measures. I do remember seven years ago auto thefts were a huge problem in Winnipeg. MPI and Winnipeg police force came up with a solution of the immobilizer program. It saw to great success a dramatic decline in auto thefts in Winnipeg. It’s just the preventative treatments and transition. With many issues along with poverty, these folks need help and they need a lot of help and then that transition must start with their ability to at least to say it to a health care professional or to someone who’s trained in these fields to say ‘I need help’. Then to be able to then say ‘perfect, we are going to get you back on your feet and to help them along some way’.
“Putting them in prison is just one of those things that will just exacerbate the problems: it will make it worse. If you just put a prison that you’re going to get connected to gang activity and then it will just snowball. We need to stop the problem right when we recognize it.”
Chamber of Commerce question:
Portage la Prairie is a rapidly growing community thanks to the many partners that we have in Portage such as Roquette, Simplot, McCain, Carpere and many housing developers. How are you prepared to help us grow to match pace with our soon to be very much growing population in the way of maintaining access to the high-level services that we’ve come to expect in our community in places such as hospitals medical services and education?
Ian Wishart: “This is actually a really good time to be from Portage isn’t it? We’ve seen the kind of growth that we haven’t seen in a couple of generations. We need to make sure we have everything in place to support that. You mentioned education and the other infrastructure issues that the community needs; you know, the wastewater treatment plant that we work cooperatively with the city and the federal government to open, cut the ribbon on the other day is a really good example. That to is one of the things that gives us an opportunity to move forward.
“Portage has made a name or itself as a food processing and treatment or whatever a processing facility, fractionation turning out the raw product, we’re going to see some real interest from other jurisdictions because we’ve demonstrated we have everything in place. We have great transportation, we have sewer and water — we have people. We have people that we can help get a good education so that they’re well-trained to serve those particular industries. These are good jobs that are coming with these new industries. I think it’s really important that we take advantage of that opportunity so education is a big part of this. But the infrastructure has to go along with it whether it’s roads or its highways, sewer and water all of those things are big parts of that component and housing in the community. We’ve seen some really good builds in terms of multifamily. I’m sure we’re going to see a growth in terms of single-family dwellings as people come in. I love to talk about the future of Portage because I think for the first time in a long time it looks really good.”
Andrew Podolecki: “On infrastructure, you know Portage is quite blessed, it has the TransCanada Highway, the main railways running through here and then the accessibility of our clean hydro. With the issues of climate change that you know bear down on all of us a big thing that we’ll say to a lot of companies is you can come here and get lots of good labour, good skilled workers and cheap, bountiful hydro that will keep your costs in check. That’s something I think that can be a really big promo to our infrastructure along CentrePort in Winnipeg. Portage la Prairie working with companies with CentrePort and utilizing that we can be an economic engine for the world in so many things that many people don’t even realize.
“And again, it starts with just having good schools, good health care, strong well-informed workers and just people with an open attitude that we can do this.
“On our platform is the clean hydro I think would be one of those things that will lead to a huge economic boom for us if we utilize it appropriately. Especially with the growing world populations, the needs for more agricultural goods will just keep increasing. We need to meet those and they may require some tough decisions that we may not necessarily like.”
Charles Huband: “I think that there are some things about Portage la Prairie that could be improved, believe it or not. For example, at the west part of that Trans-Canada Highway, there’s that bridge sort of a thing that plenty to be desired. So there’s there are a few things in terms of the infrastructure in Portage la Prairie that could be upgraded in order to better welcome new industry and new employees.
“You should also be supporting a broad immigration policy — I think we have now at the federal level — but I think that the province could go out of its way to welcome New Canadians into this area and into employment in this area. It is to be remembered that new industry will be a modern industry and it will be using less employers than otherwise, you might think because that will be certified robots and things of that kind. But to the extent that there are new employment opportunities, part of the answer it seems to me is to make those jobs available to New Canadians. The other thing that I should mention about new industry is that they are looking for transportation. Transportation is not going to come from the railways that flow through mile-long trains in both Portage la Prairie and Winnipeg. They’re taking cargo to Toronto and Montreal and they’re bypassing, in most instances, other cities including Portage la Prairie.”