Gas prices, the environment, taxes, transit and bigotry addressed during all-candidates meeting

A measured debate during Squamish's first virtual election-season face-off

It was a smorgasbord of Squamish issues.

Gas prices, ICBC, regional transit, BC Assessments — and even an incumbent MLA addressing a fellow party member who has controversial views on conversion therapy — were highlights of the Oct. 8 all-candidates debate.

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The event, hosted by the Squamish Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Doug Munroe of Politikos Research, was polite and had all the markings of a standard political debate — except that this time, participants were separated by computer screens rather than rostrums.

The Squamish Chief, Tourism Squamish, the Downtown Squamish BIA and the Squamish Arts Council were partners in the event.

This was the first debate in Squamish held online over Zoom, and candidates tuned in from their homes to an audience, which, at one point, was close to 100.

Two fresh faces vied for attention over the incumbent MLA Jordan Sturdy, a BC Liberal.

Keith Murdoch, a union organizer, sought to sell the  BC NDP's platform while Jeremy Valeriote, the  BC Green Party's choice for the riding, tried to position himself as a candidate for a party whose time has arrived in the Sea to Sky.

The NDP Candidate

Murdoch painted the NDP as the sole party that had the interests of small business in mind,

"The Greens and Liberals, in my view, they seem to be more supportive of supporting big businesses like Vail where the NDP are focused in helping those who need it — the small and medium-sized businesses that are local," he said.

It was a view that was challenged by both other candidates.

Murdoch recited one of the NDP's statistics, saying that the party had added 60,000 jobs, in their three years in power.

He touted the party's promise to deliver $3 billion a year over three years for hospitals, schools and infrastructure projects, which would presumably create about 18,000 jobs.

He said $300 million in grants would also be given to small and medium businesses.

Perhaps one of Murdoch's better moments was when he was the first to bring up a long-bemoaned issue in Squamish — gas prices.

He presented cracking down on high prices as a way to fund regional transit via a motor fuel tax.

"There are some challenges within your region specifically [regarding] price gouging with gas," said Murdoch. "And that the fuel within your region...they're charging it like there's already a transit tax associated [with] it. The NDP is committed to go after these gas companies who are overcharging customers in this region. That would then create some space for a transit tax to be put in for municipalities."

Recently, the NDP government has launched an investigation into fuel prices in Squamish. Earlier this year, then Energy Minister Bruce Ralston told The Squamish Chief that the B.C. Utilities Commission was looking into pricing around town.

He said that the authority will gather information on the cause of the pricing and then present it to the public. The hope is that it will name and shame vendors who are overcharging.

Ralston, however, did not commit to regulating gas prices, which makes it unclear if there will be any tangible penalties to vendors who are overcharging.

Murdoch said he supported ICBC and that the NDP has gone to great lengths to revitalize the Crown corporation.

He said it is a better alternative to privatized insurance as it is an entity that is not seeking profit.

Murdoch said any shortcomings of the company can be attributed to what he considered to be the BC Liberals' misusing the corporation as their own "personal piggy bank."

On the daycare front, he said there are currently 32,000 families in the province who are receiving $10-a-day — or less — daycare.

Murdoch said that he hopes the NDP will be able to expand the program into the Sea to Sky.

The BC Liberal Candidate

Perhaps the most challenging part of the debate fell to Sturdy, who was asked to deal with a question from a parent of a transgender child.

The parent wanted to know what Sturdy would do to keep his party accountable in light of a revelation that some BC Liberals had been advertising in a Christian magazine that has espoused contentious views around the LGBTQ community, especially concerning conversion therapy.

In one article, the Light Magazine questioned a proposed bill that would outlaw conversion therapy in B.C.

CTV News Vancouver then reported that Laurie Throness, the BC Liberal MLA for Chilliwack-Hope, said he would advertise in the magazine again because it aligns with his values as a "Biblical Christian" and it's an important way to reach his constituents.

"Biblical Christians follow their Lord in their sexual practice. They don't attack other people, they don't condemn other people, because Jesus did not condemn other people," Throness told CTV.

"They withdraw from sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. That has nothing to do with intolerance, it has everything to do with following their conscience and following their Lord."

However, an official with the Liberal caucus later told CTV News Vancouver that no more advertising dollars will be spent on the Light Magazine, not even for Throness.

When faced with the question about the Liberals' stance on LGBTQ rights, Sturdy said that there is no room for the BC Liberal party for hate or bigotry of any sort.

"I know Mr. Throness personally, and he's one of the people that I think that this question is oriented towards, and...we're not aligned on all things, I am confident that he's a man that is very tolerant and is loving of all people."

"It's a... broad... party, and there's a range of different views, and we tolerate different views. But the stand of the party is there is no room for hate or bigotry in British Columbia or in [the] BC Liberal party."

Aside from that, many of the questions that Sturdy fielded were more routine.

He challenged Murdoch's words on regional transit.

"That would be a little more believable if there was a demonstrated commitment by this government, by the NDP, to fund regional transit," said Sturdy.

He said local governments and First Nations have all decided on a funding formula that works.

Sturdy called the NDP's proposal to base much of the costs on property taxes "inequitable."

The incumbent MLA also took a question about one of the most complained-about topics facing small businesses — BC Assessment's practice of valuing a property based on its potential use, rather than its current use.

"The highest, best use taxation structure is one very prejudicial to small businesses and small landlords," Sturdy said.

He said the BC Liberals would bring a solution to the matter, creating a split assessment that would create a valuation based on both the current use and potential use.

This would lower the amount of property tax a small business would have to pay.

Concerning liquefied natural gas, Sturdy said that there's a 20-to-30 year window where natural gas will remain in demand, and it's possible to get involved as a clean producer of the material.

"I don't see any reason that we shouldn't be part of that market," he said.

Turning to the high-profile saga regarding Quest University's financial challenges, Sturdy said he would like to see the institution survive, though he acknowledged the difficulties surrounding the school.

'There have been some very difficult or questionable transactions around the funding of Quest University, and it very much needs to be exposed," he said.

"We need good representation there so that that institution survives."

The Green Candidate

Valeriote branded his party as the socially progressive up-and-comer in the Sea to Sky.

He championed the Green Party as the environmentally responsible vote.

"Greens are the only party that opposes LNG, which is clearly not the fuel of the future. It does not help us meet our climate goals — in fact, it puts us back from CleanBC. Offset by Carbon Engineering or not, it is not a step in the right direction," said Valeriote.

"I can understand the arguments that it's displacing other fuels in other parts of the world. That doesn't make it a good use of our efforts. It doesn't justify fracking and the earthquakes and contaminated water that are the result of fracking."

He said it also doesn't justify re-industrializing Howe Sound just after it's begun to recover, alluding to the location of the Woodfibre LNG project without saying its name.

Valeriote was less clear when it came to making a stance on the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish project, which would create a large all-season resort on Brohm Ridge, right by Mount Garibaldi.

Some say the project would damage the environment, add too much traffic, and stretch the town's infrastructure beyond its capacity. Proponents, however, say it could make Squamish a world-class competitor with Whistler and that it will be a boon for the economy as well as direct tourists already flooding Squamish, to managed areas.

"My opinion on Garibaldi at Squamish, or GAS, as I've heard it referred to — my opinion is [the] Green Party looks at these things based on the evidence," he said. "Whether it's a good idea or bad idea I can't say at this time, but I can say that, like every issue, as your MLA, I would deeply dive into the details."

Provincial parks have been another hot topic, as the pandemic has made them one of the main means of recreation, given that many indoor activities have been shut down.

Some outdoor enthusiasts have said the government should recognize the increase in demand for park usage and up funding and staffing for them as a result.

Valeriote said the parks need to be better staffed, but noted the party hasn't made a tangible promise.

"The Green Party hasn't made a specific announcement on parks. I recognize that others have taken this up as an issue. The overcrowding requires better management," he said, noting it would be good to review data from the new day-pass system.

When it came to education, Valeriote said as a father, he frequently thinks about how the pandemic will affect his children at school.

Valeriote said that the government should make in-class learning available while making online classes an option as well — this is something that appears to already be happening in many school districts.

That way, parents who need schools to look after their kids can go to work, but parents who feel their children are at risk can keep them safe, he said.

He also briefly addressed the increase in racist attacks against Asian Canadians during the pandemic and the recent racial justice protests for Indigenous and Black Canadians, saying there was no room for bigotry and that generational change can be slow.

"[I] can't really go on, because it's clear-cut — it's black and white to me," Valeriote said. "It's an issue of education and awareness, for sure."

Change needs to "pervade the entire system," he said.

Go to the Squamish Chamber of Commerce Facebook page to watch the whole debate.

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