Lambton-Kent-Middlesex candidates and voters turned out in Brooke-Alvinston Tuesday night as the election campaign enters its final week.
Sudit Ranade, Liberals; Jason Henry, NDP; Kevin Mitchell, PPC; and Jeremy Hull, Greens, appeared at the Optimist Pavilion to discuss their visions with a few dozen curious constituents. Conservative MP Lianne Rood didn’t show up to the debate and has not participated in any of them so far.
Hosted by the three local agriculture federations; like their forum with Sarnia-Lambton candidates in Brigden last week the focus for the sweeping riding was farming and agriculture. The evening had a more jovial tone as all answers were applauded by the crowd. Spirits were perhaps bolstered by the absence of a major thunderstorm which had caused numerous power outages at the fairgrounds.
Farmland itself was a major topic. Jay Cunningham, president of the Kent Federation of Agriculture, says less than five per cent of land mass in Ontario remains arable for farming and this number gets smaller every day.
Henry, who serves as chief of Kettle and Stony Point, says the problem starts with farmers being put in a situation where they just can’t maintain the land. “If farmers and farm families have the ability to have a sustainable future in that business with family that would take over, they wouldn’t be pressured to sell.”
“If we can help uphold the farmers and their businesses then it will be easier for them to hold onto that land,” says Henry.
Ranade says the issue starts away from the rural areas with urban sprawl. The chief medical officer of health for Lambton County promotes building up instead of out as cities and towns get bigger.
The rookie Liberal candidate also called for more innovative use of existing space, “restoring things you have or finding new ways to use the space you have to live there.
Ranade also says multi-generational living should be prioritized. “More and more people want to be able to live with their parents as they age… but maybe not right with them,” he joked.
People’s Party candidate Kevin Mitchell had his own take, blaming immigrants for the loss of farmland. “You see more and more immigrants spreading through the country… They cause farmland to be bought up because we have to build more housing. We have to limit immigration and be much more strategic with it immediately,” he says.
Mitchell claimed “we have 76 per cent of immigrants that are coming over with no skilled trades, no money and nothing to contribute." He did not cite where this number came from.
“I’m not sure that statistic on immigration is one that I’ve seen,” countered Ranade.
Mitchell’s position that immigrants are a “drain on our economy” garnered reaction from the crowd with a mix of claps and boos. “I’m a proud daughter of immigrants!” yelled one woman in attendance. Mitchell says the responses are in line with his goal of “ruffling feathers.”
Hull also says better use of existing buildings would be a preferable approach to new construction on farmland. “Retrofitting is definitely a way to go.”
Of course farmland is no good if there’s no one to work it. The candidates debated how to keep young people interested in either entering or sticking with the industry.
Hull proposed an “entrepreneurship or internship program where new farmers are set up with experienced farmers so they can learn the skill and the trade properly. The experience of the older farmer we’ve got to have.”
Ranade says he would look to the community for answers. “There are some families that have been fairly successful at moving their children and their grandchildren into the business. And there are others where that hasn’t happened.”
“If we can understand what makes the difference between the two we can start to enable more people to be a part of family businesses,” he says.
Henry says this career path needs to be addressed from an early age. “For some reason maybe we’ve told our kids that’s it’s not an honourable trade,” says Henry of how farming is discussed by parents and in schools.
The chief says many kids he went to school with and thought would become farmers have gone a different route. “It’s too hard and I was taught in school to do something different,” Henry recalls of conversations with them. He says the option of smaller farms should be promoted as well as how much technology is involved in farming today.
Perhaps unexpectedly Mitchell and Henry found some common ground on the topic, though the PPC candidate’s approach toward schools was a bit more radical. “One of the many structures that really needs to be torn down and re-evaluated is how we educate our children,” says Mitchell, adding schools need to offer a “more wide variety of education possibilities.”
The candidates also spoke on the environment and Canada’s pledge to reach a net zero of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. “I think we have to make sure we have breaks for farmers who are doing their part reducing their carbon footprint,” says Henry. “Farmers are at the forefront of green energy and climate change and need to be supported as such.”
“We have to make sure we’re supporting green energy projects and that we’re transitioning now… Domestically we have to make sure that the carbon tax is applied to polluters and not to the consumers,” added Henry.
Ranade agreed a transition is the way forward, but we must be cautious about it. “You have to move fast enough to make a difference but slow enough to bring people along with you… It’s about making sure that people are enabled through the transition together as a community.”
To that end both candidates support keeping Line 5 open for now during a transition to greener energy and retraining Chemical Valley workers to perform new jobs when that eventually takes place.
Mitchell says the PPC is “all about the environment” despite their platform saying there’s “no scientific consensus on the theory that CO2 produced by human activity is causing dangerous global warming today or will in the future.”
He says a PPC government would ditch the Paris Accords and “tear all this environmental stuff down to the studs and rebuild it so that we can make a better environmental impact without handcuffing and making life less affordable for Canadians.”
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent