Standing room only at election forum

  • Apr. 24, 2009 6:00 p.m.

By Alex Rinfret-About 65 islanders came out Tuesday night in Port Clements to hear from the three candidates running in the provincial election, asking questions on topics ranging from school bus service to the Haida language to the strike by paramedics. It was the first time in many years that a provincial all-candidates forum has been held on the islands. Tuesday night’s event, organized by the Haida Gwaii Teachers’ Association, focused on education issues for the first half, then gave the audience the chance to ask questions about anything they wanted. The evening started with introductions from the candidates. NDP candidate Gary Coons, who was elected North Coast MLA in 2005, told the audience he got involved in politics four years ago after many years teaching high school in Prince Rupert. “I saw a real need for a voice for those of us who live in rural and northern BC,” he said. “I believe rural BC has been abandoned over the past four to eight years.” Green Party candidate Lisa Girbav, at 19 the youngest candidate in the province, said her party does not have a lot of money for advertising or lawn signs, yet has managed to become one of the most successful parties in Canada on the strength of its ideas. Touching on the evening’s education theme, she said the Green Party believes that education should be available locally and that more money should be spent to make sure students even in isolated villages don’t have to choose between dropping out or leaving home to continue their schooling. “We can afford it, we simply choose not to,” she said. Liberal candidate Herb Pond, a two-term mayor of Prince Rupert, introduced himself with several sentences spoken in Haida, and apologized for not being able to say more. “I speak Sm’algyax fairly well, but Haida is new to me,” he said. He told the audience that he is familiar with many education issues because his wife was a teacher for many years and is now the principal of the 63-student elementary school in Port Edward. They have four children who all graduated from high school in Prince Rupert. The school system in BC has some tremendous successes, he said, but it also needs to find new ways to deal with things like increasing paperwork, lack of respect in the classroom, and how to help special needs students. The first question of the evening, posed by Haida Gwaii Teachers Association president Evelyn von Almassy, was about the Foundation Skills Assessments tests written every year by all grade 4 and 7 students in the province. Ms von Almassy asked the candidates whether they would be willing to work on a way to stop the Fraser Institute from using the test results to “rank” schools. Mr. Coons responded that he has seen first-hand the demoralization of teachers and students at north coast schools which end up at the bottom of the Fraser Institute’s lists, and said he has consistently spoken out against this use of the test results. The Health Minister has refused to give the Fraser Institute access to information about BC hospitals, and the government should apply the same logic to the FSA results, he said. Mr. Pond, on the other hand, said public information should not be withheld. He agreed that the Fraser Institute rankings don’t tell the whole story about schools, but said the solution is simply to ignore them. “We operate in a free and open society,” he said. “I don’t know a lot of people who pay a lot of attention to the Fraser Institute.” Candidates were then asked what they were prepared to do to make sure that special needs children got access to education. Mr. Coons responded that the NDP would spend money to increase the number of special education teachers and teacher assistants, and is generally committed to increasing the overall education budget. Ms Girbav agreed, saying the Green Party would also spend more money on education. But Mr. Pond said the education budget has grown by about 43 percent since 2001 and he wasn’t sure if more money was the solution. “I suspect if we grew (the budget) some more, we would still be facing challenges,” he said. “We need to be creative.” The Port Clements multi-purpose building, which includes a three-classroom school, is a great example of the kind of creative thinking that’s needed on the education front, he said. He added that he is prepared to advocate on any education issues brought to him by north coast residents. We’ll have a detailed report of the forum in the Observer on Thursday.