Housing and homelessness were at the forefront of an all-candidate debate on Tuesday night for Victoria’s upcoming council byelection.
The debate was sponsored by the Fernwood, North Park, Burnside Gorge, Vic West, Downtown, Oaklands, South Jubilee, Hillside Quadra neighbourhood associations, and featured all nine remaining candidates.
Two candidates who remain on the ballot, Jason Heit and Keith Rosenberg, did not participate as they have declared they will be dropping out and endorsing Stephen Andrew.
Moderator Joe Perkins, the 6 p.m. anchor at CHEK News, started things off by calling for civility both among candidates and in the online world, as the debate streamed live to Zoom and Facebook.
“It is my understanding that on some of those platforms, particularly on Facebook, viewers will be able to make comments,” said Perkins.
“We ask that anyone watching tonight who decides to weigh in be respectful with what they have to say.”
It was an early reminder of toxic messaging that has appeared online around the byelection. Fortunately, the debate itself proved to be a largely civil affair, with Perkins keeping things running smoothly despite some nagging technical glitches.
Each candidate was given the opportunity to give one-minute opening and closing statements, as well as to provide a one-minute answer to questions from the moderator.
On the first question around protecting tenants from displacement and preventing homelessness, Together Victoria candidate Stefanie Hardman said the City should be drafting a standards of maintenance bylaw for aging rental stock as well as introducing better tenant protection.
“We need to protect tenants through a tenant assistance policy,” she said. “We have one, it needs to be stronger to ensure that tenants aren’t displaced.”
Responding to a question about 111,000 people coming to the City by 2041 and how council should prepare for increased density, Riga Godron broke with other candidates who support densification.
“One of the things that people really treasure about Victoria is the architecture…when we do build, it raises property taxes,” said Godron.
“I think residents should get a veto on what happens in their neighbourhoods. We need to respect the OCP (Official Community Plan).”
When Perkins asked candidates to tell how they would balance a growing population with access to park space, former broadcast journalist Stephen Andrew emphasized that parks should not be used for housing homeless individuals.
“I think we need to support the Urban Forest Master Plan, the rewritten tree bylaw…and make our existing parks better and more accessible,” said Andrew.
“Our parks should not be used for living in, they should be used for enjoyment and recreation. We need to ensure that those living in our parks have sufficient shelter and homes.”
Lawyer Bill Heflin took a hardline stance on a question about whether the City is on the right path about homelessness, while also plugging his campaign website.
“I think what Council should do is pass a bylaw right now banning camping in public spaces, banning sleeping in doorways,” he said.
“Let the city rent a piece of land, put proper sanitation facilities on it, and put them there. The rest of us don’t have to live with it.”
During answers on a question around issues of racism in VicPD and funding the force, landlord and businessman Sean Leitenberg said while he believes racism is an issue in police, it is also an issue throughout society and the police need to be fully funded.
“The police members are just people like you and me,” said Leitenberg. “Our downtown stores are being robbed on a daily basis…we need our police more than ever.”
In a question echoing one that was asked during the Provincial debates, on how candidates experience privilege, auctioneer Roshan Vickery said he has been experiencing racist comments while running for office for the first time.
“I’ve actually received Facebook comments telling me to go back where I came from,” said Vickery, who was born in Halifax.
“If they mean South America, where my mom is from…Four generations of my dad’s family, including me, have worn the uniform of the Canadian military. I am proud to be Canadian, I’m proud to be a British Columbian, and I’m proud to be a Victorian.”
Because of time constraints, Perkins was only able to get to six of seven questions, leaving a question on Transportation unanswered.
The remaining time was given to candidates to ask each other questions, with 30 seconds given to the questioner and 60 seconds for the responder. During the 60 seconds, the asker’s mic was also unmuted, to encourage back-and-forth debate.
Hardman took the opportunity to ask University of Victoria graduate Hailey McLeod about her experience running as a woman in the election.
“It is very difficult to have a lot of middle-aged white men assume that I don’t know what I’m talking about,” said McLeod.
“I think we need to see diversity. Positions of power, specifically politics, are toxic for Black and Indigenous and people of colour, are toxic for young women.”
Former academic and current social housing worker Rob Duncan raised a question with Andrew on public funding for social housing.
“One thing you mentioned is P3 developments (public private partnerships), you’re probably aware that tends to increase costs pretty reliably,” said Duncan.
“It shouldn’t necessarily, I’m not going to get into that,” said Andrew. “I just think that’s what happens. We as a city as a region as a province need to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
Closing remarks capped off the evening, with UVic lab instructor Alexander Schmid offering a message to get out and vote.
“If you don’t vote, then don’t complain,” said Schmid. “You have nine candidates, decide which one you want to pick. Go out and vote, don’t keep on complaining.”
Advance voting is now open at Crystal Garden at 713 Douglas Street. A full list of advance voting times is available on the CIty of Victoria website.
Only Victoria residents and non-resident property owners with two pieces of ID will be permitted to vote in the by-election. Valid pieces of ID include passports, BC driver’s licenses, utility bills, and property tax notices.
General voting day will take place on December 12, 2020, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.