What I learned at a local candidates debate

On Tuesday evening, I walked into the Parkway Forest Community Centre for an all-candidates debate. This debate wasn’t held in a large stadium. There were no microphones, signage, or party supporters yelling or booing at every statement made. Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair, and Elizabeth May were not present.

There were only two people at the front of the room—two unknown candidates fighting to represent the residents of Don Valley North in the House of Commons.

This was my first local-federal debate, an oxymoron in itself. I had watched a few of the leaders debates on television, but as election day approached, I realized I knew nothing about the actual person I was voting for—my riding representative.

The room the debate took place in was set up simply. There were rows of chairs lined up facing three tables, which had been pushed together to appear as one. The names of all three candidates who were invited were written on pieces of folded paper with a black sharpie. It kind of felt like I was back in elementary school and we were getting ready for parents day. There were even water bottles and Dads cookies in the corner.

Back to the debate itself, the conservative representative, Joe Daniels, refused the invitation to attend. He also chose not to send a representative in his place. To my knowledge, the green candidate, recently registered Caroline Brown, was not invited.

This meant the debate would be between NDP candidate Akil Sadikali and Liberal candidate Geng Tan.

NDP candidate Akil Sadikali and Liberal candidate Geng Tan at the Don Valley North candidates debate.
NDP candidate Akil Sadikali and Liberal candidate Geng Tan at the Don Valley North candidates debate.

I expected to be a bit bored honestly. I thought the whole affair would reflect a political broken-record: the moderator would ask the same old questions that had been exhausted in the media, and the candidates would give the same boring stump speeches as their party leaders. Instead, the debate was more like a town-hall meeting.  After opening remarks, questions were immediately opened up to the audience. And this is where it got interesting.

There are a lot of videos circulating Facebook and Twitter of reporters asking “the average joe” political questions and them not having a clue. “Who is the Prime Minister,” they ask. The person responds by saying they don’t know. A journalist goes to Ryerson University campus and asks a group of young voters what they care about. They answer “music and art.” All of a sudden this means that youth aren’t interested in politics.

All of these assumptions—that Canadians aren’t informed about politics and that they don’t care about voting—were proven wrong at this candidates debate. The questions began with local interest—what will you do for infrastructure, how will you help allocate funds to the province, ect. But then, people asked about child care, Bill C-51, the Senate, GMOs, and freedom of information (okay, that one was my question). These questions were being asked by people of all ages and ethnicities, to both candidates without partisan attachments. It was a genuine exchange of information by a group of people who hadn’t made up their mind on which candidate to support. It was absolutely refreshing.

The second thing I learned was that the residents of Don Valley North were not disillusioned with how our democracy works.

I attended this debate with my father. Near the beginning of the debate, he stood up and asked a simple question: would you vote against your party if your constituents don’t agree with a bill? This question was met with applause and whispers: “that’s a really good question,” people in the audience said. The poor candidates tried to answer as best they could by saying they will always be there for constituents, but that it depends on the bill. The next question from my dad: would you commit to responding to every constituent call within 48 hours? The answer was a resounding yes from the candidates, but again it was the response from the audience that was intriguing. They clapped and again whispered among themselves: “great question.”

My dad was quite the popular man that night.

It seems that Canadians understand who they are really voting for. In our democratic system, we don’t actually vote for who we want as Prime Minister. Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, Thomas Mulcair, or Elizabeth May won’t appear on our ballots. We vote for Members of Parliament, politicians who sit in the House of Commons and, supposedly, represent our views in a collaborative government. The idea is that constituents can call or write their MP’s offices and express their opinion on government actions. The MP, then, can bring those ideas to their party.

That’s the theory at least.

And it’s a theory that Canadians firmly believe in.

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If you want to know more about what each Don Valley North candidate said at the debate, check out my twitter feed.

 

 

 

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