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BSOM candidates tackle the issues at first debate

Green, Liberal and NDP candidates discuss homelessness, affordability and the environment at Wednesday night's 'accountability assembly'

Editor's note: The following story has been updated from its original version to include comments from Doug Downey's campaign team about why the PC candidate did not attend. 

Last night's Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte (BSOM) 'accountability assembly' was an informative affair, but only three candidates were present. 

The event, held at Grace United Church in the city’s east end, was jointly organized by a few local groups. The Simcoe County Alliance to End Homelessness (SCATEH) and the Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition (SCGC) helped in providing questions for the candidates, while Empower Simcoe chief executive officer Claudine Cousins moderated.  

Candidates who took part included Jeff Lehman (Liberal), Beverley Patchell (NDP) and Elyse Robinson (Green). 

Progressive Conservative candidate Doug Downey, the incumbent MPP in the riding, was absent, but no reason was provided by organizers. Rev. Susan Eagle of Grace United Church told BarrieToday that Downey had been invited. 

In response to an email from BarrieToday, an official from Downey's campaign team indicated the PC candidate has been invited to several debates, "but with the busy schedule over the campaign period we aren't able to attend them all," said co-campaign manager James Nicol. He said Downey plans to participate in the upcoming Barrie Chamber of Commerce and Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) all-candidates meetings later this month. 

Eagle said the other candidates, the Ontario Party's Gerry Auger and New Blue's Hayden Hughes, were not invited because when the event was being planned the organizers decided to go with parties represented in the provincial legislature. 

With around 100 people in attendance, the debate included a trio of categories with three questions each, covering topics such as poverty reduction, housing and homelessness, and finally environmental protections and agriculture. 

BarrieToday asked the panel a question that came from a person experiencing homelessness and who may need one of the tents that were used in Wednesday’s Lakeshore Drive exhibit organized by the David Busby Centre and the Elizabeth Fry Society.

The question was: What would the candidates do, in simple language, to help get people off the streets and into homes.

Robinson said it is time to take guidance from people who are homeless about possible solutions.

“This is their lived experience. They know best about how to tackle this crisis,” Robinson said. “So I think it's not just talking to people to see how we can fix their problems, but rather sitting down at the table with our houseless neighbours and saying, ‘What is the immediate solution that you need?’ and doing that on an individual basis.”

Patchell said years of Band-Aid solutions have run dry and there is a need for better ideas.

“We need to come up with programs that create a wraparound approach with stabilized funding and solutions that are going to ensure that we don’t end up with this problem again,” Patchell said. 

Lehman said there's a direct plan the Liberals would support. 

“Straight-up answer? We’re going to buy a hotel and we’re going to turn it into supportive housing,” Lehman said. “We’re going to have local organizations provide the wraparound services and we’ll create a community of those who have experienced homelessness, who can support each other in their journey to fight the root causes, the reasons, for being homeless.”

The full debate, which lasted close to two hours, can be viewed on YouTube by clicking here

With 843,000 Ontarians relying on Ontario Works (OW) and the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), and both having their payments frozen since 2018, the panel was asked if they would commit to increasing those rates.

Patchell said the NDP would increase those payments because people in need of those services should be able to count on them to at least take them above the poverty line.

“Our community cannot continue to put more and more responsibility on the social safety net or on charities,” Patchell said. “Ontario’s NDP will establish a system that raises people out of poverty no later than the end of our first term.”

On housing and homelessness, Lehman cited Wednesday's tent exhibit on Lakeshore Drive when asked if he would implement a strategy to end chronic homelessness.

“We saw this morning on our waterfront an excellent awareness initiative, to try to bring this home to our community, just what this will look like if the Ford government cuts off support for homelessness service at the end of June, as is currently the situation,” Lehman said. “We are committed in our platform to restarting the homelessness census, which was one of many initiatives cancelled, of course, four years ago.”

When asked if the panel was committed to expanding the Greenbelt into Simcoe County to protect local freshwater resources and farmland, Robinson said yes and then some.

“I am dedicated to doubling the size of the Greenbelt to include a dedicated Bluebelt of protected watersheds, lakes, river systems, basins and other freshwater resources, including the entirety of the Lake Simcoe and Nottawasaga watersheds,” Robinson said. “It's also why I’m dedicated to placing a moratorium on all new gravel mining pits, and any extensions of existing ones.”