Ag-based debate allows Perth-Wellington candidates to dip lightly into housing, education and healthcare

The Perth County Federation of Agriculture and the Listowel Agriculture Society cohosted a Perth-Wellington All-Candidates Meeting on May 17. Most of the meeting can be viewed at this link. This article is based on the questions that reached beyond the agriculture theme and does not include information based on conspiracy theories, misinformation or disinformation. Woodstein Media already spoke with five of the seven candidates, and you can read those conversations by clicking the links embedded in this article.

PERTH-WELLINGTON – Ontario NDP candidate Jo-Dee Burbach was the first to introduce herself.

“I’ve lived in Stratford since 1999, and I moved to this area because I thought it was a great place to raise children, and I was right,” she said. “I’ve been a small business owner for more than 25 years, and I’ve served as a volunteer on many local boards and associations, and since 2018 I’ve been a city councillor in Stratford.”

She said the reason she is running is simple.

“I love living in this region and this province, and I’m ready to work hard to make it a better place for us to live,” said Burbach. “We’re facing many challenges right now in Ontario and specifically here in Perth-Wellington as a city councillor, I have seen firsthand the challenges that local families face.”

The first issue she mentioned was housing affordability.

“Young adults deserve to find homes they can afford in the community where they grew up,” she said. “We know that affordable housing is a critical and urgent need here in Perth County.”

She noted that the low unemployment rate in the region had left employers desperate for labour in all sectors.

“We can’t fill those jobs if we don’t have housing for people to live here locally,” said Burbach. “We need a provincial government with a good plan to tackle the housing issue head-on, and the NDP has just that.”

She referred to the many challenges that businesses, like her own, have faced during the pandemic.

“Many of the businesses in Perth-Wellington are in the agriculture sector,” said Burbach. “A very important industry here to the tune of $1 billion annually. Unfortunately, the importance of the agriculture industry in Ontario seems to be lost on our previous premier Mr. Ford. Instead of protecting farmland and investing in the next generation of farmers, he has been helping his developer buddies swallow up farmland. I believe that the NDP is exactly what we need right now in Ontario. Our priorities are to tackle the housing crisis, invest in transportation, healthcare, schools, and infrastructure, and protect our precious farmland and water.”

Progressive Conservative Matthew candidate Matthew Rae was up next.

Originally from Harriston, he grew up on his parents’ dairy farm.

“I have a deep understanding of the importance of agriculture for our riding and our province,” said Rae.

He is a first-time homeowner in Mitchell, and he said that he understands the market challenges young people are facing.

“Perth-Wellington deserves an MPP who understands our values and cares about our rural communities,” said Rae. “If elected as your next member of provincial parliament, I will advocate for agriculture, agribusinesses and our rural way of life at Queen’s Park … We kept our promise to increase the risk management program (RMP) by $50 million.”

He said the Progressive Conservatives would invest $4 billion into rural broadband to ensure every community in Ontario has access to high-speed internet by 2025.

 “We’ve invested $20 million already in Perth-Wellington alone,” said Rae.

He said they would continue building highways and key infrastructure.

The third candidate to introduce herself was Ontario Liberal Ashley Fox, a registered practical nurse.

“I also grew up in Harriston,” she said. “I presently work in homecare as a nurse case manager in Kitchener Waterloo and facilitate a leadership and senior living course out of Conestoga College.”

Her experience in nursing is primarily in senior care, including a background in hospital, addiction care, retirement community living and long-term care.

“During the pandemic, I was passionate to volunteer my time at the Region of Waterloo Health Unit and assist with the COVID-19 vaccinations to our local vulnerable population in retirement communities and long-term care,” said Fox.

Her experience in governance comes from being a two-term board member for the College of Nurses in health regulation, and she participated in and co-chaired many committees, including holding the title of vice-president RPN for two years.

“We need representation in government that acknowledges our rural riding is unique. While I didn’t grow up on a farm, I know how critically important the agriculture industry is to Perth-Wellington, and I’m eager to learn more,” said Fox.

The fourth candidate was Sandy Macgregor for the Ontario Party.

He has resided in Mount Forest, Ontario, with his wife, Heidi, for the last nine years.

“My career has focused primarily on children and youth,” he said. “I worked in child and youth services for most of my life in group homes, a detention centre, and a high school for the past 21 years.”

He said the Ontario Party believes in many freedoms.

“We recognize the family as the fundamental institution of a healthy functional society and the best place for a healthy, responsible citizen,” said MacGregor. “We believe in the right to life from the beginning of conception to the last rights and dignity of health, disability or age.”

He said the Ontario Party believes balanced budgets to be the most responsible fiscal policy and that a surplus budget is over taxation.

Laura Bisutti, the candidate for the Ontario Green Party, introduced herself next.

Originally from Mount Hope, a rural area south of Hamilton, she moved to Stratford in 1988. She worked in the automotive sector but is presently a Trustee for the Avon Maitland District School Board.

“I am at a point in life where I can relax and start to give myself some freedom, but I’m concerned with the present circumstances in our province,” said Bisutti. “In a province as rich as ours, we should not have people working full time and not able to find an affordable place to call home. We should not have people stressed and anxious about whether they can afford food.”

She said the Green Party would invest in communities.

“We need to be climate leaders for a future that is already here,” said Bisutti. “It is time for new solutions to Ontario’s old problems.”

She stated that the Green plan includes six key priorities.

“First, homes, not highways,” said Bisutti. “Invest in affordable homes, not highway 413. Two, mental health is health and includes mental healthcare under OHIP. Three, a new climate economy, invest in a green economy and energy retrofits to help conserve energy and save money. Four, respect for people and pay people a living wage. Five, reinvest in health and education and six, protect nature, permanently protect prime farmland and wetlands and conserve 30 percent of nature by 2030.”

Freedom Party candidate Robbie Smink introduced himself next.

“I’ve been living in St. Marys for 35 years,” he said. “I’m 71 years old, and I’ve been running in provincial elections since 1984.”

He spoke a lot about chemtrails.

Bob Hosken, the candidate for the New Blue Party of Ontario, was the last to introduce himself.

He is a father of two who has called Harriston home for the last 20 years and is the head of the mathematics and business department at Wellington Heights Secondary School.

The candidates were asked what one character trait they would need to improve upon to be the best MPP for Perth-Wellington.

“I’m perfect already,” said Smink. “I don’t think those personal-type questions are appropriate.”

 Hosken said that was an interesting question at a political debate.

“I’m just going to leave it there,” he said.

Burbach said it was a challenging question.

“As a councillor, I can be impatient, and that’s one of the reasons I am running for provincial office because there are many things that I would like to get done and that I would like to change, but I get frustrated when I can’t because there are roadblocks in the way, regulations or red tape or things that are done in a way that impedes progress,” she said. “So I would say I would work on patience but also working to fix the system so that it works a little faster.”

Rae said it would probably be the most challenging question tonight for everyone.

“For myself … I work very hard, and I’ve been going at this for over two months. I’ve lost track of what day it is … so for me, it is delegating because the MPP does have a team if they are successful, so delegating to my team and working within my team to continue to get things done for our riding,” he said. “It’s a very good question.”

Fox agreed.

“I very much like this question because it makes me think outside the box, and as an MPP, that’s very important,” she said.

Fox said she also gives 110 percent in everything she does.

“As a nurse, I am passionate that I have never left someone without care, whether that was picking up extra shifts, staying longer or finding a way to manage to assist them with what I had left at that time, and I would do the same as an MPP,” she said.

“Well, as I tell the kids in the school that I work for, you should have studied for that test better,” said MacGregor.

He said he might need to learn more about farming and the farming community.

“I would choose to work on confidence because it’s important to be confident when standing in front of people,” said Bisutti. “I don’t always have that.”

The next question was related to the provincial government’s plan to end academic and applied streaming for high school students in September 2022. They were asked how they thought it would impact the education of students capable of learning at higher levels and what their party’s solution to educate future generations of innovators and engineers was.

As a math teacher directly affected by de-streaming, Hosken gave his viewpoint.

“We had two levels, academic and applied and what you would see in those courses is a spectrum of abilities in those classes,” he said. “We’ve taken those smaller spectrums of abilities and widened them. As a teacher, I teach to the middle, and if that spectrum gets too broad, all it ends up doing is hurting everyone in the class because I’m teaching to the lower end of the class in terms of abilities.”

Hosken said de-streaming is dumbing down our students.

Burbach said de-streaming is an interesting concept, and it is a good one in some ways because when people are labelled, they tend to perform at that level. She said inclusion offers opportunities for students to mentor, inspire and work in groups so they can help each other.

“I believe keeping students together and not labelling them is important,” she said. “I also think it is important to have smaller class sizes. To my colleague’s point, having many students makes it more difficult for the teacher to teach to different abilities, so the fewer students we have in the classroom, the easier it is for the teacher. There is an optimal level for the number of students, so we need to invest in our schools by lowering class sizes.”

Rae noted the current PC government brought in de-streaming after consultation with education experts.

“We’ll continue consulting our educational colleagues and the Minister of Education moving forward on this important initiative,” he said. “I know in the education budget itself we are committing $40 million in foundational learning supports including $25 million for professional assessment and reintervention supports to help students after the two years with COVID and catching up with that.”

Fox said the Liberals would be looking at smaller class sizes.

“That does help teachers,” she said. “Modernizing our curriculum has also helped as we focus on a career-focused skills-based curriculum.”

MacGregor said the Ontario Party believes in Charter schools.

“I work in schools,” he said. “In the last ten years, I’ve seen a decline in education. We want to overhaul the education system and implement proven best practices in mathematics, science, and literacy gleaned from international jurisdictions with established records of student success, removing curriculum not tailored to core academics.”

MacGregor made transphobic comments regarding pronouns.

“Let’s teach them education and raise those standards to where they can learn and be a good person in business when they get out into the world,” he said.

Bisutti said it’s not an inherently bad thing to de-stream.

“It takes off the pressure of a Grade 8 student deciding their future when picking out their classes for Grade 9,” she said. “The advanced maths will still be there for Grade 11 and 12, and they are still going to have specialty sciences, chemistry, physics and so on. So, it doesn’t change the curriculum, and it makes it easier to decide when you decide to stream and take the advanced maths or not. It is at an older age.”

Smink said his 28-year-old son couldn’t write, and schools are teaching explicit sex to Kindergarten, Grade 1 and up.

“It’s asinine what’s going on in the education system,” he said. “As long as it’s a union-operated government education system, it will not get any better.”

The next quest was about the previous MPP’s poor response to emails and phone calls. The candidates were asked how they would deal with constituents.

“I had a similar experience with our previous MPP,” said Burbach. “I sent him many emails and had trouble getting a response back, so I would have a team to make sure that the communication is open.”

She said she has a degree in communications and understands the fundamentals of how that would work.

“I think communication and transparency are really important,” she said.

Rae said he has been running on a commitment to be approachable and accessible.

“So my phone number is 519-604-8078,” he said. “Again, it’s 519-604-8078. Text me preferably because obviously, it’s pretty full these days.”

Fox said she loved this question because it was part of why she wanted to run.

“Transparency and accountability are incredibly important for an MPP, and like others, I too didn’t get a response, either by phone or email,” she said. “I do understand that there are going to be times when it is incredibly busy in the public sector. However, it does not hurt to send a response saying that you are delayed and why. My pledge to the people of Perth Wellington is to be responsible for my staff if they do respond, and ultimately, I would be accountable.”

MacGregor said he thinks an MPP needs to be accessible to people.

“An MPP works for the population, so we should be able to expect they would be returning calls or emails in a 48 hr period, at least a week if they are really busy,” said Bisutti. “That would be my policy.”

“I’m not going to deal with constituents because, quite frankly, I know I’m not going to be elected,” said Smink.

Hosken also said it’s essential to be accessible.

“However, even more important is to be transparent and accountable for your actions and what you are doing with taxpayers’ money.”

He said it would be preferable to speak face-to-face.

“We can only strengthen our critical thinking skills if we learn other ideas that might not mesh with ours,” said Hosken. “It’s the only way we’ll get stronger and smarter.”

The candidates were asked what they would do to solve the long wait time of the Landlord-Tenant Board to encourage more new rentals to come online and solve existing landlord-tenant disputes quickly and effectively.

“We know the housing market is not the only market that’s significantly been growing out of control,” said Fox. “With rent, we will be looking at bringing back rent control to ensure that there are smaller predictable rent increases, and we would also be looking at re-establishing the tribunals to clear the lengthy wait process. We know that that became quite an ordeal during the pandemic and that families and landlords were both struggling.”

MacGregor said while campaigning, he has seen people living together because they can’t afford to live separately. He would like to create a program where young home buyers hook up with baby boomers who don’t want to leave their homes yet.

Bisutti said the Green Party would increase funding for the Landlord-Tenant Board to hire additional adjudicators, add transparency to the appointment process and eliminate forced online hearings.

“This will help address delays so that both landlords and tenants have timely access to justice because we all know that we have bad tenants and bad landlords,” she said. “Each of them needs justice promptly.”

Smink said the government is causing the rental problems, blaming current housing issues on rent control.

Hosken said the New Blue Party would not do anything, and the housing market would fix itself.

“We’ll fix the Landlord-Tenant Board as well,” said Burbach. “It is an important institution that protects the rights of both tenants and landlords. We will restore the right to an in-person hearing and ensure all tenants and landlords get prompt and fair hearings by the board.”

She addressed Smink’s comments about rent control say the NDP will work on making it so new tenants pay what the last one did.

“This is rent control, and we propose bringing it back,” said Burbach. “I’m not sure how it can be causing the housing crisis that we have because there is no rent control right now.”

She said when landlords evict their tenants, they can renovate and bring somebody in, and there is absolutely no control over the prices.

“That is called vacancy decontrol,” said Burbach. “It’s causing many problems in the market right now, and it needs to be regulated so that people on lower incomes can have a place to call home.”

Rae said Progressive Conservatives would invest $19.2 million over three years to increase the capacity of the Ontario Land Tribunal and Landlord-Tenant Board to resolve cases faster to resolve the backlog.

“I know our party is also committed to building 1.5 million homes over the next decade across the province of Ontario to address the supply issue in the housing market,” he said.

The pandemic has shown many issues within the healthcare system and structure. The next question asked what each party would do to prepare for future pandemics, improve our long-term care and hospital facilities and develop and improve access to better mental health for farm families.

Hosken said hospital capacity was an issue long before the pandemic.

Burbach said it’s vital that investment in healthcare remain public and not for profit.

“Long-term care and healthcare need to be in the public sphere and not be privatized,” she said. “We plan to immediately build new and modern beds both in long-term care and hospitals, but beds without supportive and caring staff are just furniture. We can make a lot of promises but what we need are the people who are going to take care of us when we go to those beds.”

Burbach said the NDP would make sure PSWs and healthcare workers are recruited, paid fairly and trained. She said they would also expedite the recognition of nurses and doctors who are internationally trained.

“We’re also planning to do universal mental health care so that all mental health care will come under OHIP,” she said.

Rae said the Progressive Conservatives would invest $142 million into a community commitment program that will reimburse nurses their tuition if they come and practice in a rural community.

“We’re building 943 new long-term care beds in Perth Wellington alone … that is 96 beds in Listowel at Caressant Care,” he said. “And a great question about mental health in agriculture. The farm wellness initiative. A great partnership with OFA and our government. $7 million we committed to that initiative, and I know it’s very successful providing services to our farm families, and I’m sure we’ll continue improving that as we move forward.”

Fox said for mental health, the Liberals would add professionals in the Emergency Rooms, taking calls and assisting to deter mental healthcare waits.

“We know that children and their mental health have been quite a concern during this pandemic,” she said. “We would divert those with mental health crises away from the judicial system and provide them with mental health supports.”

Regarding home care and long-term care, they plan a home care guarantee.

“400,000 seniors will benefit through increased homecare. We’ll remove the profit from homecare by 2026, and long-term care will move away from profit by 2028 by focusing on smaller hubs, not larger warehouses,” said Fox.

MacGregor said the Ontario Party would introduce more privatized hospitals and health insurance.

“As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so when it comes to healthcare, this means helping people to access healthy food and a place to call home,” said Bisutti. “It is about early detection and treatment of illness in community clinics rather than in the hallway of a hospital. It’s a plan to respect nurses, PSWs and healthcare workers to ensure they stay in these jobs. We want to rebalance the healthcare funding formula to ensure better access in rural and remote areas.”

The Green Party wants an independent public inquiry into the government of Ontario’s response to COVID to get recommendations and provide adequate and predictable funding to ensure future pandemic preparedness, and stockpile three months supply of personal protective equipment for all health care facilities.

“The more carbon dioxide, the better,” said Smink in his closing comments.

“The more carbon dioxide, not the better,” said Bisutti. “We’re changing the chemistry of our atmosphere, and it should be about 300 parts per million, and it’s over 450 parts per million.”

She remarked that Ontario is losing 175 acres of farmland per day, mainly to urban sprawl and aggregate mining.

“We need to provide permanent protections for prime agricultural land to keep it from being destroyed by urban sprawl, highways and gravel mining which threatens our groundwater supply,” said Bisutti. “We’ll also support farmers to adopt more sustainable practices so that farming and climate action go hand in hand. Healthy soil is essential for the health of Ontario farms and the food system, and it also impacts yield and quality. It also affects the water and nutrient retention and biodiversity and climate change adaptation, so we need to support our family farms while they protect this precious resource.”

Fox said she wanted much more from my government and that desire fueled her decision to run.

Rae said he worked at Queen’s Park before, and he understands the day-to-day life of an MPP, so that he will be ready on day one.

“We’ll be continuing to keep costs down,” he said. “We’ll be cutting the gas and fuel taxes, and we have a plan to stay open. In closing, a re-elected Progressive Conservative government will continue to get it done for our farm families and agribusinesses.”

Burbach said that farmers feed Ontario, and they feed the world.

 “We need to protect and invest in our local farms,” she said. “If we don’t, we face the possibility of having no farms, no food and no future.”

She said farms need critical infrastructures like broadband and excellent services nearby like healthcare and schools.

“Allowing Doug Ford to continue to push urban sprawl and build costly highways will seriously hurt family farms and rural communities,” said Burbach. “The NDP has a plan that’s a bit different. Our priorities include investing in rural transportation, healthcare, schools, and infrastructure. We would protect prime farmland and water while also planning for climate change adaptation and mitigation. We want to connect rural communities so agribusinesses have the broadband they need to compete, and rural families have the broadband they need to stay connected. We will deliver province-wide high-speed internet across rural Ontario by 2025.”

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