Veterans affairs, marijuana, seniors housing and abolishing the Indian Act were just a few of the topics discussed by candidates at a debate hosted by the Brandon Friendship Centre on Tuesday.
But it was the missing Conservative candidate, Larry Maguire, who continued to receive attention throughout the two-hour forum.
"I’m very disappointed that the Conservative candidate ... was not able to attend," said Lyndon Bournon, co-ordinator of Brandon Friendship Centre’s adult education program.
"It’s a shame. It’s also a shame for our students because we were obliged to present a balanced view of options in the upcoming election."
Maguire was slated to attend the race’s first all-candidates forum on Tuesday afternoon. But late Monday afternoon, Maguire’s campaign staff cancelled his appearance due to a "scheduling overlap."
Bournon said he negotiated a date that worked for all five candidates three weeks ago. Green Party candidate David Neufeld even rejigged his schedule to attend.
When Bournon made the announcement that just four of the five candidates would be participating at Tuesday’s debate, Maguire received several boos from the crowd of roughly 40 people, and one audience member yelled "what a joke."
The Brandon Sun contacted Maguire’s team for a response regarding the reason he could not attend. His staff said he had appointments in the southern part of the riding Tuesday.
"Meeting with voters from across the constituency is a priority," said an email from the campaign office. "Unfortunately, co-ordinating Larry’s schedule with those of our campaign team’s volunteers sometimes poses a challenge."
Maguire will attend two other debates next week, including the major event at the Keystone Centre hosted by the Brandon Sun, WCGtv and CKLQ on Nov. 21.
Also Monday, Maguire pulled out of next week’s debate organized by Brandon University students, meant to boost voter turnout among young people. Maguire’s staff cited a scheduling conflict with next Monday’s debate.
"It’s really unfortunate it happened," said BU students’ union president Stephanie Bachewich. "We’re definitely disappointed he won’t be able to attend."
It’s the latest stumble for the Conservative campaign. Maguire, a veteran of the Manitoba legislature, should be a shoe-in to win the traditionally Tory riding. Instead, a confusing nomination drama alienated many Conservative voters early on, and two credible polls have Maguire trailing his Liberal challenger, Rolf Dinsdale. The messy race, and the possibility of a Grit upset, has put Brandon-Souris in the national spotlight.
When asked by an audience member if they would consider abolishing the Indian Act, all four candidates said they would.
"Personally, I believe that the Indian act is archaic and should be abolished," said Libertarian candidate Frank Godon. "As an aboriginal person, any act that takes away rights should not be there."
An audience member asked candidates what they would do to alleviate some of the senior housing problems, and referenced the fact that Lions Manor has a 10-year waiting list.
NDP candidate Cory Szczepanski said there is a real need for a national housing strategy.
"Housing is one of the key issues we need to work on," he said. "We need action on it now."
Green candidate David Neufeld urged people in the audience to send a "powerful message" to the Liberal and Conservative parties.
"Why green?" Neufeld asked. The party can give strong leadership on land claims, advocate for true nation-to-nation relationships, increase funding for aboriginal education and safe drinking water, he said.
In his closing remarks, Neufeld said the Brandon-Souris economy, which is doing quite well, is actually quite fragile.
"We need to build a resilient, deep economy and we have the ability here," he said. "We just need to stop being distracted by large corporate interests, as well as parties like the Liberals and Conservatives that keep distracting us, thinking that there’s only those two options."
Before Szczepanski delivered his closing comments, he quipped, "Should Larry go first?" and glanced at an empty chair, which had some people in the crowd laughing and clapping.
"The NDP have policies, they have a plan to end poverty, to work on housing, to work on infrastructure, to work on health care and they need to get into government to be able to put these policies in place," he said. "We’ve been fighting with the same old parties for many years, and we’ve come up with the same old solutions year after year."
Szczepanski said he has the experience and the leadership needed "to build a fairer, cleaner and more prosperous Westman."
Dinsdale also took a swipe at the missing Tory candidate before his closing comments.
"Thanks to my fellow candidates for showing up, including the missing candidate for not showing up because that kind of highlights the situation we’ve had in Brandon-Souris," he said, which sparked applause from the crowd.
Dinsdale said he is committed to changing the way politics are conducted, which he says is why he decided to run.
"Brandon-Souris has been ignored for too long and taken for granted for too long," he said. "The eyes of the nation are watching this b-election … I hope you’ll send me to Parliament and start the renewal process and start the fall of the Stephen Harper government."
Godon urged people to vote for him if they want to send a message to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"If you’re a Conservative member in Brandon-Souris and you’re not one who likes to be dictated to by the party on who your nominee should be, you have a choice," he said. "If you’re someone who hasn’t voted before because the only choice you had were mainstream parties who will take orders from their leaders, you now have a choice."
Godon concluded with a simple message: Get out and vote on Nov. 25.
"Even if you don’t vote for me, you have a good choice of candidates," he said. "Research. Look into them, look into me and choose the one you want to represent you in Ottawa."