The economy and the environment took centre stage at an all-candidates forum last Monday night at the legion ahead of the provincial election on May 14.

While Liberal candidate Jackie Tegart was double-booked and unable to attend the debate, incumbent NDP candidate Harry Lali, Conservative Michael Beauclair, and the Green Party’s John Kidder debated over issues submitted by people at the forum on fish farms, school and hospital job security, water conservation and fracking.

Kidder said shrinking communities have led to job cuts in those areas.

“Merritt is the healthiest community in this riding, by far,” Kidder said in response to a question about cuts to rural health care and education. “What we need to do is think about how we actually bring activity back into these communities – cultural activity, economic activity – so that they become even more attractive places to live. That will get the people living here to keep those services sustainable.”

Lali said job losses in education and health care come back to spending provincial money in other areas, which takes away from support available to regions like Fraser-Nicola.

Beauclair said the Conservative Party would reduce bureaucracy to free up money to support more front-line staff.

“We are committed to looking at the whole bureaucratic process in the B.C. education system,” he said. “That means reducing administration costs, especially when those jobs have nothing to do with student learning.”

The debate then turned to the environment with a question about strategies to reduce damage done to water by fracking.

Kidder said he is opposed to fracking entirely.

“It’s the wrong strategic direction for the province. We know it’s wrong from the environmental side,” he said. “To grow economies, you grow sustainable activity in agriculture, business, in resource processing, et cetera. This is the fundamentally Green way.”

“You can’t say no to everything,” Lali countered. “Our party has come out in support of the LNG proposals that are coming forward, and to make sure the gas is extracted in an environmentally safe fashion, we’ve put in a full environmental review process.”

Beauclair said water conservation comes down to individual responsibility.

“You can’t drink oil, you can’t drink gas, but you can drink water,” he said.

The candidates’ strategies to stimulate economic growth in rural B.C. largely overlapped, with references to making resource industries, especially forestry, sustainable.

Beauclair said a small-scale salvage program could help enhance and revive forestry.

“I’m not talking about clear-cutting and wrecking the landscape, I’m talking about retrieving volume and value from those towns that are most affected,” he said. “We’re losing millions of cubic metres of wood across the province and I believe that by reviving this program, we can have an investment from small loggers and we can let the free market system work it out.”

Lali said investment in green sector jobs and in skills training and education is key to keeping the forestry industry viable, while Kidder said a diverse landscape of sustainable small businesses would make the riding’s communities healthier. Kidder also slammed mega-projects such as the Site C dam for not properly dispersing profits, investment and jobs across the province.

B.C. Federation of Labour Secretary-Treasurer Irene Lanzinger also attended on the invite of organizers, and spoke on the importance of voting.

“What scares me most is not right-wing government that will take away our rights, but people who say, ‘It doesn’t matter who you vote for’ – because it does matter who you vote for,” Lanzinger said. “The democratic process is founded on listening carefully to what people say and voting for the people who share your values.”

A representative from Elections BC also spoke on the ways people can cast their ballots before the May 14 election.

The forum was organized by three local women and emceed by Tracy Wimbush, manager Nicola Watershed Stewardship Fisheries Authority of the Nicola Tribal Association.

About 15 people attended the forum.