St. Louis de Kent – Kent North is one of the provincial ridings where political pundits have suggested the Green Party might gain a second seat in New Brunswick’s September 24 provincial election. With five hopefuls seeking election in Kent North and a number of controversial issues in play, close to 100 people showed up to question candidates at a town hall meeting in St. Louis last week.
The meeting was sponsored by Notre Environnement Notre Choix, Kopit Lodge, and the Kent County Chapter of the Council of Canadians.
In his opening statement, Green Party candidate Kevin Arseneau declared his passion was rural development and said he was seeking election because rural areas of New Brunswick had been “abandoned and ignored” by successive provincial governments. Arseneau and his wife are organic farmers near Rogersville. He is also chair of the rural Local Service District (LSD).
New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Neil Gardner said he was seeking election because he wanted to see “a better educational system” in the province. Gardner, a retired teacher, who still teaches part time, observed that the NDP and Greens are “almost the same” on many issues, adding that it was “too bad” they had to run against each other.
Independent candidate Dr. Roger Richard, a prosthodontist, stated he was “very concerned about the environmental state of our province” and New Brunswick’s deficit, which is now more than $17 billion, costing taxpayers close to two million dollars a day in interest. Throughout the evening, he attacked the so-called “smart meters” that NB Power wants to install across the province, saying the meters are “very dangerous to our health because of the pulsating radiation they produce.”
Choosing not to participate in the town hall meeting, the Liberal Party and Progressive Conservative Party (PC) candidates, Emery Comeau and Katie Robertson respectively, avoided having to dialogue with voters publicly.
Robertson’s absence was predictable given the promise by PC leader Blaine Higgs to allow fracking for shale gas if the PCs are elected. Fracking is extremely unpopular in Kent County, and Robertson’s campaign is burdened by the fact that many people have very bitter memories of the Conservatives sending in the RCMP to brutalize peaceful shale gas protesters four years ago when Higgs was Minister of Finance in the Alward government.
Comeau’s failure to show up is more puzzling. He’s trying to hang on to Kent North for the Liberals who have held the seat since Betrand LeBlanc was first elected in 2010. It was expected that Comeau would use the St. Louis town hall to debate the Green’s Arseneau.
Comeau and Arseneau are the acknowledged front-runners in Kent North. Gardner and Robertson are each trying to rebuild their party’s support after the Green Party finished second here in 2014.
Health care issues dominate
With Arseneau, Gardner and Richard all condemning the Conservatives’ pro-fracking policy, health care proved to be the dominant issue at the St. Louis meeting.
Questioned about the need for better health care for senior citizens, both Arseneau and Gardner agreed that care workers are underpaid and that the minimum wage should be immediately raised to $15 an hour. They also agreed that programming to help senior citizens remain at home whenever possible should have a greater priority.
Richard questioned provincial spending priorities that result in health care being short-changed, and criticized $100,000 annual salaries paid to NB Power executives and high ranking provincial officials. He also noted NB Power’s “smart meter” program would cost $125 million, and that the continuous radiation emitted by those meters would cause additional health problems.
Arseneau called for larger salaries and more full-time positions for health care workers, and increasing the time that staff are allowed to spend with their patients. He also called for more senior care homes to be built.
Gardner said the NDP would “end the privatization of health care services” and “reform the tax system because large corporations don’t pay their fare share.” Tax reform, he said, would “reduce the tax burden on poor and middle class people” and enable the government to improve the health care system.
Roads and highways
Dissatisfaction with the state of provincial roads and highways was also evident at the St. Louis meeting. Chip sealed roads were sharply criticized as a short-term solution.
Gardner and Arseneau agreed that it was time to “take the politics” out of roads. Gardner suggested engineers should make the decisions on road repair. Arseneau said standards should be set that determine when repairs are necessary to provincial roads.
Richard noted that “mind boggling decisions” result in wasteful spending and deprive roads of needed repairs. “It’s important for people to get involved” in the political system to make change, he said.
Candidates were also in agreement that local governments should have more authority to protect people and their environment from a distant government in Fredericton that is dominated by corporate interests.
About 45% of New Brunswickers live in Local Service Districts (LSDs) and have no say whatever about the kinds of development that take place around their homes.
“Political parties have not been good for Kent North,” Richard said. “We are a sacrificial territory,” he said, and decision-makers in Fredericton “don’t care about the people here – they just want the resources.”
Both Arseneau and Gardner agreed that LSDs should have more authority, and that forcing LSDs to amalgamate or join municipalities was not in the best interest of rural people.
Candidates were also asked what they would do if they had the power to “change one thing in the next four years.”
Richard said he would “stop any attempt to introduce smart meters.” Arseneau said he would like to “do politics differently.” Gardner said he would “break up the Irving corporation to return control of the province to the people.”
Dallas McQuarrie writes for the NB Media Co-op on Mi’kmaq territory in St. Ignace.