Meeting Candidates

Notice, this is one of those few posts I will do where I am essentially writing as President of the New Westminster Environmental Partners. I have not passed this by the membership, so the opinions expressed below are not necessarily those of the NWEP, but the event I am talking about is clearly an NWEP-led initiative. So: Facts theirs, opinions mine. Capice?

Last week, the New Westminster Environmental Partners did what they do best: partnered with other groups to bring people together and get them talking about solutions to problems. The only thing different this week was the people who got together: Members of Parliament and people seeking to become members of Parliament.

Partnering with NEXT New West (a group so secretive, they have meetings in public places every month, and commonly post video of them on YouTube), and Tenth to the Fraser (you know who they are…), we held a unique all-candidates event.

Now, the NWEP do not, as a general rule, shout and protest. More commonly, we try to educate ourselves about sustainability topics, seek to inform the public about issues, and engage the decision makers to try to find common interest towards positive outcomes. Most of the time, we find conversation much more productive if neither side is shouting. There may be a time and an issue that calls for protest, but in a community like New Westminster you can usually bend the ear of the people you need to reach without the need to yell.

With this in mind, we wanted to hold an event for the Federal Election, as we have organized traditional debate-style “all candidates meetings” in previous elections. But just another debate-style meeting, where candidates read the party script to an audience of already-decided people, with microphones and media all waiting for the gotcha-moment, that doesn’t seem like engaging conversation anymore. Maybe all we need to do is bring the local candidates into a room and let them have normal conversations with each other and their constituents.

It just so happens NWEP had a format in our back pocket: Green Drinks. Once a month for the last few years, NWEP types and others interested in environment and sustainability issues have gathered on the first Wednesday of the month to socialize and network for a few hours. No themes, no speeches, just a chance to get together and share ideas. We didn’t invent the idea: Green Drinks have happened for years around the world.

Of course “Green Drinks” is a pretty loaded idea, and although the environmental focus is an attractive idea to some parties, it may not appeal to a few others (remaining non-partisan, I’ll let you fill those categories yourself). So we asked NEXT – a group comprised of young business leaders and entrepreneurs in New Westminster, if they wanted to meet the candidates and they agreed it was a good idea. We hoped this would broaden the appeal somewhat. The good folks at Tenth to the Fraser also piped in to offer logistical and advertising support, and we now had everything…except a date or a location.

The original Green Drinks time and place did not work out for a variety of reasons, mostly conflicting schedules, and not enough lead time to get any Candidates. Long story short, Robert Tang from LaRustica stepped up and offered to host us in the Roma Room. We had little certainty to offer him: we didn’t know how many people would show up, nor did we know how much people would buy… so it must have been a challenge for him to organize staffing… but he was accommodating and in the end it worked out.

Of course, timing was also important: we had to compete with the all-candidates meetings being scheduled in other locations in both ridings (notably, none in New Westminster), with the Easter Long Weekend, with the short election cycle, and with Canucks Playoff games. Once a likely date was found, we sent invitations to all 8 candidates in the “main” parties for the two New West ridings, and were frankly shocked when 7 of the 8 agreed to show up.

To keep this from being just another debate, we decided to give each candidate a few minutes on a soap box to introduce themselves. Briana from Tenth to the Fraser took video of each speech (and mercifully avoided showing my ham-fisted announcements), so you can see they were short and the crowd was (for the most part) receptive. But outside of the 15 minutes or so of “soap box time” the rest of the evening was lively, with lots of conversation. The crowd was smaller than I expected, but we mostly filled the room, and there was unprecedented access to the candidates for those who did show up.

It was great to see such a mixed crowd: along with the usual NWEP rabble rousers, there was a popular former coffee-shop owner, to a local trucker well known for being politically outspoken, several young local proprietors, a young local realtor, a City councillor, and a well-known Quayside president, along with several people I met for the first time. Since there was little time wasted on speeches, I got to bend Diana Dilworth’s ear about the Fraser Basin Council, talk to Ken Beck Lee about his work on scrutinizing international GHG auditors, and chat with Paul Forseth about a common friend (a former Reform MP from my home town) and the adventure of flying into Castlegar airport. It was great to be able to chat with these “candidates” as people. Of course, I also discussed my vision of environmental responsibility with a couple of candidates, asked some questions about their vision, and made sure they knew what topics I thought were important this election.

I think it was a good event. The candidates seemed happy, and the crowd there had great access to the candidates. I think this is a model the NWEP will return to in future elections, now that we know it actually works. If nothing else, I now know who I am going to vote for, and feel good about the person I am giving my vote to.

In contrast, I attended the “traditional” all-candidates meeting put on the Burquitlam Community Association at Banting Middle School the following evening. This was very well attended, there were several hundred people, and there were 5 candidates there from the New Westminster-Coquitlam riding. And quite honestly, it was painful. In an echo-laden gym, the candidates sat behind a table with their policy books in front of them, and answered vapid or loaded questions as close to the party line as possible, with the same group of family and supporters cheering or jeering on cue. 

There were a few interesting moments (some NDP supporter asked Diana Dilworth about abortion, Fin Donnelly asked who we were going to attack with our F-35 Attack planes), but for the most part, the responses were dull, and varied little from the rhetoric of campaign-speak. When a question about voter apathy came up about an hour in, we had to leave for fear of narcolepsy.

With all required modesty, I think the NWEP/NEXT/TttF did it better.

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