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Candidates debate strikes some sparks

Forum allows voters to question party policies

A Mar 5 all-candidates forum for the Toronto Centre by-election sparked a few confrontations among candidates.

The forum, held at the 519 Community Centre and cosponsored by Xtra, brought together the candidates for the federal by-election to be held Mon, Mar 17. Those candidates included Liberal Bob Rae, Conservative Don Meredith, NDPer El-Farouk Khaki and the Green Party’s Chris Tindal.

Khaki, an openly gay immigration lawyer, told the crowd he has fond memories of The 519.

“When I first came to Toronto this was the gay community centre,” he said. “When I began to put Salaam, a gay Muslim group, together, this is where I found support and encouragement.”

Rae said the election is about sending a message to the Conservative government.

“I like to think we’re proudest as Canadians when we’re setting a standard for the world,” he said. “I think the government in power is taking us away from that standard.”

Questions from the audience sparked some anger, especially against Meredith. He was booed for his answer to a question about including trans people in Canada’s hate crimes legislation.

“This is a human rights issue and we will be looking to gain consensus from other parties,” he said. “This is something we would have to deliberate on. I can’t make that commitment.”

In a January interview with Xtra, Meredith had supported the inclusion of trans people in the legislation. “Absolutely,” he said at the time.

Meredith was also booed for saying he was not aware of the federal government cutting $1 million from funding to AIDS organizations in Ontario.

Khaki said the decision was based on homophobia.

“It’s not right,” he said. “It’s based on stigma and discrimination because AIDS is a gay disease.”

Rae was forced to defend his failure to force his party to vote for a bill legislating same-sex unions when he was the NDP premier of Ontario. The bill failed.

“There were those in my party who opposed it,” he said. “We got the bill to the floor by saying there would be a free vote. If I had to do it again would I do it the same way? Absolutely not. I learned a hard lesson.”

Meredith would not say whether he supported safe injection and needle exchange sites.

“We need to look at the enabling effects on drug users,” he said. “It’s essential that grandparents be able to take their grandchildren to the park and not have them pick up needles.”

Meredith said drug users and crime are a growing problem in the riding.

“It is a problem for merchants,” he said. “Clearly we need to make sure we do not attract those individuals to the city.”

Rae received loud applause when he criticized Meredith’s grim portrayal of the riding.

“We do not need to have this riding characterized as if it’s full of drugs, crime, guns and blood. That is not the riding I know.”

The crowd also booed Meredith for his stance on the current policy banning gay men from organ and blood donation, policies all other candidates opposed.

“Our government position is clear on this with respect to safety of Canadians,” Meredith said.