The third and final public debate ahead of the Feb. 25 Burnaby South byelection briefly descended into chaos Tuesday evening, with shouting matches, accusations of racism and one candidate left crying on stage.
As with the other two debates, emotions ran high when the subject came to immigration and refugee resettlement. The debate, hosted by the Ismaili Centre on Canada Way, was interrupted by hecklers who shouted at candidates and each other several times.
The emotionally charged debate came just six days before the byelection that could see Singh gain his first seat in the House of Commons since becoming the leader of the NDP in 2017.
NDP and PPC clash on immigration
The most heated moment came as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and People’s Party of Canada candidate Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson exchanged pointed remarks about Canada’s immigration policies.
“I want everyone to look around this room,” Singh said. “Every single person in this room – except for the first people of this land – the rest of you are all immigrants or from a family of immigrants.”
The NDP leader said Canada “fundamentally” needs immigration. Canada needs to make its immigration system more transparent and must recognize the foreign credentials of skilled immigrants, he said.
Thompson followed Singh by saying most Canadians don’t want an increase in immigration and that the NDP and Liberals are “extreme in this regard.”
The PPC candidate then brought up the 2017 murder of Burnaby teen Marrisa Shen. The man accused in her death, Ibrahim Ali, was a refugee from Syria. There is no publicly known evidence to suggest Ali had a criminal record or other red flags that were missed by Canadian officials. He has yet to stand trial.
Thompson said Shen’s murder “demands that we be careful in vetting the refugees that come to our land.”
This prompted loud cheers and applause from a group of PPC supporters in the crowd, followed by a man wearing a Liberal button who stood and pointed at Thompson, yelling “That is racist! Shame on you!”
Audience shouting match breaks out
The debate ground to a halt as audience members shouted at one another before moderator Jason D’Souza, a CBC broadcaster, got things back under control.
“Let’s acknowledge the emotions in the room,” D’Souza said, adding the exchange of ideas should remain on stage between candidates.
Liberal Richard Lee fought back tears as he tried to answer the immigration question. He said he has met with Shen’s family, who told him they don’t want their daughter’s death politicized.
“All I want to say is let the courts decide,” Lee said.
Richard Lee began to cry as he spoke about meeting Marrisa Shen's family, who said they don't want her death politicized. pic.twitter.com/nbKN4F1w2v— KelvinGawley (@KelvinGawley) February 20, 2019
Most candidates favour immigration
Earlier in the debate, Lee said immigration must continue and be supported. He said he came to Canada in 1971 with his family under a family reunification program initiated by the Liberal government of the time. “Canada is a very compassionate country and we welcome immigrants, including refugees, to come to Canada and to contribute to our economy,” Lee said.
Conservative Jay Shin said he too welcomes more immigrants to Canada.
“I'm an immigrant, so obviously Canada is built on immigration,” he said. “So immigration is something we need to have, but what I support is legal immigration to Canada. “
Shin said the current Liberal government set arbitrary targets for welcoming Syrian refugees without the adequate resources to support them.
The Conservative also said Canadians shouldn’t let the emotions associated with Shen’s murder dictate policymaking.
Independent Terry Grimwood said Canada’s immigration system needs to be more fair. He said he’s met young people in the country on temporary work visas who want to stay longer but can’t.
“I'm all for immigration, and I just would like to see people being able to come here from all parts of the world,” Grimwood said. “It has to be balanced.”
Singh calls out 'coded language'
A followup question about Shen’s murder and immigration policies brought another round of barbs between Singh and Thompson.
“We've got to call out the coded language,” Singh said.
He said people are treating the Shen case differently due to the race of the accused killer.
Singh said people are not using Bruce McArthur, a white man convicted of killing eight men in Toronto, to disparage white people.
“To use a horrible incident to incite violence or hatred against an entire community is wrong; It's not something we should do as a society,” Singh said. “When people use a horrible incident to incite violence, they're effectively saying that refugees are murderers.”
The room once again erupted following Singh’s comment, with loud boos and one man yelling “Stupid!” and “Idiot!” repeatedly.
Thompson said she was not being racist.
“I want to go on record as saying that if it was a white person who was coming into our country that was not properly vetted, I would be against that,” she said. “This actually has nothing to do with the colour of anyone's skin.”
Candidates chart differing political visions
The debate also touched on housing, job creation and climate change.
Shin’s solution to several issues was tax cuts. He said the best way to make housing more affordable would be to grow the economy, which would in turn increase wages.
The Conservative also criticized the Liberal government’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, saying that money could have been better spent on social programs.
Lee touted the Liberal record on a host of issues.
He said the Trudeau government is investing billions in its national housing strategy, as well as job skills training to strengthen the Canadian workforce.
The Liberal repeatedly mentioned he has lived in Burnaby for 32 years and represented the community as a B.C. Liberal MLA for 16 years.
Grimwood, who plans to establish a new party called Canada Fresh, said he has a plan to build 200 service hubs throughout rural Canada that will make travel and work easier.
The independent said his time as a North Vancouver city councillor in the 1970s taught him housing is a municipal issue.
As the debate wrapped up, hecklers once again interrupted as Singh answered a question about his connections to the riding. Two men, including former Burnaby First Coalition council candidate Alain Deng, said the New Democrat was lying when he said he lives in the riding.
(Deng is the one in behind. Not sure who the man in blue is)— KelvinGawley (@KelvinGawley) February 20, 2019
Singh moved from Ontario with his wife to Burnaby South in November. Independent Valentine Wu (who was not at the debate) also lives in Burnaby South, where he says he’s been resident for 15 years. Lee lives in North Burnaby; Thompson lives in New Westminster; Shin lives in Vancouver and Grimwood lives in Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast.