The four candidates running in the riding of Antigonish for next week’s provincial election (from the left): Moraig MacGillivray of the New Democrats, Ray Mattie of the Progressive Conservatives, Ryan Smyth of the Atlantica Party, and Liberal incumbent Randy Delorey, participated in a debate hosted by StFX University at the Antigonish campus’ Bloomfield Centre on the evening of May 16.

ANTIGONISH: The only four-candidate election debate in the Strait area saw education issues spark some of its liveliest exchanges, as the would-be MLAs for the riding of Antigonish squared off at a public forum hosted by StFX University.

Taking place less than 24 hours before the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) announced it would launch a legal challenge to Bill 75, the legislation that imposed a new contract on NSTU members this past winter after its members rejected three previous attempts, the May 16 debate at StFX’s Bloomfield Centre saw Antigonish Liberal incumbent Randy Delorey defending his government’s action against the riding’s PC, NDP and Atlantica candidates.

“Randy’s telling us about listening to teachers, and I’d like to know when that’s going to start, because the teachers I know don’t feel like they’re being listened to,” said New Democrat Moraig MacGillivray, who also challenged Delorey’s assertion that his Liberal government had restored $65 million cut from the education department budget by the previous NDP administration.

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“That figure’s a bit misleading,” said MacGillivray, who insisted that the Liberal addition of funds spent on early childhood education accounted for this restoration of funds, drawing a rebuke from Delorey during his closing statement.

“It’s actually increased by over $174 million, not simply the $65 million, so these references to the $65 million being part of the structure of the Early Childhood [Development] department coming into Education are not factually accurate,” Delorey insisted, drawing applause from several members of the audience.

PC candidate Ray Mattie repeated his party’s plan to repeal Bill 75 upon taking office, drawing praise from Atlantica Party candidate Ryan Smyth, who described the legislated NSTU contract as “horrible” and Nova Scotia’s education system as “broken.”

However, Mattie also took three opportunities to dismiss the NDP platform plank to offer free tuition to Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC) students as early as this coming September.

“I spoke to an NSCC teacher today, and she said she doesn’t agree because her classes are already large enough, they don’t know where they can put their [extra] students,” Mattie declared.

“It makes economic sense to train people, but we’re just curious on the other side about how you’re going to fund that, because there are still operational costs that have to be taken into account.”

The PC candidate pledged that his party would restore the Nova Scotia Film Tax Credit and devote more attention to Antigonish County roads, which he described as being “totally left behind in the last three-and-a-half years,” sparking audience applause.

Delorey noted that the Liberals have “a dedicated pot” of $10 million aimed specifically at gravel roads, with this figure to double next year, in an effort to address decades’ worth of maintenance issues that have arisen under political parties of all stripes.

Physician recruitment and proper working conditions for nurses arose as issues during the health-themed portion of the May 16 debate. While Delorey insisted that the amalgamation of Nova Scotia’s district health authorities has freed up administrative funds to assist with the delivery of front-line health care, Smyth had a different view.

“I get better health care in Korea, Malaysia, Vietnam, almost anywhere except here,” the Atlantica candidate told the StFX crowd. “The UK, Switzerland, Sweden, Australia, Germany, a lot of other countries are out-performing us, in every metric.”

Other issues discussed included the province’s relationship with its universities, protection for public schools’ arts and physical education programs, the preservation of LGBTQ rights, and balancing economic development with environmental concerns.

MacGillivray also spoke to the issue of Antigonish’s working poor as she touted to the NDP’s pledge to raise Nova Scotia’s hourly minimum wage to $15.

“A living wage in Antigonish is actually $17 [per hour], but the current wage is $11,” the NDP candidate noted. “Forcing people to live in poverty is unfair and it hurts our economy by killing consumer spending.”

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Adam Cooke has been a staff writer and columnist for The Reporter since 1999. A native of L’Ardoise, Adam lives in Port Hawkesbury with his wife Cathy.