Despite confirming his attendance, Conservative candidate Damian Konstantinakos was a no-show at Sunday’s Ottawa-Centre all-candidate’s debate on immigration and issues facing new Canadians.
Debate organizer Gary Epton said he was disappointed in the absence, adding it could have been because of the questions candidates received in advance.
“Maybe he thought the questions were a little bit too hard-hitting for the (Conservative) party to respond to,” said Epton. “I find it unacceptable that he had agreed in fact to come and then just didn’t show up.”
Representatives from Konstantinakos' office said Epton was informed shortly before the debate began that the candidate's presence was tentative, but had to decline because of prior commitments.
The remaining seats at the Chinese Canadian Heritage Centre were reserved for Liberal representative Scott Bradley, NDP incumbent Paul Dewar and the Green Party’s Jen Hunter.
Dewar, Bradley and Hunter seized Konstantinakos’ no-show as an opportunity to take turns critiquing the Conservative government for their action – or inaction – on issues facing new Canadians.
Reuniting immigrant families, refugee rights and issues facing foreign-trained workers topped the list of priorities for those in attendance.
"The Conservative party has reduced the allowance for family reunification visas 6 to10 per cent annually,” said Bradley, adding that uniting immigrant families is a Liberal priority.
Dewar announced a “once-in-a-lifetime” program for new Canadians who want to have one member of their family be expedited into Canada – “no questions asked.” He identified the need for increased resources to deal with the growing backlog of reunification requests and processing of immigration files.
Hunter said she wants to extend the definition of family to reflect diverse family structures, which she said will help reunite families.
She said that Canada needs a much broader concept of family than what is “entrenched in our current policies.”
Bradley said he wants to go after human smugglers who exploit refugees who need Canada’s help.
“There are people out there making money off of the backs of these people,” he said.
The Green party would focus on global peace and look at increasing employment options for refugees, Hunter said.
Dewar said the refugee backlog has increased 15,000 to 25,000 and barriers such as fees to enter the country continue to prevent those seeking refugee status.
“People sell everything they have just to get here. They get here and we say, ‘Oh, by the way, cough up the dollars within this time period or you can’t come in,’ ” he said. “It’s ridiculous. We have to waive those fees.”
Carl Nicholson, executive director for the Catholic Centre for Immigrants, asked the three candidates to commit to rescinding the policy where a refugee’s social insurance number begins with the number nine, which he said makes it difficult for them to get good jobs.
All three candidates agreed.
Nicholson informed the candidates that 10 per cent of the 2,200 seats available for medical students seeking residency are set aside annually for foreign-trained doctors.
But last year, 47 per cent of the 220 seats went to Canadians who studied medicine abroad, he said.
Hunter said she believes a task force needs to work with medical schools to respect the 10-per-cent policy.
Dewar and Bradley said they want to open more spaces for foreign-trained professionals by putting pressure on professional associations and agencies to keep jobs available.
Bradley added that the Liberal government plans to invest $27 million in language training for new Canadians to help them get jobs in the public sector.
Dewar said he wants to crack down on immigrant workers who are exploited by temporary or contract positions in what he called an example of the “corruption of our immigration system, which manipulates the labour pool.”
Audience questions focused on the rights of immigrant women, funding for small businesses, amnesty for illegal workers and the response to companies that exploit immigrants.
Independent candidate Romeo Bellai and Stuart Ryan of the Communist party were among those asking questions.
John Akpata of the Radical Marijuana party and Pierre Soubliére representing the Marxist-Leninist party were not seen.