Nine federal NDP leadership hopefuls square off at B.C. town hall forum

VANCOUVER – A national childcare plan, health care and First Nations poverty emerged as the dominant issues at a town hall forum headlined by nine NDP leadership candidates hoping to clinch the top job.

Nathan Cullen, the lone British Columbia MP in the race and a father of 16-month-old twin boys, said Saturday the Conservative government’s policy of providing $100-a-month per child to families is “a slap in the face” when a national childcare plan is needed.

Toronto MP Peggy Nash, a mother of three children, vowed to make an affordable, accessible and reliable childcare program a first-term priority if she wins the leadership race.

“Rather than shovelling no-strings-attached tax cuts back to wealthy corporations or subsidizing the oil and gas sector let’s spend some money to create social justice in this country by investing in a national child care program,” she said.

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Nash, Cullen, Manitoba MP Niki Ashton and Montreal MP Thomas Mulcair were among the most confident speakers during the forum attended by about 400 delegates who’d also turned out for the provincial NDP’s 50th anniversary convention.

The format for the forum involved the candidates being split into three groups of three, with each person responding to a different policy question in one minute.

Mulcair, touted as one of the front-runners for party leader among the pack of seven men and two women, said health care will be the most important public policy issue in the next four years before the current health care accord expires in 2014.

“We’ve got to be united on this issue more than any other,” he said.

Martin Singh, a Nova Scotia pharmacist, whose platform includes a national pharmacare plan, said he stocked shelves at his father’s pharmacy at age five and grew up realizing some people couldn’t afford medication.

“When we talk about our public health system we think that those in the private health system are automatically adversaries and I can tell you that they aren’t because I’m one of them,” he said. “I run pharmacies.”

“With the national pharmacare plan that I plan to implement, my companies will earn less money,” he said in answer to a question about the role, if any, of private health-care providers.

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Former party president and strategist Brian Topp, considered ahead in the crowded race, began Saturday by announcing another high-profile endorsement.

Janet Solberg, the former president of the Ontario section of the NDP, joins an impressive list of Topp supporters, including former party leader Ed Broadbent.

While Topp also has the backing of several MPs and MLAs from the B.C. New Democrats, he has no experience as an elected politician in the race to replace Jack Layton, who died in August.

In response to a question about what policies the party would enact on the issue of violence against women, Topp said former leader Jack Layton, who died in August, was passionate about that topic.

“I don’t think I ever heard Jack Layton be more eloquent about any topic but this one,” said Topp, who appeared to be among the least confident speakers.

Singh, Cullen and Ottawa MP Paul Dewar were asked what they would do to handle poverty among First Nations on reserves and in urban areas.

Cullen called provisions of the Indian Act racist, saying he agrees with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo that the Indian Act should be ripped up and a new agreement be forged with the countries’ aboriginal people.

Nova Scotia MP Robert Chisholm and Quebec MP Romeo Saganash were the other candidates at the forum.

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It was the first of two gatherings in B.C. for the leadership hopefuls in a province that’s home to a third of the NDP’s 96,000 card-carrying members across Canada.

The forum followed the first of six debates last weekend in Ottawa, with the remaining five being held in various cities before a leader is chosen on March 24.

Note to readers: This is a corrected version. A previous story wrongly indicated Singh was an MP