Liberal candidate Fred Hutton, left, PC's Tina Neary, center, and Kim Churchill of the NDP took to the debate stage Sunday to discuss the issues unique to Bell Island. (William Ping/CBC)
Ferry service was on the top of everyone's mind at the debate between three candidates in the Conception Bay East-Bell Island byelection on Sunday.
The Liberal's Fred Hutton, PC's Tina Neary and NDP's Kim Churchill participated in the debate on Bell Island, hearing out the unique concerns of the area. Independent candidate Darryl Harding was unable to attend due to a death in his family.
When asked about how to reinstate public trust in the Bell Island ferry service, all of the candidates present were in agreement that a shore-based manager was a necessity.
Tina Neary pointed out other issues with the ferry service, such as accessibility issues and problems related to ambulance transfers, while Hutton pointed out a need for ferry maintenance to be on a tighter schedule.
"Scheduling the maintenance and knowing not to do it in June or July, when this is your peak tourism season," Hutton said.
Churchill presented a 25-page document that she said listed all of the repairs needed on the ferries since April 2022. Her solution would be to call on the auditor general to investigate the marine services division.
"We'll use the results to pressure government to fix the systemic problems that are identified," she said.
Health care was another pressing concern for Bell Island residents, with frequent emergency room closures at the Dr. Walter Templeman Health Centre in Wabana.
When asked how to improve the service, Hutton spoke of initiatives the Liberal government has already begun work on, such as a contract with Cougar helicopters to provide medevac service.
PC candidate Tina Neary often accused the Liberal government of being reactive to issues as they emerge, while she argued she would be proactive about developing problems before they unfold. (Sarah Blackmore/CBC)
Neary suggested that there needs to be a contingency plan.
"There needs to be a plan, not just plan A, but a plan B," she said.
In what became a frequent refrain during the debate, Churchill framed herself as a new choice, in comparison to the reigning Liberal government and the Conception Bay East-Bell Island seat typically being held by the PC party.
"If they cared about your health service, they would have done something before now," Churchill said.
When pressed with a follow up question on how to recruit a permanent doctor for the Templeman Centre, Hutton said himself and Premier Andrew Furey have been working on the issue and pointed toward initiatives like government's signing bonus for doctors.
Neary said more focus should be put on persuading students in healthcare programs to want to stay on Bell Island.
"We need to do what's necessary to keep them here," Neary said.
Churchill said better incentives are needed for health-care workers.
Factors leading to illegal dumping a concern
Candidates also fielded questions about the local waste disposal site, which closes during the winter. Town manager and debate moderator Jordon Blackwood said that has led to people starting illegal dump sites around the island.
Kim Churchill often framed herself as a new choice and cited her winning of a human rights case against the school district. (Sarah Blackmore/CBC)
"The province should either expand funding opportunities to municipalities or provide waste management grants directly to the Eastern Regional Services Board to end winter closures and provide longer service hours," Churchill said.
Neary noted how the illegal dump sites ruin tourism potential while Hutton said he has already begun working on the issue.
"We've discussed options of bringing the truck over here once a week, twice a month, something like that," Hutton said. "Some kind of a solution so that the facility is not closed the entire winter."
All three candidates also expressed support for changing regulations to allow Bell Island residents to safely drive their ATVs to the dump.
Candidates were also asked how they would address the maintenance need on paved roads.
"Ensuring that there is a regular road maintenance plan that is in place," Neary said. "Ensuring that the provincial government is going to follow through with anything that has been promise."
Churchill said she would pressure government to assist municipalities with funding for road maintenance.
Fred Hutton says he will draw on both his experience as an advisor to Premier Andrew Furey and his decades as a journalist if he is selected for the role. (Sarah Blackmore/CBC)
Hutton said the Wabana town council has provided him with a list of roads that need maintenance and said he would have the sway to ensure the road work is completed.
"When I am your MHA, I will be able to pick up the phone and call the transportation minister and say these roads … need to be done in this year's budget and they will be done," Hutton said.
The candidates also faced questions about the rising cost of living.
Hutton also pointed to a number of initiatives the Liberals already put in place to combat rising costs, such as reducing the gas tax and increases to the seniors benefit.
Churchill said she would push for the elimination of the provincial portion of the HST.
Neary said she would be more proactive to the issues, arguing that government has been more reactive to various problems.
Signs describing the people of Bell Island's demands could be found all over St. Michael's Parish on Bell Island where the debate was taking place. (Sarah Blackmore/CBC)
Throughout the debate, the candidates repeatedly shared what parts of their background qualify them for the job.
Hutton referenced both his recent times working as an advisor to the premier and how his 32 years as a journalist enabled him to listen to concerns and build trust with people.
"I spent my entire career listening to people and telling their stories and building their trust," he said. "That is exactly what I plan to do in the legislature on your behalf."
Neary pointed toward her position as a town councillor and how her focus on municipal issues would easily translate to constituent issues.
"I was not having a loud enough, large enough voice in the municipal aspect of things and really want to take the opportunity to take that next step," she said.
Churchill repeatedly pointed toward the human rights case she won against the province and how she would bring that same fighting spirit to the issues affecting people in the Bell Island area.
"I know what it's like to desperately need help from government and be left feeling ignored and being abandoned," she said. "I have fought before and I have won and I can do it again and I can do it for you."
Voting day for the Conception Bay East-Bell Island byelection is Jan. 29.