Railway, high food prices, how to curb drug crisis among topics tackled at Thompson town hall

Questions for federal election candidates at the I’m First Nation and I Vote town hall organized by the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) in Thompson Sept. 19 included a couple of pointed queries aimed at specific candidates.

Former Keewatinook MLA Judy Klassen, the Liberal candidate for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, had an NDP supporter question her about whether she intended to live in the riding if she gets elected.

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Klassen, who comes from St. Theresa Point but whose husband is from Steinbach, said that would depend if he can find work in the riding but said it was definitely possible.

“It looks like we are going to be able to move home for the first time in a long time,” she said.

NDP candidate Niki Ashton, who has represented Churchill-Keewatinook Aski since 2015 and its predecessor, Churchill, for seven years before that, was asked by AMC Grand Chief Arlen Dumas why she didn’t support his plan, when he was Mathias Colomb Cree Nation chief, to buy the Hudson Bay Railway and the Port of Churchill from OmniTrax and why she says she fought for Churchill when it took Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government putting more than $100 million into the deal that saw the Arctic Gateway Group take ownership of the assets.

“Frankly, I’m shocked by your framing of what you raised here,” said Ashton, who said she was disappointed that anyone would question her commitment to Churchill. “I think you and I have very different recollections.”

Conservative candidate Cyara Bird said, when all four participating candidates were asked about how they would address the drug crisis and associated problems facing Thompson and other parts of Manitoba, that her home community of Little Black River First Nation has seen success with land-based sobriety camps.

“I’m not ready to write these youth off as a lost cause,” she said. “A lot of this crime is happening because they’re bored. Our success rate has been amazing. We have had only two people relapse.”

Green party candidate Ralph McLean said he supported using drug-sniffing dogs at post offices to prevent drugs from getting into northern communities.

“Most of the drugs now are coming in through the mail,” McLean said.

Klassen said First Nations people haven’t been given chances at real careers and have had to make money in other ways.

“All we have, a large portion of us, is the black market,” she said.

Responding to a question about how to stop companies with monopolies like the Northern store from selling food on First Nations at much higher prices than in cities, McLean said he would support pushing Northern stores out of communities and replacing them with First Nation-owned supermarkets like Family Foods in Nelson House so money spent there stays in the community.

“It’s just legalized theft at this point,” he said.

Ashton said she supported changing the Nutrition North program so that it actually lowered food prices instead of enriching the North West Company.

“We are subsidizing a corporation that benefits greatly, as you pointed out, by a monopoly,” she said.

All four candidates said they supported First Nations having a say in and benefitting from natural resource development in their territories.

“You deserve to have the right to do what you please with your resources,” said Bird.

Klassen said in her closing statement that she is not in the race for herself.

“A vote for me is not a vote for me. It’s a vote for you.”

McLean said he was tired of the major parties neglecting Northern Manitoba.

“You have been ignored for 30 years,” he said. “This is why I’m running.”

Ashton said the NDP was committed to supporting the medical system and education and rejecting colonialism.

“We believe that forging nation-to-nation relationships is fundamental.”

Bird said that people are sick of being ignored and of reaching out to Ashton and not hearing anything back or not having their problems solved.

“I am here to speak on behalf of you,” she said. “Advocacy doesn’t mean anything unless there is action behind it.”

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