The Society of Manitobans with Disabilities (SMD) livestreamed a leadership debate at their office in Thompson Aug. 27 so local residents could brush up on some important issues in the lead-up to the upcoming provincial election.
The debate itself took place at the Norwood Hotel in Winnipeg and was organized by Disability Matters Vote, a non-partisan advocacy group.
Their aim on Tuesday was to give each major party the platform to sound off on topics like dignified income, access to services, wages for support workers, accessibility standards and employment for people with disabilities.
While the leaders of the Manitoba Liberals (Dougald Lamont), Green Party of Manitoba (James Beddome) and Manitoba NDP (Wab Kinew) all showed up for this event, Progressive Conservative leader Brain Pallister sent Tuxedo MLA Heather Stefanson to represent the party in his stead.
Stefanson spent most of her debate time talking about the progress the PCs have made in this area over the last three years, while also conceding that there is much more work to be done.
Part of the PCs’ campaign commitments involve reviewing the wages of disability support workers and collaborating with the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities on a compliance framework that will uphold the intent of the Accessibility for Manitobans Act.
Meanwhile, the remaining three party leaders are all planning to institute some level of guaranteed basic income for Manitobans living with disabilities if elected, with the Liberals and NDP also pledging to raise the provincial minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Kinew, Lamont and Beddome took turns criticizing the PCs for their level of commitment to Manitobans with disabilities since forming a majority government in 2016, including the long wait times that they say people still have to endure to receive proper care.
“We know that it’s getting worse because there are fewer people working in the health care system,” said Kinew. “There are fewer resources, there are fewer nurses, there are fewer aides because of the cuts that Mr. Pallister has made over the past three years. So we want to fix the healthcare system, we want to improve mental health services in the community and we’re going to do it by investing instead of cutting.”
Following the viewing party, Thompson disability advocate Bobbi Montean said she was happy with the debate overall, since it shone a light on issues that don’t usually get talked about in this public space, like the low wages that direct support workers are currently earning.
Kristopher Blake, who lives with cerebral palsy, was also glad the candidates talked about reforming Employment and Income Assistance (EIA).
Blake said that under the current system a significant portion of the money he earns working a part-time janitorial job gets taken away from his EIA cheque.
“The money that you do make part-time you should be able to keep without EIA deducting any,” he said, explaining that EIA by itself provides him with barely enough money to pay for everyday amenities. “If I wasn’t working part-time I wouldn’t be able to have my dog and I probably wouldn’t be able to afford internet and cable.”
Ross Martin, who is vision impaired, praised the idea of instituting $15 minimum wage, saying such a move could give people with disabilities a better chance at living independently. He also had harsh words for the PCs, both because of Pallister’s refusal to show up on Tuesday and the party’s cuts to services over the past three years.
“I don’t think the Conservatives had much room to stand and they kind of got beat up today because of all their cuts to everything,” he said. “Whether you have a disability or not they just want to cut, cut, cut so they can save taxes for their friends.”
To read a full breakdown of each party’s stance on the issues brought up during Tuesday’s debate, go to the Disability Matters Vote website.
The provincial election is Sept. 10, but advance voting will be available in Thompson Aug. 29-Sept. 5 at the returning office on Selkirk Drive and in the City Centre Mall.
A public debate with all Thompson MLA candidates invited to participate is taking place Sept. 4 at the Ma-Mow-We-Tak Friendship Centre between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.