It was a different crowd, with a different tone and new rules at Saturday’s mayoral forum organized by and for newcomers.
The Got citizenship? Go vote! civic engagement campaign’s event at the Hugh John MacDonald School gym banned candidates from making negative comments about their opponents and promised to reward those who said positive things about their rivals by granting them additional speaking time at the end.
"We’ve been following what happens at other forums," Abdikheir Ahmed, one of the organizers and an emcee, told the crowd of close to 150 men and women, most of whom were of African, Middle Eastern and Asian descent.
"New Canadians are interested in an inclusive city, not negative finger pointing," said Ahmed, the director of Immigration Partnership Winnipeg. "For some, it’s their first mayoral forum. Let’s make sure this makes a positive impression. We are not going to have any personal attacks."
All six candidates who participated in the forum — Ed Ackerman, incumbent Mayor Brian Bowman, Tim Diack, Umar Hayat, Doug Wilson and Don Woodstock — earned extra speaking time for their good behaviour. The no-shows were Venkat Machiraju, who did not RSVP to his invitation, and Jenny Motkaluk, who said she’d be there then changed her mind.
"We’re quite disappointed," Ahmed said about Motkaluk choosing not to take part. The organizers had rescheduled it from Sept. 22 to Oct. 6 to make sure both mayoral frontrunners — Bowman and Motkaluk — could attend. On Monday, they were informed Motkaluk wouldn’t be there — that she wanted to be at events where candidates could ask each other questions, Ahmed said.
"We’re organizing the forum so voters can ask questions. Immigrants and first generation Canadians make up about 45 per cent of Winnipeg’s population," he said. "She’s making a choice about what communities to go to and which to ignore," said a clearly miffed Ahmed.
"If a candidate is ready to bail out on a commitment like this at the last minute on flimsy grounds what do we expect from them if they become mayor of the city?"
At the forum, the candidates were asked questions such as how they’d make Winnipeg a more welcoming place for newcomers, how they’d encourage entrepreneurship, more diversity in hiring by the City of Winnipeg, and how they’d tackle poverty and prevent youth from being lured by gangs.
The candidates faced "rapid fire" questions that required them to flash a yes or no sign when asked about such things as Winnipeg having a safe injection site, pushing the province to allow permanent residents to have the right to vote in civic elections, offering a low-income bus pass and creating a seat on the Winnipeg Police Board for a member of the newcomer community.
Diack, a community police officer in Point Douglas, flashed a no sign to safe injection sites. That’s because methamphetamine, not opioids, is Winnipeg’s biggest problem right now, he said. Meth users can be violent and a typical safe injection site would be dangerous for anyone working there, he said. "Before we take any action we have to make the safety of the workers and the public a priority," Diack said.
"Mental health is the biggest issue in Winnipeg," said Hayat, who came to Canada 10 years ago. The lack of treatment can be connected to poverty and addiction and crime, he said. If elected, Hayat promised a to create a low-income bus pass and more funding for youth recreation programs that would come from fewer city-funded breaks for wealthy developers.
"Do not give $28 million to guys who are already rich for luxury condominiums," Hayat said.
Bowman said the city has had an equity and diversity initiative and encourages job applicants to self-identify if they’re from historically disadvantaged groups. Today, about 12.4 per cent of city workers are members of a visible minority, he said.
By the time Winnipeg hits his oft-stated goal of having a million people, Indigenous people will make up 25 per cent of the population. "There’s more we need to do on the retention side."
Carol Sanders’ reporting on newcomers to Canada has made international headlines, earned national recognition but most importantly it’s shared the local stories of the growing diversity of people calling Manitoba home.
Updated on Sunday, October 7, 2018 at 9:03 AM CDT: adds photos