Parkdale-High Park All-Candidates Debate on the Environment: Recap and Reflection

On Wednesday, October 2nd, almost 400 members of our community gathered at Humbercrest United Church for the Parkdale-High Park All-Candidates Debate on the Environment. As the pews filled, people nudged closer together, pulled chairs from other rooms, and leaned against columns. Yellow “100 Debates” pins flickered against the black shirts of volunteers from Green 13, Green Parkdale-Roncesvalles, and Safe Rail Communities as they hurried about, directing attendees in and encouraging them to submit questions for the debate. The four candidates—the incumbent Liberal MP Arif Virani, NDP candidate Paul Taylor, Green Party’s Nick Capra, and Greg Wycliffe of the People’s Party of Canada—sat facing the audience.


Humbercrest United Church Minister Rev. Jessica McCrae opened with an acknowledgement that the debate was taking place on the traditional lands of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. The moderator, GreenPAC Founder Aaron Freeman, outlined the debate format and clarified the process by which candidates were selected for participation. “Where is Adam Pham?” a voice urged from the audience. The Progressive Conservative candidate’s seat sat empty; the organizing committee had extended Pham an invitation, but at 5:36 PM the night of the debate, he declined. Organizers learned of his decision only after the debate had ended.


Each of the candidates had 30 seconds to introduce themselves and their platform. Arif Virani spoke first, stating that, over the course of four years as an MP, he has listened to the voices in the community; recognized climate change as an existential crisis to our planet; and supported parliamentary action on the environment, including putting a price on pollution.

Protesting, platforming

When PPC Candidate Greg Wycliffe stood to speak, a group of people flanked from the right. A banner reading “YOU CAN’T DEBATE HATE” stretched in front of Wycliffe, his voice drowned out by chants of “NO HATE! NO FEAR! IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE!” The chants echoed throughout the church walls, trailed by clusters of applause and cheer. A few disgruntled shouts followed. After a few minutes of peaceful protest, the group left.

To keep the debate non-partisan, 100 debates directed the organizing committee to follow the Leaders’ Debates Guidelines. Initially, the People’s Party of Canada was barred from participation in the federal debate, and so too, from ours. When, two weeks prior to our debate, Leaders’ Debates Commissioner David Johnston reversed his preliminary ruling and granted PPC access to the federal debate, our organizing committee followed suit, inviting Greg Wycliffe to the debate. Although the Leaders’ Debates guidelines are not binding, they were the objective criteria chosen for all the Debates on the Environment held across Canada.

Because the organizing committee wanted to prioritize time-efficiency and provide the space for meaningful answers, all eight of the candidates in Parkdale-High Park could not be included (In this sense, the use of “All-Candidate” was misleading). The committee was not, for example, able to include the Marxist-Leninist candidate, Lorne Gershuny, who got in contact on Monday, September 30th. Gershuny was courteous, seemed to have understood the answer, and still attended the debate as an audience member.

The decision of who to invite and who to exclude raises important questions about who has a voice in our country. The protestors' position is that platforming a PPC candidate amplifies hateful rhetoric and potentially excludes marginalized people from the conversation through making them feel unsafe or even threatened. The argument, then, is that the position should not be heard; debating such a position would be legitimizing it. Several people in the audience on October 2nd seemed to hold this view; throughout the debate, whenever Greg Wycliffe spoke, these people turned their backs to him, as a way to demonstrate that they would not be engaging with his statements. The Green’s Nick Capra and Paul Taylor of the NDP followed suit.

But there is, of course, another view: that debate is a cornerstone of a free democracy and that difference of opinion enriches our democratic process, as opposed to hindering it. The argument could be made that the PPC's position on climate and environment ought to be held up for public scrutiny, before the silence of the voting booth. In any case, the organizing committee is proud to have hosted a debate where all participants could exercise their democratic rights: the protestors the opportunity to demonstrate their opposition, the candidates the choice to engage in debate (or not), and the constituents the freedom to cheer, question, or ignore.

Green Party’s Nick Capra opened his 30-second address with the words of Greta Thunberg, condemning “fairytales of economic growth” and emphasizing the importance of an open discussion on climate. Capra also acknowledged the protestors, stating that, “We need to listen to them.” In his introductory address, Paul Taylor of the NDP echoed Capra’s remark, stating that we need all voices in the discussion of climate change.

Debate questions

The debate opened with the four questions provided in advance by 100 Debates: the first on climate change, the second on water, the third on wilderness conservation, and the final one on pollution and toxic substances. Candidates had 90 seconds to speak on each question, and a five minute open-table discussion between candidates was allotted per question. Next, our moderator  moved the debate to questions from the community. In total, the Parkdale-High Park community submitted 66 questions on topics ranging from issues in our riding to concerns of global importance. Of the 66, we handed eight questions to the moderator.

The first community question addressed to the candidates centered on GHG emissions, the second on transport of hazardous goods by rail, and the third on electoral reform. The fourth and fifth questions centered on the future of work. Freeman asked the candidates how they will contribute to the creation and sustaining of green jobs, and, since climate change disproportionately affects the poor, how they would protect the least advantaged of our community and ensure a just transition to a green economy. Our moderator had time to ask just five out of the eight questions handed up to him. Concerns Parkdale-High Park residents raised included: the issue of drinking water in indigenous and Northern communities, the effect of animal agriculture on the environment, Canada’s role in meeting the IPCC-recommended targets, single-use plastics, meeting increasing youth engagement with appropriate policy changes, economic reform, and pipelines, especially Trans Mountain.

Looking forward

Post-debate, several attendees wrote in with feedback. One attendee thanked the organizing committee for the event, deeming it “a huge success.”  “I learned a lot about each party’s platforms and ideas (or lack thereof!),” Alex writes,  “The moderator did an excellent job keeping the night moving and keeping the dialogue fair and equal.”

Another attendee named Vicky wrote that she “was pleased to see such a crowd"
and that it was “Interesting to hear the candidates speak (and not speak—one candidate chose not to attend). Interruptions and protests were handled well. Candidates were kept to time allocated. Questions were well chosen. Glad I attended. It helped me make my mind up.

To watch the debate, access the Facebook Live Stream recording. For information on all eight candidates running in Parkdale-High Park, click here. To view the GreenPAC list of candidates with track records on environmental leadership, visit here. If you have not already, remember to cast your vote on October 21st. Check for your voting location through the Elections Canada website.

Public polls show that support for environmental leadership is the highest it's ever been, but, as we know, this kind of support doesn’t always translate into political action. The incredible turnout and engagement we had on October 2nd shows that our community cares. Now, we must hold our leaders accountable and keep the momentum going—which is why the very last question Freeman posed to the candidates was:

If you are elected to Parliament, will you commit to a meeting with City Councillor Gord Perks and MPP Bhutila Karpoche on November 13th, to discuss cross-governmental action on the environment?

All four candidates said yes. Whoever we vote into parliament will stand before us at the November 13th event, which will be held at Swansea Town Hall. The conversation on climate and the environment doesn’t end at the election. Please join us in working together to design a community action plan to address the climate crisis. Kindly RSVP through our Eventbrite page. Thank you for your support, and see you there!


Top photo credit: GreenPAC

All other photos courtesy of Moe Laverty Photography, 2019.

Blog Post by Alevtina Lapiy