File photo of Chilliwack’s mayoral candidates participating in an all-candidates meeting at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre in the 2018 municipal election. The 2021 federal election all-candidates meeting scheduled for the same location was cancelled after some vaccination requirement confusion. (Darren McDonald photo)

File photo of Chilliwack’s mayoral candidates participating in an all-candidates meeting at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre in the 2018 municipal election. The 2021 federal election all-candidates meeting scheduled for the same location was cancelled after some vaccination requirement confusion. (Darren McDonald photo)

OPINION: Here’s what killed the only in-person election candidates meeting in Chilliwack-Hope

Fraser Health said the unvaccinated PPC candidate was exempt from vaccine passport but not attendees

For the first time in maybe forever, those of us in Chilliwack and Hope voting to decide who should go to Ottawa to represent our interests didn’t get to see all the candidates in person.

We almost did, but a “vaccination kerfuffle” (as we called it in our headline) scuttled that.

Justin Trudeau is repeatedly being asked why he called an election amid a global pandemic. It’s a great question, and I’m not here to analyze those questions or his responses. Just to say that, given that we are amid a pandemic and an election, it maybe shouldn’t be surprising that constituents could only meet those running for office virtually, online.

READ MORE: All-candidates’ debate at Cultural Centre cancelled after vaccination kerfuffle

But here’s a brief rundown of what happened: The Chilliwack Arts & Cultural Society scheduled an in-person all-candidates meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 14 at the cultural centre.

Acting director Theresia Reid asked me to moderate the meeting, and I agreed.

All attendees were to have followed public health orders, which included masks and assigned seating at the venue.

And because it was scheduled for one day after the new BC vaccine card came into effect, everyone in attendance was told they had to show proof of at least one COVID vaccination.

People’s Party of Canada (PPC) candidate Rob Bogunovic, who proudly admits that he is not vaccinated, was angry when told he could not attend in person. Fraser Health told Reid this, and she passed on the information. He was to be accommodated electronically.

The PPC then sent a three-page letter on the weekend addressed to Fraser Health expressing outrage at the physical exclusion of Bogunovic from the meeting. (Some have pointed out that PPC leader Maxime Bernier was completely excluded from the televised leaders’ debates and, again, Bogunovic was going to be accommodated electronically.)

In response to the PPC letter, Liberal candidate Kelly Velonis issued a statement on Sunday supporting the order that Bogunovic not attend in person.

“I fully support the decision of Fraser Health to require that all attendees at Tuesday’s Cultural Centre political debate provide proof of vaccination and comply with provincial health guidelines,” Velonis said.

Then on Monday, incumbent Conservative Mark Strahl send a statement declaring that he would only participate “if all candidates are treated equally.”

“While I am eligible to appear in person, I will only do so if all candidates running in this election appear on the same platform,” he said.

He suggested the entire event be changed to a 100 per cent virtual forum.

The cultural centre board, treading carefully in a non-partisan way as they do, held an emergency meeting Monday morning and decided they couldn’t go ahead.

The meeting was cancelled.

Following that, NDP candidate DJ Pohl issued a statement: “Debates are an essential part of democracy. This must also never compromise one’s safety.”

She said she was “profoundly disappointed” for voters.

“This is a direct result of a refusal to abide by health orders by Rob Bogunovic, his threat of legal action, and incumbent (candidate) Mark Strahl supporting the stance and perpetuating the narrative,” Pohl said.

Then Ted Field from Global BC contacted me, looking to come to Chilliwack to report on the “kerfuffle.”

I declined since I was only ever to be the moderator. I didn’t organize it or cancel it, and in the end it didn’t happen so, what could I add to the story?

Global did send a reporter. He interviewed Bogunovic, Pohl and Velonis, while neither Strahl nor anyone from the cultural centre board would comment.

But here is the kicker in all of this: Reid spoke to Fraser Health before Sept. 10, the date that the provincial health order governing gatherings and events was changed by the province. That updated order stated that event organizers or performers or, in this case, election candidates, are exempt from the vaccine passport.

“Since candidates are considered part of event staff/officials/performers, they are exempt from vaccine passport requirements for such events,” Fraser Health spokesperson Curtis Harling confirmed to me via email this morning (Sept. 17).

So while Bogunovic could/should have been allowed to attend in person, that fact still likely would not have appeased him or Strahl. That’s because all “participants” – those attending the event – are required to show proof of vaccination, and that would also apply to all candidates’ staff or campaign volunteers since they would not have been involved in staging the event.

In the end, obviously, the only in-person all-candidates meeting scheduled for this federal election was cancelled.

That is profoundly disappointing for voters in Chilliwack-Hope, and for democracy in general.

READ MORE: Canada Election 2021


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Canada Election 2021