Healthcare dominates first Sarnia-Lambton candidate debate

From left, Sarnia-Lambton candidates Bob Bailey (Conservative), Mark Russell (Liberal), Keith Benn (New Blue) and Dylan Stelpstra (NDP). Cathy Dobson

Cathy Dobson
Incumbent Bob Bailey found himself on the defensive during the first meeting of Sarnia-Lambton candidates vying for office in the June 2 provincial election.
It was a new position for Bailey, who has been Sarnia-Lambton’s Conservative MPP for 15 years but has never campaigned before as a member of the governing party.
Health care dominated the debate Tuesday at the Sarnia Golf and Curling Club.
“I want to put to rest this notion by – well, I won’t say who – a certain coalition that is going around saying we are going to privatize healthcare,” Bailey said. “There couldn’t be anything further from the truth.”
The Ford government has increased the budget at Bluewater Health by $40 million over the past four years, he said.
“And we’re building a new hospital in Wallaceburg, a super hospital in Windsor-Essex. We wouldn’t be spending that kind of money if we were going to privatize it, so I’d like to put to rest that lie…”
Bailey also noted funding for Sarnia’s withdrawal management centre at Bluewater Health and Ryan’s House.
Rumours that the Conservatives intend to close the Petrolia site of Bluewater Health are also untrue, he said. “I do get a little fired up thinking about that.”
Bailey also defended his government’s treatment of healthcare workers, noting it plans to hire 27,000 personal support workers in Ontario and add 156 new beds and100 upgraded beds to a new Sumac Lodge on London Line.
New Blue candidate Keith Benn was asked about his position on privatizing healthcare.
“The New Blue Party has absolutely no intention to eliminate public healthcare in Ontario or Sarnia-Lambton, nor to weaken it in any way,” Benn said. But more “choices” need to be considered, he added
He related a personal story about finding a lump on his neck in 2020. His family physician couldn’t see him for three months so he went to an emergency department, where a triage nurse criticized him for seeking help, he said.
“I insisted on seeing a doctor and about three weeks later I was diagnosed with cancer,” he said. “That someone should almost kick the door in in order to get a diagnosis of cancer…that brought home the fact we need more access to testing and diagnosis for all kinds of diseases.”
New Blue would invest more in patient care by reducing administrative costs, he said, adding a “paralleled” public and private healthcare system might be the best-case scenario.
Benn lives in Port Lambton and taught at the University of Ottawa before changing direction and working internationally as a consultant geologist to the mining industry.
“That tells you I’m not challenge-averse and I don’t always take the simplest and easiest path in life,” he said.
NDP candidate Dylan Stelpstra said an NDP government would make healthcare a priority and immediately hire 30,000 nurses.
“We’ll ensure they’ll get paid well and treated well by getting rid of Bill 124,” he said to applause. The bill introduced in 2019 limits wage increases.
“We’ll work with Lambton College to expedite the process of certifying international nurses, and most of all we’re going to listen to the sector, he said.
“My ties to this community are very deep and when the opportunity to run for the NDP party came up, it felt right,” said Stelpstra, a child welfare worker and OPSEU Local 168 member.
Liberal candidate Mark Russell introduced himself as a lifelong Sarnia resident and Lambton College instructor. He made a previous unsuccessful bid for city council and became involved with the Chamber of Commerce.
Russell said he’s motivated to run for the Liberal party to improve healthcare and long-term care, as well as education in Ontario.
A Liberal government would reverse Ford’s cuts to mental health and addiction services, repeal Bill 124, and give raises to healthcare workers, he said.
“We’re going to hire 100,000 new nurses, doctors and other healthcare providers,” he said. One billion dollars would be spent clearing the diagnostic backlog and wait times for surgery.
“All of these things are in our fully costed plan,” Russell said, adding that a Liberal government would balance the budget by 2026, one year earlier than Ford’s plan.
Green Party candidate Mason Bourdeau did not attend.
The event was hosted by the Seaway Kiwanis Club and the Sarnia Lambton Chamber of Commerce.