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Weston pounded in Squamish debate

Candidates stick to party scripts one week before voters go to the polls

The Squamish all-candidates debate was a microcosm of the greater campaign, with the Conservative candidate the focus of sustained attacks from the Liberal, NDP and Green hopefuls.

Residents turned out in droves, packing the ballroom of the Sea to Sky Hotel Monday night, first to listen to questions from a media panel, then to pose a few themselves. Issues ran the gamut, from the economy to childcare, Afghanistan to environmentalism, health care to arts and culture. Answers stuck to party playbooks.

“I think it’s just an atrocity, the amount of money that has been cut at the federal level,” said incumbent and Green candidate Blair Wilson in reference to arts and culture spending.

Wilson said Conservative cuts to the GST are responsible for $13 billion in lost revenues, and the controversial overhaul of the arts and culture budget is a victim of that strategy.

“What I think is appalling is the manipulation of statistics on which those conclusions are based,” replied John Weston, the riding’s Conservative candidate.

He said culture spending has gone up 19 per cent under Stephen Harper’s government. Liberal candidate Ian Sutherland dismissed that claim, saying those increases were gobbled up by allocations to the 2010 Olympic closing ceremonies and Quebec’s 400 th birthday.

“Take those out, and it’s a reduction.”

The legalization of marijuana was another hot topic, with Wilson positing the most progressive position. “We should tax it; we should regulate it; and we should get the money out of the hands of gangs that cause problems in our cities.”

Weston was opposed on the grounds that marijuana is an entry-level drug. “The Conservatives have brought in a series of laws that will crack down on drug related crime.”

Bill Forst of the NDP struck a different note, saying that, unlike his predecessor, he is not in favour of recreational drug use, though he does support medicinal marijuana. However, said Forst, he agrees with Wilson. Sutherland said he supports decriminalization.

Weston’s most awkward moment was the result of a resident’s question on gay marriage. When asked about his personal view, he said the Conservatives have put the issue to bed. When pressed to articulate a personal view, he simply reiterated that position.

Another difficult moment came as an audience member asked about state-funded treatments for autistic children, hers included. “You were the only one who wouldn’t meet with me,” she said, after the moderator several times pushed her to phrase a question.

And, when all candidates were able to answer an audience question on Internet control, Weston confessed he was unaware of the issue and a related private member’s bill. The crowd sounded off in response.

Despite all the rocky moments, Weston was praised on a personal level by at least one member of the audience. “I admire the salesman,” said one resident, playing off a metaphor Weston presented in his opening remarks. “It’s the car I’m not sure about.”