INNISFAIL – It was supposed to be the big provincial election showdown for the riding of Innisfail – Sylvan Lake.
But only one of the two frontrunners showed up for the fight.
The stunning sudden turn of events left the highly anticipated forum, sponsored by the Innisfail and District Chamber of Commerce, and its audience of about 125 citizens without drama and essential balance of political views.
NDP candidate Jason Heistad, the popular local Innisfail town councillor and union leader, fell seriously ill a few days earlier and was hospitalized in Red Deer to have an abdominal abscess surgically removed.
His absence was formally announced at the beginning of the May 16 forum at the Innisfail Royal Canadian Legion Branch #104 by Linda Sinkwich, president of the NDP Innisfail-Sylvan Lake riding association.
“I am now recovered at home,” read Sinkwich from Heistad’s prepared statement. “I thought I would be able to attend this evening but that was too optimistic.
“I would like to thank the organizers of tonight’s event and to pass along my best wishes to my fellow candidates,” added Heistad’s statement graciously.
Following the forum two of the four attending candidates returned the favour and offered the NDP candidate gracious statements of their own.
“We missed him. I would have preferred he be here and would have loved to hear his version of the questions that we're asked,” said Jeevan Mangat, the riding candidate for the Wildrose Independence Party of Alberta. “He would have probably provided different thoughts that would make us consider how we're thinking.”
Brandon Pringle, the candidate for the Solidarity Movement of Alberta, said Heistad’s sudden illness was the “worst timing in the world” for the forum.
“My best goes to him and his family and I hope he gets better and we see him back on the campaign trail right away,” said Pringle, adding he’s a huge believer of having diversity of thought and opinion at political forums. “Without that we have nothing. That's the whole basis of everything. We must defend it with everything in our being.”
David Reid, the candidate for the Independence Party of Alberta, was not immediately available for comment following the forum.
Randy Thorsteinson, who represented the Reform Party of Alberta, was a no-show, which some believed was unfortunate as he’s a longtime respected conservative voice in the province who could have added experience and intellectual depth to the forum.
Frontrunner Devin Dreeshen, the UCP candidate and incumbent riding MLA, was repeatedly asked by the Albertan about Heistad’s absence but declined to offer any comment about his inability to face his main election challenger at a public forum.
“I can’t comment on things that didn’t happen,” said Dreeshen.
When pressed if he was disappointed of not having the opportunity of challenging the NDP candidate, Dreeshen said he was “happy” to debate the three other candidates who did show up - all, including Dreeshen, on the right flank of the political spectrum and in agreement on most issues, except separatism, which was not debated.
“The people got their money’s worth coming in and hearing all the different answers for two hours of debate with really pertinent questions that are affecting people in Innisfail-Sylvan Lake,” said Dreeshen.
But many citizens who came felt they did not get their “money’s worth” and left the forum shortly after it started.
They included Innisfail mayor Jean Barclay, whose Facebook page was later filled with a firestorm of angry comments from disappointed citizens over the lack of issues of local concern that were discussed, such as reduced provincial government funding for municipalities, such as MSI.
“It was extremely disappointing. I didn't think issues that were important to our local community were addressed, and so I actually left early because I wasn't getting anything out of it,” said Barclay. “I'm guessing that many people that came to the forum are there to hear from what I would frame as the two main candidates.”
But there was only one main candidate present and that was Dreeshen, who dutifully and without any challenges from the other three attending candidates enthusiastically passed on the UCP platform to the audience.
The other three candidates were either dedicated to Alberta separatism or assailing the federal Liberal government.
Candidates were offered chamber-prepared questions on rising rental costs impacting the vulnerable, access to education, COVID, gun control, the fate of the RCMP, climate change, business taxes, and even one on health care.
Almost all answers from all the right-flank candidates were predicable, and without a single challenge.
However, near the end of the forum all candidates were asked whether they would take the peoples’ concerns to government or take the government positions to the people.
“I'm here for the people and not the government. I serve the people, not the government,” said Pringle to a loud round of applause.
The three other candidates quickly agreed, with Dreeshen having the final word.
“It’s great to see so many people out here today because you strengthen our democracy,” said Dreeshen. “The fact we have more forums like this I think is great because it gives elected officials the right direction that any government should go.”
Heistad is returning to the campaign trail this weekend.