The split in the views presented by candidates in the Airdrie-Cochrane riding was clear in yesterday's virtual forum hosted by the Cochrane and District Chamber of Commerce.

After a brief five-minute overview of their platforms, the four participating candidates answered a series of questions on such topics as recall legislation, ways to bolster small businesses, education, and housing.

Views on education and the need for more schools in Cochrane produced one of the largest splits and an accusation that RVS officials lied.

Incumbent UCP MLA Peter Guthrie defended the government's 5.2 per cent increase in education funding. He said 58 new school projects were approved.

"RVS received their top four asks and 10 out of 19 portables that were awarded for the entire province, so I think we've done an excellent job of meeting demand."

He said the Rocky View School division board and administration outright lied when they emailed all parents to tell them that they received nothing in the budget.

"Even when they got called out by our government and the Minister of Education, they refused to correct the deception, and would only place a small correction on their app, which they later removed. So, it's disappointing that the school division put out this inaccurate information."

He says the availability of land is an issue in Cochrane.

"I believe there are lands available in Sunset and Heartland, but they are not yet school ready, so we need to check with the mayor and council on that availability."

Both the town and the school division have indicated in the past that there are shovel-ready sites available.

NDP candidate Shaun Fluker said Cochrane schools are full, and there were zero dollars in the budget for new schools in Cochrane, something he finds mind-boggling, given the rapid growth here.

"That is a huge issue," says Fluker. "You simply cannot be a growing community and have nowhere for folks to send their kids to school.

"As a parent in this community, I, too, receive emails from school principals in the fall, frankly apologizing for the situation in the schools. As an elected MLA here in Cochrane, I'm going to change that."

Ron Voss, candidate for the Wildrose Loyalty Coalition said sure, we need schools, but was more concerned with the curriculum. He cited a June 2022 presentation by NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman on what comprises a proper modern education.

"Their modern education teaches them about climate change, gender equality, poverty reduction, anti-racism, and the history of residential schools. The NDP government has clearly signaled its intent to incorporate and impose its radical progressive political agenda when it comes to shaping Alberta's education curriculum."

Michael Andrusco, of the Solidarity Movement of Alberta, shared a similar view.

"We're getting these kids when they're most vulnerable and we're indoctrinating them into a way of thinking that we never should be doing. Schools should strictly teach kids math, reading, all those things that are just basic education, and that's where it should stay. We need schools and things need to be looked at, but to me, that's a more important issue."

The NDP's plan to bolster small business includes the elimination of the small business tax for most small businesses, said NDPer Fluker.

"That promise is based on our research which does show that a lot of small businesses are still suffering from below-normal sales and larger debt load arising out of the pandemic."

Fluker says that alone isn't the answer. He says the province needs a stable competent government and one that will make investments in communities and services, such as municipal infrastructure and services that impact the most vulnerable. The absence of this funding, he says, adversely impacts small businesses.

"We're 100 per cent committed to addressing the full range of serious issues facing small businesses in Cochrane today."

UCP candidate Peter Guthrie, a former small business owner, says frustration with all levels of government was a major reason why he entered provincial politics.

"This was at a time when we had declining revenues as a province, taxes were going up, minimum wage was going up and regulations and policies were being put in place in order to stifle small business owners. That's what drove me to get into this business."

He said in its last mandate, the province cut red tape by one-third and has plans for more.

He said a proposed personal income tax cut would provide families up to $1,500 per year, and that reducing corporate taxes to eight per cent from 12 has proven to pay dividends to the province. 

"And FYI, we just came off the highest year of corporate tax collection in Alberta history, when the opposition told us it would not work."

"The NDP platform commits to reversing our corporate tax cut and will drive away investment and jobs with it."

Both Voss and Andrusco blamed the crisis faced by small businesses firmly on the shoulders of the UCP for imposing lockdowns.

"The small businesses were really under attack, the middle class was under attack, but Costco and Amazon, I understand, did very well in profits," said Voss. "So I think people need to remember who brought those lockdowns in. It was the United Conservative Party of Alberta."

Andrusco said he operates a small business with his sons and says lowering taxes will be beneficial but more is required.

"I don't think one thing is going to solve it. I think there are a lot of little things that need to be done to help small business owners. We need to make it easier for them to operate in the province."

He said the UCP government is to blame for the burden.

"And now they're trying to come up with solutions to fix what they caused in the first place and have left small businesses struggling the last two or three years."

Moderator and chamber president Ozzie Sawicki asked what candidates would do to ensure homeownership and rent is affordable.

Fluker says the NDP fully recognizes that there is an affordability and cost of living crisis in this province. They have made a commitment to build affordable housing for 40,000 Albertans over the next four years and will take measures to assist those renting, including an increase in support levels for seniors and AISH recipients.  

"Part of ensuring that we address the housing crisis is to ensure the supply is affordable, but also that folks have the means to pay rent, cover their mortgage, pay their utility bills, and things of that nature. We are fully committed to addressing this issue."

Andruco said low-income housing is valuable but believes the middle class is taking the brunt of the punishment. He says it's nearly impossible to purchase a home of any kind right now, especially for first-time homeowners.

He believes people arriving from other provinces are driving up the cost of homes.

"I don't know how you can stop people from coming into this province and driving up the price of housing, but we need to work with the banks to help first-time homeowners to get mortgages and those kinds of incentives because you can't stop people from coming into this province and driving up the price of housing. It's a tough issue."

Guthrie says a healthy economy is a good thing and addressing housing needs all boils down to keeping taxes low.

"Our party is committed to no sales tax and lowering personal taxes. I know that the NDP and the NDP economic advisor Todd Hirsch are proponents of having an Alberta sales tax that will do nothing but drive up the cost of living,"

He says the province needs to work with the federal Conservative party to get rid of the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and eliminate the carbon tax and the new fuel standard regulations, which he views as a second carbon tax.

"The facts here are clear. If you want a tax and spend government, then the NDP is your party. If you want responsible management that attracts investment, diversifies the economy, and keeps inflation low, the UCP is where you should cast your vote."

Voss blamed the housing pinch on uncontrolled immigration and points his finger at Ottawa.

"I think there are ways to control it, but you create a mess by having uncontrolled immigration and then try and fix the problem. Why don't we have immigration be the responsibility of our province and not Trudeau?"

How to make elected MLAs and political parties accountable for promises made during the campaign was a question custom-made for Voss. He waved a paper he signed pledging support to what he referred to as a real recall policy of the Wildrose Loyalty Coalition.

"Unlike the UCP one, which is unworkable, if your candidates make all kinds of promises and then you find out they're not upholding those promises, you can use this recall to remove them from the legislature."

Guthrie said voting in elections is a way of expressing your view.

"Nobody should be sitting at home," he said. 'They should be getting out, getting to the polls."

He agrees with the need for recall legislation and supports the one created by the UCP government,

"There are avenues available, and I'm very proud that we're a government that put that accountability forward."

Fluker didn't directly answer the question. Instead, he questioned whether electors trust UCP leader Danielle Smith.

"Leadership is about trust, and I can say that one of the things I've heard repeatedly at the doors here in Cochrane over the past several months is Danielle Smith is untrustworthy. I would agree wholeheartedly that in this election, trust is on the ballot, and Rachel Notley is consistently regarded as a leader that can be trusted going forward."

Andrusco believed there should be an annual review.

"We should be held accountable to the people that voted us in, and if we don't do what we said we would, then there definitely should be reviews and there should be ways to recall politicians that are not holding up to what they said they would do."

Other issues discussed included providing an equitable platform for all minority voices, EMS, and involvement in local organizations.

A disappointing 48 people listened to the live broadcast in the early afternoon Zoom event. It continues to be available for viewing at a person's convenience through a link on the chamber's website and Facebook page. You can connect with their website here

Invited but absent from the forum was Green Party candidate Michelle Overwater Giles, who continues to maintain a low, practically nonexistent profile in the race.