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Right to left: NDP Leader John Horgan, Green Leader Sonia Furstenau and Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson prepare for a debate at the Chan Centre, in Vancouver, on Oct. 13, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Mere minutes after British Columbia’s three political parties finished squaring off in their first face-to-face election debate, NDP Leader John Horgan moved to retract a stumbled answer to a question about how he has personally reckoned with race and privilege.

Mr. Horgan originally responded that he was colour blind, but after the debate was over, he offered a clarification.

“I certainly mischaracterized the challenges that people of colour face everyday,” Mr. Horgan told reporters.

“I was reflecting on my childhood, which is how I interpreted the question and it was inappropriate to say I don’t see colour. I don’t have a clue as a white person [of] the challenges people face everyday, but I did grow up in poverty. I did grow up with Indigenous friends, South Asian friends, and for me it was normal to be poor, to be part of the crowd that nobody paid attention to."

The question on race, posed by moderator Shachi Kurl to all three leaders, was a thorny one that appeared to take the leaders by surprise: “How have you personally reckoned with your own privilege and unconscious bias as a white political leader?” she asked.

Both Mr. Horgan and Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson answered by speaking about their relationships with people of colour without acknowledging their own privilege.

Mr. Wilkinson spoke of being a young doctor, having arrived at St. Paul’s Hospital from southern Alberta, and having to face the reality that the world wasn’t all like southern Alberta. He spoke of working in Indigenous communities in B.C., dealing with Indigenous people as patients.

“That’s the kind of experience that humanizes it for you, and makes you realize we are all equal. We all have to feel like we belong here, that we’re citizens and we’ll be respected in British Columbia, and to my mind that’s one of the highest duties of government,” said Mr. Wilkinson.

Mr. Horgan originally recalled playing lacrosse as a youth on Southern Vancouver Island where he played with Indigenous and South Asian friends. “For me, I did not see colour. I felt that everyone around me was the same. I brought that through my entire adult life and I’ve instilled that in my children,” he said.

He said this generation sees people equally.

“Regardless of who you are, people need to be included.”

Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, by contrast, spoke with empathy about parents who must worry that their children could be killed in an interaction with police.

“We’re not all equal. I wish we were. The three of us can’t fully reckon with that, because we’re white,” she said.

Mr. Horgan’s postdebate clarification was the second awkward explanation of the day. Earlier, the release of the Liberals’ platform was overshadowed when Mr. Wilkinson went into detail for the first time about why he did not speak out when one of his MLAs offered up a sexualized and belittling story about NDP MLA Bowinn Ma, the NDP incumbent in North Vancouver-Lonsdale.

During a roast for retiring West Vancouver Liberal MLA Ralph Sultan. MLA Jane Thornthwaite suggested Ms. Ma acted in a flirtatious manner in conduct with Mr. Sultan.

Mr. Wilkinson was present for the call, and did not intervene. Ms. Thornthwaite has since apologized, and Mr. Wilkinson Tuesday denounced her remarks. “Her performance and choice of words was so inappropriate that it was abundantly clear by the end of the roast that she had made a bit of a fool of herself," the Liberal Leader said earlier Tuesday.

During the debate, Mr. Wilkinson was again asked about it and responded that he didn’t speak up “because it was a roast for an 87-year-old MLA."

Also during the debate, Mr. Horgan and Mr. Wilkinson repeatedly clashed over the records of their respective governments. On seniors' care, Mr. Horgan accused the former Liberal government of laying off thousands of support workers inside seniors homes, leading to chronic understaffing that left the homes vulnerable when the pandemic hit. Mr. Horgan said that decision had "profound and tragic'' consequences for senior citizens living in care homes during the pandemic.

But Mr. Wilkinson said Mr. Horgan is focusing on decisions made long ago, arguing his party built 14 hospitals when it was in power and the NDP has built none during its first three years in office.

On housing, Mr. Horgan again blamed the former Liberal government for allowing housing prices to skyrocket out of reach for all but the very rich. Mr. Wilkinson accused Mr. Horgan of failing to solve the problem: During the NDP’s time in government, he argued, housing prices have only gotten more expensive, rentals hard to find and rents more expensive not less.

Mr. Horgan accused the Liberals of standing by while money launderers played a role in assuring housing prices climbed, but Mr. Wilkinson responded to a direct question about whether he would allow the inquiry into money laundering to continue under a Liberal government. Yes, he said.

And while the NDP have memorably called Liberal mismanagement of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia (ICBC) a dumpster fire, Mr. Horgan was asked by Ms. Kurl whether the Site C project would become his government’s own dumpster fire.

The controversial hydroelectric power project has been plagued with stability problems that were identified years ago, but only recently, BC Hydro has concluded that the cost of addressing the issues will be “much higher than initially expected.”

The NDP Leader deflected, saying the project was one launched by the former Liberal government – skating around the fact that his cabinet gave the project a green light to continue.

Ms. Furstenau criticized the other two parties for failing to support the transition to clean energy, accusing them of “propping up” big energy projects with billions in taxpayers' money.

“If we were building a clean economy instead of going ahead with Site C, we could have invested in clean energy projects in every region of this province,” she said.

With a file from the Canadian Press

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