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Three out of four candidates in the riding of Cape Breton-Canso squared off in a federal election debate at Glace Bay High School, N.S., on Wednesday night.

The Conservative candidate and the Liberal incumbent spent a lot of time sparring with each other and while it was spirited, it was mostly a polite affair, held in front of a live audience of about 60 people and streamed on the internet.

The candidates debated 14 questions from the audience ranging from poverty and housing to the Mi’kmaw fishery and reconciliation.

While they all managed to get out their party platform talking points, Conservative candidate Fiona MacLeod clearly had her sights set on the incumbent, Liberal Mike Kelloway.

At one point, MacLeod got in a dig when she subtly referred to Liberal ministers for Atlantic economic development having been from Quebec and Ontario.

“We are going to have a minister of rural affairs and we’re also going to have a minister for ACOA from Atlantic Canada,” she said.

Liberal candidate Mike Kelloway countered MacLeod’s point, saying the Conservatives had shut down a Cape Breton-based economic development agency. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Kelloway had a quick comeback.

“It was a Conservative minister from New Brunswick who killed Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation, so we’ll take no lessons on economic development from Conservatives.”

Jana Reddick, a career counsellor from Glace Bay, said voters should consider the NDP, because the other two parties have been all talk and no action.

“Something that I hear a lot here in Cape Breton is that Tory times are hungry times and I think that the Liberals have shown us that they’ll say whatever to get in and then again we’re right back to square one,” she said.

“We get stuck with a bitter back-and-forth and Cape Bretoners never get ahead.”

Kelloway was first elected in 2019 when he beat the Conservative candidate, Alfie MacLeod, by nearly 1,900 votes, winning the riding after the former Liberal MP, Rodger Cuzner, decided not to re-offer.

Fiona MacLeod, who grew up in Cape Breton and has worked for the federal government in Ottawa for more than 30 years, commended Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fiona MacLeod said the Liberal prime minister had done a good job during the pandemic, but she said the Liberals let emergency relief funds go on too long. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

However, she said, the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit, which was designed to ensure people had an income while staying home during the pandemic, has kept workers at home too long and hampered the economy.

“When all our tourist businesses were ready to open and the CERB was continued until after this election, [it left] hundreds of businesses on this island and in our riding without employees,” MacLeod said.

Kelloway, who has worked for Nova Scotia Community College and Cape Breton University and has volunteered with a variety of community organizations, said the Liberals developed a tourism recovery package and increased wage subsidies to help employers find workers.

“When the pandemic hit, we were in an existential crisis and the patient was bleeding out and if you listen to the Conservatives, they would have let the patient bleed out,” he said.

“No way on our watch.”

Jana Reddick, NDP candidate for Cape Breton-Canso, said if the NDP hadn’t propped up the Liberal minority government during the pandemic, Canadians would have struggled more. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

Reddick said emergency funding for Canadians would have been lower if the NDP had not pushed the government into being more generous.

“I was really thankful that there was a minority government … for the pandemic, because I think if we didn’t have a minority government, Canadians would have struggled a lot more,” she said.

People’s Party of Canada candidate Brad Grandy, an electrical tradesman who lives in Musquodoboit Valley outside the riding, did not attend the debate.

The full debate, which was organized by CBC Cape Breton and moderated by Information Morning Cape Breton host Steve Sutherland, is available online here.