Housing, transit, and mental health.
This trio of issues dominated discussion as former Surrey mayor and B.C. Liberal leadership candidate Dianne Watts lunched Monday with University of Victoria students at a campus bar. Watts is currently competing against other six candidates for the leadership of the B.C. Liberals, and Monday’s campus stop was part of a larger swing across Vancouver Island, where B.C. Liberals fared poorly, winning one out of 14 seats.
But the Greater Victoria region generally and UVic specifically is hardly unfamiliar territory for Watts. As mayor of B.C.’s second largest municipality for nine years and former Conservative federal MP, Watts does not need any introductions in the halls of power, and one of her two daughters studied marine biology at UVic. Yet Watts eagerly deferred to the insights of gathering, which consisted out of student leaders, members of the local B.C. Young Liberals club, and a couple members of the public.
“Your voice is really important for everything we do,” she said.
Filling a corner of Felicita’s Pub, the group snacked fries and nachos during the hour-or-so-long meeting. Watts, like most attendees, sipped on water, but others lifted pints, as they presented Watts with a lengthy, often insightful list of local grievances, starting with housing.
“Housing is one of the most pivotal issues for students,” said Karina Dhillon, director-at-large with the University of Victoria Students’ Society. Dhillon’s board colleague Christopher Dickey meanwhile raised the issue of mental health for students. Watts also heard complaints about inadequate transit service between campus and key regional destinations like Downtown Victoria and the Swartz Bay ferry terminal.
Watts, for her part, did not talk much about the leadership race with the students. When asked, she underscored the need for fiscal responsibility, encouraging economic opportunities in communities across British Columbia, and working across jurisdictional boundaries.
In a later interview, Watts said the province needs to build more student housing, as part of a larger approach to help students deal with the financial and emotional stresses of attending university. “So we really have to do a better job of doing some analysis around universities, and see how we can better support university students.”
Watts acknowledged that the B.C. Liberals failed to heed some of these concerns, while in government. “That is why, we are in opposition,” she said. “The party stopped listening, and they disconnected from the residents of British Columbia.”
B.C. Liberals, she said, need to reconnect. “In terms of renewing the party, we need the next generation to participate, to really bring that voice to the table, and that is why I’m going to all of the universities to engage with youth. They need to be at the table.”
Watts was the second leadership candidate to stop at Felicita’s Pub within the last seven days. On Wednesday last week, Todd Stone sat down for what its campaign advertised as “Pints and Politics.”