The main party leaders appeared on stage for the first time Thursday in a French-language debate that was at times raucous as the four men fiercely competed for votes in a province that could very well decide who is Canada's next prime minister.
The two-hour debate, hosted by TVA, a major broadcaster in Quebec, was a chance for Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to regain some of the momentum he had earlier this summer when polls showed he had a massive lead in the country's second largest province.
CBC's Poll Tracker still has Trudeau and the Liberals ahead of others in Quebec but the margin has narrowed.
The first half of the debate was dominated by talk of the COVID-19 pandemic as Trudeau asked voters to return his party to government after its stewardship of the country during this 19-month long health crisis.
Trudeau presented himself as a vaccine champion, the man who secured enough doses to get everyone eligible for a shot fully vaccinated by July, and the leader who will keep people safe in the fourth wave of this pandemic by pushing mandatory vaccines for federal public servants and the travelling public.
Trudeau said O'Toole can't be trusted "because he won't even force his candidates" to get a shot while out on the campaign trail.
O'Toole, who is opposed to vaccine mandates, said Trudeau was intent on dividing the country during a health crisis. O'Toole said he's not against vaccines — O'Toole and his wife had their shots and filmed the process to encourage supporters to get theirs — but he said, "We shouldn't force Canadians. It's a decision for individual Canadians on a health matter."
O'Toole has proposed deploying rapid tests instead of demanding shots for everyone who takes a train or plane. "We must find reasonable accommodations for people. We have to work together without a lot of division," O'Toole said.
Trudeau grilled on election call
Trudeau's three opponents piled on Trudeau for calling the election with COVID-19 cases on the rise. Trudeau's main challenger in Quebec, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, said it was irresponsible to plunge the country into a campaign when "Parliament was working well" to pass COVID-19 aid and other bills.
Trudeau hit back saying it was hypocritical for Blanchet to criticize an election call when he and Bloc MPs voted four times against key government bills that, if they had been defeated in the Commons, would have prompted an election earlier this year when COVID-19 case counts were worse.
Blanchet scolded Trudeau for flouting public health guidelines on the campaign trail by posing for selfies and hugging some supporters. Trudeau said it must be "frustrating" for Blanchet to see Canadians "show affection for another leader."
He's going to take us back to the Harper targets. Quebecers want leadership on climate and you're proposing to take us back and that's completely unacceptable.
O'Toole said Canadians shouldn't be heading to the polls with the country still in the throes of a health crisis, with B.C. beset by wildfires and Afghanistan grappling with a Taliban takeover.
He said Canadians deserve a change at the top, calling Trudeau an ethics-challenged leader who must be replaced as the country enters the next phase of this health crisis.
Trudeau said now is the right time to have Canadians "weigh in on how we'll end this pandemic."
"We must give Canadians the choice and Canadians deserve a working Parliament. Canadians must choose how we finish this. They must choose," he said, saying a vote for the Conservatives would be a vote against vaccine mandates and a national child care system. "There's a clear choice."
Trudeau spent most of the night on the attack against O'Toole, his main opponent in the national race, who has swung from also-ran to front-runner status in the first three weeks of the federal election campaign.
O'Toole hit over two-tier healthcare
Trudeau and O'Toole sparred over health care funding with the Liberal leader raising O'Toole's past support for more for-profit health care in Canada to help address some of the current system's failings, claiming the Conservative leader would bring about "two-tier" health care, which, Trudeau said, would only benefit the rich.
Trudeau repeatedly pressed O'Toole to say if he'd allow private interests to take over more parts of the system, but the Conservative leader dodged giving a direct answer.
"Two-tier — that's not what Quebecers or Canadians want," Trudeau said.
O'Toole said he unequivocally supports a public and universal system and, rather than end the current system, he'll pump "an historic amount without conditions" into provincial coffers to help them make improvements. O'Toole said the Liberals have been twisting his words — Twitter branded a video recently posted by Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland "manipulated media — and "Canadians deserve better than that."
Throughout the debate, Blanchet stuck to the usual separatist script — blasting the federalist parties for ignoring the unique needs of Quebec as he tried to woo voters and add to the 32 seats he won in the last election.
He said the Liberal plan to send more money to the provinces for health care and long-term care homes with some strings attached infringes on Quebec's jurisdiction — the Liberals want national standards for these seniors residences after they were hard hit by COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic.
"We need nurses, not bureaucrats," Blanchet said. "Just give the money to provinces so they can get the job done."
The debate was a test for the two non-native French speakers: O'Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. O'Toole's spoken French has improved since he contested the Conservative leadership race last year and Singh is more fluent than he was in the 2019 campaign. But at times, both struggled to fully understand what the TVA moderator, Pierre Bruneau, was asking.
O'Toole spent all of Thursday in debate prep with his French-speaking staff, eschewing all campaign events in advance of the debate. Singh rented a food truck and handed poutine out to voters in Montreal while Trudeau ordered smoked meat sandwiches on Montreal's St-Laurent Boulevard.
Singh, who, as leader in the 2019 election, saw his party's once sizeable Quebec contingent reduced to just one seat, made a direct appeal to the province's progressive voters. While the NDP's policy book mirrors some of what the Liberals have also pitched, Singh said he'd actually implement the policies he is promising, while Trudeau has long promised but failed to deliver.
Medical assistance in dying
Another contentious health issue — medical assistance in dying — was another of the TVA-picked topics up for debate.
In response to a 2019 Quebec court ruling, the Liberal government passed legislation this year to extend eligibility to people whose natural deaths are not reasonably foreseeable. The Conservative platform calls for a rethink of the MAID regime, calling the current law "vague" and says that it "devalues human life" because there are no "safeguards."
O'Toole said Trudeau pushed through this legislation using parliamentary tools to shut down debate. Many Conservative MPs and senators fiercely opposed amendments that would have allowed the mentally ill to use MAID to end their lives.
"They used closure on this important issue — we have to listen to the most vulnerable, the disabled and their parents. We must work with doctors to find a balance," O'Toole said. "It's a right, I support that, but we must have a sensible approach especially when it comes to mental health."
Trudeau tried to brand O'Toole as a man out of step with Quebec values on guns.
Firearms have been a contentious issue in Quebec since the the Polytechnique massacre of 1989 — a non-restricted Ruger Mini-14 was used to murder 14 women at this engineering school in Montreal — and O'Toole's opponents pounced on his platform promise to reverse the Liberal government's cabinet order banning "assault-style" firearms, a 2020 regulatory decision that rendered more than 100,000 firearms "prohibited" overnight.
The other three leaders, who all support some form of gun control, tried to paint O'Toole as a leader beholden to the gun lobby.
In the face of Trudeau's attacks, O'Toole said: "We will maintain a ban on assault weapons."
However, the Conservative platform is clear that a government led by O'Toole would "start by repealing C-71 and the May 2020 order in council and conducting a review of the Firearms Act." The May 2020 order is the "assault-style" firearms ban that outlawed some 1,500 makes and models of military-grade weapons in Canada.
That prompted Trudeau to say O'Toole was "saying one thing to Quebecers and something else to other Canadians."
Another topic of debate Thursday was climate change. In the last election, the Conservative's lacklustre climate plan turned off some moderate voters who wanted to see Canada take aggressive action to address environmental concerns at a time when UN scientists are warning that urgent action is needed now.
Quebecers are among the Canadians most likely to tell pollsters that climate change is the issue they care most about. To gain vote share with Quebecers and other climate-minded voters, O'Toole has beefed up the party's green platform. The party's playbook calls for carbon pricing to encourage Canadians to use cleaner energy sources — but he took heat from Trudeau for his plan to rollback the country's climate reduction targets.
If elected, O'Toole has said he will push the reset button on Canada's climate change plan, returning to the previous national target of reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Earlier this year, the Liberal government dumped that goal and committed to deeper cuts, promising to bring emissions down by 40 to 45 per cent by the end of the decade.
"He's going to take us back to the Harper targets. Quebecers want leadership on climate and you're proposing to take us back and that's completely unacceptable," Trudeau said.
But Trudeau faced criticism for his own actions on climate. Singh said Trudeau "says the right things, he has nice words" but emissions have only gone up over the last six years of Liberal government.
The NDP leader added that Canada has the worst results on emissions of all the G7 countries, and accused Trudeau of not delivering on his environmental promises.
According to the latest report from Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country's emissions have ticked up on Trudeau's watch.
In 2019, the first year of the federal carbon pricing regimen, commonly called the "carbon tax," Canada produced 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, an increase of one megatonne — or 0.2 per cent — over 2018.
The 730 megatonnes of emissions recorded in 2019 is slightly higher than the 723 megatonnes Canada churned out in 2015, the year Trudeau first took office.
Blanchet said Trudeau can't claim to be a climate champion when he bought a major crude oil pipeline like Trans Mountain, the now government-owned line that carries oil from Alberta to B.C. for export. The Crown corporation that owns the line is in the process of building a large expansion to nearly triple its capacity.
Trudeau said "we still need oil in Quebec and across the country" and "we'll certainly invest all the profits in the green transition. The pipeline will help us get a better price for our oil – and that will help us with the transition," he said.
"You can't tell someone I'm going to mend your broken leg by breaking the other one," Blanchet said in response.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J.P. Tasker is a senior writer in the CBC's parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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