OTTAWA—Wednesday night’s French-language leaders’ debate, the first debate of the campaign in which Liberal Justin Trudeau took part, plunged into hot-button issues like abortion, medical assistance in dying, the urgency of climate change and Quebec’s controversial provincial law against religious symbols.
And although there was no clear winner, there were clear lines drawn between the left-leaning party leaders and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer — and over who could claim to best represent Quebec’s interests in Ottawa.
Trudeau emerged largely unscathed, but was on the defensive over his handling of SNC-Lavalin and the free trade talks.
But it was Scheer who was challenged on all sides, starting right off the bat by Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet. Soon the others joined in, clashing with the Conservative leader over his “ambiguous” stance on abortion, over his reluctance to tackle climate change and his plans to build an energy corridor that Quebecers don’t want.
Scheer insisted he would not reopen the debate on abortion, just as the previous Conservative government had not done.
“Canadians can have confidence … I will not reopen it. Nothing will change on access” to abortion, he said.
Scheer said the only ones reopening the issue of abortion are the Liberals.
On climate change, Trudeau was targeted for the Liberal purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, while Scheer was accused by his opponents of having a weak plan to slash emissions. The Conservative leader responded by claiming the federal carbon price “isn’t working” and trumpeted his pitch for a pipeline and hydro corridor across Canada as a “win-win.”
But NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh shot back, stating it’s “not winning to impose a project on the nation of Quebec.”
Scheer defended his party’s position on energy and the environment, saying the BQ might want all-electric vehicles, but Quebecers’ favourite vehicle is the F-150 pickup truck. He said the Canadian economy and Quebec jobs in the energy sector must be protected.
When Trudeau alleged Scheer is misleading Canadians about the government’s carbon price-and-rebate plan, Scheer fired back: “You’re a hypocrite on the environment. There’s only one leader here who had two planes in this campaign: one for the media and one for you and all your costumes and canoes.”
The Liberals later confirmed the party has hired two planes for its cross-country tour, as it did in 2015. One carries the advance team and equipment needed to set up for rallies and events, the other carries the leader and media entourage. Liberal spokesman Joe Pickerill said the Liberal campaign has purchased “carbon offsets” for its planes and campaign buses, while the Conservative campaign confirmed it did not do so for its leader’s tour.
As expected, Trudeau was challenged early on over his opposition to Quebec’s secularism law, which bars certain provincial public servants from wearing visible signs of their religious beliefs, such as Christian crucifixes, Jewish yarmulkes, Sikh turbans or Muslim hijabs.
Trudeau defended his decision not to intervene immediately in a legal challenge underway but to allow groups who are fighting the provincial statute to apply for financial aid for their lawsuit. Blanchet, however, said it showed a profound disrespect towards Quebec that the federal taxes they pay could go to support challenges of a law that most support.
Trudeau stumbled when he appeared to link the support of far-right groups to those who support a secular state.
“We will be there to defend the rights of minorities and the secularism of the state. It’s important to have a secular state. My father fought for that in the Quiet Revolution,” Trudeau said.
“For me, the big threat that one sees in the secularization of the state, it’s with the groups of the far-right who are pushing an agenda, anti-women, anti-abortion, anti-LGBT, and that is beginning is to come into this,” he said, before Blanchet interrupted him to ask if Trudeau viewed Quebecers as far-right or racist sympathizers.
“Not at all,” said Trudeau. “Quebecers see secularism as a protection, but I find that a free society that permits discrimination against someone because of their religion, there are questions nonetheless that can be asked.”
Trudeau defended his actions in the SNC-Lavalin affair, claiming he acted to protect Quebec jobs over the objections of Scheer who said he lied throughout.
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Trudeau was also grilled about the law on medical assistance in dying, after a Quebec court declared that federal requirements that a patient’s death be imminent or reasonably foreseeable are unconstitutional, because they lead to unnecessary suffering. Only when he was pressed did Trudeau say a Liberal government will not appeal, and would revise the law to comply with the Quebec court.
Debating for a francophone audience on one of Quebec’s major TV networks, the leaders also tried to position themselves as in tune with the unique values of what they agreed was a “nation” of its own.
Scheer and Singh praised their passion for the “language of Molière,” while Trudeau — like Singh — insisted he shared Quebecers values for secularism, marriage equality and access to abortion.
Trudeau and Singh, meanwhile, attacked Scheer as not being aligned with Quebecers’ “values” on the issues.
The three leaders of federalist parties turned on Blanchet, the separatist party leader, to accuse him of trying to divide Quebecers from Canadians for his political gain. Blanchet bristled when Singh said it is “disgusting” Blanchet supported restrictions on Quebecers wearing the niqab.
“You don’t want divisions?” Blanchet said to his opponents. “I have a solution: Respect the jurisdiction of the National Assembly.”
When Scheer said a vote for the BQ was useless because it would not elect a government that could deliver for Quebecers, Blanchet shot back. “If not being an MP in government is useless, you were useless for the last four years, and you may be useless after Oct. 21,” he said. “Only one of you three is going to be elected prime minister.”
The two-hour debate on the Quebecor-owned TVA network and its all-news arm was broadcast live in French only.
The network, which has a large francophone audience outside Montreal, had invited only leaders of parties that had elected MPs in Quebec.
That excluded Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and Maxime Bernier, who holds a seat in the Quebec riding of Beauce but was elected in 2015 under the Conservative banner, before he broke ranks to form the far-right People’s Party of Canada.
May griped on Twitter about her party’s exclusion: “In Canada, all parties represented in Parliament should be included in debates. By excluding a Green voice, TVA fails to offer the full picture that voters are facing at the polls this election.”
Before the debate got underway, Trudeau quipped with an interviewer that an early morning boxing session had helped him “relax.”