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.”
Numbers show 25% increase in advance voting over 2015
New numbers provided by Elections Canada say voter turnout during the first two days of advanced polling is up 25 per cent over numbers recorded during the same period in 2015.
According to Elections Canada, preliminary figures show approximately two million people cast their ballots across Canada on Friday and Saturday.
During the 2015 election 1.6 million Canadians cast their ballots during the first two days.
Over the four-day early voting period during the previous election, a total of 3.65 million Canadians voted, representing 20.8 per cent of all votes cast.
In a statement emailed to Global News, Elections Canada spokeswoman Diane Benson said this year’s increase shows that “more Canadians are taking advantage of early voting opportunities to cast their ballots.”
While the increase is large, Elections Canada says the figure does not include those who voted in local offices, on campus, in additional service points or by special ballot.
It also does not include the number of voters who cast their ballot on Sunday. The agency says that number, as well as national totals and riding-by-riding-totals will be available later this week.
Advance voting began on Friday, and those still interested in casting their ballot early have until Monday at 9 p.m. to do so.
Voters can find out the location of advance polling stations by looking at their voter identification cards, the Elections Canada website or by calling 1-800-463-6868.
In order to vote, individuals must prove their identity and address.
For more information on when, where and how to vote, Global News has created this handy voters guide.
Canada’s federal election will take place on Oct. 21.
Singh downplays prospect of a coalition
TORONTO — NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh appeared to be walking back his comments on Monday, a day after he said he would “absolutely” work with the other parties to form a coalition government in the event of the Conservatives winning a minority next week.
Speaking to reporters on Sunday in Surrey, B.C., Singh said he would do “whatever it takes” to avoid a Conservative government, including working with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau if the Conservatives win.
“We’re not going to support a Conservative government,” Singh said on Sunday. “We’re going to fight a Conservative government, we’re going to fight it all the way.”
On Monday, Singh backed off those comments and urged Canadians to vote NDP in order to receive the best services.
“It’s not a question of coalition, it’s a question of our priorities,” Singh told reporters in French. “What I say for all Canadians is if you want to have someone who is working for you for climate change, it’s the New Democrats, if you vote for us, we’re going to fight for you.”
A spokesperson for the NDP clarified Singh’s stance later Monday, noting that he is running to be prime minister and a coalition government is just one of the options he would accept to ensure the Conservatives are not in power.
“Jagmeet will work with people who are willing to take the same priorities as his. As PM, as opposition, in coalition, in a minority agreement, in vote to vote,” said spokesperson Melanie Richer in an email.
While Trudeau has been pushing the idea that a vote for the Liberals is the only way to avoid Conservatives, Singh made it clear he hopes Canadians know there are more options.
“I reject that analysis,” he said. “Vote for a New Democrat, wherever you are, vote for a New Democrat. They’re going to make sure that your priorities are put front and centre. We can win and we can make sure that your life is better.”
Singh would not respond to whether he’d require any NDP MPs to sit in cabinet under a coalition, but has previously said he would require climate change action, national pharmacare, interest-free student loans, cuts to cell phone plans, affordable housing investments and additional taxes of the wealthiest Canadians to support any party’s minority government.
When asked about the prospect of forming a coalition with the NDP, Trudeau dodged the question and suggested the NDP would rip up the new NAFTA deal under this proposal.
Singh called that claim a “lie” and added his party would only require some of the trade protections in the agreement to be enforceable as a way of protecting Canadian workers.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters on Monday that a coalition with the Liberals and NDP would “lead to higher taxes, less jobs, more deficits and bigger household bills.”
“It’s the coalition Canadians can’t afford,” he said. “Only a Conservative majority government can prevent a government with Justin Trudeau as a spokesman, but the NDP calling the shots.”
Singh said the Conservatives will not fight for every day Canadians and are instead focused on offering tax breaks for the richest people in the country.
“With Conservatives what you get are folks that are going to offer you a couple dollars in your pocket, but what they’re really going to do is cost you more in the long run,” Singh said.
“That’s not what Canadians need right now. They need investments in housing, they need someone who’s going to take on the big cell phone companies and make sure that cell phone and internet prices are more affordable. That’s what you get when you vote New Democrat.”
According to the latest polling from Nanos research, the Liberals and Conservatives are deadlocked with around 32 per cent support with just a week to go before the election. The NDP sit comfortably in third with 19.2 per cent support.
Conservatives defend ads that accuse Liberals of planning to legalize hard drugs
The Globe obtained a copy of a flier sent out in the Scarborough area of Toronto that says “Justin Trudeau has a plan to legalize hard drugs.” The flier has English and Chinese languages on both sides with the same message.
A picture of someone shooting up is accompanied by the question: “Do you want Justin Trudeau to legalize hard drugs in your community?”
At a campaign event in Toronto on Sunday, Mr. Trudeau called the ads “reprehensible” and a “lie.”
The flier goes on to say: “Only Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives will stop Trudeau’s hard drug legalization plan and keep our kids safe.”
Mr. Trudeau said during the French language TVA debate on Oct. 2 that a re-elected Liberal government would not legalize or decriminalize hard drugs “right now,” but clarified with reporters immediately afterwards that he has no plans to do so if he wins a second mandate.
“We will not be further decriminalizing any drugs other than cannabis,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters after the debate.
The Conservatives are defending their ads, accusing the Liberal Leader of being unclear.
“If Justin Trudeau tells us precisely when he is going to legalize dangerous drugs, we will amend our [ads] to reflect this new information,” Conservative spokesperson Simon Jefferies said on Sunday when asked about the fliers.
On Friday, The Globe reported that the party was also pushing similar ads on its Chinese-language Facebook page.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was not campaigning on Sunday, but defended the online ads when asked about them on Saturday.
“We’ve called attention to the Liberals’ inability to come clear on this,” he said. “This is something that Canadians have a right to know about: whether or not they’re going to give Justin Trudeau a second mandate where he will continue to go down this road of making drugs more accessible.”
Mr. Trudeau said the ads are a distraction from the Conservative platform, which outlines $53-billion in cuts over five years to balance the budget while also introducing an across-the-board income tax cut.
“The Conservative Party is continuing to mislead and even lie to Canadians,” Mr. Trudeau said.
“I think it is reprehensible. We have been very clear, we will not be legalizing hard drugs. We will continue with the approach that we have that has been working on fighting this terrible opioid epidemic.”
Parts of the country have been dealing in recent years with a surge in deaths from overdoses linked to illicit opioids.
Mr. Trudeau has said his approach to combating the opioid crisis will be “grounded in science, in harm reduction, in safe consumption, in giving more tools to our medical professionals.”
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