Federal leaders spar during French debate
Trudeau forced on defensive for calling snap election
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This article was published 03/09/2021 (643 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — Weeks after he pulled the plug on his own minority government, Justin Trudeau predicted Thursday that Canadians could be back at the polls within 18 months if they don’t elect a majority.
During Thursday night’s French debate in Montreal, the Liberal leader was the sole man on stage who said a minority government could fall within two years of the federal election on Sept. 20.
And for that, he blamed the Conservatives.
“The differences that we have with the Conservatives — on vaccines, on child care, on the environment — I think that we would maybe find ourselves in 18 months in another election if we had a minority government,” Trudeau said.
The Liberal leader, who dissolved Parliament to hold a snap election on Aug. 15, also cast doubt on the prospect of a coalition after the election, stating Canada has no history of such arrangements.
Trudeau made the statement amid the first direct clash of political leaders in a formal debate that took place at the TVA television studios in downtown Montreal. The four men invited to take part — Green Leader Annamie Paul did not attend, as her party has no seats in Quebec — stood in a circle at safe pandemic distances before images of Canada’s Parliament buildings. Over two hours, they sparred over health care, child care, climate change and their plans to recover from the pandemic.
And while Trudeau tried to needle Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet for not supporting mandatory vaccines, other social issues the Liberals have tried to highlight during the campaign — such as access to abortions — were conspicuously absent from the televised debate.
It was not until the waning minutes of the engagement that the Liberal leader touched on guns, stating O’Toole would reverse the Trudeau government’s ban on “military-style assault weapons.”
The Conservative leader responded that he would work with police and local governments to reduce crime, and seemed to deny the fact that his platform states he would indeed scrap the Liberal government’s ban on guns deemed to be “assault weapons.”
Trudeau, too, was forced on the defensive. Right off the bat, his three opponents attacked him for calling a snap election, with Blanchet stating it was dangerous during a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, and O’Toole alleging it has distracted from crises such as the wildfires in British Columbia and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.
Jagmeet Singh, the NDP leader, also accused Trudeau of calling an election in a bid to win a majority government.
Trudeau fired back that it is “ridiculous” to suggest that, because a minority of people remain unvaccinated, Canadian democracy can’t progress with an election.
“Our democracy is more robust than you think,” Trudeau told O’Toole during a heated exchange in the early minutes of the debate.
On climate change, Blanchet pressed Trudeau on his government’s decision to nationalize the Trans Mountain oil pipeline and spend billions to expand it. The Liberal leader pledged to use all profits from the project to finance a transition to green energy.
“Yes, we purchased a pipeline,” said Trudeau, adding that it would bring more money to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help workers in Western Canada.
“I understand that Canadian unity doesn’t interest you,” Trudeau quipped to Blanchet.
Trudeau then turned to accuse O’Toole of planning to turn Canada around by retreating to the country’s old emissions target.
Given the milieu and the language of the debate, much of the focus was trained on issues relevant to Quebec, with the Bloc leader criticizing his opponents for trying to centralize power over provincial responsibilities in Ottawa.
“Since when is there something that a Canadian can do that a Quebecer is incapable of doing?” Blanchet asked during a segment of the debate on health care.
O’Toole claimed his Conservatives would transfer funding “without conditions” and accused Trudeau’s Liberals, who have promised national standards in long-term care, of “paternalism” towards the provinces.
Singh also defended his proposals in areas of provincial jurisdiction, which include ending for-profit long-term care, stating he can’t stand back “with his arms crossed” after the pandemic killed people in institutions that fall under provincial jurisdiction.
During another discussion that showed the bitterness of the last Parliament spilled into the debate, Blanchet demanded that Singh apologize for calling a Bloc MP racist and for one of his MPs’ statements about racism in Quebec.
In a particularly heated response, Singh firmly stated that “Quebec bashing” is unacceptable, but defended his accusation against the Quebec MP, which took place during a Commons vote on police violence, and said he only regrets that the episode became about him and not racialized people who have been killed in interactions with police.
With its 78 seats and distinct political culture, the province of Quebec is a key battleground in the federal campaign. All parties long to make gains there, and have tailored messages to try and speak to the francophone majority that has voted en masse for different parties in each election over the past decade.
In 2011, the province boosted the New Democrats to their best result ever in an “orange wave” under Jack Layton. In 2015, Trudeau’s Liberals benefited from gains in the province. And in the last election, in 2019, the revitalization of support for the Bloc Québécois, which climbed from 10 to 32 seats, was a major reason why Trudeau’s Liberals lost their majority in Parliament.
At the start of the current campaign, the Liberals held 35 seats in Quebec and the Bloc held 32. The Conservatives, meanwhile, held 10 and the New Democrats were reduced to just one, in Montreal.
— with files from Tonda MacCharles
— Toronto Star