Federal leaders face off in final debate of the election campaign
Whether and where to build pipelines was a key issue in the spirited two-hour debate
OTTAWA – The political weight attached to whether and where to build pipelines in Canada came through clearly Thursday night in the French-language leaders’ debate, with the issue a running theme throughout a spirited two-hour contest that marks a milestone for the federal election campaign.
Advance polls open Friday and with them, the countdown to the Oct. 21 election day begins in earnest for the six federal party leaders who faced off Thursday on a wide-ranging number of subjects that had yet to be tackled in detail so far in the campaign, including digital rights and Canada’s trade with China.
But it was pipelines that kept coming up, so often that the debate moderator even chided the leaders for bringing them up in a segment that was supposed to be about immigration.
The politics of building them loom large in Quebec, along with the battle against climate change., and all six leaders on stage Thursday were to some degree fighting for their political lives in a province whose voters can decide whether a party wins a majority government.
Throughout the night, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau remained most often on the defensive, and was most often put there by his chief rival Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, the duo repeatedly accusing each other of being ridiculous or engaging in half-truths.
But Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet often found himself in the crossfire as well; polls suggest his party is surging in support in Quebec and the other five leaders he shared a stage with on Thursday are losing support as a result.
He went after Trudeau for appealing a decision that would force the government to compensate First Nations children for substandard care on reserves, calling it astonishing the Liberals had money for a pipeline but not for Indigenous kids.
Scheer tried to paint Blanchet as a separatist, while Trudeau suggested his plan for the environment wouldn’t work without a federal government that had national support to implement it.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who earlier in the day had dismissed Blanchet’s rise in support, sought to taint him as just being pro-pipeline, and in that way no different from Scheer.
Scheer’s conservatism was also attacked from the other direction by People’s Party of Canada Maxime Bernier, who sought to paint his former Conservative party colleague as simply another version of the Liberals. Positioning his own party as far more conservative than the one he left has been a key strategy for Bernier.
“Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer have the same stance on climate change,” he alleged, before further attacking one pillar of Scheer’s approach to address emissions abroad.
Trudeau sought to cast Scheer and Bernier as the climate-change outliers, saying there were only “four of us here who will fight to protect the environment.”
One of those four was Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, making her French-language debate debut in the current campaign. The previous French debate, hosted by television network TVA, excluded her, though she followed along on social media.
She stressed her party’s credentials, returning to her familiar refrain that climate change needs more urgent action because “our house is on fire.” And she echoed Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg early, saying the other leaders don’t take the issue seriously enough – “How dare you?” she demanded.
But she faced grilling over how she’d pay for her climate plans.
Thursday night’s French debate got off to a much less frantic start than the officially sanctioned English debate on Monday, also at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.
But in segments where the group of six were divided into smaller groups of three, tempers flared quickly and often, especially when Trudeau and Scheer were pitted against each other in a segment on the economy, each accusing the other of untruths and exaggerations.
Scheer also took heat Thursday night for the fact his platform has yet to be fully published; it is expected to be released, along with a full costing, on Friday.
Monday’s two-hour contest in English included lengthy bouts of crosstalk and mudslinging and several leaders had complained the format didn’t allow enough time to get their points across.
Still, voter surveys suggested the two previous televised debates gave a boost to the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, but didn’t move the needle for the front-running Liberals and Conservatives.
The NDP’s continued loss of support in a province that once handed them Official Opposition status is a continued sore point for Singh. Earlier Thursday he had dismissed the fact the Bloc Quebecois is picking up some of those voters but went after their environment stance Thursday night.
Meanwhile, Scheer was widely considered to have taken the hardest hit in Quebec after the previous French-language debate, and though his aides had been bullish on Tory chances in the province, they’ve now dialled back that enthusiasm.
Thursday’s debate featured five themes: economy and finances, environment and energy, foreign policy and immigration, identity ethics and governance and services to citizens.