TORONTO — The only official English-language debate of the 2019 federal election had its share of personal jabs, as well as quick — and at times chaotic — exchanges on policy.
The event, held at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., was the first to feature six federal leaders: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier.
Here are some key highlights.
Scheer blasting Trudeau on SNC-Lavalin (and the blackface controversy)
The first question of the night, from audience member Reagan Li, asked leaders how they would defend Canadian interests at home and abroad in an increasingly divided world.
“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada. He’s very good at pretending things,” Scheer said. “He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.”
Scheer accused Trudeau of wearing a “reconciliation mask” and a “feminist mask,” only to “fire” his former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is an Indigenous woman, and dump “two strong female MPs,” Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, from his caucus.
“Mr. Trudeau, you are a phony and you are a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country,” Scheer said.
About 40 minutes later, Scheer was given the opportunity to ask any leader a question. Unsurprisingly, he turned immediately to Trudeau, sparking laughter from the audience.
Watch the exchange:
The Conservative leader once again referred to the SNC-Lavalin affair, asking Trudeau when he decided that the rules don’t apply to him. In August, the federal ethics commissioner found that Trudeau used his position of authority over Wilson-Raybould to try to influence her decision-making and, in so doing, tried to further SNC-Lavalin’s private interests.
Trudeau shot back that the prime minister’s role is to defend Canadian jobs and charged that a Scheer government would mean cuts to services and tax breaks for the well-off. He also criticized the Tory leader for not having released a full platform, which he said shows “disrespect” to voters.
“You looked Canadians in the eye and you said that the allegations in The Globe and Mail were false,” Scheer said, mentioning the bombshell story last February that set the controversy in motion.
“They were false,” Trudeau interjected.
The exchange led Blanchet, the Bloc Québécois leader, to suggest Scheer was “trading” on an old idea that Quebec is corrupt.
Elizabeth May criticizing Trudeau’s climate plan
Trudeau repeatedly defended his climate plan as the only one that is both ambitious and “doable” and warned that a Tory government would mean a return to doing “nothing” about the existential threat of our time. In contrast, he said, Liberals are pledging to meet net-zero emissions by 2050.
In April, the federal government imposed a carbon price of $20 per tonne on Ontario, Manitoba, New Brunswick, and Saskatchewan because they did not have their own pricing regime up to Ottawa’s standards. Alberta will face the same tax in January. That price will rise to $50 per tonne by 2022.
Trudeau suggested he has no problem fighting Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Ontario Premier Doug Ford over the “defining issue of our time.”
Liberals say carbon pricing is just one of dozens of measures to hit Canada’s Paris climate target to cut annual greenhouse gas emissions to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Still, the latest projection shows the country will fall short of the target by 79 million tonnes.
In one of the night’s top zingers, Singh blasted both Trudeau and Scheer on the issue, telling voters they do not “need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.”
When Bernier said the Liberal leader has basically the same approach as Scheer to fighting climate change — the Liberals by forcing big polluters to pay a carbon price, the Tories by having polluters invest in green technology — Trudeau shot back that it was “the most offensive thing you’ve said all night.”
But May, whose party is promising a 60-per-cent cut in Canada’s emissions below 2005 levels by 2030, told Trudeau that a true climate leader would not have purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline and expansion project.
Watch the exchange:
“To avoid catastrophic levels of global warming,” she said, “we must double our current target, we must listen to science, we must not build the Trans Mountain pipeline.”
May said it was “heartbreaking” to look at Trudeau and know he could have done so much more over the past four years.
“Please God, you don’t get a majority this time around,” she said.
Singh calling out Trudeau over appealing the Human Rights Tribunal ruling… and Scheer defending the move
Trudeau was also criticized over his government’s decision, announced Friday, to appeal a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling ordering Ottawa to pay billions of dollars in compensation to First Nations children and their families.
The tribunal said his government and that of predecessor Stephen Harper “wilfully and recklessly” discriminated against Indigenous children living on-reserve by not properly funding child and family services. Trudeau said he agrees with much of the tribunal’s ruling but needs more time for consultation than the tribunal’s Dec. 10 deadline allows.
Singh said the landmark ruling was “finally some justice” for First Nations children who deserve equal funding. And now, Trudeau is prepared to appeal that decision.
“He wanted to fight hard to keep SNC-Lavalin out of the courts, but he’s going to drag Indigenous kids to court. That is wrong,” Singh said. “How could someone do that? How could someone do that?”
Scheer, however, said he agrees with the call made by Liberals to appeal.
“This decision will have massive, huge ramifications for several aspects of the way the federal government provides services to Indigenous Canadians,” Scheer said. “It also is a very large, significant settlement amount, and I believe that when you are dealing with these types of important public policy issues it is legitimate … to have a judicial review.”
Scheer and Singh found more common ground, however, when the NDP noted how Trudeau “mocked” a Grassy Narrows protester at a Liberal fundraiser in March. The Ontario First Nation has dealt with mercury poisoning for decades and the chief, Rudy Turtle, is now running for the NDP.
Scheer again took the opportunity to call Trudeau a “phony” and a “fraud.”
Earlier, Trudeau defended his record on advancing reconciliation with Indigenous peoples by pointing to record investments that have been praised by Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde.
And though there was a segment dedicated to Indigenous issues, no leader mentioned the conclusion of a national inquiry that Canada’s treatment of Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide.
Trudeau pressing Singh over Bill 21
Another moderator, HuffPost Canada’s Althia Raj, also pressed leaders to weigh in on Quebec’s controversial secularism law.
In June, the Quebec government passed Bill 21. The law prohibits public servants in positions of authority, such as police officers and teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job, including turbans and hijabs. The restriction does not apply to people hired before the bill became law.
While Trudeau, Scheer, Singh, and May have all said they oppose the law, currently facing legal challenges, none has fully committed to fighting it at the federal level. The Liberal leader has not, however, ruled on intervening later down the line.
On Monday, Trudeau challenged Singh for not similarly leaving the “door open” to challenging the law as prime minister.
“That’s not leadership,” Trudeau said.
Watch the exchange:
Singh, who wears a turban, said that “every single day of my life is fighting a bill like Bill 21.
“Every single day of my life is challenging people who think that you can’t do things because of the way you look.”
Maxime Bernier accounting for his past remarks and positions
Bernier’s inclusion in the leaders’ debate was highly controversial and sparked a warning from the NDP’s Singh that the People’s Party leader was being given a platform to promote “an ideology of hate.”
On Monday night, the People’s Party leader spent much of the early part of the debate interrupting and injecting himself into discussions, even accusing other leaders of being “globalists.”
One of the moderators, CTV’s Lisa Laflamme, asked Bernier if he has shown the character and integrity needed to serve as prime minister, pointing to a series of controversial tweets on what he has described as the “cult” of diversity and his attacks on teen Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
“You must tell the truth to Canadians if you want to be the leader,” Bernier said, before arguing against official multiculturalism and in favour of reducing the number of immigrants Canada welcomes.
Singh told Bernier it would have been much easier to just apologize for his “horrible” tweets, while Scheer said Bernier changed from a person who once favoured a fair immigration system to someone chasing likes and retweets from the “darkest parts of Twitter.”
Trudeau accused Bernier of trying to “make people more fearful” for political gain — and worked in a dig at Scheer. “Your role on this stage tonight is to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately,” he said.
Bernier narrowly lost the Conservative leadership race in 2017. Near the end of the Monday’s debate, he accused Scheer of not being a real Conservative because he backtracked on a pledge to balance the budget in two years.
“Andrew, are you a real Conservative? No. I think you are a Liberal,” Bernier said. “Why are you pretending to be something that you are not?”
Scheer responded that he wasn’t sure which version of Bernier he was debating tonight, noting the People’s Party leader’s past as a sovereigntist and as a former cabinet minister who once doled out “corporate welfare” and defended Canada’s system of supply management for dairy and poultry that he now wants to eliminate.
Elizabeth May telling Scheer he’s not going to be prime minister
The Green leader also attempted to pour some cold water on Scheer’s political ambitions.
“With two weeks left in this election campaign,” she said, “Canadians can know one thing. At this point, Mr. Scheer, with all due respect, you’re not going to be prime minister.”
May instead predicted the vote will result in Trudeau’s leading either a minority or majority government. She said voting for Green MPs will ensure Canadians “don’t get the government you least want.”
“Well, I’m going to prove you wrong on that, Ms. May. You just watch on Oct. 21,” he responded with a smile.
While polls suggest the Liberals and Tories remain neck-and-neck, Conservatives may need to win a majority to govern. Singh has already ruled out propping up a Scheer government and May has said she won’t support a minority government without a credible environmental plan.
A French-language leaders debate will be held Thursday. The debates are produced by a partnership of nine media outlets, including HuffPost Canada.
With files from The Canadian Press