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What to expect from the final leaders’ debate

The fifth and final debate of the federal election campaign will be held Friday night in Montreal, and no one will have more to gain or lose this time around than Tom Mulcair and the NDP.

Mulcair, who has seen a consistent decline in support in Quebec in recent weeks, will be facing off against Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Stephen Harper and Bloc Quebecois leader Gilles Duceppe. Green Party leader Elizabeth May was not invited to participate.

Here’s a look at what we can expect.

Broad-reaching debate

Television network TVA is hosting the debate, which will focus on a broad range of topics including the economy, security, foreign policy, social policy and governance. It will unfold entirely in French (with simultaneous English translation on CPAC) starting at 8 p.m. ET.

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TVA is a privately owned subsidiary of Quebecor Media, and is by far the most-watched network in Quebec. That means the Francophone audience for this debate will likely outstrip the one that tuned in for Radio-Canada’s event last month.

The niqab

Like it or not, the donning of the niqab or other face-coverings during citizenship ceremonies has become a wedge issue in this 78-day campaign. Since 2011, only two women (out of hundreds of thousands of new Canadians) have reportedly refused to unveil their faces during the swearing of the oath, and the NDP has taken the position that no woman should be forced to do so. The federal courts have agreed. Even Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi came out strongly in support of the NDP position this week, calling a Conservative proposal to force women to unveil under the law “disgusting” and “unbelievably dangerous stuff.”

Unfortunately for the NDP, opposition to the wearing of the niqab while swearing the oath to become a Canadian citizen runs exceptionally high across the country, but most especially in Quebec, where the party holds the majority of its seats.

This leaves Mulcair in the uncomfortable position of having to defend his stance to a province that disagrees with it vehemently, and has the ability to send the NDP back into third-party position.

The party has seen a steady decrease in national support since the start of September, and much of the hemorrhaging can be blamed on Quebec. Viewers can expect Mulcair to be extremely cautious with his wording on the niqab issue during this debate, and to push hard on the elements of his party’s platform that appeal specifically to Quebecers, such as environmental policy. This may be his last chance to prove to them that they shouldn’t abandon ship.

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Gilles Duceppe

Gilles Duceppe’s very presence on the stage changes the dynamic between the other three leaders. The Bloc leader is an experienced debater, and his focus is always necessarily on Quebec, where he is still trying to revive his party’s failing fortunes ahead of Oct. 19.

With the sovereignty movement in a kind of limbo state, Duceppe is unlikely to zero in on issues related to secession. Instead, he will need to continue selling the Bloc’s ability to represent Quebecers in Ottawa more effectively than the NDP. Duceppe has sided with the Conservatives on the niqab issue, which he will undoubtedly highlight given the overall sentiment in the province.

Duceppe’s performance in the Radio-Canada debate was described by some observers as listless and almost disinterested. He may liven things up this time around, or be content to allow this to represent the final leaders’ debate of his career.

 

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