August 27, 2017 6:08 pm
Updated: August 27, 2017 6:12 pm

NDP candidates square off in Montreal

In this file photo, NDP leadership candidates Charlie Angus, left, and Niki Ashton particpate in a leadership debate in Montreal, Sunday, March 26, 2017.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Federal NDP leadership hopefuls showcased their language skills on Sunday as they squared off in French-language debate in Montreal.

Manitoba MP Niki Ashton, Quebec MP Guy Caron and Ontario MP Charlie Angus and Ontario legislature member Jagmeet Singh debated in a province where the NDP is looking to regain some of the votes it lost in the last federal election.

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Early questions focused on the wave of asylum seekers crossing from the United States, the government role in supporting the province’s aerospace industry, and Premier Philippe Couillard’s plan to restart cross-country discussions on Quebec’s role in Canada.

READ MORE: After 35 years, why does Quebec want in the Constitution?

On the latter, Caron and Singh both accused Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of “slamming the door” on the province by rejecting any possibility of re-opening the constitution.

Angus also criticized the prime minister and said he would work to have Quebec sign the document, while Ashton added that any constitutional discussions must also include Canada’s Indigenous peoples.

The candidates were also asked to wade into the province’s ongoing debate over religion and identity.

All four tread carefully as they were asked to comment Quebec government’s proposed Bill 62, legislation that sets guidelines for accommodating religious requests in Quebec.

READ MORE: Quebec’s Bill 62 aims to impose religiously neutral public service

The bill attempts to enshrine into law the policy that all people giving or receiving a service from the state must do so with their face uncovered.

Caron said it was important to fight racism and Islamophobia, but also stressed the importance of allowing Quebec to choose its own path.

“Our secularism should be a reflection of us as Canadians: progressive and inclusive,” he said in his opening statement.

“Rejecting secularism because we believe it’s just racism is fundamentally misunderstanding Quebec.”

Singh, who has said he is against the bill, said he doesn’t believe the state should be able to dictate what people wear but believes the province has laws in place to ensure rights are protected.

Ashton and Angus also disagreed with the idea that the state should be able to dictate what a person wears but refrained from criticizing the Quebec government.

“It’s absolutely essential that we stand up for humans rights and the people’s freedom. It’s also important we respect Quebec,” Ashton said.

Angus expressed a similar sentiment, saying it was important to understand’s Quebec’s fight for the separation of church and state during the quiet revolution of the 1960s and respect the conversation occurring on collective versus individual rights.

READ MORE: Jagmeet Singh proposes big changes to Old Age Security

Caron is the race’s only francophone, while Singh, Ashton and Angus all demonstrated various levels of proficiency in their second language.

During the debate all three expressed themselves fluently, with Singh and Angus occasionally having to search for words.

The candidates will be looking to make an impression in Quebec, where support for the NDP fell in the last federal election after helping to vault the party to official Opposition status during the “orange wave” in the 2011 vote.

The NDP currently holds 16 seats in Quebec — well below the 59 it claimed in its historic breakthrough in the province in 2011 under Jack Layton’s leadership.

Members of the NDP will vote for the successor to outgoing leader Thomas Mulcair on Sept. 18.

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