The leaders of Quebec’s four main political parties faced off in the province’s first-ever televised English-language debate ahead of the Oct. 1 provincial election.
It was hosted by Global News Montreal’s senior anchor Jamie Orchard and co-moderated by CBC’s Debra Arbec and CTV’s Mutsumi Takahashi.
Quebec Liberal Party Leader Philippe Couillard, Parti Québécois (PQ) Leader Jean-François Lisée, Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) Leader François Legault and Québec Solidaire Spokesperson Manon Massé debated several topics — in their second language.
WATCH BELOW: Courting the Anglo vote
Subjects discussed touched on education, health care, immigration, environment, economy and relations with the province’s English speakers.
Lisée immediately addressed the issue of sovereignty in his introduction — promising once again not to hold a referendum in his first mandate, if elected.
The explosive topic of immigration — and the CAQ’s proposed examinations — surfaced several times, with Couillard, Lisée and Legault quick to criticize each other.
More than once, Arbec and Takahashi interrupted their spats to allow Massé to have a word.
READ MORE: Fact-checking the English leaders’ debate
What can be done to help English-speaking students stay and work in Quebec?
WATCH BELOW: Quebec party leaders shares plans to encourage English-speaking youth to remain in province
Lisée insisted the PQ wants English students to thrive in Quebec.
“We are proposing this time around that CEGEP students have an immersion session at a French CEGEP, so they can be as good with their diplomas as their francophone counterparts,” Lisée said.
“We want to keep these children here.”
Legault fired at Couillard, saying his Liberal government’s commitment to balancing the budget was “an error” that gravely harmed the education system.
WATCH BELOW: Where do the main parties stand on education?
The argument between Couillard, Lisée and Legault became so heated, Arbec had to interrupt them to bring them back on track.
Massé jokingly asked if the topic being discussed was still education.
She pointed out her party plans to impose Bill 101 in the workplace to encourage English-speakers to be surrounded by the language.
Quebec Solidaire said it will invest in English schools by reducing the number of students in each class and raising teacher salaries.
What will you do to make services more accessible for English-speaking families with special needs?
“As children get older, parents worry,” Couillard said, noting parents have asked for adult day centres — something he promises to do.
Massé once again pointed to the restraints of the Liberal Party’s budget, saying the only way to give more services to families in need is to take money from big pharma companies.
Lisée piped in that he would put specialized nurses in all of Quebec’s local community services centres (CLSCs) from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
WATCH BELOW: Quebecers to have access to their health information online
Legault pointed out, “We will never solve problems in the health system until we have doctors and nurses available seven days a week.”
Couillard defended his government’s track record when it comes to health care, saying he plans to give free dental care to seniors and young children.
Massé shot back at the Liberal leader, saying he stole that idea from Quebec Solidaire.
“It’s a popular idea,” she said.
“That’s why Quebec Solidaire said it wants free dental care for everyone.”
Couillard responded Massé’s idea is not financially realistic.
Meanwhile, Legault turned the blame back to Couillard, saying he only increased salaries for specialists.
“That’s where the money went in health care,” he argued.
“How were you able to do that?”
Couillard insisted doctors were “owed that money,” but Legault just shook his head in response.
How will you relieve the tax burden on Quebecers, especially for seniors?
Legault proposed to give families monetary allowances, while cutting the family tax.
Massé, acknowledging that seniors play a big role in society, said she wants to reduce the amount on their bills, such as from Hydro-Quebec.
She said she sees the labour shortage as a way to improve working conditions.
“We know improving working conditions is a way to attract people to the job,” Massé insisted.
Over the years, experts have noted that the current labour shortage threatens Quebec’s economic health.
Legault argued salaries and productivity need to be higher in Quebec.
WATCH BELOW: Does Quebec need more immigrants?
However, Couillard was quick to point out several times that Legault won’t acknowledge that labour shortage is the main issue.
“I agree with you on education, participation in the workforce — it starts with recognizing the problem exists,” he said, reminding the CAQ leader again that he is “denying the labour shortage.”
The conversation quickly turned to immigration, with Legault saying many immigrants leave Quebec soon after they arrive.
“We have to change the way we choose new immigrants,” he argued.
Couillard was quick to point to Legault’s Quebec values and French-language test, saying the CAQ wants to “get rid of immigrants” by removing people who fail the tests.
“I want them to stay here. I want immigrants who are here to partake in the growth that we have. We need newcomers to match our needs,” said Couillard.
“Mr. Legault is trying to find a way to decrease immigrants, whatever his problem is with immigrants, we don’t know.”
“This is so nonsensical,” agreed Lisée.
“Don’t you know when they pass the test to become citizens, if they fail, they can stay in Quebec as landed immigrants?”
WATCH BELOW: How leaders will ensure workforce reflects diversity of province
The three men went head-to-head once again, with the moderators interrupting several times to allow Massé to have a say.
How do the parties plan to help English speakers and immigrants have access to proper services and job opportunities?
Couillard was quick to argue refugees are “not a negative factor in economy.”
“What we are proposing is to put significant funding to teach French in the workforce. It would be more efficient than how they’re doing this now,” he said.
Couillard said all refugees want to be part of Quebec’s economy, “and we should support this effort.”
Lisée agreed that “we have a welcoming tradition in Quebec.”
WATCH BELOW: Immigrants, Anglophones dominate labour shortage topic
“Our policy will be that, as soon as you arrive, don’t go and find a job immediately, we will take care of your family in the first weeks or months, we’ll teach you French and how it works here and when you’re ready, you’ll get to the workforce with the skills you need to thrive,” he said.
“One of the tools to succeed in Quebec is to learn French.”
The debate over identity and immigration quickly turned heated, and left Massé massaging her temples as her male counterparts argued.
“It’s not helping. They have to feel welcomed, including by the political leaders.”
WATCH BELOW: Quebec debate heats up as leaders tackle discrimination against immigrants
He said he finds it disturbing to hear Legault talk about immigrants and “threatening families with expulsion.”
“You’re scaring them [immigrants] away,” Lisée added.
“It’s reasonable. It’s done in other countries,” Legault responded, insisting his French-language and Quebec values tests are a good thing.
“We do not expel them,” Lisée interrupted him.
Each leader was then asked if they would hold an inquiry into systemic racism; they were allowed to answer only “yes” or “no.”
Massé was the only leader to say, “yes.”
“We are the only party in the last few years who support a public inquiry on systemic discrimination. We know it exists,” she said.
The rest of the leaders responded “no,” and Legault insisted there “is no systemic racism.”
When it comes to the topic of climate change, the Liberal Party leader insisted his government has done its job.
“Everybody recognizes Quebec’s leadership in the fight against climate change,” said Couillard.
Massé was quick to note the CAQ has “no money” in its financial budget to combat climate change.
“We need to put money in this transition and you don’t have money in your plan,” she said.
“The difficulties that climate change bring to our citizens and all over the planet, it’s so important and you still say we can pick the fuel in Quebec soil.”
WATCH BELOW: Making the environment a Quebec election campaign issue
Lisée said his party is focusing on transitioning the province to support electric buses and cars, as well as electric car-sharing and delivery services.
Legault said the CAQ would focus to increase hydro-electricity exports.
“I think it’s something of the future. I think the largest contribution Quebec can do to fight climate change is to replace those gas and coal plants in the United States with clean energy,” he said.
Couillard was quick to fight back, arguing Legault doesn’t understand the energy market of 2018.
“To say we don’t want to export hydro-electricity is ludicrous,” he said.
In Quebec, about 600,000 people speak English as their mother-tongue — and even more say it is their primary language in the home.
“We need them to stay and we want them to stay. We want to hire more English-speaking students in our public service,” stated Couillard.
Massé said she finds it important to reach that 13 per cent diversity representation and the government has a role to play when it comes to employing people.
The secretariat for relations with English-speaking Quebecers will stay if Quebec Solidaire takes power, she reassured.
“You have rights and we want to respect it,” she said.
Lisée argued that the Liberals have not done enough to invite anglophones to be part of the public service.
“It is our commitment to do much better than the Liberals,” he said.
WATCH BELOW: ‘Highly engaged’ youth this election
English communities recognize French as the official language of Quebec, but why do they feel like second-class citizens?
Legault was quick to point out that “anglophones are part of Quebec’s history,” as well as the province’s society.
He argued his party would respect anglophone rights to be served in English when it comes to education and health care.
Legault said he would replace the nine English school boards with “anglophone services centres” — bringing about a laugh from Couillard.
“English is not a foreign language in Quebec,” said Couillard, acknowledging the “bonjour, hi” debacle, but insisting the province needs to move past it.
Massé noted that she has spoken to English speakers and has found one main criticism: “They find we don’t listen to them, as politicians. I think this is very important. There are English speakers all around Quebec — I even met some in Gaspésie.”
All leaders agreed that, if elected, they would maintain the secretariat for relations with English-speaking Quebecers.
WATCH BELOW: Quebec party leaders conclude debate with what issues they will tackle if elected
If re-elected, Couillard promised his government will balance the books, while investing in health care, education and the environment.
“Let’s build on what we have accomplished together. Let’s move forward instead of backwards. Your vote does matter,” he said.
Legault concluded by insisting the Liberals and the PQ do not stand for change.
“I’m asking tonight for your support. Your contribution is vital to get Quebec moving forward,” he said.
Lisée and Massé both touched on the importance of the environment, saying they plan to do what they can to fight the climate crisis and take care of the planet.
“Stand with me and give us the mandate to protect our land, our water and our people,” said Massé.
“Everybody knows it’s now or never. You have been taken for granted for too long.”
WATCH ABOVE: Will the youth vote show up at the Quebec election?
Quebecers are highly engaged in this year’s campaign, including the province’s youth who, standing at a third of the voting body, have the power to sway the vote.
According to an IPSOS poll for La Presse, a majority of young Quebecers say they are interested in the campaign; 26 per cent saying they are very interested, 39 per cent saying they are interested and 27 per cent showing little interest and eight per cent saying they have no interest at all.
“Almost two-thirds are saying that they’re paying at least some attention to the electoral campaign and that’s a good sign,” said Sebastien Dallaire, senior vice-president and general manager of IPSOS Quebec.
He noted that the numbers are similar for all generations.
WATCH BELOW: Leaders reflect after the English debate
The poll surveyed 510 Quebecers between the ages of 18 and 25 from Aug. 31 to Sept. 6.
The margin of error is ±5,0 per cent.
This year’s campaign is also strikingly different to previous years, as sovereignty is not one of the main points of contention.
The campaign’s first debate, in French, was last week and another is scheduled for Thurs., Sept. 20.