The issues of secularism and environment took centre stage at the French-language debate between four federal party leaders as they tried to woo Quebecers during the Canadian election campaign.
Conservative Andrew Scheer, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh, and Yves-François Blanchet of the Bloc Québécois faced off with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in the debate hosted by French-language TVA network.
It was also the first time that Trudeau joined the debate so far in the election campaign, with a little less than three weeks left before Canadians head to the polls on Oct. 21.
Quebec’s Bill 21, the controversial secularism law that prohibits some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work, has emerged as a sleeper issue in the federal campaign.
When asked if they would intervene in such a bill, Blanchet was quick to point out that the law is widely supported by Quebecers and that it shouldn’t be challenged. “It’s a lack of respect for the Quebec public.”
WATCH: Bill 21, abortion and environment among topics debated in first French-language debate
As Liberal leader, Trudeau was the only one to say a government under his lead might intervene. He argued that while the separation of church and state is important, especially in Quebec, a society should “not legislate discrimination.”
“I’m not going to close the door as the federal government to defend the rights of people,” he said.
Singh, a practicing Sikh who wears a turban, stood firm on his position that the religious symbols ban is “discriminatory” but said he would not challenge it. He added that he is for the separation of church and state.
Scheer, for his part, said that he that he would not intervene in Quebec legislation and he would not impose a secularism law at the federal level.
At the start of the debate, the leaders of the Bloc and the Conservatives were also immediately met with a question on where they stand with abortion issues. Blanchet vowed that the right to abortion is a “fundamental value” and that any Bloc MP who wants to reopen that debate would be expelled from his caucus.
The leaders also put Scheer in the hot seat, pressing him about his personal convictions on the abortion debate. In the past, Scheer has voted in favour of restricting abortion rights — but he said he will not challenge those rights.
“Quebecers can have confidence that under a Conservative party led by me this debate will not be reopened,” he said.
The federal leaders also sparred over key environmental issues, with a focus on the topic of pipelines — something that Quebec Premier François Legault has claimed there is no “social acceptance” for in his province.
In 2018, the Liberal government purchased the Trans Mountain pipeline project from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion, after political opposition to expanding the existing pipeline between Alberta and the B.C. coast gave the company and its investors cold feet.
Trudeau argued that Canada needs time to transition away from fossil fuels and into a greener economy and said the proceeds from the pipeline will help pay for the changes needed to get there.
Trudeau, who claimed his government has done more for the environment than others in Canada, was accused by of being a hypocrite by Scheer. He pointed out that Trudeau has two campaign planes.
However, Singh also challenged Scheer on his proposal to build a national energy corridor to transport oil, gas, hydroelectricity and telecommunications from one coast to the other. The Conservative leader called it a “win-win situation” for everyone.
“It’s not a win-win situation if Quebecers said no,” shot Singh.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and the People’s Party of Canada leaders Maxime Bernier were not invited to the TVA debate.
There are two more debates to come before Canadians make their choice for the next prime minister. A two-hour English-language debate is scheduled for the night of Oct. 7. A final debate, in French, is scheduled for Oct. 10.
— With files from Global News’ Gloria Henriquez, Amanda Connolly and The Canadian Press