Canada’s federal party leaders were quickly put on their heels in the first moments of the English language debate Thursday, the last face-off before voters go to the polls in the election — and their feet were held to the fire throughout the rest of the night.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul each faced questions on their leadership qualities and shortcomings from moderator Shachi Kurl at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.
As the topics moved into climate change, Indigenous reconciliation, affordability and the COVID-19 pandemic, all five leaders defended their records and plans. But Trudeau, who is seeking a third term as prime minister, faced the harshest scrutiny.
Trudeau once again declined to directly answer why he called an election amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, telling voters they must “make a choice” about which leaders’ plan is best for the future.
He was also forced to defend his record on sexual misconduct in the military, with Kurl asking why he allowed conditions that let incidents continue.
Paul contended that Trudeau is “not a real feminist,” mentioning former Liberal MPs Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, causing Trudeau to snap back at the Green leader that he “won’t take lessons on caucus management from you.”
Trudeau was on defence throughout the first half of the debate, as O’Toole, Singh, Blanchet and Paul hammered him on everything from Canada’s human rights record to its place on the world stage.
After O’Toole accused Trudeau of failing to secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from detention in China, the Liberal leader said taking a more aggressive approach will not yield results.
“You do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific,” Trudeau said. “That is what Mr. Harper tried for a number of years, and he didn’t get anywhere.”
O’Toole and Blanchet also accused Trudeau of abandoning Canadians in Afghanistan, arguing further that an election should not have been called as the Taliban’s takeover of the country unfolded.
As the topic moved to climate change, the leaders contended that their various plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions by various percentages were the right ones for Canada’s future, with mixed results.
Trudeau said despite years of rising emissions under his watch — which he blamed on inheriting a Conservative government six years ago “that didn’t care” — his plan was the most realistic.
O’Toole insisted that he was serious about addressing the climate crisis despite having the lowest emissions target of 30 per cent. Singh, meanwhile, was pressed on the details of his climate plan, which has been criticized as vague.
Singh and Trudeau had a fiery exchange, with the Liberal leader saying the NDP’s policy rates an ‘F’ while stating that experts have given the Liberal plan high marks.
Singh accused Trudeau of presiding over the worst record on fighting climate change in the G7 during his six years in power.
Paul said Canada could become a renewable energy superpower, and all parties need to work together to respond to the shared threat.
Asked by an Indigenous voter why he should trust any of the leaders after “150-plus years of lies and abuse of my people,” Trudeau said his government has made progress, but the other leaders quickly pounced.
“The calls to action (from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women and Girls) are there and we need to follow them,” Singh said, accusing Trudeau of simply calling for the inquiries but not acting on their recommendations.
The debate over Indigenous reconciliation failed to move beyond surface level promises, with O’Toole pledging to work with nations and Singh urging to stop use of force within the RCMP.
Paul and Blanchet got into a heated exchange over systemic racism, with Paul saying the Bloc leader needed to “get educated” about the subject.
When Blanchet fired back claiming she had insulted him, she responded saying “it was an invitation to educate yourself.”
The night became much more animated when a senior’s question about cost of living led to a wider debate on affordability, which once again put Trudeau on defence as rising inflation and housing unaffordability was brought up.
Yet O’Toole accused the Liberals of pledging a new home equity tax on the sale of homes, which Trudeau correctly pointed out is not true.
Singh also hammered Trudeau for not including a commitment for universal pharmacare in the costed Liberal platform — something the party had promised in the 2019 election and while in government.
That led O’Toole to accuse Trudeau of pretending to prioritize issues instead of following up with action.
“He announces things, and never delivers,” he said. “A prime minister has to deliver on the words.”
Affordability issues bled into the leaders’ differing COVID-19 recovery plans, which touched on federal spending and how to address the growing deficit while also ensuring workers and employers are protected.
People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier did not meet the independent Leaders’ Debates Commission’s criteria for participating in either the English-language debate or the French-language debate on Wednesday. Dozens of his supporters showed up Thursday outside the debate venue to protest his absence.
This week’s French and English-language debates come as opinion polls suggest the Liberals and Conservatives are stuck in a tight two-way race. The latest Ipsos polling for Global News has the Conservatives slightly ahead, putting pressure on Trudeau to turn his fortunes around.
The NDP and Bloc, meanwhile, appear poised to determine which of the two main parties emerges victorious.
The topics discussed during Wednesday’s French-language event included health transfers to the provinces, child-care funding, climate and the COVID-19 pandemic.
–With files from the Canadian Press