With the final leaders’ debate of federal 2021 election coming to a close just over a week before polls open, party leaders have made their last pleas to Canadians to secure their vote.
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 met back on stage just a day after clashing on Wednesday’s French-language debate.
The topics, which were again debated at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., included health and the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, climate, affordability, and leadership and accountability.
Here are the highlights from Thursday’s English-language debate.
Trudeau on defence from all sides
As the man seeking re-election as prime minister, Justin Trudeau has been on the defence throughout the campaign. At the English debate, his feet were held to the fire more than ever.
Trudeau was quickly forced to address his record on combating sexual misconduct in the military (more on that below), which led Green Party Leader Annamie Paul to declare Trudeau is “not a real feminist.”
He was also hammered on his defence of international human rights, the crisis in Afghanistan, and his plans to combat climate change and affordability.
Trudeau managed to get some punches in, saying NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s climate plan has gotten an “F” from scientists while his own has received high marks, and arguing Canada cannot “throw tomatoes across the Pacific” at China to secure the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
But the other leaders were relentless in picking away at his record, repeatedly stressing his inability to achieve some of his promises over six years in leadership.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole drove that theme home near the end of the debate, arguing Trudeau “announces things, and never delivers” — prompting vocal approval from Singh.
Military sexual misconduct and Trudeau ‘feminist brand’ leaders
Trudeau‘s brand as a “feminist” came under fire on Thursday night within minutes of the start of the debate, as the crosshairs narrowed in on his handling of the military sexual misconduct crisis.
Debate host Shachi Kurl put Trudeau in the spotlight when she asked him to square his claims to be a feminist with the fact that “on your watch, sexual misconduct in Canada’s armed forces continues to run rampant.”
“Tell me, why are you allowing these unacceptable conditions to continue?“
Trudeau responded by defending the fact his government has followed the processes in place but did not answer why — eight months after Global News broke the first of multiple high-level allegations against senior leaders — there has been little in the way of concrete systemic changes.
“We recognize that there are systems and institutions that need to change across the country,” Trudeau said, calling the problem “unacceptable.”
“It’s unsatisfactory to have to say we are relying on process on this. We want to just be able to have easy answers. This is not an issue with easy answers — we have to fall back on process.”
Paul builds strength, puts Blanchet in place
After struggling through much of the French-language debate, Paul was on stronger footing as she sparred in English, more effectively defending her positions while taking shots at the other leaders.
Beyond her early standoff with Trudeau, Paul’s standout moment came in response to Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet’s comments on systemic racism, where he said the issue has become a “political tool against Quebec.”
Paul said the Bloc leader needed to “get educated” about the subject, gently reminding Blanchet that she was not looking to insult him, but simply offering “an invitation to educate yourself.”
The Green leader also got Singh to stop referring to the NDP as the only party that will address progressive issues like universal basic income and aggressive climate action, and lamented the absence of more Indigenous women political leaders that could adequately understand and address the needs of that community.
The performance could do what Paul has so far failed to achieve throughout the campaign so far: bump her party up slightly in the polls and solidify her leadership after a rocky tenure in the post.
Singh blasts Trudeau’s record, but fails to expand on his own plans
Singh, in a similar fashion to last night’s French-language debate, piled on Trudeau’s climate record — accusing the Liberal leader’s government of having the worst greenhouse gas emissions among the G7 countries.
The result was a heated moment between the two, with Trudeau railing on the NDP’s climate change policy and stating that the Liberals’ plan was the best among all parties according to experts.
Yet while Singh lambasted the Liberals’ record on climate change, the NDP leader was forced into the defensive several times throughout the night after failing to explain why he had put out a platform that was not fully costed.
When asked after the debate about whether he and the NDP also had a responsibility to tackle climate inaction in the last two years during a minority government, Singh deflected and accused Trudeau of having been at the helm of a country that saw emissions rise.
Indigenous reconciliation not as strong as expected
All of Canada’s major party leaders have identified reconciliation as a top priority, yet in the final debate of the election campaign, violence against Indigenous women and girls received little airtime.
Trudeau, Paul and Singh were asked in Thursday night’s debate how they would address the crisis.
After brief responses to the question from Paul and Trudeau, Singh and Trudeau sparred over the New Democrats’ claim that Trudeau is taking “Indigenous kids to court” for the majority of the three minutes ultimately permitted for the topic.
Kurl urged Trudeau and Singh to stay on track and allowed the question to run into overtime to facilitate better responses.
Paul said the back-and-forth was a clear example of why Indigenous leadership — particularly the leadership of Indigenous women — is needed at the federal level.
“This is why we need more diversity in politics, this is why we need people who are most directly impacted by issues to be able to speak for themselves, because we are drifting off into things,” said Paul.
Child care largely dropped after French debate
After facing heat for his child-care plans in the French language debate Wednesday, O’Toole faced one question about the issue Thursday night — and the issue was dropped after that.
O’Toole declined to answer how he would create more daycare spaces under his plan, only insisting that the tax credit he’s proposing would help families “immediately.”
Trudeau failed to hammer O’Toole on this, and did not bring up his recent deal with provinces that chops fees in half while creating more spaces over five years, leaving the CBC’s Rosemary Barton to do it for him in her question to O’Toole.
With child care part of the larger affordability issue that remains top of mind for voters, the lack of discussion marked a missed opportunity for all parties to reach out to parents — particularly after the more substantive French discussion.
— With files from Elizabeth McSheffrey and Amanda Connolly