OTTAWA— A two-hour election debate Monday saw federal party leaders clash over ethics, climate change and the economy but saw no one immediately emerge as the clear winner, although they slung one-liners, insults and criticisms across the stage as Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s rivals sought to stake a claim to his job as prime minister.
The English debate got off to a hot and bitter start between front-runners Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer after a question from the audience about how each leader would represent Canada’s values and interests on the international stage.
Scheer immediately attacked Trudeau as a “phoney and a fraud” as he challenged the Liberal leader’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair, energy projects, and his economic record. “Justin Trudeau pretends to stand up for Canada,” Scheer said. “He cannot even remember how many times he put blackface on.”
“He’s always wearing a mask,” Scheer continued, pointing to Trudeau’s claims to be an advocate of Indigenous reconciliation, feminism and the middle class.
“You’re a phoney and you’re a fraud and you do not deserve an opportunity to govern this country,” he charged.
The leaders of the progressive parties fought to stake out turf on environmental and everyday concerns of Canadians, while the conservative leaders fought over immigration, pipelines and deficits.
In a second direct challenge between the two main contenders, Scheer turned to attack Trudeau over his failure to present a platform that had been completely costed by the parliamentary budget officer, and over the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Trudeau countered that his platform was costed, and that the Conservatives haven’t presented their entire policy book. On SNC-Lavalin, he said Scheer did not realize the job of a prime minister is to fight for Canadians jobs.
New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh jumped in: “What we have here is Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer arguing for who’s worse for Canada,” he said.
The debate marked the first time all six leaders shared a stage. It devolved into a confusing free-for-all at times, but also had moments of collegiality.
Scheer and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May praised Singh for handling incidents of racism in the campaign with grace and class. Singh was accosted by a man in Montreal last week who told him to cut off his turban so he would “look like a Canadian.”
Trudeau agreed Singh had handled racism with “eloquence … but I’m the only one on the stage that said yes, the federal government may have to intervene” in a court challenge of a Quebec law that prohibits some public servants from wearing visible symbols of their religious faiths.
“Every single day of my life is challenging people who think that you can’t do things because of the way you look,” Singh shot back. “Every single day of my life I channel people who feel that as well.”
Singh said the fact he’s in the race is a challenge to Quebecers to see past his religious garb. “I am running to be prime minister of this country,” he said. “I am going to Quebec and telling people that I want to be your prime minister.”
But later, Singh told reporters that, as prime minister, he might intervene if the case went to the Supreme Court.
There were moments of levity too. In fending off criticisms on the right and left, Trudeau twice called the NDP leader “Mr. Scheer,” prompting laughter. “I’m very, very different from Mr. Scheer,” Singh replied.
When a moderator later also called him “Mr. Scheer,” Singh cracked that “a lot of people are getting me mixed up,” to laughter from the audience. “I wore a bright orange turban on purpose today.”
Singh was the easily the most personable and relaxed leader onstage, and his supporters claimed he’d “won” the night.
People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier was challenged on his social media posts, which described diversity as a cult and called environmental leader Greta Thunberg “mentally unstable.”
“We don’t want our country to be like other countries in Europe where they have a huge difficulty to integrate their immigrants,” Bernier said, prompting Trudeau to claim that Bernier says publicly what Scheer thinks privately.
Singh called Bernier out, saying, “You could have just said, ‘Hey man, I messed up’ because those are pretty horrible tweets.”
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Scheer said that Bernier, a former Conservative cabinet minister, was someone who used to believe in an immigration policy that was “fair, orderly and compassionate.
“Now you are making your policy based on trying to get likes and retweets from the darkest parts of Twitter,” Scheer said.
Trudeau was the target in the English debate more than he had been in last week’s French debate. He was taken to task by Bernier, Scheer and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet for fighting with provinces.
Scheer portrayed Trudeau’s carbon-pricing plan as a tax that would raise the price of cost of living, which Trudeau disputed.
He said he’d reversed the pattern of the previous Conservative government under Stephen Harper, whom he accused of refusing to work with the provinces.
But he acknowledged “fighting the defining issue of our time” with some provinces because Alberta Premier “Jason Kenney and (Ontario Premier) Doug Ford, and other Conservative premiers don’t want to do anything on climate change and we need a government in Ottawa that is going to fight them and fight for Canadians.”
May said the Liberal goal for cutting emissions is a “target for losing the fight against climate change,” and she repeatedly challenged Scheer for having no climate action targets.
Singh got off one of the best lines of the night as Trudeau and Scheer bickered over climate change: “Ladies and gentlemen, you do not have to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny.”
At times, the format choked discussions among the two leading contenders as a cacophony of voices drowned out the debate.
With polls showing a close race between the Liberals and Conservatives, Scheer and Trudeau took direct aim at each other when they could, with Trudeau grilling Scheer in the last half-hour over his position on abortion. Trudeau had tried to stay above the fray, adopting a measured and at times oddly low-key stance, but late in the evening exhibited more fire.
He took Scheer to task over backing Conservative candidates who have pledged to take away a woman’s right to choose. Scheer said while he was personally against abortion, the “laws of access” to abortion services have not changed in Canada in 30 years under Liberal or Conservative governments, and would not change under a government led by him.
Singh jumped in, saying, “A man has no position in a discussion on a woman’s right to choose, let me clear on that.”
Singh and Blanchet targeted May for failing to rule out working with Scheer’s Conservatives.
On Indigenous issues, Scheer was challenged for resisting the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights and its requirement that development projects have the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous people. May told Scheer the Canadian constitution requires it, and it doesn’t mean you say “we’ll consult you until you agree with us.”
The debate, organized by a group of media organizations that included the Toronto Star, CBC and CTV, is the first of two this week. A French debate is scheduled for Thursday night.
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