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.
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.
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.
Watch live: Canadian election English-language leaders’ debate
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.”
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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.
He was also forced to defend his record on climate change and Indigenous reconciliation, while the other leaders worked overtime to show themselves as the clear alternative.
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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.”
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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 defended their various plans to lower greenhouse gas emissions by various percentages.
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.
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O’Toole insisted that he was serious about defending 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.
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.
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Elsewhere, Singh deflected a question about his party platform, while Blanchet shot back at a suggestion that his party backs discriminatory laws against minorities.
Paul was asked whether she can lead a country when she has such internal strife in her party, responding that she has had to “crawl over a lot of broken glass” to get to debate night.
O’Toole said he is a pro-choice ally of LGBTQ2 people when asked about his party members’ differing stances on those issues as well as climate change and vaccination.
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
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