The separation of church and state and questions about personal character took the stage during the first French-language debate of the election campaign, the first time Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faced off against his political rivals.
The controversial Quebec secularism law, known as Bill 21, that bans some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, featured prominently in the first section of the debate, along with abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
Bill 21 is overwhelmingly popular among francophones in Quebec, where four federal leaders tried to make their marks with voters on Wednesday night, in a debate hosted by the private TVA television network and the Montreal newspaper Le Journal.
Conservative Andrew Scheer, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh and Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois joined Trudeau on stage as they appealed to voters in a province that could hold the key to their electoral fortunes in the Oct. 21 vote.
Quebec Premier Francois Legault has urged all federal party leaders to promise to stay out of the court challenges against the secularism law and none of the party leaders has called for immediate intervention in existing cases.
Only Trudeau has said a government he leads might seek to intervene and he defended that position Wednesday night.
“I do not want to close the door,” Trudeau said, to the federal government one day needing to defend the rights of Canadians.
“Because for me, the defence of rights, be they for women, for francophones outside of Quebec — the federal government has a role to play.”
Singh, who wears a turban as an expression of his Sikh faith, has said he would not intervene to challenge the law, despite opposing it.
Singh sought to counter any suggestion that his personal religion would get in the way of his strong support for secularism as a public value.
“I am for the separation between church and state,” said Singh, adding that he supports the rights of women to abortion, same-sex marriage and medical assistance in dying.
“I will defend these rights with all my strength,” he said.
Scheer said he would not impose a secularism law federally, but that he would also not intervene in the court challenges against it.
The debate became heated during a discussion about the fight against climate change, where Pierre Bruneau, the news anchor moderating the debate, noted Trudeau had portrayed himself as a champion of the environment but then bought a pipeline.
Last year, the Liberal government bought 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.
Scheer, who is in favour of building pipelines and has vowed to repeal the federal carbon tax the Liberals brought in for provinces that don’t have equivalent measures of their own, tried to undercut the Trudeau record on the environment in a different way.
Noting the Liberal leader has two campaign planes, Scheer charged: “You are a fake environmentalist.”
Trudeau tried to interrupt to say that his campaign had purchased carbon offsets for his travel and the Conservatives had not.
Singh, meanwhile, took Scheer to task over his promise to create a national energy corridor to transport oil, gas, hydroelectricity and telecommunications from one coast to the other, which could be a tough sell in Quebec.
TransCanada Corporation had proposed the $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline to bring western crude through Quebec to New Brunswick before being shipped overseas, but the company abandoned the project more than a year ago citing market changes and government red tape.
The project faced a lot of opposition in Quebec and Legault has suggested that would be the case for any other proposed pipeline.
Singh accused Scheer of wanting to impose a pipeline on Quebec. Blanchet also went after Scheer by demanding to know how many more years he thinks Canada will need to extract and export fossil fuels.
This is also the first time Blanchet has joined the other leaders in a debate.
He made sure to go after them all, including with some jabs at their French, while they countered that the Bloc can never implement its policies because it can never form government.
But after Scheer described what the Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper had done for Quebec, Blanchet noted it had been during a minority government when Bloc MPs had pushed for more.
Trudeau has been trying to convince Canadians that voting for Scheer would be returning to the days of the Harper government.
At one point, that allowed Scheer to make another joke at Trudeau’s expense, saying he believes Quebecers missed Harper during his trip to India.
“You won the election in 2015. Bravo,” said Scheer. “Now it’s 2019. Check your calendar.”
Earlier, Scheer was put on the defensive as he was pressed by all his political rivals to elaborate on his personal views about abortion.
“Quebecers can be confident that a Conservative government would not reopen this debate,” Scheer said in one of the debate’s first exchanges, with Blanchet.
Scheer was pushed to clarify his stance on abortion this summer after it emerged that his Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, had told candidates in the province that backbench MPs would not be allowed to bring forward any bills or motions on the issue.
That goes against party policy and created confusion until Scheer, a practising Catholic who has voted in favour of restricting abortion rights in the past, said he would oppose any attempt to reopen the debate should he become prime minister.
Scheer repeated that position on stage again Wednesday night, but his political rivals pressed him to go further.
That included Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who asked him directly whether he personally believes women should have the right to abortion.
“I have always been open about my personal views,” Scheer said.
“It’s not OK to have a man talking about women’s rights,” Singh said at one point. “It is not acceptable to have a negotiation on the rights of women.”
None of the federal parties have seen much movement — either gains or losses — in opinion polls despite weeks of campaigning, which some experts attribute variously to a degree of comfort with the status quo as well as a rise in public disillusionment and strategic voting.
The Liberals and Conservatives remain locked in a fight for first place, hovering around 33 per cent support nationally, but with the Liberals apparently having a small edge because so much Conservative support is concentrated in the Prairie provinces.
A strong Liberal showing in Quebec, where polls show them with a small but consequential lead, could sustain the Liberals in power; a strong Conservative showing could sink them.
Trudeau was able to ride a wave of unhappiness with a decade of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper to power in 2015 in an election campaign that saw the NDP start in the lead before giving way to the Tories, until voters rallied behind the Liberals to give them the win.
Four years later, Trudeau’s record in office — including his broken promise on electoral reform and decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline — has turned off many of those same voters, especially progressives, who cast their ballots for the Liberals.
Despite that disappointment with Trudeau, Christian Bourque, executive vice-president of polling firm Leger, said there does not seem to be the same overwhelming drive for change that existed in 2015, when a majority of Canadians were ready for a new direction.
“So there’s this sort of comfort with the current government, even though some may be disappointed with the leader,” Bourque said. “So there’s no urge for that amount of change. And at the same time, there’s nobody convincing them of the need for change on the other side.”
Of course, even though it is past the halfway mark, the election campaign is far from over and Wednesday’s French-language debate was seen as an key opportunity for the four participating leaders to talk directly to Quebecers, in particular, and start gaining some momentum.
The Canadian Press