Party leaders in Quebec agree to historic English-language debate

Quebec is one step closer to having a first-ever televised provincial leaders' debate in English, after leaders of all four parties in the National Assembly agreed to participate Tuesday.

Televised debate in English by leaders of all parties in National Assembly will be an electoral first

Philippe Couillard, left to right, Jean-François Lisée and François Legault, as well as Québec Solidaire's Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, all said Tuesday they'd be willing to participate in an English-language leaders' debate. (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Quebec is one step closer to having a first-ever televised provincial leaders' debate in English, after leaders of all four main parties agreed to participate Tuesday.

A consortium of English-language media in Quebec — including the CBC, CTV, Global, CJAD and the Montreal Gazette — made a formal request last Friday to the four parties with MNAs currently sitting in the National Assembly.

"I think there is much to tell the Anglo population of Quebec on how they've been taken for granted by the Liberals, and that's why I think for the first time we should have an English debate of the leaders,"  Lisée told reporters at the National Assembly Tuesday. "I'm looking forward to it."

"I'd be very happy to do this. It's normal that we conduct a debate in English, and I hope it takes place," Couillard said later.

"I accept with great pleasure to hold a debate in English," Legault tweeted Tuesday afternoon.

Québec Solidaire's co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois also said in a tweet that his party would "gladly participate."

Optimistic

The media consortium made a similar request in 2014, but at that time, PQ leader Pauline Marois refused, saying she didn't feel her English language skills were strong enough.

The only English debate prior to that was a radio-only matchup in 1985 between Liberal leader Robert Bourassa and PQ leader Pierre-Marc Johnson.
The only English-language leaders' debate in Quebec history was a radio-only debate on CJAD in 1985 between Liberal leader Robert Bourassa, left, and PQ leader Pierre-Marc Johnson, right. Moderating that debate was then-McGill University principal David Johnston, centre, who went on to become Canada's governor general from 2010 to 2017. (Robert Linney)

Helen Evans, CBC's managing editor in Quebec, said Tuesday she's optimistic the debate will happen.

"We put this request in because we feel we have a chance of getting the debate this time," Evans said.

"All of the leaders, their English is strong enough for a debate. I think it's great that they're willing to do this."

Anglo votes could be 'critical'

CBC political analyst and veteran political watcher Bernard St-Laurent said history shows there are no guarantees the English debate will go ahead.

"In the past, the parties have agreed in principle, but as we got closer and closer to the election campaign, there were always excuses for why they couldn't do it," St-Laurent said.
CBC Montreal political analyst Bernard St-Laurent said the openness to a leaders' debate in English comes at a time when anglophone votes could be 'critical' in some ridings in the October election. (CBC)

However, he said, this time things may be different.

He said in the current political climate — with sovereignty on the backburner and the CAQ surging in the polls — the anglophone vote is more important than it's been the past.

"There's an interest for Mr. Legault to show his stuff to the English community, and there's a strong motivation for Philippe Couillard to show he cares about the English community and wants to keep their vote," St-Laurent said.

Couillard should be able to hold on to most of his predominantly anglophone ridings in Montreal, he said.

"It's in other areas of the province where the CAQ could make gains, and there are enough anglophones to make a difference."

St-Laurent said that would include ridings in the Eastern Townships and around Quebec City, where, in a closely contested riding, anglophone votes could become "critically important."

The media consortium is proposing a live debate to be held at the Maison de Radio-Canada in Montreal on Sept. 14. 

The debate would be 75 or 90 minutes in length.

Evans said if the debate happens, CBC will broadcast it live on television and radio and stream it online.

About the Author

Steve Rukavina

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.

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