The leaders' French-language debate sparked heated exchanges on Quebec's identity, stirred up more coalition talk and jousting over Canada's military and spending priorities as the party chiefs sparred for a second night.
"Sovereignty is not something bland and meaningless," Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe said to his political opponents during the two-hour debate in Ottawa. "If it's good for Canada, why is it not good for Quebec?"
Conservative Leader Stephen Harper pointed to his party's move to recognize Quebec as a nation within a united Canada, but Duceppe said he sees other nations around the world getting their own countries and pointed to the fact Quebec has never signed on to the Canadian constitution of 1982.
"Each nation has the politics of its interests," Duceppe said.
But both Harper and Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff insisted the constitution was not a major issue for Quebecers.
Mme. Paillé, Quebec's Joe the Plumber?
In a single moment in the French-language debate, Muguette Paillé of Sainte-Angèle-de-Prémont, Que., stole the show and became an internet sensation Wednesday evening after asking a question on unemployment in her province.
"The employment rate is very high in the region," she told the federal leaders. "Steady jobs are scarce. It is hard for someone like me — I'm 53 — to find work. So I would like to know how you intend to create jobs in Quebec, particularly in my region, and how it will help people over the age of 50 find permanent jobs."
Shortly after Paille spoke, a Facebook page in her honour was created, with more than 1,000 people "liking" it within two hours. Following the debate, the Twitter search Mme Paillé shot to near the top of trending topics in Canada, while Quebec radio host Paul Arcand said he would use his show Friday to try to get her a job.
Also gaining internet fame — her berry poutine recipe.FULL STORY: Media star
Ignatieff argued Quebecers have different priorities now, and also have everything they need through different powers than other provinces, as well as a flourishing French language.
"I've travelled thousands of kilometres in Quebec. No one's ever brought up the constitution. They're worried about other issues," he said, pointing to daycare and climate change.
With Layton, Ignatieff and Duceppe raising their voices to speak over each other, Harper pointed to them and asked the audience to consider the three leaders trying to work together in another minority Parliament. He said while they're fighting the "same old constitutional fights," he alone is concerned about the economy — which he said was a "21st century priority."
Not surprisingly, the issue of the coalition also came up, with Ignatieff pledging not to form such an arrangement but promising to work with other parties in a minority situation.
"If Mr. Harper gets more seats than us, he'll try to form government. If I get more seats, it's me who will try to form government," Ignatieff said in an exchange with Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe.
"Those are the rules in our constitution," he told Duceppe. "I can work with you, with Mr. Layton, but not in a coalition."
Harper had made the coalition question an issue during the first few days of a campaign, arguing Ignatieff would team up with Duceppe and NDP Leader Jack Layton if the Conservatives didn't win a majority of seats in the House of Commons.
The Liberal leader took a more aggressive stance in the second debate, at times speaking forcefully over Harper. But while both leaders are usually comfortable in their second language, neither seemed completely at ease Wednesday night.
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Just minutes into the debate, Harper accused Duceppe of rewriting history to suit his needs now. Duceppe has spoken openly of 2004 talks between Harper, Duceppe and Layton to form government if the then-Liberal government lost the confidence of the House of Commons and fell — the same tactic Harper accuses the opposition of planning.
In 2004, the three leaders wrote a letter to then-Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson to remind her she could ask the leader with the second-most seats — Harper — to form government.
Harper said the leaders were clear at the time that what they were proposing was not a coalition.
But Duceppe said he never said it was a coalition.
"I'll look you in the eye," Duceppe said. "What we signed didn't talk about a coalition, but did clearly state if Mr. Martin lost confidence there were other options to an election. Do you think it would have been Mr. Layton with 20 seats or me as prime minister?"
"I never said we were talking about a coalition."
During an early exchange between Layton and Duceppe, the New Democrat leader said Duceppe had "some good ideas sometimes, but you're like a hockey team made up of defencemen."
The NDP, Layton continued, is in a position to "score goals."
Harper, in turn, tried to appeal to voters in Quebec who choose the Bloc because they don't like the Liberals. He said the Bloc wants to choose who will get to govern in a minority Parliament.
"Mr. Duceppe has clearly chosen the Liberal Party and that's his choice. A vote for the Bloc is a vote for Mr. Ignatieff as prime minister," Harper said.
Unemployment issue flares up
Asked a question from Muguette Paillé, 53-year-old unemployed woman, about creating jobs in Quebec, Layton slammed Harper for providing tax cuts for corporations and neglecting average Canadians, saying he closed his eyes to workers' situations during his tenure as prime minister.
Layton said that Harper's government, with the support of Ignatieff, has spent billions of dollars on corporate tax cuts for people "who don't need money," instead of creating jobs.
Harper countered by defending his government's record, saying the other parties are calling for tax hikes which "will destroy jobs and harm families." He also said the Conservatives' budget contained funds for senior workers but was rejected by opposition parties.
Ignatieff said he believes the government has "forgotten people" in the economic recovery and that Paillé "knows this."
The Liberal leader said Harper intends to spend billions on fighter jets, corporate tax cuts and building super-prisons, instead of regional economic development.
Duceppe also accused Harper of taking $17.5 billion out of the Employment Insurance fund in his proposed budget.
"In other words, at the expense of companies and workers," Duceppe said.
"That EI Fund will be used for other purposes rather than what it was intended for which is to help those who lost their jobs," the Bloc leader said.
But Harper denied the charge.
"The EI fund is now in deficit. The legislation we passed ensures that the government cannot can never again take money from the EI fund," Harper said.
'Not enough' to oppose Harper: Layton
Layton and Duceppe faced off over a question about social issues, but the NDP leader said the two parties actually agree on several measures.
Layton instead said it's the NDP that can oust the Harper government and help implement social change.
"We have no action. We have to change things because families continue to suffer," Layton said. "We have to replace this government. It's not enough to oppose Mr. Harper. We have to replace him and that's what the NDP can do."
But Duceppe shot back that only the Bloc can keep the Conservatives in check.
"Mr. Layton, you know as well as I do, that I'm not going to become prime minister, and neither will you," he said. "If you want to defeat the Conservatives in Quebec, there is only one party to prevent the conservative majority and we've proved that. We're not telling people stories."
A viewer's question about the need to spend billions on the Canadian military for a relatively small population of 30 million people prompted debate over the controversial purchase of F-35 jets.
Harper said Canadian planes were flying missions in Libya to protect citizens from Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
Duceppe pushed Harper on the various reports that put the price of the jets higher than was stated by the Conservatives, asking him to reveal the true cost of the jet contract.
"I'm the only leader on this platform, on this set, who is defending the role of our Canadian and Quebec aerospace sector in the purchasing of airplanes," Harper said in his defence.
But Ignatieff shot back that even the U.S., which is building the planes, can't estimate the costs.
"Even President Obama doesn’t know how much it will cost the United States. That's the first problem," Ignatieff said.
"And you have no real idea what the plane will cost you because they're still developing this plane. So we don’t know how much it will cost. And as a potential prime minister I can't accept a plane, the cost of which is increasing."
Tuesday night's English debate saw all four leaders trade rhetorical barbs on a variety of issues, including corporate taxes, health care and the auditor general's leaked draft report into spending at the G8/G20 summit.
This debate shifted some of the spotlight onto Duceppe, who holds 47 seats of Quebec's 75. The other party leaders were seeking to siphon off some of the Bloc's support and to cut into its grip on the majority of Quebec's seats.
The Liberals currently hold 14 seats, followed by the Tories with 11, the NDP with one seat, with one Independent and one vacant.
The French-language leaders' debate, which was co-moderated by Radio-Canada's Anne-Marie Dussault and TVA's Paul Larocque, was supposed to have been held on Thursday, but it was rescheduled to avoid splitting the audience with the Montreal Canadiens in the team's first game in the NHL playoffs.
Duceppe warns of constitution 'consequences'
Following the debate, Ignatieff told reporters that he wasn't trying to minimize the constitution as an issue but that it's not a primary concern for Quebekers.
"In my opinion, Canada works well. But you have to prove that every day," Ignatieff said.
Harper also emphasized this if he were to win a majority government, the focus would be on the economy, not constitutional debates.
"I don't believe Canadians' priority is the constitution...we're trying to improve the country without changing the constitution," he told reporters
But Duceppe said there are consequences to Quebec having never signed the constitution, listing losses in business and industry where he feels the province was owed more.
"I think it is a question which is there and it is not solved and there's two options. And those options are represented by people like me in the House of Commons," he said.