NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau went on the offensive over the issue of the niqab in the second French-language debate Friday night, turning the issue around to attack Conservative Leader Stephen Harper concerning his own policies regarding women's rights.
Mulcair and Trudeau oppose the Conservative government's ban on the wearing of the face veil while taking the Canadian citizenship oath. The right to wear the niqab was a hot topic in the previous French-language debate and has continued to be a campaign issue. Polls suggest a vast majority of Canadians support the Tories on this issue, but the strongest support is in Quebec.
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Mulcair admitted that the face veil makes him "uncomfortable" and said that "no one here is pro-niqab."
But he accused Harper of using the issue as "a weapon of massive distraction," while ignoring more important women's issues like an inquiry into missing and murdered aboriginal women.
Mulcair asked Harper why, if the niqab issue was such a priority, did he wait so long until the election to make it an issue.
"You had 10 years to change this," Mulcair said to Harper. "You tabled this on the last day of the last month of your mandate of 10 years."
He said Harper was playing a "dangerous game," and targeting a community to play politics.
"It's undignified of a Canadian prime minister."
But Harper accused Mulcair of attempting to change the subject, "because your position is entirely disconnected from the reality of Canada and the opinion of Canadians and Quebecers.
"The reality is that we recognize that from time to time, we must not hide our identity. We do that for reasonable reasons and it's necessary to have legislation, it's supported by the population, we want to encourage equality between men and women in Canada."
Trudeau changed the topic to abortion, saying that he and many Quebecers are pro-choice, while pointing out that a number of Conservative candidates are anti-abortion.
"You have a lot of nerve to come here talking about Quebec values and defending women — you have more men in your caucus who are anti-abortion than there are women wearing the niqab in Quebec," Trudeau told Harper.
He then demanded that Harper state whether he is pro-choice or against.
Harper rejected Trudeau's question, saying that abortion has never been part of his party's agenda, and turned the discussion back to the niqab.
"Mr. Trudeau, you talk about divisions. The only divisions here are between the NDP and the Liberals with the rest of
the population. Almost all public opinion is in favour of a policy of taking the oath of citizenship without a [face] covering."
Trudeau vs. Mulcair
Earlier, Trudeau and Mulcair attempted to stake their claim as the agent of change in the second French-language debate, accusing each other of supporting Harper's policies.
Mulcair said Trudeau has voted in favour of numerous Harper budgets, supported Bill C-51, the controversial anti-terrorism legislation and supported him on Keystone.
"You have the same economic, environmental and social policies as him," Mulcair said. We've voted against Mr. Harper, we want to defeat him and replace him."
"You'll spend a lot of time trying to change the subject and attack me personally, but you don't have a plan to invest right now."
But Trudeau shot back that "on the issue of the economy, which is of most importance to Canadians, despite the failure of Mr. Harper's economic policy, you chose to balance his budget."
"Mr. Trudeau, no one is attacking you personally, it's a simple fact, verifiable that you voted in favour of Mr. Harper's budgets," Mulcair said.
The debate covered many of the same topics as previous rounds, including the economy, environment, Syrian refugee crisis and the battle against ISIS.
On that latter topic, Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe seemed to take a more hawkish line than Harper, and ridiculed Trudeau's opposition to Canada having a combat role.
"What I don't understand is your intention to avoid intervention to stop ISIS," Duceppe said. "You can head over there with a bouquet of flowers and a bag of groceries and say we're here to help refugees. I don't think the religious fanatics are going to sit down and have a lunch with you. We need to intervene militarily."
Another hot issue in Quebec is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade pact currently being negotiated in Atlanta that concerns dairy farmers in Quebec, who fear the deal will erode the supply management system of tariffs and production quotas.
Trudeau accused Harper of negotiating the deal in secret, while Mulcair and Duceppe asked Harper if he would be protecting supply management in its entirety.
Harper said his government has always been clear that it will keep the system intact and protect supply management.
The debate also touched on the subject of legalization of marijuana, something Trudeau has proposed. Harper challenged the Liberal leader on his position.
"If we sell marijuana in stores like alcohol and tobacco that will protect our kids? No one believes that," Harper said.
"The reality is that we have kids who find it easier to buy marijuana than cigarettes and beer," Trudeau responded. "If a young person buys marijuana, it's because he had contact directly with a criminal. We will continue to control marijuana like cigarettes and alcohol not to sell them in corner stores. It will be harder for them to get access."
But there were also humorous moments at the debate. At one point Trudeau mistakenly referred to Duceppe as "mon amour" (my love) instead of "mon ami" (my friend). Before that Trudeau had corrected Duceppe when he referred to former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney as Art Carney (the actor best known for his role in The Honeymooners).
The debate in Montreal comes as the NDPs' support in Quebec continues to drop, while polls suggest the race has evolved into a two-way contest between the Conservatives and Liberals.
Mulcair needed a strong showing tonight as this debate, along with his appearance on the popular Tout le Monde en Parle talk show, could be his best opportunities to stem the bleeding.