Nine candidates vying for the leadership of the Liberal Party participated in the first of five debates before a sold-out crowd of supporters in Vancouver on Sunday.

The nine candidates running for the party's top job are MPs Marc Garneau, Joyce Murray and Justin Trudeau, former MPs Martin Cauchon and Martha Hall Findlay, lawyers David Bertschi, Deborah Coyne and George Takach, and Karen McCrimmon, a retired Lieutenant Colonel.

The debate kicked-off with opening statements from each candidate. Lawyer George Takach described himself as the son of Hungarian refugees and said he was in favour of a digital bill of rights and putting an end to the "wasteful prohibition on marijuana."

Deborah Coyne laid out her vision for "one Canada for all Canadians," while former cabinet minister Martin Cauchon said he will "roll up his sleeves" to rebuild the party because Canadians are looking for "a real alternative."

Lawyer David Bertschi said he knocked on 30,000 doors when he ran and lost for the Liberals in Ottawa-Orleans in 2011 but ran out of time when he began to tell Liberal supporters why he is running for the party's top job.

Quebec MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau said there is no doubt that this leadership contest has to be about "ideas" and told Canadians they must challenge the candidates to do so.

Vancouver MP Joyce Murray said her priorities are to rebuild the party and ensure that Stephen Harper's Conservatives don't win the next federal election but also ran out of time.

Frontrunner Justin Trudeau said he learned a thing or two by running in the Montreal riding of Papineau, namely that Canada's middle class is suffering and that Canadians are unsure that their kids will have more opportunities in the future than they had themselves.

Karen McCrimmon, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, talked about leadership. She said Canadians want a party they can trust and the party can do that by acting on what they say. "I served Canadians before and am offering to serve you once again," said McCrimmon.

Former MP Martha Hall Findlay, who ran for the Liberal leadership in 2006, said the party can't keep doing the same thing over and over while expecting the same results. There is "no silver bullet," Findlay said.

Ending aboriginal poverty

Opening statements were followed by a question-and-answer session. Randy Boissonnault, the moderator, asked the candidates what they would propose to improve the relationship and close the gap in living standards experienced by Aboriginal people.

Garneau said the Idle No More movement is sending a very clear message to government, that it's not listening. "We have to begin to listen, Paul Martin tried to do that with the Kelowna accord. Stephen Harper threw it in the garbage. But in 2008, [Harper] said we will have a new beginning. There has not been a new beginning." Garneau said if elected Liberal leader, he would sit down and consult with First Nations.

Both Coyne and Findlay said they would eliminate the Indian Act, with Findlay making the point that both the Opposition New Democrats and Conservatives are to blame for where things stand today.

Electoral cooperation

The candidates took questions from supporters in the crowd in groups of three. The questions ranged from electoral cooperation to socio-economic issues and the environment.

Coyne, Cauchon and Findlay were asked how the Liberals could cooperate with the Greens and NDP in 2015 — an idea put forward by Murray to avoid splitting the vote. The Vancouver MP believes in one-time cooperation with the Greens and NDP in the ridings where Conservatives won with under 50 per cent of the vote in the last federal election.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen took a lot of heat for running on a similar proposal while running for the leadership of the New Democrats last year. 

Coyne and Findlay made it clear they would only run Liberal candidates in the next federal election while Cauchon left the door open saying "let the people decide."

A testy exchange came when McCrimmon, Trudeau, and Murray were asked whether they would commit to replacing the first-past-the-post electoral system with one that provides better representation of the voting preferences of Canadians.

Trudeau said a preferential voting system, which the party adopted in the last biennial convention, would "change the tone" of politics. Murray said she remains committed to changing the current system by way of electoral cooperation — an idea the Quebec MP challenged.

According to Trudeau, Murray's electoral cooperation plan would blur the lines between the values extolled by Liberals and the NDP. The Quebec MP added he wasn't ready to give up his Liberal values. Murray fired back saying, "if you want to replace Stephen Harper, where's your plan?"

McCrimmon said she would give Canadians the choice by way of petition.

The environment

Garneau, Bertschi and Takach were asked for their vision on long-term sustainable energy for Canadians and their strategy for transitioning away from fossil fuels.

The candidates used humour to get their points across.

"I've been around the planet earth 450 times, I have had a good look at it," said Garneau — to which Bertschi replied, "while Marc was flying around the world, I had my feet firmly planted on this ground."

Takach played along saying, "with all due respect to Marc, you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that climate change is a fundamental challenge... and whether your feet are on the ground or you are going around space, the Liberal Party is going to address this."

Garneau added that Canadians want elected officials to focus on renewable energies and they know "disincentives" to pollute must be put in place. Bertschi said there has to be "economic incentives" for companies to invest, create and process the technology in Canada. According to Takach, sustainable policies like rapid transit will put the party "in good step".

Carbon tax

Coyne, Trudeau, and Takach were asked what they thought was the most effective way to put a price on carbon — a politically charged subject as Liberals well know.

That's because the Conservatives have been relentless in alleging that the NDP plans to introduce a carbon tax — something NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has vehemently denied.

And, while the Tories ran attack ads in 2008 against then-Liberal leader Stephane Dion's carbon tax plan, that did not stop Coyne from coming out in favour of a carbon tax.

"The best step that I see is — and environmentalist agree, industry agrees, the European Union agrees — it's a price on carbon.  It is a carbon tax," Coyne said.

The lawyer explained that the money collected from the consumption tax would go back to the provinces and it would be offset with credits for those businesses that would be adversely affected particularly at the beginning.

Trudeau stated, as he has done before, that he is in favour of putting a price on carbon, although he was not prepared to say what shape that would take just yet.

"We're going to figure out the best way forward, not to polarize politics... but to build a better country that is sustainable in its environmental approach," said Trudeau, speaking to reporters after the debate.

Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, told CBC News that Trudeau did what he needed to do today which was "not to trip up."

"He started off ahead and I think he ends up ahead," said Bricker.

The Liberal leadership race will travel to Winnipeg for a second debate on Saturday, Feb. 2 and end when a new leader is chosen on April 14 in Ottawa.

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