Radio-Canada cancels French leaders' election debate

Radio-Canada has scrapped plans for a French leaders' debate after one party leader confirmed he could not participate, and another backed out as a result.

PC Leader Blaine Higgs tells broadcaster he can't participate in a French debate

Radio-Canada says it won't have a French debate during the campaign for the Sept. 24 election, unlike in 2014, when the French debate pitted New Democrat Dominic Cardy, Progressive Conservative David Alward and Liberal Brian Gallant against each other. (Nicolas Steinbach/Radio-Canada)

Radio-Canada has scrapped plans for a French leaders' debate after one party leader confirmed he could not participate, and another backed out as a result.

Denis Robichaud, executive producer with Radio-Canada Acadie, said the decision comes after Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs told the broadcaster he could not debate in French.

Radio-Canada offered an alternative, which would have allowed the parties to provide other representatives for the debate, but Gallant said he would only debate Higgs. 

In a string of tweets in French this week, Robichaud said the Liberal Party didn't wants its leader debating anyone who wasn't a leader.

The Liberals also refused to take part in a debate where none of the representatives were leaders.

"Over the past few days, Radio-Canada Acadie has returned to the parties to ask them to agree on a format that would allow French-speaking voters to have the right to a real debate in French, as the public demanded along with many other organizations," Robichaud said in French.

"Unfortunately, the Liberal Party refused both options, while the other parties were open."

In an election campaign, Radio-Canada has to provide equitable coverage of political parties, Robichaud said. As a result, a debate without one of the major parties isn't an option. 

'People's forum' ruled out

PC Leader Blaine Higgs said he was willing to allow another party member to speak in the leaders' debate. (Catherine Allard/Radio-Canada)

As a result, he said, there will be no French debate on the broadcaster's supper-hour TV news show. 

Nor will there be what was being called a "people's forum," where members of the public would ask leaders questions in either official language and there would be simultaneous translation.  

The PCs, Green Party, NDP and People's Alliance all agreed to take part in the forum but the Liberals did not respond by the deadline.

Meanwhile, the proposed people's forum drew complaints from Acadian groups and community leaders who wanted a French-only debate.

As for an English debate, the CBC said it is still talking to the political parties and nothing is planned yet.

Gallant's 'excuse'

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant wouldn't agree to any of the debates proposed by Radio-Canada. (Pierre-Alexandre Bolduc/Radio-Canada)

In Moncton on Thursday, Gallant blamed Higgs for the cancellation of the French debate.

"We shouldn't blame Radio-Canada," Gallant said. "The debate was dead when Blaine Higgs refused to debate in French with the other leaders." 

Campaigning in Tracyville, Higgs said he was ready to let a member of his team speak at the debate in French.

"If Brian Gallant wants to hide behind language, it's an excuse," he said. 

Higgs has been learning French and can deliver a prepared speech in French but is not yet able to debate policy ideas. 

'Very disappointing'

Retired law professor Michel Doucet told Radio-Canada he was disappointed with the decision to cancel the debate.

Doucet signed a letter from more than 20 Acadian organizations that had asked Radio-Canada Acadie to reconsider its decision. 

"It is very disappointing that in 2018 in New Brunswick, we will not be able to hold a debate in French because of the unilingualism of some party leaders," he said in an interview in Moncton.

"At this point, the lack of commitment to bilingualism has been demonstrated in New Brunswick."

With files from Radio-Canada