Final leaders' debate could be a game changer in volatile Quebec

The NDP is sinking in the polls, particularly in Quebec, where it has been hit hard over its support for the niqab at citizenship ceremonies. The final leaders' debate, on the French-language TVA network, could be make or break time for each of three main parties vying to win on Oct. 19.

The NDP has slipped in Quebec, making the last leaders' debate crucial for all parties

The French TVA network will host the final leaders' debate tonight. Much is riding on the performance of Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Tonight's debate is the last chance for the federal party leaders to face off in French and try to win over what appears to be a volatile Quebec electorate — and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is the man with the most to lose.

The event is being organized by the Quebec network TVA, and will feature Mulcair along with Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. The Green Party's Elizabeth May was not invited.

Mulcair hopes to claw his way back

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair fields questions after the French-language leaders' debate in Montreal on Sept. 24. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Mulcair's still the front-runner in Quebec, although his party's support has dropped in the last few weeks.

The NDP won 59 seats in 2011, largely because of then leader Jack Layton's charisma. Mulcair has had a rougher ride, even though his roots in Quebec run deep. His great-great-grandfather on his mother's side was Honoré Mercier, Quebec's ninth premier.

He was a provincial politician for years — first in opposition, then in government, where he served as environment minister and became known for his abrasive style.

"I think Mr. Mulcair needs to be concerned not to look aggressive," says political science professor Daniel Salée, of Concordia University, "because that's the reputation that he has, certainly in Quebec. He was very combative."

Mulcair has come under fire from the Bloc and the Conservatives for his stand on the wearing of the niqab during citizenship ceremonies.

Jack Layton and Tom Mulcair worked together to lay the groundwork for an NDP breakthrough in Quebec in 2011. Mulcair might need to show a warmer side to Quebecers if he wants to capture some of Layton's magic. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The New Democrat leader has argued that the current law is reasonable because it allows a woman to wear a niqab during a citizenship ceremony as long as she unveils herself beforehand to identify herself.

But his opponents have been bolstered by polls that show a strong majority of Canadians — and even more Quebecers — object to the niqab.

"Mulcair is weakest when the debate becomes about the politics of identity," says CROP pollster Yuri Rivest. "Those issues divide his party; they drive a wedge into his coalition.

"He needs to make this about the left versus the right. He needs to make this about being an alternative to Stephen Harper, a government in waiting."

Campaigning on Thursday, Mulcair seemed to be doing just that: "Do we want Harper's country? Or do we want a modern Canada that takes care of the future on big important issues like climate change?" he told reporters at a stop in Montreal.

Rivest says that Mulcair also needs to loosen up and be a bit more like Layton during the debate.

"When you turn the sound down on your TV, he looks like an angry man. He needs to smile, not grimace. He needs to show warmth. Francophone Quebecers go with their guts. He needs to laugh, get along with people, lighten up a bit."

Trudeau needs a breakthrough with francophones

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau fields questions after the French-language leaders' debate in Montreal on Sept. 24. He's still hoping for a breakthrough in Quebec. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

That warmth comes more easily to Trudeau. But the Liberal leader makes some francophones cringe. His French has improved during the campaign and his accent is decent, but he sometimes makes Quebecers wince with his awkward phrases.

Political observers will be watching to see if Trudeau brings up his father's legacy during tonight's debate, as he did Monday during the debate in Toronto on foreign policy.

Francophone Quebecers have mixed feelings about Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

Those old enough to remember him are at once proud of his intellect and success on the world stage, and deeply resentful of his attitude toward his own province's nationalism. But 30 years later, it's not clear whether those feelings have transferred to his son.

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau casts his ballot for the Charlottetown referendum on Oct. 26, 1992. His stance on Quebec nationalism is still resented by some Quebecers, and it might be tough for his son to win them over. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press )

Another Liberal legacy that could be a big problem for Trudeau is the Clarity Act. The law was written in the period following the 1995 referendum and set out rules for any further attempts at secession, including the idea that a clear majority of votes would be required.

The law was well-received in Canada when it was passed in 2000, but still rankles most Quebecers. Of course, sovereigntists would never consider voting Liberal, but even federalists resent being told that Quebec doesn't have the right to choose for itself.

"Trudeau is very, very, very vulnerable on this idea of what constitutes a majority," says Rivest. "He scores in his own net if he talks about it."

Campaigning on the West Island of Montreal Thursday, Trudeau said he will let his opponents focus on him, but he would "stay focused on Canadians."

"Other politicians are trying to play up the politics of distraction, fear. We're focused on how we're going to create better economic opportunities."

Harper needs wider appeal in Quebec

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper speaks at a rally during a campaign stop in Quebec City on Sept. 30. His stance on the niqab issue has wide support in Quebec. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Harper had no campaign events Thursday.

He has seen support for the Conservatives rebound in Quebec over the last few weeks, but his party's popularity is still limited to a few rural seats and the Quebec City area. Montreal support remains elusive.

At best, he can hope for a handful of Quebec seats, but in a tight race nationally, those seats could mean the difference between winning and losing, a minority government or a majority.

BQ leader needs to prove his relevance

BQ Leader Gilles Duceppe fields questions after the French-language leaders' debate on Sept. 24. His party continues to struggle in the polls. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

As for Duceppe, he's the most experienced of all the leaders when it comes to debates — and the only one who doesn't even aspire to forming a government. 

After dominating the Quebec political scene for years, the Bloc was almost wiped out in 2011, left with only four seats. Duceppe lost his own seat.

He resigned and came back just before this current campaign. Since then he's seen his party rebound a bit in the polls. But analysts say it isn't enough and the Bloc may end up winning no seats on Oct. 19.

"The problem is, what the Bloc Québécois is doing, it sounds like a record that we've heard over and over again," says Daniel Salée. "And there's a resentfulness in the way he speaks, and I think people are beyond that now."

When tonight's debate is over, Mulcair, Trudeau and Duceppe will each have one more chance to appeal directly to a large number of Quebecers.

The three have accepted the invitation to appear on the wildly popular Tout le Monde en Parle talk show. Mulcair was at a taping of the show Thursday, which will air on Sunday.

Trudeau and Duceppe will make an appearance on the following Sunday. 

More than a million Quebecers watch the show, and it's thought those appearances may have a far greater impact than a Friday night debate.


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