Politics

Leaders clash on climate, immigration, abortion and Bill 21 in intense debate

The six main federal party leaders battled it out in the English language debate in Gatineau, Quebec, Monday night exchanging answers and accusations as they looked to bust out from the pack in the final two weeks of the campaign. 

On crowded stage, 6 leaders exchange attacks and sharp one-liners in only official English-language debate

From left, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pose for a photograph before the Federal leaders debate in Gatineau, Que. on Monday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

The six main federal party leaders battled it out in the English language debate in Gatineau, Que., Monday night, exchanging answers and accusations as they looked to bust out from the pack in the final two weeks of the campaign. 

The only English debate with all six party leaders saw the discussion range across five topics including: affordability and economic insecurity, environment and energy, Indigenous issues, leadership in Canada and on the world stage and polarization around human rights and immigration.

On the first topic of the evening, leadership, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer came out swinging for the fences, ignoring the theme to instead launch a heated attack on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau who he called a "fraud" who does not deserve to be prime minister. 

"Mr Trudeau you are a phoney and you are a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country," Scheer said, accusing Trudeau of only pretending to stand up for Canada.

"You know he's very good at pretending things," Scheer said. "He can't even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he's always wearing a mask. 

"He puts on a reconciliation mask and then fires the attorney general, the first one of Indigenous background, he puts on a feminist mask and then fires two strong female employees for not going along with his corruption."

CTV's Lisa Laflamme, one of five moderators for the debate, turned to People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier and asked him if he had the temperament for leadership, given the off-colour comments he has been making on Twitter about climate change, immigration and his opponents. 

"You must tell the truth to Canadians if you want to be the leader of this country and what I'm saying about extreme multiculturalism is not the way to build this country," Bernier replied. "Yes this country is a diverse country and we must be proud of that. But we don't need legislation like the multiculturalism act to tell us who we are." 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said the temperament for leadership requires a leader to look for things that unite Canadians, rather than divide them. 

"That's what a leader does and a leader works for the people who need help, not helping those at the very top which we've seen with governments in Ottawa for far too long," Singh said. 

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is always wearing a mask at the outset of the English-language debate in Gatineau, Que. 0:35

Bernier interrupted Singh and then went on to interrupt and talk over every other leader, including Scheer, who called out Bernier for his anti-immigrant positions. 

"You can be proud of Canada's history, you can be proud of our identity, you can be proud of the things we've done and accomplished in the world while at the same time welcoming people from all around the world," Scheer said.  

Leadership is service: May

Trudeau said the temperament for being a good leader meant looking for things that unite Canadians rather than taking every opportunity to find things that will set one Canadian against another. 

The Liberal leader said Bernier is " trying to make people more fearful about the migrations that are happening in the world and the opportunities around globalization and our ability to continue to redefine every single day what it is to be Canadian, what it means to be Canadian."

Bernier shot back saying that wanting to discuss immigration did not mean he did not love Canada. 

"Mr. Bernier, your role on this stage tonight seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately," Trudeau said.

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said leadership is about service and that anyone wanting to be prime minister has to view running the country as a service for Canadians. 

'Your role on this stage seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately,' Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says to People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier during the English-language debate in Gatineau, Que. 1:07

The second segment of the debate centred on polarization, human rights and immigration.

The moderator, HuffPost Canada's Althia Raj, asked Singh if he was letting down Canadians by putting his party's electoral chances ahead of taking a stand on Bill 21 in Quebec, which bans certain civil servants from wearing religious symbols at work

Bill 21 divisions

Singh said Bill 21 was something that "hurts me, makes me feel bad" and that he would put his efforts into services that build up people. 

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said that 70 per cent of people in Quebec support Bill 21 and that the rest of Canada should recognize that Quebecers can decide how they want to govern their own province. 

Trudeau attacked Singh and said that while he recognized the NDP leader had spoken eloquently on his experience with discrimination, he was disappointed Singh did not follow Trudeau's lead and say he would leave the door open to a federal court challenge of the law. 

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh speaks about his battle against discrimination after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau challenges him to say he'll intervene on Quebec's secularism law. 1:15

"Yes it's awkward politically, because as Mr Blanchet says, it is very popular, but I am the only one on this stage who has said: yes, a federal government might have to intervene on this," Trudeau said. 

Singh said that living every day of his life as a visible religious minority was how he took a stand, to which Trudeau asked him why he did not have the courage to stand up for his convictions. 

After the debate, Blanchet said that while he did not agree with Trudeau's position on Bill 21, he at least knew where he stood, but the same could not be said for Scheer and Singh who, he said, gave ambiguous answers.  

Access to abortion

The debate turned briefly to the subject of abortion and a woman's right to choose, which saw Scheer facing attacks from all on the stage. 

"The laws of access on this issue have not changed for 30 years under Liberal prime ministers, under Conservative prime ministers, they will not change when I am prime minister," Scheer said. 

Trudeau accused Scheer of backing candidates for his party who are determined to take away women's right to choose if they want an abortion or not. 

Singh jumped into the heated exchange to say that "a man has no position on a discussion on a woman's right to choose, let's be very clear on that," he said.  

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May notes it has been male leaders mostly debating abortion in this election and the 'hard-earned rights' women. 2:13

May turned the question on the five male candidates, saying they all missed the opportunity to call for her inclusion in the TVA French-language debate and show young girls that a woman can lead a party and can run for prime minister. 

The Green Party leader then sided with Trudeau in accusing Scheer of not being clear about his position.

"We must be clear as all leaders — and you are not clear Andrew — that we will never allow a single inch of retreat from the hard-earned rights of women in this country. Not one inch," she said.

SNC-Lavalin and Quebec

Scheer turned to Trudeau and said that in light of the Liberal leader's violation of ethics laws, specifically with reference to the SNC-Lavalin affair, when did he decide that the rules did not apply to him? 

"Mr. Scheer, the role of a prime minister is to stand up for Canadians' jobs, to stand up for the public interest and that's what I've done and that's what I will continue to do every single day," Trudeau said. 

Scheer returned fire, accusing Trudeau of lying to Canadians. In response, Trudeau asked Scheer if he would not have stood up for the jobs at risk at SNC-Lavalin. That left an opening for Blanchet, who accused Scheer of using SNC-Lavalin to further his politics, to the detriment of a Quebec company. 

"When Mr. Trudeau tried to find a solution, he did it the wrong way and he admitted it. What you are doing Mr Scheer … is you are trading the idea that Quebec is corrupt," Blanchet said.  "Those 3,400 people [working for SNC-Lavalin] have done nothing wrong, now the value of the shares are going down, the employees are leaving, clients are leaving and we are losing it all because of you."

Scheer said that regardless of the economic situation there was no excuse for a politician to interfere in a federal court case. "It is essential that we preserve the independence of our judicial system," he said.

Indigenous issues

Bernier said all the other leaders are happy with the way things are and just want to tweak the relationship Canada has with Indigenous peoples. He said he would look into implementing property rights on reserves as a start to a better relationship. 

May said Indigenous leaders are saying that the No. 1 issue facing their people is climate change and that is where the government has to act. 

Trudeau said he inherited climate targets from the former Conservative government, but targets are not a plan and he has implemented a plan that is making a difference. 

May attacked Trudeau with the line that he "bought a pipeline" and so was not really fighting climate change, to which Trudeau replied that "a slogan is not a plan."

Returning to the Indigenous relationship, Singh attacked Trudeau for ordering a judicial review of a recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that awarded compensation to Indigenous children harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system and under-funded child and family services.

"He wanted to fight hard to keep SNC-Lavalin out of the courts but he's going to drag Indigenous kids to court. That is wrong. How could someone do that?" Singh asked.  

Trudeau said his government had moved forward on Indigenous issues in a way that other governments never did before, but there is still a great deal to do. He also said that children would be compensated when his government could ensure that it is done in the right way. 

"We recognize the tribunal's ruling that says that children need to be compensated and we will be compensating them," Trudeau said.  

Justin Trudeau says he'll move forward with energy projects with respect for indigenous people, while Andrew Scheer says he has 'nothing to learn' from Trudeau, who 'fired' Canada's first indigenous justice minister. 1:29

"But we've also moved forward to end the tragedies by moving forward on legislation that keeps kids in care, in their communities, with their language, with their culture."

Scheer said that he backed a judicial review because when it comes to handing out billions of dollars it is important to get it right.

"This decision will have massive, huge ramifications for several aspects of the way the federal government provides services to Indigenous Canadians," Scheer said.  

"It also is a very large, significant settlement amount and I believe that when you're dealing with these types of important public policy issues, that it is legitimate to say that it should be reviewed."

Income inequality

A voter from Yellowknife asked the leaders what they would do about the growing problem of income inequality in Canada if they were to become prime minister. 

May called for a commission to look at the tax code to see if it is fair. 

Trudeau touted his middle-class tax cuts and that he would be moving forward with another tax cut for low- and middle-income Canadians, while accusing Scheer of targeting his tax cuts toward the wealthy. 

Bernier said all the other party leaders want to persist in running deficits but he would balance the budget in two years in part by recouping $5 billion from cancelling corporate welfare payments. 

Singh said that giving money to corporations for investments meant that the federal government did not have enough left over to invest in programs such as dental care and health care that matter to lower-income Canadians. 

Scheer accused Trudeau of not really understanding the issue of affordability because he had a trust fund and that Conservative tax cuts would make a significant difference for people earning less than $47,000 a year.

Climate change

The final topic of the evening, moderated by the CBC's Rosemary Barton, was the environment and energy. 

A member of the public from New Brunswick said that Canada was in the midst of a climate crisis and that this was the last election Canadians had before we reached the tipping point. He wanted leaders to answer the question of what they would do in the climate fight. 

Scheer used the opportunity to attack Trudeau for using two campaign planes and excusing that choice by purchasing carbon offsets. Trudeau replied that Scheer did not buy carbon offsets because he does not believe in climate change. 

Trudeau said his government had taken action by putting a price on pollution across the country and implementing a plan that gets Canada three-quarters of the way to the emissions reduction targets agreed to in Paris. 

Green Leader Elizabeth May and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau have a spirited exchange on climate change plans and emissions targets. 1:23

"The choice tonight is very clear between two parties that have very different views on climate change. Mr. Scheer wants to rip up the only serious plan on climate change Canada has ever had," said Trudeau.

Scheer said that Trudeau's plan has given emissions breaks to some large producers while "hard-working commuters, moms and dads taking their kids to school or driving to work they have to pay the full brunt" of the carbon tax.

Trudeau said that a real climate change plan, in order to be successful, has to not only be ambitious, but doable.

May attacked Trudeau for buying the Trans Mountain pipeline, arguing that the government's emissions targets are guaranteed to miss the Paris targets. May went further, saying she hoped Trudeau did not get a majority because he would not make the necessary moves required to battle climate change. 

In the segment of the debate that may have featured the best one-liners, the leaders go on the offensive - and defend - plans on climate change. 3:47

"We don't grade on a curve and say because a plan is less ambitious it's therefore more doable if it fails to meet the goal of holding global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius​​​​​​," she said.  

Trudeau replied that Conservative politicians at the provincial level had been elected premier on the back of promises to eliminate the federal carbon tax and a strong government with a plan was needed in Ottawa to stand against them.

"We're putting a price on pollution right across the country and we are fighting those Conservative premiers who do not want to do their part to fight climate change," Trudeau said. "We recognize that transition to clean energy will not happen overnight."

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