French debate: Leaders spar on vaccines, snap elections

debate

Five federal party leaders jousted over mandatory vaccination, health care and snap elections in the first of two official election debates Wednesday evening as they sought to sway francophone voters before election day on Sept. 20.

With less than two weeks to go, millions of voters were expected to tune in to the two-hour French debate and Thursday's English debate.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul were set to participate in both debates.

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier did not meet the criteria established by the independent leaders' debate commission for participation.

Debate moderator Patrice Roy kicked off the night by asking all five politicians whether in a minority situation they would commit to avoid triggering another election amid questions that continue to dog the Liberals about the need for the current one.

Trudeau sidestepped the question and repeated his rationale for sending Canadians to the ballot box in a pandemic, saying soon after that he seeks a renewed mandate "precisely because Canadians need to have a say in how we get out of this."

O'Toole and Paul both said they would "absolutely" aim to steer clear of a snap election, stating that collaboration in the House is paramount.

Blanchet, noting that Trudeau said in last week's debate that another election within 18 months was a possibility, said his party would support any government measures that are good for Quebec.

"We did not want this election," Singh said, adding that he would respect the mandate Canadians grant the next government.

Asked whether vaccination should be mandatory, Trudeau called the discussion a "false debate" and sought to drive a wedge between his stance and O'Toole's. The Tory leader's position suggests vaccination and rapid testing are equivalent, Trudeau claimed.

"This isn't the time to be dividing people. We need to work together," O'Toole rebutted, stressing that vaccination is "essential" but that other tools such as rapid testing, masks and physical distancing play a role.

He also said repeatedly he has "respect" for Quebec Premier Francois Legault's government as he tried to drive home the point he would stay out of the province's affairs and dole out health transfers with "no strings attached."

"I trust the government of Quebec. Why does Mr. Trudeau always interfere in provincial jurisdiction?" O'Toole asked.

Trudeau parried that the Tory leader is "not standing up against a two-tier system."

Blanchet claimed that all other parties plan to hand over funding only with conditions, "because they claim that the federal government knows more about that than the provincial governments."

The debates come as opinion polls suggest the Liberals and Conservatives are stuck in a tight two-way race, with the NDP and Bloc poised to determine which of the two main parties emerges victorious.

-- with files from CTV News and The Canadian Press --