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OTTAWA – The six main federal party leaders squared off for the first time during this election campaign at the official English-language leaders' debate, and the 2-hour event was a mix of personal attacks and policy deliberation with the central focus on Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau spent most of the evening being challenged on his record over the last four years, from ethics scandals to the still long environmental and reconciliation to-do lists.

While he sought to defend what his government accomplished while promising what a re-elected Liberal government would achieve, the other party leaders looked to differentiate themselves to voters, pitting the Liberals’ last four years against their ideas on what they would do differently.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was first to pivot from policy to politics, raising Trudeau’s past instances of wearing brownface and blackface in response to the very first question about foreign policy and leadership on the world stage.

“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada. 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 went on to accuse Trudeau of “wearing a mask” when he says he is a feminist and says he supports Indigenous reconciliation, or champions the middle class.

"Mr. Trudeau, you're a phoney and you're a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country,” said Scheer.

In a later question,Trudeau attempted toslam Scheer by comparing him to People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, saying that Bernier’s presence in the debate was “to say publicly, what Mr. Scheer thinks privately,” referring to Bernier’s often divisive policy positions.

Later on, Bernier shot back, saying a vote for Trudeau is no different than a vote for Scheer, an argument he’s been making throughout the campaign. 

As these kinds of jabs kept up throughout the debate, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh sought to cut through it with a few quips that seemed to be well received by the audience.

“You do not need to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny,” said Singh at a moment in the debate when Trudeau and Scheer were trading barbsover the Liberals’ carbon tax, at whichpoint it was hard to hear what either was saying.

Some of the back and forth between the various topics was about the increasing polarization in Canada, and finger-pointing about whose name-calling and rhetoric was negatively impacting the level of political discourse in Canada.

Consistent with her approach in the House of Commons, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May took the opportunity to chastise the others for the negative back-and-forth.

“We need the kind of leadership that lifts people, that doesn’t make people feel as if politics is rather disgusting and they’d rather not look at it,” said May.

Though, by the end of the debate, she made two personal jabs of her own. First, she said she hoped that Trudeau does not win a second majority mandate because he doesn’t keep his promises, then she made the pronouncement that Scheer is “not going to be prime minister.”

That was a prediction Scheer said hewill prove her wrong on.

Election day is two weeks away and it’s yet to be seen whether tonight’s debate will be pivotal for the considerable number of undecided voters in what has so far been a tight race.

Each leader spoke about what a government led by them would do from a policy perspective, and each took the one-on-one debate opportunities afforded to themin this format, to question their opponents face-on.

Trudeau cornered on Indigenous record, ethics

As the debate moved on to Indigenous issues, much of the focus was put on Trudeau and his party’s record, four years after promising a renewed relationship—a commitment most on stage spoke positively of— and leaving much left to be done.

Trudeau sought to defend what was accomplished, citing praise from the AFN’s Perry Bellegarde.

“We need to keep moving forward in away that respects Indigenous peoples, respects that there’s going to be a range of views but is grounded in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Trudeau said.

The past Conservative government’s record under Stephen Harper did come up too, in contrast, with May saying that she was “appalled” by Scheer’s position on consulting Indigenous peoples on natural resource development. Scheer defended his stance that Indigenous groups shouldn’t be able to have a veto.

When Singh’s time came in this portion, he evoked the Liberal government’s SNC-Lavalin scandal, chastising Trudeau for fighting “hard to keep SNC-Lavalin out of the courts,” while the federal government, as was recently announced, is appealing the ruling ordering compensation for First Nations children denied welfare services.

“That is wrong, how could someone do that?” said Singh.

Scheer also tried to re-litigate the entire SNC-Lavalin controversy in tonight’s debate, raising on a few occasions Trudeau’s ethics law contraventions, and his ousting of former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott from caucus after they spoke out against his handling of a criminal prosecution against the Montreal-based construction giant.

Both women are running again but as independents with a message of doing politics differently than how the Liberals handled the last four years.

Once again, Trudeau relied on his much-repeated defence amid the affair, that he was standing up for jobs, a position that Blanchet said he backed.

Climate change and the plans to tackle it, contrasted

With climate change being one of the key issues of this campaign, this portion of the debate prompted fierce debate with each leader billing their plan as the best approach.

Each leader took aim at the Liberals’ plan, with May calling it a “commitment to failure,” Singh saying that more needs to be done to take on big emitters, and Scheer saying that no one believes that the Liberals will meet the Paris targets.

“We have done more over the past four years than any government in the history of Canada,” Trudeau said in defence.

“No, that’s not true,” May responded. The back and forth continued between all leaders on this issue, with Blanchet agreeing that emissions need to come down and Bernier restating his position that there is no climate emergency.

Secularism, equalization discussed

When the conversation pivoted to Quebec’s secularism Bill 21, Trudeau sought to highlight that he, so far, is the only leader to leave the door open to intervention down the road, and cornered Singh about his party’s stance on the issue and whether he would intervene in the ongoing court challenge.

In response, Singh--the first ever visible minority federal party leader--said that “every single day” of his life “is fighting a bill like Bill 21.”

“Every single day of my life is challenging people who think that you can’t do things because of the way you look,” Singh said. But hedid not say whether he would intervene in the ongoing court challenge orgo further on his position on the law, which bans public service workers from wearing or displaying religious symbols or clothing while at work.

When the topic turned to equalization payments to the provinces, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet called the system “flawed,” and said his party would propose a mechanism that would compensate provinces based on how well they tackle climate change.

Affordability, social issues round out debate

The debate was rounded out with a conversation on affordability. It’s been one of the most consistently argued issues in this campaign, witheach leader offering how they would save Canadians’ money and arguing why their opponents’plans won’t work.

Each leader took their turn pitching their plans, includingthe Liberal’s Canada Child Benefit, the suite of Conservative boutique tax credits, and the NDP’s plans for universal pharmacare and dental care.

During the affordability-focused portion of the debate, May pivoted to Scheer’s pledge to cut foreign aid spending by 25 per cent, calling it “short-term, misguided, greedy and selfish.”

In response, Scheer said it is “not greedy” to put money back in Canadians’ pockets, and began citing his now oft-repeated pocketbook pledges, including implementing a “universal tax credit.”

Trudeau also took time in this portion of the debate to pivot to social issues, raising Scheer’s stance on abortion as he has throughout the election and in the leadup to it.

“You won’t defend a women’s right to choose, you’ve dismissed LGBT protections, you haven’t apologized for your words against LGBT Canadians years ago, will you recognize and apologize for that?” asked Trudeau.

Scheer responded:“Millions of Canadians have a different position on this issue, and like millions of Canadians I am personally pro-life and it is okay in this country to have a difference of opinion, something you do not recognize.”

Singh then jumped in as the two began bickering over candidates’ past social media histories, saying: “A man has no position in a discussion around a women’s right to choose,” he said.

'An opportunity to hear from these leaders directly'

Monday night’sdebate, and the French-language debate happening on Thursday, are hosted and broadcast by a new partnership of 10 news media organizations called the Canadian Debate Production Partnership, which includes CTV News, and was organized by the Leaders’ Debate Commission.

The debate was moderated by five journalists, including CTV News anchor Lisa LaFlamme, and the federal party leaders also answered questions from the Canadian public.

The five main themes of Monday’sdebate were: affordability and economic insecurity; national and global leadership; Indigenous issues; polarization, human rights and immigration; and environment and energy.

“Leaders debates give us the opportunity to hear from these leaders directly unedited, and unfiltered,” said Debate Commissioner David Johnston in his pre-debate remarks.

“Too often, we focus on the things that separate us as Canadians... But this is an opportunity for the country to come together to gain an understanding about the issues at hand, what they mean to people across the country.”

The debates have been made available on TV, radio, and online platforms in English, French, Italian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Arabic, Punjabi, Plains Cree, Inuktitut, Eastern Cree, Ojibway, American Sign Language and Quebec Sign Language. There are viewing parties happening across the country.

In advance of the debate, there was some pre-showdown posturing, but each leader spent the majority of day 27 of the election hunkered down doing debate prep with their campaign teams.

Upon their arrival, each leader was greeted by scores of supporters lining the entrance with signs and other props, however, not every leader went over to greet the crowd or stop for media questions on their way in.

When the leaders entered the stage they took their places without shaking hands.

 

 

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