French debate faceoff: O'Toole makes debut, Trudeau looks to make up ground

The two front-runners of the federal election campaign thus far faced their own set of pressures with Thursday's first French-language debate as they tried to win votes in Quebec.

The TVA debate kicked off with vaccine passports and the COVID-19 pandemic being the first topic of discussion as Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves Francois-Blanchet pressed Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on his reasons for triggering an election amid a growing fourth wave of infections.

In response, Trudeau said that now is the time for the federal government to make big decisions, and Canadians should have the chance to weigh in.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh also took part in the debate. The Green Party’s Annamie Paul and the Peoples’ Party’s Maxime Bernier weren’t invited to participate.

The TVA debate is O’Toole’s first time in the federal election debate ring and will require him to flex his French-language muscles.

“I think people will be watching very closely, not just people in Quebec or francophones outside of Quebec but journalists and commentators, because we want to see how he will do during this first debate that’s in French, it’s not his mother tongue, so people will be looking at his capacity to handle questions and debate in that language,” Daniel Beland, political science professor at McGill University, told CTV News Channel on Thursday.

The debate, which comes mid-way through the campaign, covered three main subjects: the pandemic, social policy and "the Canada of tomorrow."

During the debate, O'Toole was asked how he will manage to balance the budget without cutting services or increasing taxes, with Trudeau calling him out for not yet having the party's platform costed.

The topics of long-term care and health care were also raised during the debate, with Singh repeating his promise to abolish for-profit LTC homes in an effort to reform the quality of care received in the facilities.

O'Toole reiterated his promise to boost health transfers to Quebec with $60 million in annual federal funding. He and Trudeau got into a heated back-and-forth on the topic, with Trudeau saying that O'Toole's promise amounts to backing a "two-tiered health system."

The party leaders interrupted each other and attacked each others platforms, with Blanchet playing the role of moderator at times, questioning the other three leaders on their commitment to defending francophone culture and language in Quebec.

Blanchet also asked his opponents if all their candidates are vaccinated.

Trudeau said only one of his candidates is unvaccinated due to medical reasons, while Singh confirmed that all New Democrat nominees are vaccinated -- as are the Bloc candidates. O'Toole dodged the question, repeating that Conservatives use rapid tests.

Singh, whose party was left with one seat in Quebec in 2019, went up against Blanchet on a question of racism.

Singh was removed from the House of Commons last June after calling Blanchet a racist after Bloc MP Alain Therrien blocked a NDP motion to recognize systemic racism in the RCMP.

Blanchet pressed Singh to apologize during the debate, while Singh tried to explain his past comment.

The pair spoke over each other with Singh saying Therrien had made a dismissive gesture while Blanchet said he took issue with being accused a racist for disagreeing with a motion in Parliament -- a place specifically created for debating motions.

WHAT THE POLLS SAY

While Trudeau has more experience in a debate setting than O'Toole, polls continue to show his party is losing ground to the Conservatives and his support in Quebec will have a major impact on his success come Sept. 20.

New nightly tracking numbers conducted by Nanos Research for CTV News and The Globe and Mail show that O’Toole – for the first time in the campaign – numerically surpassed Trudeau when respondents were asked who their preferred choice of prime minister is. O’Toole had just over 29 per cent of support, while Trudeau had 28.5 per cent.

In an interview with CTV National News, Nik Nanos said the Liberals continue to face criticism for calling an election.

“What we’ve seen during the course of this campaign is the Liberals being dogged by questions about whether the campaign is necessary. Also the disruptions of Liberal campaign events by anti-vaccination individuals has basically disrupted the ability of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals to get their message out and basically it’s been advantage Erin O’Toole,” he said.

The TVA debate was seen as pivotal in the 2019 campaign.

Then-Conservative leader Andrew Scheer's evasiveness on the issues of abortion and medical assistance in dying was widely seen as halting early Conservative momentum, ultimately enabling Trudeau's Liberals to eke out a minority win.

The performance of Blanchet, a newcomer to federal politics at the time, was also credited with giving new life to the Bloc Quebecois, which helped rob Trudeau of a second majority mandate.

The official English-language debate will air on Sept. 9 from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. EDT and the official French-language debate will air a day prior on Sept. 8 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. EDT. Both will include all leaders from the five major political parties.

With files from The Canadian Press and CTV National News' Ottawa Bureau Chief Joyce Napier