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Leaders spar on health care, environment in televised French-language debate

OTTAWA— Five federal party leaders jousted over health care, vaccines and the environment in the first of two official election debates Wednesday evening as they sought to sway francophone voters before election day on Sept. 20.
Federal leaders make their points during the federal election French-language leaders debate on Sept. 8 in Gatineau, Que. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

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

With under two weeks to go, millions of voters were expected to tune in to the two-hour French-language debate and then the English-language debate Thursday night.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul were slatedto participate in both debates.

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier did not meet the criteria established by the independent Leaders’ Debates Commission for participation.

Organized by consortiums of broadcasters, both debates are being held at the Museum of Canadian History — its grand hall transformed into a television studio — in Gatineau, Que., just across the river from Parliament Hill.

The topics discussed climate change, the cost of living and public finances, Indigenous Peoples and cultural identity, justice and foreign policy, and health care and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much of the back-and-forth Wednesday revolved around health care and how to pay for it. Moderator Patrice Roy pushed the politicians to spell out how much money they would give the provinces for health care, and whether they would hand over the extra $28 billion in annual funding requested by premiers.

Trudeau pledged an added $25 billion, but “not unconditionally,” while O’Toole reiterated his plan to boost health transfers to the provinces by $60 billion over 10 years, “without conditions because it is a matter of respect” — a word he used repeatedly when referring to Quebec.

“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 reiterated the $28-billion demand, arguing that other parties “claim that the federal government knows more about that than the provincial governments.”

Singh said he was open to the idea and Paul underscored the need for “fundamental reform” of Canadian health care.

Asked whether vaccination against COVID-19 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.

The leaders also made their respective pitches for a greener Canada at the end of a summer that has seen fatal heat waves and wildfires.

Pressed on the fate of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Ottawa bought from Kinder Morgan in 2018, under their would-be governments, Singh insisted he opposed the project but gave no definitive answer on what he would do with it as prime minister: “We will take stock of the situation.”

Trudeau said Indigenous communities hope to buy the pipeline and could continue to operate it until “we don’t need it anymore.”

O’Toole stressed that families in Western Canada have a right to economic recovery, while Paul said it should be cancelled. Blanchet, in keeping with his belief in greater provincial independence, favours handing over the crude-oil conduit to Alberta.

As the debate wore on, a few dozen protesters, some carrying PPC signs, continued to mingle on the sidewalk but found themselves blocked from coming near the entrance to the museum.

The Conservatives released the costing for their election platform just hours before the leaders began to arrive at the debate venue Wednesday evening, amid mounting criticism from Trudeau over O’Toole’s failure to produce the balance sheet for his plan.

Tory platform pledges would add $30 billion to this fiscal year’s forecasted budget deficit of $138.2 billion, according to the document, which is based on the parliamentary budget officer’s election platform costing baseline. The deficit would then fall substantially each year thereafter, landing at $24.7 billion in 2025-26.

Blanchet threw a pre-debate punch, telling reporters an hour before game time that the billions in child-care funding pledged to Quebec by the Liberal government fails to show up in the Conservatives’ five-year plan.

Conservative officials said Wednesday that an O’Toole government would honour the funding deals with provinces for the first year. But after that the Liberal child-care plan would be replaced by the Conservatives’ promise to convert the existing child-care expense deduction into a refundable tax credit that would cover up to 75 per cent of child-care costs for low-income families.

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.

Last week’s French-language debate on TVA, to which neither Paul nor Bernier was invited, appears to have done little to move the needle for any party.

In 2019, some 7.5 million Canadians tuned in to the English debate across all traditional and social media platforms while some three million tuned in to the official French debate. Surveys conducted by the debates commission afterward suggested that “the debates were central to the electoral process,” according to a commission report on the process.

That said, the commission reported that its surveys found no measurable difference in intended turnout or change in vote intention between Canadians who watched the debates and those who didn’t.

— Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

— With files from Paola Loriggio and Stephanie Taylor