OTTAWA — Four federal leaders will take the stage in Montreal tonight for the first debate to feature Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
Conservative Andrew Scheer, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh, and Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois will face off with Trudeau at 8 p.m. Eastern time, in a debate hosted by the private TVA television network and the Montreal newspaper Le Journal.
“It’s enormously important,” says Maclean’s Ottawa Bureau Chief John Geddes of the French debate, adding with 78 seats up for grabs in Quebec, the outcome could have a big impact.
The Liberals are polling well in the province, which makes Trudeau the target in his first test against his competitors, and his main rival Andrew Scheer.
“I think inevitably they’re the top dogs, and this whole thing of Scheer versus Trudeau will be key.”
The other leaders all stand to gain by taking Trudeau down a notch on topics like pipelines, deficit spending, and Quebec’s controversial religous symbols ban for public workers.
Any great performance or big mistake can sway the Quebec race, and since the Liberals and Conservatives are in a dead heat nationally, every vote matters.
“For sure picking up a few seats or losing a few seats in Quebec could make the difference if you’re in that tight a race,” Geddes says.
The leaders are spending most of the day Wednesday preparing, though the Liberals have a campaign announcement featuring cabinet minister Navdeep Bains in Toronto and the Tories have one planned with Scheer’s Quebec lieutenant Alain Rayes in Montreal.
Trudeau is planning a visit to a boxing gym for a photo op, and Singh is going on a walkabout at a market, ostensibly to buy snacks for his preparation team.
The organizers didn’t invite Green Leader Elizabeth May or the People’s Party’s Maxime Bernier, both of whom are campaigning in and around their home ridings for the day.
Tonight’s debate is the first of three where Trudeau will take part, with two more next week organized by the new federal debate commission headed by former governor general David Johnston. Geddes says at the very least, tonight’s showdown will be a preview bout ahead of those debates.
Trudeau didn’t attend a debate hosted by Maclean’s magazine and Citytv at the very outset of the campaign that’s now half over, and the organizers of a debate on foreign policy cancelled their event when Trudeau wouldn’t appear there, either.
All four of the leaders debating tonight will likely be hoping for moments that change the momentum of the 21-day-old campaign, with polls showing hardly any change in voters’ preferences since it began on Sept. 11.
The Liberals and Conservatives remain locked in a fight for first place, hovering around 33-per-cent support nationally but with the Liberals apparently having a small edge because so much Conservative support is concentrated in the Prairie provinces. A strong Liberal showing in Quebec, where polls show them with a small but consequential lead, could sustain the Liberals in power; a strong Conservative showing could sink them.
The New Democrats remain well back, slightly ahead of the Greens in most polls. Without May on the stage, Singh will have a chance to sell himself to Quebecers in the hope of starting a new “orange wave” in the province.