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French leaders' debate overlooked Indigenous issues, had no decisive victor: expert

Last Updated Sep 8, 2021 at 11:13 am PDT

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left to right, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole and debate moderator Pierre Bruneau pose for a photo during the first French leaders' debate on Thursday, September 2, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Martin Chevalier - POOL

MONTREAL (NEWS 1130) — The first debate of the 2021 federal election campaign had no clear winner, and one glaring omission, according to one political commentator.

The Liberals’ Justin Trudeau, the Conservatives’ Erin O’Toole, the Bloc Quebecois’ Yves-François Blanchet and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh took part in Thursday’s French-language debate on TVA, one of Quebec’s most-watched networks. It comes at the midpoint of the campaign. The TVA debate involved a series of face-to-face encounters between two leaders at a time, with the opposition leaders accusing Trudeau of unleashing an election unnecessarily.

David Moscrop, a Canadian politics columnist for the Washington Post, says the debate was predictably Quebec-centric.

“If you read the French news, and you watch the French debates, you see that they’re targeting Quebec in a very specific way by paying homage to their programming, to Premier [François] Legault to talking about provincial rights and unconditional transfers,” he says.

“The fact is, parties in Canada run one Quebec debate, and one rest of Canada debate, effectively. Every leader pandered to Quebec throughout the entire debate.

The TVA debate is in addition to two official debates organized by the Leaders’ Debates Commission. Those are scheduled to take place next week – in French on Sept. 8 and in English on Sept. 9. Green Party Leader Anamie Paul will participate in those debates, but People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier, who didn’t meet the independent commission’s criteria for participation, will not.

But the leaders’ focus on the province came at the expense of what Moscrop thinks should have been a key issue.

“There was a lot of regional and Quebec-specific issues discussed as you would think, but — this is not a joke this is true, –they spent more time talking about a tunnel/bridge in Quebec than they did Indigenous people, which was deeply disappointing,” he says.

“I hope when it comes to the commission debates we’re going to have a lot more on reconciliation and Indigenous people, and a little bit less on bridges and tunnels.”

When it comes to assessing how the four fared, Mopscrop says there were no real standouts.

“I suspect everyone had just a fine night. Nobody was particularly bad,” he says.

“It’s tough to say who comes out ahead, ultimately.”

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.

Moscrop says O’Toole came out relatively unscathed, which is as close to a win as the Conservatives could have hoped for in a province where the Liberals and the Bloc dominate.

“Erin O’Toole was much better than Andrew Scheer was in 2019, that’s a good day for the Conservatives,” he says, noting the NDP also doesn’t have too much hope of breaking through in La Belle Province.

“Their future is probably not in Quebec. The future is probably elsewhere, it’s probably in British Columbia, Ontario. It’s just not going to happen for them, barring a sort of collapse of the Liberals or the Bloc, which doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.”

When it came to tone, Moscrop says things got a bit heated but that Trudeau and Blanchet were the fieriest, something he attributes to their fluency with the language.

“It’s much harder to be insulting in your second language than it is your first, and so you’ve got to behave yourself a little bit more and you end up being a little bit more reliant on going to ground, rather than trying to get cute with things. I think ultimately that produces better debates, but it also takes the wind out of your sails from time to time as well. I think you saw that with both Jagmeet Singh and Erin O’Toole,” he says.

“You also incidentally saw Blanchet and Trudeau, obviously much more comfortable–  and much more aggressive.”

With files from The Canadian Press