Federal leaders trade barbs on COVID-19, Indigenous rights in French election debate

WATCH: The full French-language debate between federal party leaders (English translation).

Indigenous reconciliation, climate change and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic sparked fiery exchanges among the federal party leaders in the Canadian election‘s French language debate.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul faced off in the debate from the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau, Que., just across the river from Parliament Hill on Wednesday.

The first question of the night — whether any of the leaders would commit to not calling another snap election if they won a minority government — saw all of the leaders commit to a full mandate except for Trudeau, who did not directly answer the question.

“You will hear different ideas tonight about how we move forward, and it will be up to you to decide,” Trudeau said, addressing viewers directly.

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

After each leader pledged to ensure provincial governments better protect seniors living in long-term care, the debate quickly heated up when the topic moved to mandatory vaccinations.

While the leaders all agreed that vaccines were important to get past the pandemic, they disagreed on whether to mandate those vaccines for certain workers.

“I don’t want to divide our population, I want to protect our population,” Singh said when explaining his support for vaccine passports and mandates despite some vocal opposition across the country.

Trudeau sought throughout the debate to drive a wedge between O’Toole stance on mandatory vaccinations and his own, calling the issue a “false debate.”

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WATCH: 2021 Canadian election French debate (English Translation)

While explaining his approach that also includes testing for those who refuse vaccination, O’Toole turned directly to Trudeau and asked why an election was called in the middle of the pandemic.

“Why have an election during a pandemic?” Trudeau responded. “It’s precisely because Canadians need a say on how we get out of this.”

Singh later said Trudeau called the election for “selfish” reasons, reminding him that a fourth wave of the pandemic was underway when the campaign began and has only gotten worse.

“We should have continued to face the pandemic, help people and realize that this pandemic is not over,” he said.

Asked about the future of the Canada Response Benefit (CRB) and other emergency programs introduced during the pandemic, O’Toole said such programs should be phased out “fairly” to encourage Canadians to head back to work — provided a fifth wave doesn’t occur.

Singh and Paul strenuously disagreed, agreeing that vulnerable populations are already at risk and would further suffer if the CRB is eliminated in October.

Singh also came out strongly for increasing taxes on large corporations, saying it’s a “question of fairness.”

“If you have a company or a business here in Canada, you have to pay your fair share,” he said.

Indigenous languages

Asked by an Indigenous voter whether Canada’s official languages should be expanded to include Indigenous ones, many of the leaders said they were supportive of the idea, but O’Toole appeared to stop short of a full endorsement.

“We have two national languages now, but it is possible to have services in Indigenous languages,” he said, pointing to a Conservative pledge to offer mental health services to First Nations in their own languages.

The leaders all agreed that the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission should be adopted and addressed. The commission called for Indigenous languages to be included in the Official Languages Act.

Trudeau faced heat from his government’s failure to fully address the number of boil water advisories on reserves across the country.

“This is an international shame,” Blanchet said, while Singh said not fully fixing the problem is “inexcusable.”

Trudeau defended his government’s record on reconciliation, including most recently the nomination of Canada’s first Indigenous governor general, Mary May Simon.

He pointed to the peaceful negotiations with the Wet’suwet’en people in northern British Columbia that brought an end to solidarity protests over the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

“Progress has been made because we resisted calls from the Conservatives and others to send the army and the police in,” he said. “We opted for negotiations, and it lasted longer … but we were able to resolve it peacefully.

“We continue to work hand-in-hand in partnership because that is the only way forward.”

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Federal election another ‘Moon of Many Promises’ for Indigenous people in Canada

Blanchet later asked why Trudeau won’t impose positions on Indigenous peoples but will do the same for Quebecers, causing Trudeau to explode at the Bloc Quebecois leader.

“Because I am a Quebecer,” Trudeau said, his voice rising. “You keep forgetting, I’m a Quebecer, I’m a proud Quebecer, I’ve always been a Quebecer, I’ll always be a Quebecer. I will always have a say on what happens in Quebec. You don’t have a monopoly over Quebec.”

The pair talked over each other repeatedly, with Blanchet at one point urging Trudeau to “relax, relax.”

Child care and climate change

The costed Conservative platform released mere hours before the debate includes major cuts to federal childcare funding, which would be replaced by a tax credit.

That led to a direct question from Blanchet about whether Quebec would get to keep the $6 billion it will get under the deal struck last month with the Liberal government — leading Trudeau to go on the attack against O’Toole.

“Erin O’Toole doesn’t even understand the Quebec childcare system we want to spread across the country,” Trudeau said. “Quebec families have been waiting months and years for a space, and his plan wouldn’t even create spaces. He wants to scrap all that.”

On the topic of climate change, the leaders were all challenged on their plans to reduce carbon emissions and whether they were realistic.

Trudeau insisted that his plan was the only one that could be achieved, though he failed to answer how long he would keep the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in place before further transitioning to renewable energy sources.

He said some Indigenous communities want to buy the pipeline and would continue to operate it until “we don’t need it anymore.”

Singh wouldn’t say what will happen to the Trans Mountain pipeline if his party forms government, just that they would assess the situation.

As she addressed the Indigenous water crisis, Paul asked why investment in pipelines like Trans Mountain has been higher than for providing clean drinking water on reserves.

“All that’s missing is will,” she said.

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.

–With files from the Canadian Press

© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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