Party leaders debating in English language after French tilt

WATCH LIVE: The federal party leaders take part in the English-language election debate.

Federal party leaders are duking it out in their last best chance to sway voters before the Sept. 20 election in tonight’s first — and only — English-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 reconvened at 9 p.m. ET Thursday, one day after jousting in the official French debate.

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Watch: Canadian election English-language leaders’ debate

People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier did not meet the independent leaders’ debates commission’s criteria for participating in the debates.

But dozens of his supporters have shown up outside the debate venue — the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., just across the river from Parliament Hill — to protest his absence.

Tonight’s debate is the last of three to be held during the campaign and comes just 11 days before election day and just as four days of advance polls are set to open Friday.

In the hours leading up to the debate, the parties sought to stake out positions and attack their opponents, with the Liberals taking aim at the Conservatives’ plan to scrap the Trudeau government’s national child care program.

Toronto Liberal candidate Chrystia Freeland called the Conservatives’ approach to child care plan a “step backward” for women, children and the economy.

The Liberal government has inked five-year deals with eight provinces and two territories to pay for more child-care spaces and reduce child-care fees to an average of $10 per day by 2026. The total cost is estimated at $30 billion, and includes a deal to transfer $6 billion to Quebec, which already offers $8.50-per-day child care, to increase the number of spaces available.

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The Tories have said they would honour those deals for the first year if elected to government, but then replace it by converting 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.

“Early learning and child care is an urgent economic issue,” said Freeland, who as finance minister introduced the child care plan in the 2021 federal budget.

“All parents — and I’m going to be candid here, especially all mothers — understand this. Erin O’Toole clearly does not.”

The Conservatives, meanwhile, highlighted their promise to ban products made with forced and slave labour, specifically calling out China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority while portraying themselves as the best choice for those concerned about human rights abroad.

“For years, we’ve known Uyghur slave labour is being used by China’s Communist regime in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to produce products like cotton, tomatoes, and solar panels for export,” O’Toole said in a statement.

“As prime minister, I won’t hesitate to act against this disgusting practice and ensure that the worst human rights offenders don’t profit from these abuses.”

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet rejected the idea of being part of a coalition federal government after the election.

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Missed the federal election French language debate? Here are the highlights

Blanchet said he would refuse any scenario that would see his party formally agree to prop up a Liberal or Conservative minority government for any length of time in the House of Commons, and would instead prefer a minority government that would need to woo Bloc support to survive a full four-year mandate.

Before the English-language debate, Singh went shopping with his expecting wife at an Ottawa baby store on Thursday.

Several NDP candidates in the Toronto area, meanwhile, highlighted the party’s promise to establish a guaranteed livable income, starting with seniors and people living with a disability.

“This is absolutely essential,” said Alejandra Bravo, the candidate for Davenport. “This, coupled with our amazing commitments around affordable housing, which are tangible and doable, are going to make a significant difference to reduce the poverty in this country.”

This week’s French and English-language 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.

The five themes selected for tonight’s debate are affordability, climate, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, leadership and accountability, and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

The topics discussed during Wednesday’s French-language event included health transfers to the provinces, child care funding, climate 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 over whether they would hand over the extra $28 billion in annual unconditional funding requested by premiers.

On Thursday, Quebec Premier Francois Legault criticized Trudeau and Singh for wanting to introduce national standards in health care, saying they would appropriate provincial powers.

The premier also said he was pleased with the Conservatives, particularly O’Toole’s plan to increase health transfers without conditions, but expressed concern that the Conservatives would cancel his province’s $6-billion share of the Liberal child care plan.

Freeland and fellow Liberal candidate Jean-Yves Duclos, who is running in a Quebec City riding defended the Trudeau government’s record in the province when asked about Legault’s comments. They said it has worked well with the province in the past, including on child care.

“I have the most respect for Quebecers,” Freeland said. “And I trust them to listen carefully to what we are committing to in our platform to look carefully at what our government has done already. And I trust them to make the right choice for themselves.”

The spiciest exchange during Wednesday’s debate concerned issues of Quebec identity and representation.

An animated Trudeau turned on Blanchet late in the debate, proclaiming he is also a “proud Quebecer” and that Blanchet does not have a monopoly on the province.

“You keep forgetting: I’m a Quebecer,” Trudeau said, his face flushed, while a small smile slid across Blanchet’s. “I have always been a Quebecer, I will always be a Quebecer.

“You have no right to consider me not a Quebecer.”

Blanchet conceded to reporters in English after the debate that it was “probably true” that Trudeau was as much a Quebecer as him.

“But in terms of institutions, this is the Assemblee nationale du Quebec which speaks for Quebec,” he said, referring to the French name for the provincial legislature, adding that Quebecers are “obviously not” a monolith.

— With files from Jacob Serebrin in Montreal, Allison Jones in Toronto and Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa.

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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