The federal election debates 2021: A recap

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On Wednesday, September 8, and Thursday, September 9, five of our federal leaders took part in live debates, first in French then in English. 

The five major party leaders debated both on Wednesday September 8 & Thursday September 9. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press).

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole, New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Quebecois (BQ) leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, and Green Party leader Annamie Paul were all present; however, People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier did not meet the criteria for participation as his party has no seats in Parliament. 

Tight race heading into debates

The five federal party leaders debated on mandatory vaccinations, snap elections, and climate change in the first of two official election debates on Wednesday evening (the French-language debate). 

The debates were held just as polls suggest a nail-bitingly close two-way race between the Liberals and Conservatives, consequentially raising the stakes for the leaders’ performances on Wednesday and Thursday nights.  

Wednesday’s French debate

(Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Wednesday night led with questions as to why Canadians needed to head to the polls. Several of the party leaders highlighted the importance of continuing to work together during the pandemic after the election is decided. 

Moderator Patrice Roy then asked leaders if they can promise they won’t call an election for the next four years if they get elected with a minority government.  

Trudeau dodged the question, O’Toole said he would “yes absolutely” commit to not calling another election in a minority scenario and highlighted, as did Paul, that parties must all work together for the country’s economic recovery. 

Singh said it is wrong to trigger an election amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while Blanchet said it won’t be his decision, adding that his party would support any government measures that are good for Quebec. 

The issue of parental support brought out a heated back-and-forth between Trudeau and O’Toole with both leaders claiming the others’ promises aren’t what Canadians want. 

The Liberals, like the NDP, have promised to introduce a $10 per day daycare initiative within five years; the Conservatives are promising a refundable tax credit to cover up to 75 per cent of the cost of childcare. 

Paul interrupted Trudeau and O’Toole to comment that the issue of affordable daycare is one that affects women the most – highlighting that she is the only party leader who can understand that with being female. 

In what might be considered the most heated moment of the debate, Trudeau and Blanchet got into an argument about Indigenous rights. 

Blanchet asked Trudeau why, if he doesn’t want to impose regulations on Indigenous people, that he feels he can do so with the people of Quebec. 

“You keep forgetting, I’m a Quebecer,” Trudeau responded. “I am a proud Quebecer. I’ve always been a Quebecer. I will always be a Quebecer. I will always have a say in what happens in Quebec. You do not have a monopoly over Quebec.” 

Thursday’s English debate

(Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Thursday night’s two-hour debate included five segments: affordability, climate, COVID recovery, leadership and accountability, and reconciliation.  

One moment stands out as the most unforgettable of the 2021 English-language federal leaders’ debate: Green Party leader Annamie Paul targeting Justin Trudeau for not moving faster to end sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces. 

Trudeau argued back that his government had no choice but to follow the process. Paul then quickly invoked the prominent female Liberals that Trudeau had made unwelcome in his office. “I do not believe that Mr. Trudeau is a real feminist. A feminist doesn’t continue to push strong women out of his party when they are just seeking to serve. And I will say their names tonight and thank them. Thank you, Jane Philpott. Thank you Jody Wilson-Raybould. Thank you, Celina Caesar-Chavannes.” 

Then, Trudeau interjected: “Ms. Paul, you’ll perhaps understand that I won’t take lessons on caucus management from you.” 

This was a reference to the spring dispute after one of Paul’s MPs crossed the floor to the Liberals over a rift-related to differing positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Trudeau, O’Toole, and Singh had a considerable back-and-forth over their respective climate change plans. 

Singh and O’Toole went after Trudeau for not meeting climate targets – even though no Canadian government has ever met goals for reducing emissions. 

The leaders also debated the issue of affordability. Canada’s housing market is one of the priciest in the world, with the average price of a single-family home costing well over $1 million in the Toronto and Vancouver urban areas according to the Canadian Real Estate Association’s MLS system. 

The Conservatives maintain that the housing crisis is driven by a shortage of supply therefore programs that encourage people and companies to build more rental units will help to alleviate the problem. Trudeau said the Conservatives’ housing plan would only give tax breaks to the wealthy. 

Alongside her early standoff with Trudeau, Paul made waves with her response to BQ Leader Yves-François Blanchet’s comments on systemic racism, where he said the issue has become a political tool against Quebec. 

Paul said the Bloc leader needed to “get educated” about the subject. Then, she reminded Blanchet that she was not looking to insult him, but simply offering “an invitation to educate yourself.” 

The Green leader also told Singh to stop referring to the NDP as the only party that will address progressive issues and commented on the shamefulness in the absence of more Indigenous women political leaders that could address the pressing needs of their community. 

All of Canada’s major party leaders have identified reconciliation as a top priority, yet the final debate of the election campaign – violence against Indigenous women and girls – received little airtime. 

Trudeau, Paul and Singh were asked in Thursday night’s debate how they would address the crisis. During this portion, Singh went after Trudeau’s record when it comes to keeping his commitments to Indigenous peoples. 

“You can’t take a knee one day if you’re going to take Indigenous kids to court the next, that’s not leadership,” said Singh, referencing Trudeau taking a knee during an anti-racism protest in June of 2020. 

“Mr. Singh you love that line about taking Indigenous kids to court” Trudeau responded. 

“It’s not a line,” Singh fired back. 

“It’s actually not true, we have committed to compensating those kids…” said Trudeau. 

“You’re taking them to court,” Singh repeated, as Trudeau said that cynicism is getting in the way of recognizing the process made when it comes to reconciliation efforts. 

Kurl reminded Trudeau and Singh to stay on track but allowed the question to run into overtime “to facilitate better responses”. 

Paul said the back-and-forth was a clear example of why Indigenous leadership is needed at the federal level. 

After facing heat for his child-care plans in the French language debate Wednesday, O’Toole was asked how he would create more daycare spaces under his plan but refused to respond. 

Childcare is part of the larger affordability issue that remains on top of voters’ minds. The lack of discussion missed an opportunity for all parties to reach out to parents — particularly after the more substantive French discussion. 

Who won the debate?

After the debate, polls indicated that no one really won the debate as all performed about the same. Some polls noted that Trudeau won somewhat in the French debate and O’Toole for the English, but no one clearly performed the best out of all five candidates.