Federal party leaders took to the stage Thursday night in the sole two-hour English language debate of the campaign.
The debate was often reminiscent of watching a soap opera, what with all the posturing, tense tones, and general chaos of the evening.
Debate subjects and topics were chosen based on the 21,000 responses from a Debate Broadcast Group survey circulated to Canadians earlier this year.
The six categories included health care and pandemic relief, affordability, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, the climate, affordability, and accountability in leadership.
While the climate crisis was featured among the six debate topics, it continues to be presented politically as an issue on its own, rather than something that is intersectional and crucially informs other issues like the economy and health care.
The lack of details and specifics on offer last night on the questions on the increasingly hard-to-ignore climate crisis brings into question how, exactly, party leaders will prioritize climate justice in their platforms.
Not only does the void of climate debate speak volumes about this country’s priorities, the buck truly stops with the moderators who ultimately spent less than 20 per cent of the debate focussed on climate change.
One question from moderator Shachi Kurl (who is president of the Angus Reid Institute) began with the phrase: “Canada’s transition to a green economy depends on pipelines.”
The framing of that question casts further doubt on the severity to which the country is approaching efforts to combat the climate crisis. That moment from the moderator also speaks volumes about how news organizations and media outlets frame our climate coverage.
Kurl asked the leaders about how they intend to combat climate change when one in four Canadians don’t believe climate change is caused by human activity. This question ignored the fact that three in four Canadians do in fact believe in climate change, and perpetuated the false notion that to do anything about climate change, every single Canadian has to buy in.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau responded that his Conservative competitor Erin O’Toole has never understood that you can’t have a strong economy without a plan to tackle climate change.
Another question asked O’Toole directly how he plans to combat the climate crisis when his targets are the same ones Stephen Harper ran on in his ill-fated 2015 campaign.
Trevor McMullen, a teacher in Lunenburg Nova Scotia, was among the virtual guest speakers throughout the evening. His question about green technology caused the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh to attack Trudeau, whose government has increased fossil fuel subsidies annually since 2016.
Singh noted that the cost of inaction on the climate crisis is the village of Lytton being devastated by a forest fire, as well as the flooding and heat waves that have cost Canadians their lives. He added that many young people he’s spoken to have said “why bother” when it comes to starting a family or getting an education, as they have been left to their own devices to adapt to and combat the climate crisis.
While Trudeau asserted his government’s emissions targets are on track for 2030, Singh reminded the Prime Minister that he has the worst track record in the G7 on climate.
Green Party leader Annamie Paul — the first Black woman invited to participate in a federal leaders’ debate — was asked about resource extraction, something she has said a Green Party government would shut down completely. Paul said she believes Canada will be a renewable energy superpower, adding that “we can’t keep moving toward a mirage.” She also noted that eventually the last candlemaker had to accept that all of their customers had moved on to LED.
Singh spent much of the night on the offense, comparing Trudeau and O’Toole to the lesser of two evils.
“On one side, there’s someone who doesn’t believe it’s a [climate] crisis, and on the other side, someone who won’t take action on the crisis,” Singh said.
Paul emerges as a heavy-hitter
Trudeau continued to face a swath of questions surrounding his decision to call a snap election later this month. He also faced criticism for declaring an election on the same day as the fall of Kabul, rather than devoting his undivided attention to the crisis in Afghanistan.
Trudeau repeated his claim that Canadians may find themselves returning to the polls in 18 months unless voters cast their ballot for Liberal Party candidates. Asked if he would personally feel comfortable placing a family member in a long-term care home, Trudeau said tomorrow is his mother’s 73rd birthday, telling her “not to worry about it.”
O’Toole followed a similar strategy to his French debate performances, where he brushed off the questions at hand from moderators in favour of regurgitating his platform’s bottom line.
O’Toole was forced to contend with not only his platform’s poor climate emissions targets but also his party’s anti-science stances on climate change. Trudeau insinuated O’Toole’s pandemic relief plan is disingenuous, asking how he can get 90 per cent of the country fully vaccinated when the Conservative leader can’t get his candidates or caucus members to do the same.
The Greens’ Paul surprised with a decent English language debate debut. While lacking a fully-costed and detailed campaign platform, Paul remained calm and firm while the four men around her interrupted and spoke over one another. She noted at one point during the debate she was making an active effort to avoid interrupting her opponents.
Paul, who in the last week has cancelled a number of campaign events and offered few media availabilities, faced questions about party strife and her ability to lead a caucus, saying she’s “crawled over broken glass” to reach her position.
Paul also managed to throw the first punch, calling Trudeau a bad feminist after the prime minister faced questions about his record dealing with sexual misconduct in the military. Trudeau shot back that he won’t be taking lessons on caucus management from Paul — an answer that overlooked the legitimate issues facing women in the nation’s military on his own watch.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, who was called out by moderators in Wednesday night’s French language debate (covered by Karl Nerenberg here) for calling oil “the future” back in 2013, remained on the defence on the subject in this debate as he deflected one question directed to him to O’Toole; asking him to repeat what he has previously said in French about cancelling Energy East and instead focusing on pipelines through Western Canada. He also took heat in both debates for attempting to equate Indigenous nation-hood with Quebec’s nation-hood.
Blanchet — who spent at least one minute of his speaking time complaining about his lack of speaking time — even prompted CBC’s Rosemary Barton to ask if she could finish her question after being repeatedly cut off.
Responding to reconciliation
On a question about respecting the will of Indigenous nations, Blanchet said no one is entitled to tell a nation what to do or what to think, moving his answers back to Quebec and away from Indigenous rights. Blanchet felt called out by Paul for not educating himself on systemic racism while APTN reporter Melissa Ridgen tried to ask questions pertinent to Indigenous communities, saying Paul insulted him.
One question noted that Canada has more children in government custody than at the height of the residential schools system. Paul was asked about poverty and trauma issues for these children, saying that the residential school system was replaced with children in care, perpetuating a legacy of trauma. She said what’s missing is political will.
Notably, O’Toole called the discovery of unmarked graves of Indigenous children across the country a “scar” rather than an open wound, suggesting he lacks an understanding of Canada’s continuing systemic racism against Indigenous peoples.
Trudeau asks why he should be believed the third time around, again repeating his record rather than his platform, adding, “I know that we’re not done yet.”
“I don’t think anyone is questioning the money spent, but questioning the results of the money spent,” Ridgen responded.
After two hours, and to the detriment of voters, Canadians learned more about how the leaders feel about their opponents’ platforms than they did about their own.
Stephen Wentzell is rabble.ca‘s national politics reporter, a cat-dad to Benson, and a Real Housewives fanatic. Based in Halifax, he writes solutions-based, people-centred stories.
Image: Annamie Paul/Jagmeet Singh/Justin Trudeau/Yves-François Blanchet/Erin O’Toole/Facebook
Editor’s note: This story previously stated that Yves-François Blanchet defended the Line 3 pipeline. In fact, the Line 3 pipeline is situated in Western Canada, not in Quebec. Instead, Blanchet was asking Erin O’Toole to restate in English what he had said in French: that he was against the Energy East pipeline and only wanted to focus on pipelines serving Western Canada. The story has been updated and we apologize for the error.
Further, this story previously stated Blanchet “took heat in both debates for turning a conversation about Indigenous rights to the rights of Quebec.” For clarity and specificity, the story has been updated to state Blanchet “took heat in both debates for attempting to equate Indigenous nation-hood with Quebec’s nation-hood.”