A view of the set for the French language federal election leaders’ debate is shown at the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau, Que. on Monday, Sept.6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Radio-Canada/Ivanoh Demers

A view of the set for the French language federal election leaders’ debate is shown at the Museum of Canadian History in Gatineau, Que. on Monday, Sept.6, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Radio-Canada/Ivanoh Demers

Leaders gear up for English-language debate tonight after French joust

Health transfers, child-care funding, climate and the COVID-19 take centre stage in first debate

Five federal party leaders are licking their wounds and prepping their zingers after an occasionally testy debate yesterday that came ahead of tonight’s first and only one in English.

With under two weeks to go, millions of voters were expected to tune in to the two-hour English-language debate as well as last night’s faceoff in French.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul took part in the showdown and will convene again at 9 p.m. eastern time.

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.

The topics discussed Wednesday included health transfers to the provinces, child-care funding, climate and the COVID-19 pandemic as the politicians sought to sway francophones ahead of the election on Sept. 20.

The spiciest exchange, however, concerned issues of Quebec identity and representation when an animated Trudeau turned on Blanchet late in the debate, proclaiming that 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 Assemblée nationale du Québec which speaks for Quebec,” he said, referring to the French name for the provincial legislature, adding that Quebecers are “obviously not” a monolith.

Much of the back-and-forth Wednesday revolved around health care and how to pay for it. Moderator Patrice Roy pushed the politicians to spell out how much money they would give the provinces, and whether they would hand over the extra $28 billion in annual funding requested by premiers.

Trudeau pledged an added $25 billion, but “not unconditionally,” while O’Toole reiterated his plan to boost health transfers to the provinces by $60 billion over 10 years, “without conditions because it is a matter of respect” — a word he used repeatedly when referring to Quebec.

“I trust the government of Quebec. Why does Mr. Trudeau always interfere in provincial jurisdiction?” O’Toole asked.

However, freshly released costing for the Conservative platform states that only $3.6 billion of that would come in the first five years.

“I will increase health transfers in a way that’s stable, predictable,” O’Toole said.

He also fended off attacks on child care.

Conservative officials said Wednesday an O’Toole government would honour the funding deals with provinces for the first year. But after that the Liberal child-care plan — including $6 billion earmarked for Quebec — would be replaced by the Tories’ promise to convert 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.

Paul said after the debate that daycare has languished below the radar in part because it’s framed as a women’s issue, further upping the need to bring more women and other-under-represented groups into leadership roles.

Paul brought a personal touch to the federal debate — the first for the 11-month Green leader — noting her father’s death in a long-term care home during the pandemic’s second wave. She also said she sees Greens as “allies” to First Nations, citing her own experience as part of a diaspora robbed of its traditional culture.

Singh said he would “completely agree” that Indigenous languages should be recognized as official, going further than other leaders asked on the topic Wednesday.

—The Canadian Press

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