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French Debate : All eyes on Trudeau, but Scheer on hot seat 

It was Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s first time facing his rivals directly in the federal election campaign, however, it was Conservative leader Andrew Scheer who felt the scorching heat during the first French-language debate. Hosted by private TVA television network and newspaper Le Journal de Montreal and hosted by anchor Pierre Bruneau, the debate placed Scheer right in the spot with its first question on abortion.

Yves-Francois Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Quebecois pressed Scheer to elaborate on his personal views.

Raging on Scheer, Trudeau said, “Setting politics aside. Do you believe as a leader..as a father, as a husband, that women have the right to choose?” Pitching in, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said, “It is not acceptable to have a man talk about the rights of women,” he said. The Conservative leader said it is normal for Canadians to have different perspectives, but that he would oppose any measure to reopen the debate. He said, “It’s the Liberals who want to import these divisions from other countries,” he said. “I have always been clear. As a government, we will not reopen this debate.”

Conversation continued on the separation of Church and state with Quebec’s Bill 21, that prohibits some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols at work, being an important issue in the discussion and the federal campaign. When asked if they would intervene in such a bill, Blanchet was a tad too swift to point out that the law is widely supported by Quebecers and that it shouldn’t be challenged. “It’s a lack of respect for the Quebec public.”

A practicing Sikh, Singh countered any suggestion that his personal religion would get in the way of his strong support for secularism, in a less restrictive form as a public value. He said, “I am for the separation between church and state.” He added that the supports the rights to abortion, same-sex marriage and medical assistance in dying. “I will defend these rights with all my strength.”

Truedeau, meanwhile, was the only federal leader to say a government under his lead might intervene. He argued that while the separation of church and state is important, especially in Quebec, a society should “not legislate discrimination.” “I’m not going to close the door as the federal government to defend the rights of people,” he said.

Scheer found himself in a soup when the SNC-Lavalin affair came up. The federal ethics watchdog released a report this summer that concluded Trudeau had contravened the Conflict of Interest Act when he tried to pressure former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould into intervening to head off criminal proceedings against the Montreal engineering giant.

Trudeau said his only motivation pushing for a remediation agreement for SNC-Lavalin was a desire to protect jobs, including many in Quebec. Blanchet accused Scheer of wanting to “scrap” SNC-Lavalin, while Scheer defended his party with his argument that the Liberals were wrong in thinking the criminal proceedings threatened Canadian jobs.

The debate heated up when the topic for climate change came up. News anchor Bruneau noted Trudeau who portrayed himself as a champion of the environment bought a pipeline. Scheer, who is in favour of building pipelines and vows to repeal the federal carbon tax the Liberals brought in for provinces that don’t have equivalent measures of their own, tried to undercut the Trudeau record on the environment in a different way.

“You are a fake environmentalist,” he told Trudeau as he noted the leader has two campaign planes. Trudeau stated that his campaign had purchased carbon offsets for his travel and the Conservatives had not. Singh meanwhile, took Scheer to task over his promise to create a national energy corridor to transport oil, gas, hydroelectricity and telecommunications from one coast to the other, which could be a tough sell in Quebec.

He accused Scheer of wanting to impose a pipeline on Quebec. Blanchet also went after the leader by demanding to know how many more years he thinks Canada will need to extract and export fossil fuels. Trudeau tried to convince people that voting for Scheer would be like returning to the days of former prime minister Stephen Harper. In retaliation, Scheer said he believes Quebecers missed Harper during Trudeau trip to India. “You won the election in 2015. Bravo. Now it’s 2019. Check your calendar.”

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and the People’s Party of Canada leaders Maxime Bernier were not invited to the debate. There are two more debates to come, a two hour English-language debate on October 7, and a final debate in French on October 10.

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