Canada’s Leaders Face Off in Heated Election Debate

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured here in Massachusetts in 2018, sparred with his rival, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, in an election debate Monday. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

(CN) – Zingers flew Monday night as Canada’s six main party leaders often veered from topics such as the environment and the economy into attacks on each other in a two-hour debate held ahead of the country’s Oct. 21 election. 

Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau squared off with his primary rival, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who came out swinging.  

“He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on,” Scheer said. “Because the fact is, he’s always wearing a mask.”

According to a poll released Sunday, Trudeau has regained a four-point lead over Scheer after photos of Trudeau in blackface and brownface sent his support tumbling. Trudeau has repeatedly apologized for the three incidents, which happened between the late 1980s and 2001, but he did not acknowledge them in Monday’s debate. 

While four other main political parties are competing for seats in the House of Commons, only the parties headed by Trudeau and Scheer are likely to win enough to command a majority under Canada’s parliamentary system, which would result in a mandate to control the executive branch. Without such a mandate, the parties would have to work together to form a governing coalition.

Scheer also put Trudeau on the spot to answer for a scandal involving accusations that the prime minister pressured his former attorney general to drop criminal charges against the Quebec-based construction company SNC-Lavalin and pursue only civil fines over claims that the company bribed the Libyan government during the Gaddafi regime.

“Tell me,” Scheer asked. “When did you decide that the rules don’t apply to you?”

Scheer, meanwhile, recently acknowledged that he had failed to disclose his dual U.S. citizenship. That is not a factor that disqualifies him from running, but Trudeau’s camp said it showed his main rival’s dishonesty. Scheer, whose father is American, told reporters last Thursday that he did not mention his citizenship because no one had asked him about it. He said he began the process to renounce his American citizenship in August.

Trudeau and Scheer accused each other of hiding the details of their policy plans and “making things up.” They frequently talked over each other.

Jagmeet Singh, leader of the progressive New Democratic Party, broke in.

“What we have here is Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer arguing about who’s worst for Canada,” Singh said to applause. “What we need to discuss is who’s best for Canada.”

Scheer said the federal carbon tax Trudeau’s administration imposed is too expensive for a country where the average citizen owed $1.74 for every dollar they earned in 2018. He pledged to repeal the policy as his first order of business as prime minister. 

Green Party leader Elizabeth May said such a repeal would be misguided.

“We have completely mischaracterized our response to the climate emergency as something that somehow doesn’t help the economy,” May said. “You have the biggest global economic opportunity in the history of mankind in moving off fossil fuels as quickly as possible.”

Trudeau said the climate crisis calls for realism and defended his government’s $3.4 billion purchase of an oil pipeline to ensure its expansion. He said he would use the proceeds from oil sales to transition to a clean energy economy.

“What a climate plan needs to do is to be ambitious and doable and of all the plans on this stage, there is only one that the experts have agreed is both and that is the plan that we have put forward,” Trudeau said.

May disagreed.

“We don’t grade on a curve and say because a plan is less ambitious it is therefore more doable,” May said. “If it fails to meet the goal of holding global average temperature to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, we fail to give our kids a livable world.”

Maxime Bernier, leader of the far-right People’s Party of Canada, said he does not believe the world is facing a climate emergency and accused May of promoting “a radical plan for the environment that will destroy the economy.”

Singh accused Bernier of choosing his policies “based on trying to get likes and retweets from the darkest parts of the internet.”

Trudeau, meanwhile, compared Bernier to his rival for the office of prime minister, in what was one of only three lines during the debate that scored audience applause: “Your role on this stage is to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately.” 

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