Leader of the Bloc Quebecois Yves-Francois Blanchet, left to right, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, TVA host Pierre Bruneau, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pose for a photo at the TVA french debate for the 2019 federal election, in Montreal, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joel Lemay)

Leader of the Bloc Quebecois Yves-Francois Blanchet, left to right, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, TVA host Pierre Bruneau, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh pose for a photo at the TVA french debate for the 2019 federal election, in Montreal, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Joel Lemay)

Separation of church and state a hot topic in French-language debate

Conservative, NDP, Bloc Quebecois and Liberal leaders took part

The separation of church and state and questions about personal character took the stage during the first French-language debate of the election campaign, the first time Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau faced off against his political rivals.

The controversial Quebec secularism law, known as Bill 21, that bans some public-sector employees from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, featured prominently in the first section of the debate, along with abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Bill 21 is overwhelmingly popular among francophones in Quebec, where four federal leaders tried to make their marks with voters on Wednesday night, in a debate hosted by the private TVA television network and the Montreal newspaper Le Journal.

Conservative Andrew Scheer, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh and Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Quebecois joined Trudeau on stage as they appealed to voters in a province that could hold the key to their electoral fortunes in the Oct. 21 vote.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault has urged all federal party leaders to promise to stay out of the court challenges against the secularism law and none of the party leaders has called for immediate intervention in existing cases.

READ MORE: Federal-party leaders seek momentum in French-language debate amid flat polls

Only Trudeau has said a government he leads might seek to intervene and he defended that position Wednesday night.

“I do not want to close the door,” Trudeau said, to the federal government one day needing to defend the rights of Canadians.

“Because for me, the defence of rights, be they for women, for francophones outside of Quebec — the federal government has a role to play.”

Singh, who wears a turban as an expression of his Sikh faith, has said he would not intervene to challenge the law, despite opposing it.

Singh sought to counter any suggestion that his personal religion would get in the way of his strong support for secularism as a public value.

“I am for the separation between church and state,” said Singh, adding that he supports the rights of women to abortion, same-sex marriage and medical assistance in dying.

“I will defend these rights with all my strength,” he said.

Scheer said he would not impose a secularism law federally, but that he would also not intervene in the court challenges against it.

The debate became heated during a discussion about the fight against climate change, where Pierre Bruneau, the news anchor moderating the debate, noted Trudeau had portrayed himself as a champion of the environment but then bought a pipeline.

Last year, the Liberal government bought the Trans Mountain pipeline project from Kinder Morgan for $4.5 billion, after political opposition to expanding the existing pipeline between Alberta and the B.C. coast gave the company and its investors cold feet.

Trudeau argued that Canada needs time to transition away from fossil fuels and into a greener economy and said the proceeds from the pipeline will help pay for the changes needed to get there.

Scheer, who is in favour of building pipelines and has vowed 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.

Noting the Liberal leader has two campaign planes, Scheer charged: “You are a fake environmentalist.”

Trudeau tried to interrupt to say 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.

TransCanada Corporation had proposed the $15.7-billion Energy East pipeline to bring western crude through Quebec to New Brunswick before being shipped overseas, but the company abandoned the project more than a year ago citing market changes and government red tape.

The project faced a lot of opposition in Quebec and Legault has suggested that would be the case for any other proposed pipeline.

Singh accused Scheer of wanting to impose a pipeline on Quebec. Blanchet also went after Scheer by demanding to know how many more years he thinks Canada will need to extract and export fossil fuels.

This is also the first time Blanchet has joined the other leaders in a debate.

He made sure to go after them all, including with some jabs at their French, while they countered that the Bloc can never implement its policies because it can never form government.

But after Scheer described what the Conservative government of former prime minister Stephen Harper had done for Quebec, Blanchet noted it had been during a minority government when Bloc MPs had pushed for more.

Trudeau has been trying to convince Canadians that voting for Scheer would be returning to the days of the Harper government.

At one point, that allowed Scheer to make another joke at Trudeau’s expense, saying he believes Quebecers missed Harper during his trip to India.

“You won the election in 2015. Bravo,” said Scheer. “Now it’s 2019. Check your calendar.”

Earlier, Scheer was put on the defensive as he was pressed by all his political rivals to elaborate on his personal views about abortion.

“Quebecers can be confident that a Conservative government would not reopen this debate,” Scheer said in one of the debate’s first exchanges, with Blanchet.

Scheer was pushed to clarify his stance on abortion this summer after it emerged that his Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, had told candidates in the province that backbench MPs would not be allowed to bring forward any bills or motions on the issue.

That goes against party policy and created confusion until Scheer, a practising Catholic who has voted in favour of restricting abortion rights in the past, said he would oppose any attempt to reopen the debate should he become prime minister.

Scheer repeated that position on stage again Wednesday night, but his political rivals pressed him to go further.

That included Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who asked him directly whether he personally believes women should have the right to abortion.

“I have always been open about my personal views,” Scheer said.

“It’s not OK to have a man talking about women’s rights,” Singh said at one point. “It is not acceptable to have a negotiation on the rights of women.”

None of the federal parties have seen much movement — either gains or losses — in opinion polls despite weeks of campaigning, which some experts attribute variously to a degree of comfort with the status quo as well as a rise in public disillusionment and strategic voting.

The Liberals and Conservatives remain locked in a fight for first place, hovering around 33 per cent support nationally, but with the Liberals apparently having a small edge because so much Conservative support is concentrated in the Prairie provinces.

A strong Liberal showing in Quebec, where polls show them with a small but consequential lead, could sustain the Liberals in power; a strong Conservative showing could sink them.

Trudeau was able to ride a wave of unhappiness with a decade of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper to power in 2015 in an election campaign that saw the NDP start in the lead before giving way to the Tories, until voters rallied behind the Liberals to give them the win.

Four years later, Trudeau’s record in office — including his broken promise on electoral reform and decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline — has turned off many of those same voters, especially progressives, who cast their ballots for the Liberals.

Despite that disappointment with Trudeau, Christian Bourque, executive vice-president of polling firm Leger, said there does not seem to be the same overwhelming drive for change that existed in 2015, when a majority of Canadians were ready for a new direction.

“So there’s this sort of comfort with the current government, even though some may be disappointed with the leader,” Bourque said. “So there’s no urge for that amount of change. And at the same time, there’s nobody convincing them of the need for change on the other side.”

Of course, even though it is past the halfway mark, the election campaign is far from over and Wednesday’s French-language debate was seen as an key opportunity for the four participating leaders to talk directly to Quebecers, in particular, and start gaining some momentum.

The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Menno Place. (Google Street View image.)
32 family members respond to Abbotsford care home’s plea for staffing help during COVID-19 outbreak

Menno Home asks for relief workers for food service, laundry and housekeeping

web pic
Police searching for missing Mission man

Mission RCMP are requesting the public’s assistance to locate missing person Michael Johannes Goetz

The Mission Candlelight Parade has been cancelled for a second time. The event will now take place virtually. / Submitted Photo
Candlelight Parade cancelled: Will now be a virtual event

Mission’s holiday tradition went from a parade, to a reverse parade and now an online video event

Christy Jordan-Fenton is the co-author of the book Fatty Legs, which has been mentioned amid the controversy of an Abbotsford school assignment on residential schools.
Fatty Legs co-author responds to Abbotsford class assignment on residential schools

Children’s book mentioned amid controversy at W. A. Fraser Middle School

The paraglider pilot, while attempting to free himself, dropped 30 feet and sustained serious injuries as Kent-Harrison Search and Rescue members worked quickly to extract him from the trees. They were able to get him to a waiting ambulance at the end of a nearby forest service road. (Contributed Photo/Dave Harder)
Lower Mainland Search and Rescue saves paraglider in treetop rescue

Pilot tried to self-rescue but sustained serious injuries in a 30-foot fall

A B.C. Ambulance Service paramedic wearing a face mask to curb the spread of COVID-19 moves a stretcher outside an ambulance at Royal Columbia Hospital, in New Westminster, B.C., on Sunday, November 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. records deadliest weekend of COVID-19 pandemic with 46 deaths; more than 2,300 cases

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides COVID-19 update

Fossil finds at Mt. Stephen. (Photo: Sarah Fuller/Parks Canada)
Extreme hiking, time travel and science converge in the Burgess Shale

Climb high in the alpine and trace your family tree back millions of years – to our ocean ancestors

Kettle bells sit aligned in an indoor fitness studio. (PIxabay.com)
1 COVID-19 case at a B.C. fitness studio leads to 104 more infections, 6 school exposures

According to case data released by Fraser Health, one case of the novel coronavirus carries a big impact

Vehicles drive past a display thanking essential workers in Burnaby, B.C. on Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel
B.C. changing COVID-19 case reporting as virus spread continues

Manual counting takes more time, leads to errors

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Mask fundraiser helps make children’s wishes come true

From Black Press Media + BraveFace – adult, youth and kid masks support Make-A-Wish Foundation

Kootenay East MLA Tom Shypitka takes over as energy and mines critic for the B.C. Liberal opposition. Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick (right) moves from health critic to assistant deputy speaker. (Hansard TV)
B.C. Liberals pick critics to take on Horgan’s NDP majority

Interim leader Shirley Bond takes seniors, long-term care

B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver. (Black Press Media files)
Judge hears Langley development case that could end in mayor, councillors booted out of council

The conflict of interest case was launched by local voters a year ago

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Chrystia Freeland listens to a question from a reporter on the phone during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Spending too little worse than spending too much, Freeland says as Canada’s deficit tops $381B

‘The risk of providing too little support now outweighs that of providing too much’

Harbour seals rest on log booms at Flavelle Mill in Port Hardy. With recent announcements the mill will be getting rid of the log booms, Dr. David Rosen sees an opportunity to study how the disappearance of this highly-frequented refuge for the seals will alter their behaviour in Burrard Inlet. (Photo supplied by David Rosen)
What the heck is going on with marine mammals in Vancouver waterways?

UBC researcher asks why they’re returning, and what role we’re playing

Most Read