Federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has kicked off his first official debate of the current election campaign, taking aim at Conservative leader Andrew Scheer in the first French-language leaders debate by TVA Wednesday evening.
Trudeau, who skipped an earlier English debate, launched into the offensive in the early moments of the TVA event, targeting Scheer and asking him to clarify his position on abortion and women's rights.
"Personally, do you believe women should have that right?" Trudeau asked Scheer. "Because you are hiding your position and your beliefs [on that topic]."
Scheer repeatedly stated that the Conservatives will not reopen the debate on abortion policy — and the law has not changed since the last Tories government under Stephen Harper. Scheer instead said the other parties' focus on his personal stance on abortion takes away from what Ottawa should be focused on: the increasing lack of affordability for everyday Canadians.
Scheer also fired back at Trudeau on the question of legalized marijuana, saying the Liberal leader ignored the concerns of the community and families when he went ahead with legalization too quickly.
"We will focus on eliminating dependence [on drugs]," Scheer said, adding that immigration reform is also needed to improve security to the country — a contention that Trudeau characterized as trying to "scare" people.
The leaders also engaged on the issue of Quebec's controversial Bill 21 religious-symbols law, which drew the ire of NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. The debate also involved Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, who said Ottawa needs to respect the law — which has majority support within Quebec — of the province's unique rights as a "nation."
Singh accused Blanchet of creating divides between people within Canada, adding that Canadians need to work together to combat greater issues such as climate change: "With issues like the niqab, you are trying to divide people. For facing the climate crisis, we cannot do it alone."
On integration, Singh said additional funding for French-language programs is needed.
Trudeau and Scheer also launched into the issue, although Trudeau added he would not intervene in provincial affairs despite his opposition to Bill 21, saying the most important thing is "fight for the rights of all people" including LGBQ, ethnic minorities and Francophones in Quebec and elsewhere.
Scheer, meanwhile, said Quebecers need to be "at the table" for discussion of federal affairs – and the Bloc "has done nothing for Quebec."
On immigration, Scheer attacked Trudeau over a system that would allow some applicants to skip the line, while Trudeau fired back by responding that Scheer is trying "to scare people."
The topic of economic policy first reared its head during a question about senior care, when Scheer told Trudeau the Liberal government imposed items such as the carbon tax on seniors. This was in response to Trudeau saying the government as improved the income level of citizens over 75.
Singh also attacked Trudeau on a failure to improve pharmacare during the same debate, while also targeting Scheer for the Conservatives potentially cutting services to seniors and families to go along with tax reductions, similar to the Stephen Harper years: "Mr. Harper did it. So will you."
The recent mass environmental protests — including one here in Vancouver — also became a big point of debate. Scheer was asked to defend the energy industry and responded that Canada's energy sector has extremely high standards and should be supported instead of foreign sources.
"Quebec should not go to Donald Trump to buy oil," Scheer said, adding that Canada can produce fewer emissions from energy production than what is produced by the aluminum sector in places like Quebec — thus reducing carbon emissions on a global scale by displacing higher-polluting energy production in places like China.
Scheer also touted the Conservatives' plan for a green-renovations tax credit while exporting cleaner energy-sector know how as more effective than the carbon tax, a claim that was hammered by Trudeau and Singh, the latter of which said wants to electrify all transit in Canada.
Singh also criticized the Conservatives' support for the energy corridor through Quebec while Scheer called the plan a "win-win."
Trudeau, meanwhile, faced jabs over the Liberals' approval and purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which Trudeau called a "difficult decision." But Trudeau also characterized the move as investing in the environment, because it buys the country time to make the gradual shift towards sustainable energy.
"We will reach Net-Zero by 2050," Trudeau said.
One major topic to be broached towards the end was the SNC-Lavalin affair, where Scheer went after Trudeau for being found to have broken conflict-of-interest rules by the federal ethics watchdog. Scheer characterized Trudeau's move as lying, while Trudeau fired back that he did so to protect jobs that Scheer would not defend.
Notably, the recent controversy surrounding Trudeau's blackface photos from during his time as a teacher in Vancouver did not make a major mark on the debate.
Green leader Elizabeth May and People's Party leader Maxime Bernier were not invited to the TVA event due to neither parties being elected to a Quebec seat in parliament. The next major stage for party leaders to square off will be Monday, Oct. 7, for the official English-language debate. The official French debate will take place on Thursday, Oct. 10.