Fractious debate sees leaders trade blows over climate change, pandemic recovery and cost of living

·9 min read
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, left to right, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, left to right, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The five main party leaders met for the first and only English debate of this election campaign Thursday night and clashed over the country's most pressing problems, from climate change and the pandemic crisis to fractious foreign relations.

From the opening bell, Trudeau faced an onslaught of attacks from his opponents over the fall of Kabul, the imprisonment of two Canadians in China and his decision to call a snap election during a pandemic. Trudeau sometimes struggled to respond to the attacks during an often chaotic campaign event with a rigid format that featured few opportunities for one-on-one exchanges.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul tried to brand Trudeau as a failed prime minister who has long promised transformative progressive change but has failed to deliver. Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, who faced comparatively few jabs throughout the matchup, positioned himself as a more moderate choice than his predecessors in a pitch to disaffected Liberal voters.

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet struggled to compete in his second language and bristled at questions from the moderator, Shachi Kurl, that suggested some of Quebec's policies — like Bill 21, which restricts religious garb at work — are discriminatory and xenophobic.

Trudeau, meanwhile, asked voters to return his party to government to finish the fight against COVID-19, saying his party has released a viable plan for a post-pandemic Canada.

With the polls suggesting the race for first place is a virtual dead heat less than two weeks out from election day, Trudeau and O'Toole set their sights on each other early in the debate.

Climate and emissions targets

Trudeau tried to paint O'Toole as a climate laggard. Pointing to a positive review from a prominent climate analyst, Trudeau said the Liberal climate plan is the least costly and the most effective strategy on offer to drive Canada's greenhouse gas emissions. He dismissed O'Toole's promised green policies as "weak."

O'Toole has said that, if he's elected, he will push the reset button on Canada's climate plan, returning to the previous national target of reducing emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. Trudeau said O'Toole threatens to drag Canada back to "the Harper years," when former prime minister Stephen Harper committed to less ambitious environmental action.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press
Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

"We have to win back trust on this issue — we haven't met the expectations of Canadians on climate change," O'Toole said. He defended his lower target, saying his plan is actually doable and would not tank Canada's resource-rich economy.

"Mr. O'Toole can't even convince his party that climate change is real because they voted against that," Trudeau said, referring to a failed Conservative party convention motion to declare that "climate change is real."

O'Toole hit back, saying the Liberal leader talks a big game on climate but has failed to put a dent in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions.

Watch: Blanchet, Singh, O'Toole spar over pipelines:

"Mr. Trudeau always forgets one thing — he has never made a target for climate change. He has great ambition, that's part of the reason we're in an election in a pandemic is his ambition, but he doesn't have achievement," O'Toole said.

Singh also piled on. "Justin Trudeau has failed all of us," he said. "You had six years and you've got the worst track record in the G7 after six years.

"Let's talk about the cost — the cost of inaction is the entire town of Lytton being wiped out by a climate forest fire."

Trudeau said he wouldn't take lessons from Singh on climate, pointing to poor grades independent experts have given the NDP's climate plan. "How is it that the experts rated our plan an A and rated your plan to be an F?" Trudeau said.

According to the latest report from Environment and Climate Change Canada, the country's emissions have ticked up on Trudeau's watch.

In 2019 — the first year of the federal carbon pricing system, commonly called the "carbon tax" — Canada produced 730 megatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, an increase of one megatonne — or 0.2 per cent — over 2018.

However, the economy grew faster than emissions did in 2019 — which means the country's "emissions intensity" is lower than it has been in the past.

The 730 megatonnes of emissions recorded in 2019 is slightly higher than the 723 megatonnes Canada churned out in 2015, the year Trudeau first took office.

Watch: Trudeau, O'Toole debate climate change

Paul said Canada could become a renewable energy superpower, and the leaders need to form an "all-party cabinet" to combat the shared threat of climate change. "This is a global issue, this is a national issue, this is a non-partisan issue. And we have got to be able to come together across party lines," she said.

The cost of living and housing

The leaders also debated the issue of affordability. O'Toole blasted Trudeau over the spike in inflation in recent months — with the value of the dollar dropping and the price of some everyday goods rising thanks in part to government largesse and a strengthening economy.

O'Toole touted some of the more populist measures tucked into his 160-page election platform, like a GST holiday in December and a month-long discount at restaurants — measures meant to stimulate the bricks-and-mortar economy, which has been hard hit by public health measures like lockdowns.

Canada's housing stock is among the priciest in the world, with the average price of a single family home costing well over $1 million in the Toronto and Vancouver urban areas. According to the Canadian Real Estate Association's MLS system, the average price of a home in Canada is $716,000, an eye-popping figure that means property ownership is a distant dream for many.

"There's a housing crisis and Mr. Trudeau is making it worse," O'Toole said. To address this, the Conservative housing plan commits to building one million new homes over three years while easing mortgage requirements and making more federal land available for development.

WATCH: The party leaders debate housing affordability

Trudeau said the Conservatives' housing plan would give tax breaks to the wealthy — a reference to O'Toole's platform commitment to create incentives for Canadians who invest in rental housing by making tweaks to the capital gains tax regime.

The Conservatives maintain the housing "crisis" is driven by a shortage of supply and say programs that encourage people and companies to build more rental units will help to alleviate the problem.

Vaccine mandates

Trudeau, who is in the fight of his political life after six years in office, presented himself as a vaccine champion — a leader determined to boost vaccination rates to avoid the worst effects of the delta variant.

At a time when experts say vaccine coverage needs to be even higher than it is now, Trudeau said he would create a billion-dollar fund to help provinces pay for vaccine passports.

He criticized O'Toole's resistance to the idea of a vaccine mandate for federal public servants and the travelling public, saying O'Toole's preference for rapid tests over mandatory shots punishes the 85 per cent of Canadians who've had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

"We've shown unequivocal leadership on getting everyone vaccinated. Unfortunately, Mr. O'Toole can't even convince his own candidates to get vaccinated," Trudeau said.

O'Toole said if Trudeau was so concerned about ending this pandemic — and boosting vaccination rates — he wouldn't have plunged the country into an election campaign during a fourth wave of the pandemic.

Paul, who has grappled with internal party issues for much of the summer, is also opposed to mandatory vaccines.

"This is another case where policy gets put aside for partisan advantage. We need to encourage people to get vaccinated — vaccines save lives — but there are people who can't get vaccinated and we need to reasonably accommodate them," she said.

O'Toole's signature platform item — and by far the most costly item he has proposed — is a $60 billion cash injection into the Canada Health Transfer, a financial commitment that would help provinces and territories spend more on a system that is battered and bruised after a 19-month long health crisis.

The promised financial boost, which would come with no strings attached, has been welcomed by premiers like Quebec's François Legault who are reluctant to see Ottawa impose conditions in an area of provincial jurisdiction.

But Trudeau panned the Conservative promise, saying too much of the money is backloaded to the last five years of the 10-year plan. The Liberal plan, by comparison, promises $25 billion on a faster timeline.

Singh, who is contesting his second federal election, has promised to make the "ultra rich" pay more in taxes to fund a host of new social programs like universal pharmacare.

Indigenous reconciliation

Indigenous reconciliation was another topic of the debate. Since the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation reported this summer that as many as 215 children could be buried at a former residential school site, the issue of Crown-Indigenous relations has been at the forefront of the national conversation.

Singh clashed with Trudeau on the issue, saying the Liberal leader has allowed longstanding issues to fester.

"The calls to justice are out there and you haven't acted," Singh said of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry (MMIWG)'s findings.

"You can't take a knee one day when you're going to take Indigenous kids to court the next," Singh added, citing ongoing litigation over funding for First Nations social services — a claim Trudeau batted away as an oversimplification of a complex legal matter.

Watch: Singh says Trudeau has not acted on Indigenous calls to justice.

"The cynicism that Mr. Singh is showing by saying that we did nothing is harming reconciliation and the path that we're moving forward on," Trudeau said.

Trudeau said there's no doubt "Canada has failed" Indigenous peoples after centuries of abusive colonial policies but he said there has been meaningful progress in recent years. Trudeau said he has made Indigenous issues a priority while in government, flowing billions in new funding to end drinking water advisories, repair First Nations schools, set up a new Indigenous-led child welfare system and revive Indigenous languages, among other commitments.

The election campaign is entering its final stretch. Advance polls open tomorrow and election day is Sept. 20.

People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier was not invited to participate because the commission determined that his party did not have the required level of voter support — four per cent — five days after the date of the election call. Recent polling figures suggest the PPC has since overtaken the Greens in national support.

Watch: Trudeau, Paul have heated exchange over feminism and leadership:

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