The economy, immigration and the French language figured prominently in the first leaders debate in the Quebec election campaign, featuring lively, sometimes cacophonous exchanges.
The "face-to-face" model on the TVA network divides the debate into mini-debates where one leader faces off against another. The fast-paced exchanges led to some stinging one-liners.
Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault defended several aspects of his time as premier, including the revamped French-language law known as Bill 96, his government's handling of the pandemic, and whether he had done enough to fix a worsening labour shortage.
Three of the five parties voted in favour of Bill 96 with the Liberals and Parti Québécois rejecting for opposing reasons.
It has become a campaign issue since then, with Québec Solidaire spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois saying he would amend it and Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon arguing is that it does not go far enough. Conservative Party of Quebec Leader Éric Duhaime has said he would scrap it and write a new law.
During the debate Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade came under fire for her previous positions in favour of the bill.
Duhaime spoke in English to Anglade about Bill 96, despite the debate taking place in French.
"You betrayed English Quebecers, actually, on that bill," Duhaime said. Anglade shot back that Duhaime says one thing to anglophone voters and another to francopĥones.
Duhaime denied it and said he wanted to position himself as a centre-right alternative to the Liberals for English-speaking Quebecers and that after Oct. 3, Quebec would be entering a new political reality, one where sovereignty is on the backburner.
"The two old parties — the 'Yes' and the 'No' team — are below 10 per cent. We're entering a new paradigm and I think anglophones want to be a part of that new political reality," Duhaime said.
Though the debate's subjects ran the gamut, the through line appeared to be immigration — which was often brought up in exchanges on the protection of the French language and on the labour shortage.
Nadeau-Dubois challenged Duhaime after the Conservative leader said his party would favour immigrants with "Western values."
"You're suggesting that there are immigrants who are against those values," Nadeau-Dubois said, who added that Québec Solidaire wanted to "regionalize" immigration in the province and better fund French courses for newcomers.
Both Nadeau-Dubois and Anglade accused Legault of being negative every time he has spoken of immigration. While most parties except for the PQ are in favour of welcoming more permanent immigrants to the province, the CAQ says it would limit the number of newcomers to 50,000 per year.
Legault repeated what he said in an apology he made last week, after making comments at a campaign stop citing "extremism" and "violence" as a reason to limit immigration to Quebec.
"Immigration is a richness for Quebec. I'm proud," he said, echoing his apology tweet following the comments. "But how do we stop the decline of French? Doesn't that worry you?"
Leaders name controversial book
One question about academic freedom by moderator Pierre Bruneau quickly devolved into a debate about whether it is OK to say the French N-word in the public sphere.
Plamondon argued the risk of offending people should not hamper democratic debate.
"In what kind of society do we live if we can't name certain books?" the PQ leader said. This summer, CBC/Radio-Canada issued an apology following a complaint about the repeated use of the N-word on a Radio-Canada program in 2020.
The host and a columnist were referencing a petition that demanded the firing of a Concordia University professor who had quoted the title of a famous book from Pierre Vallières that features the N-word.
"It's not a question of banning words. It's normal that societies change," Nadeau-Dubois said.
"But can we name [those books]?" Bruneau asked.
Plamondon preceded to say the book's name, including the N-word, arguing it was about Quebecers' history — and prompting Nadeau-Dubois to say it as well.
Later in the debate, the leaders were asked to discuss systemic racism, a concept Legault and the CAQ have refused to say exists in Quebec society.
Anglade, who is the first Black woman at the helm of a major political party in the province, called his mandate "a failure for Indigenous communities," referencing what happened to Joyce Echaquan.
"Words have meaning. People who are victims of systemic racism, who are stopped more often, it affects their lives," she said, noting Legault did not adopt the Joyce Principle, a series of measures drafted by Indigenous leaders after Echaquan died.
WATCH | Highlights of Thursday's leader's debate:
Labour shortage, economy and taxes
Another tough exchange between Anglade and Legault touched on the labour shortage.
The Liberal leader said Legault had failed to create any solutions for the shortage in his four years as premier. She said her daughter had four different teachers last year because workers, including educators and nurses, are so tired.
Legault said salaries had increased in his time in office. "Workers are happy, workers are happy" he said, adding that Quebec had narrowed the wealth gap with Ontario.
"The issue today is we don't have bus drivers; we don't have teachers; we don't have nurses. We are missing people in all sectors of the economy in Quebec and that has an impact on every region of the province, and you want to say it's good news." Anglade said.
Taxes were another hot topic on the economy. Legault and Duhaime took aim at QS's proposed 15 per cent tax on highly polluting vehicles, such as SUVs, calling it "the orange tax."
Duhaime said QS had a tax "every time there's a problem. It's like a striptease of taxes."
Nadeau-Dubois was quick to reply, accusing Duhaime of being "on another planet" with regard to the reality of environmental issues. "You should run for governor of Texas," he said.
Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade also accused Duhaime of disregard for the environment with his platform proposal to exploit Quebec's hydrocarbons.
"You want to take us back to the 1950s," she said, after which Duhaime accused Anglade of being a demagogue.
Despite the fact that much of Legault's mandate took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, health-care did not feature prominently in the debate.
One of the more memorable moments was when Duhaime said Legault had been too strict with his government's measures against COVID.
"You were the worst confiner on the continent," said Duhaime. The Legault government issued a curfew twice since 2020.
Legault accused Duhaime of using the pandemic for partisan purposes and said he was the only party leader to do so.
"To gain votes, you didn't want to support measures, all the while everyone was rowing in the same direction," the CAQ leader said. "You shot the bottom of the boat."
1st debate for 4 out of 5 leaders
The debate was the first contest as party leader for four of the five participants. As the incumbent, Legault was the only one with experience — and a target on his back.
"The four other leaders attacked me a lot, that's normal," Legault told reporters afterward. "I was expecting it."
Legault told reporters he thought the debate was important because it showed that Québec Solidaire's platform was not realistic, especially when it came to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Québec Solidaire had 10 MNAs when the election was called.
Nadeau-Dubois said he "wanted to make it clear that the alternative to the CAQ is Québec Solidaire."
Liberal Leader Anglade said she "spoke from the heart, to explain that there is another way, not just the one offered by François Legault, one that unites instead of divides."
Duhaime said he felt he "succeeded in presenting the Conservative Party's ideas, for those who don't know us."
Plamondon, who has been leader of the Parti Québécois for two years, said he was proud of what he had contributed to the debate. "It's what I think, the ideas I care about."
A second French debate, on Radio-Canada, will take place on Sept. 22. Unlike in 2018, there will be no English-language debate this election campaign.