Provocative political issues fire up first French-language debate

OTTAWA — Some of the most touchy subjects in Canadian politics — minority rights, climate change and Quebec sovereignty — had their airing during a lively and edgy French-language debate Thursday.

The broadcast, hosted by Radio-Canada and La Presse, featured one of the most heated exchanges of the election so far, on the controversial question of Muslim women who cover their faces.

Overall, the debate featured an ebb and flow of interesting alliances and clashes depending on the policy subject on the floor.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and the Bloc Quebecois’ Gilles Duceppe had both run provocative television ads expressing the controversial position that women who wear the veil should be made to remove it during the ceremony.

“We’re talking about a fundamental question, it’s the question of equality between men and women in our society,” said Duceppe, who promised the Bloc’s first bill in the Commons would be to extend a ban on the veil to other areas, such as public servants.

Although NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau are going head to head for seats in Quebec, they wound up on the same page on the issue — they didn’t think a woman should be told how to dress.

“I understand it’s a question that makes many people uneasy, but for me, the state is there to defend minority rights, and to defend the rights of women,” Trudeau said.

That led to a tense moment during the debate that featured Harper and Mulcair facing each other directly, gesticulating with their hands and nearly yelling.

“Mr. Mulcair, I will never tell my young daughter that a woman should cover her face because she is woman. That’s not our Canada, that’s not acceptable for me,” Harper said.

“Attack the oppressor, don’t attack the woman, Mr. Harper … have the courage to do that,” Mulcair said. “But it’s not by depriving these women of their citizenship and their rights that you’re going to succeed in helping them.

“You’re playing a dangerous political game.”

Green party Leader Elizabeth May called the issue a “fake debate” that has nothing to do with important questions on climate change, unemployment and the economy.

“For women’s rights, where is the inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women?” she asked.

Other lively moments came during a discussion on constitutional issues, where Trudeau challenged Mulcair’s position that a simple majority in a referendum would be enough for Quebec to separate from Canada.

“Mr. Trudeau says it will take much more than simple majority, but he refuses to say how much,” Mulcair said.

Trudeau said Mulcair’s own party constitution would require more than just 50 per cent-plus-one of voters to remove “new” from the name of the New Democratic Party.

“A prime minister should fight for the unity of the country, and it won’t surprise anyone that’s what I intend to do,” said Trudeau.

On climate change, most of the firepower was directed at Harper, whom his rivals slammed for not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gases.

Duceppe also took his shots at Trudeau for not opposing the Energy East pipeline project that will run through the province.

On the pipeline issue, Harper accused his rivals of not being in favour of replacing foreign oil with Canadian oil.

“That’s false!” exclaimed Duceppe, who was backed by May. “That oil is neither consumed, nor refined in Quebec.”

The leaders also debated the plight of Syrian refugees, and Canada’s military mission in the region.

Again, Harper was criticized by the four others for not doing enough to bring in refugees. Duceppe pointed out that the military helped bring thousands of people fleeing Kosovo into Canada in a matter of weeks 15 years ago.

But the Bloc leader agreed with Harper once more, on the military mission.

“There are moments in history when we have to intervene militarily…We can’t just knock on the door of the Islamic State and say, ‘we’re here to bring humanitarian aide,”‘ said Duceppe.

But that was followed up by a particularly prickly moment between Duceppe and Harper, the two leaders who have spent the most time together in the Commons, over Canada’s sale of military vehicles to Saudi Arabia.

Duceppe challenged Harper on why that continued, even while it was believed the Saudis were helping ISIS.

Harper responded that Saudi Arabia was an ally.

“So Saudi Arabia is a big ally. Oh good, I’ve taken note,” shot back Duceppe.

This first French-language debate could be key for Trudeau and Mulcair in particular.

The Conservatives managed to win a majority government in 2011 with only five seats from the province, as they cleaned up in Ontario and held on in their western strongholds.

But for the math to work for Trudeau, his campaign needs to tick off a healthy number of ridings in Quebec on election night.

The stakes are arguably even higher for Mulcair, whose base of support is firmly rooted in the province. In 2011, the NDP vaulted into official opposition status when they swept the province under Jack Layton. The NDP held 54 of the 75 seats in Quebec when Parliament was dissolved.

Three different pollsters suggested Thursday that New Democrat support may be beginning to wane. The party is not yet a force in the critical Greater Toronto Area.

“Overall, it’s fragile,” pollster Jean-Marc Leger said of NDP support. “It’s really fragile in Quebec.”

The leaders’ debate is the third of the campaign but the first to be nationally televised by the major networks. It is also the first to include five party leaders, adding May of the Greens and the Bloc’s Duceppe to the mix.

It also marks the beginning of an intense nine-day period that will see three leaders’ debates in all, two in French and one predominantly in English.

Follow @jenditchburn on Twitter.

Jennifer Ditchburn, The Canadian Press