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OTTAWA — Combating the danger that a resurgent Bloc Quebecois will take seats away from all of them in the Oct. 21 election, federal party leaders sought Thursday to endear themselves to francophone voters in the final debate of the election campaign.

The Bloc’s rising popularity — now sitting at around 25 per cent support in Quebec, recent polls suggest — under leader Yves-Francois Blanchet has upended the electoral battle in the crucial province, adding even greater weight to the French-language event.

For much of Thursday night Blanchet skated by and discussed his own platform, which includes taxes on web giants with funds going back to artists, the end to oil-industry subsidies, and a new equalization payment scheme focused on fighting climate change.

Other leaders took the opportunity of a question on the rights of francophones outside of Quebec to profess their affection for the French language and their support for a guarantee of equal services.

“It may be a surprise, but French is not my first language” Scheer joked, before describing his experience in French immersion school in Ottawa. He went on to promise to modernize laws around official languages.

On the issue of a proposed Toronto-Quebec high-frequency rail link, the leaders of the NDP, Conservatives and Liberals all voiced their support, while Blanchet called the project a sasquatch: always talked about and never seen.

And on the major issue of Bill 21 — the province’s secularism law, which bans the wearing of religious garb by many public servants — most federalist leaders professed respect for the jurisdictional rights of Quebec while expressing their opposition to the law.

“Yes, I wear a turban, but I share your values, and it’s a question of values” Singh said, noting his support for abortion rights and the rights of women.

The NDP leader would not join a court challenge against Bill 21, but Singh said he hoped to change the underlying views of people that support it.

“What I want to do is win the hearts of people,” Singh said.

Trudeau, who said he would leave the door open to potentially joining a court challenge in the future, went so far as to say it was important for a government to be ready to protect minorities everywhere — including, for example, francophone minorities in Ontario under threat from Premier Doug Ford.

“We’ll be there to defend the fundamental rights of everyone,” Trudeau said.

Bernier allied himself with Blanchet on the issue, saying the federal government needs to respect Quebec’s jurisdiction.

Throughout the evening, Blanchet attempted to position himself as the voice of Quebec values, and framed Bill 21 as part of a secularism movement that is seen as “progressive” in Quebec. 

The discussion on the secularism law took place in the second half of the debate, when the tension between Blanchet and the other leaders had increased, beginning with a tense exchange between Scheer and Blanchet.

Scheer said if Quebecers choose to elect Bloc Quebecois MPs, it would guarantee a win for Trudeau and ruin the chance of the province to gain more autonomy over immigration policies.

Blanchet shot back that “voting for the Bloc is voting for Quebec.”

That comment revived the federalist feelings among the other leaders, who leapt in to try to stop the Bloc leader from speaking for the province in its entirety.

“You’re the Bloc, but Quebec is a diversity of opinion, a diversity of regions, a diversity of voices. You don’t have a monopoly on Quebec,” Singh said.

“I’m a proud Quebecer, and I’m a federalist, and I’m a proud Canadian,” Trudeau said.

The Liberal leader went on to say that it was Quebecers’ decision to elect MPs in 2015 who put an end to a Conservative government. Quebecers need to choose once more whether they will join a government and accomplish real change or join the opposition once more, he said.

“I think what is clear is Quebecers want to be part of the action, not part of the opposition,” Trudeau said to reporters after the debate.

He said a strong Bloc caucus during the Harper years was unable to defend against inaction on climate and cuts to cultural funding.

But throughout the conversation on Bill 21 later in the second half, it was Scheer who led the attack against Blanchet, repeatedly accusing him on being in league with the provincial Parti Quebecois and looking to revive a referendum movement in the province “the day after the election.”

In a post-debate appearance in front of reporters, Blanchet once more tried to extract himself from the arguments over whether a strong Bloc benefits one party or the other.

“We are not there to participate in any government. We are there only to carry the voice, and only the voice, of Quebec in that parliament.”

This report by the Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 10, 2019.

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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