OTTAWA — Federal party leaders jousted over climate change, health care, foreign policy, the economy and Indigenous reconciliation during Thursday's English-language debate — their last, best chance to sway voters before the Sept. 20 election.
But the format of the debate may have left many viewers unsatisfied.
The five leaders frequently talked over one another. Leaders on the receiving end of accusations or loaded questions from rivals were often given no chance to respond.
Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet repeatedly complained that he was being given less time than the others to speak.
Right off the bat, the role of the moderator, Shachi Kurl, came under fire, with Blanchet taking umbrage at what he termed her suggestion that Quebec is racist.
Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, asked Blanchet to explain why he supports "discriminatory laws" in Quebec, such as the secularism law banning some public servants in positions of authority from wearing religious garb or symbols.
"Those laws are not about discrimination. They are about the values of Quebec," Blanchet responded.
After the debate, Blanchet told reporters it was "extraordinary" to have the debate open with "a bunch of insults against Quebecers" by the moderator.
He suggested that Kurl's question reflects a bias against Quebec that is shared in the rest of the country and that it shows Quebec's interests need to be protected. He noted that no other leader came to Quebec's defence.
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who had rounded on Blanchet during Wednesday's French debate for questioning his devotion to Quebec, said the format didn't give him a chance to respond. He reiterated his opposition to the secularism law but added: "I want to say, as a proud Quebecer, Quebecers are not racist."
The debate was the last of three to be held during the campaign and came 11 days before election day and just as four days of advance polls are set to open today.
Polls suggest the Liberals and Conservatives are stuck in a virtual dead heat, with the NDP and Bloc poised to determine which of the two main parties will form government.
Trudeau was bombarded by attacks from all the other leaders, who accused him of putting his self-interest ahead of the interests of the country by calling an election in the midst of a fourth wave of COVID-19, wildfires in British Columbia and the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
On the latter, Conservative leader Erin O'Toole said Trudeau should have focused on evacuating Canadians and Afghans who supported Canada's military mission rather than calling an election.
"You called an election, sir. You put your own political interests ahead of the well-being of thousands of people," O'Toole said.
When Trudeau tried to respond, he was told it wasn't time for open debate.
O'Toole also went after Trudeau for failing to stand up to China and win the release of two arbitrarily detained Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. He noted that Trudeau did not show up for a vote in the House of Commons on a motion condemning China's treatment of Uyghur Muslims as genocide.
"If you want to get the Michaels home, you do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific," Trudeau replied.
On climate change, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh said Trudeau's government has missed all its targets for reducing carbon emissions.
But Trudeau questioned, "How is it that the experts that have rated our plan on climate to be an A have rated your plan to be an F?"
"I rate your track record to be an F," shot back Singh. "You've had six years."
During a segment on sexual misconduct in the military, Green Party leader Annamie Paul said she doesn't believe Trudeau "is a real feminist." If he was, she asserted, he wouldn't have pushed former ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott out of the Liberal caucus.
"I think, Ms. Paul, you'll perhaps understand that I won't take lessons on caucus management from you," Trudeau retorted, alluding to the turmoil over Paul's leadership that erupted last spring after Green MP Jenica Atwin crossed the floor to the Liberals.
The leaders also sparred over Indigenous reconciliation, with Singh accusing Trudeau of "taking a knee" — as he did at an anti-racism rally on Parliament Hill last year — even as his government was taking Indigenous kids to court.
Singh was referring to Ottawa's controversial legal challenge of a pair of rulings involving First Nations child welfare.
Trudeau shot back, saying cynicism is harming reconciliation efforts, and that his government has made progress by getting more Indigenous kids into quality schools and lifting more than 100 boil-water advisories.
O'Toole said he would like to see the Canadian flag raised again on Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, with a commitment to "move forward" on the calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Canadian flag has remained at half-mast on the Peace Tower and other federal buildings since late spring to mark the finding of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools. O'Toole has previously said Canadians "should be proud to put our flag back up."
The two-hour debate began with tough questions for each of the leaders from moderator Kurl.
To Trudeau, it was why he called an election just as a fourth wave of COVID-19 was sweeping the country.
He argued that the debate would show voters have to choose among radically different views on how to finish the fight against COVID-19 and build back better.
To O'Toole, the question was how can voters trust that he would be in the driver's seat if elected prime minister, and not his caucus, many members of which have decidedly more conservative views on issues like abortion, climate change, and vaccinations.
"I am driving the bus," O'Toole insisted, stressing that he's personally "pro-choice" and an ally to the LBGTQ community.
Singh was asked to explain why he has yet to release the costing for his election platform. He did not directly respond while saying the NDP is the only party that would make the ultra-rich pay their fair share.
Perhaps the most devastating question went to Paul, who was asked how she could hope to lead the country when she's been unable to lead her own party members, some of whom spent weeks prior to the campaign trying to dump Paul as leader.
Paul conceded she's been through a difficult period but said she's had to "crawl over a lot of broken glass" to get on the leaders' debate platform and is proud to be the first Black woman to do so.
People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier did not meet the independent Leaders' Debates Commission's criteria for participating in either the English-language debate or the French-language debate.
But dozens of his supporters showed up Thursday outside the debate venue — the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que., just across the river from Parliament Hill — to protest his absence.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2021.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press