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Canada election: Key takeaways from the final leaders' debate

Canada's main party leaders pose before the final debate along with moderator Patrick RoyImage copyright
Poll via EPA

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Canada’s main party leaders pose before the final debate, along with moderator Patrick Roy (centre)

This was the last debate of the Canadian federal election campaign – and so the final chance for all the party leaders to make their pitches to a national TV audience before voters head to the polls on 21 October.

On stage were Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, the Conservatives’ Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh of the New Democratic Party (NDP), Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Maxime Bernier from the People’s Party of Canada, and – in Quebec – the Bloc Québécois, led by Yves-François Blanchet.

Each leader in this French-language debate had one main goal: to win over Canada’s Francophone voters.

Here are the main takeaways.

Trudeau unscathed?

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has, over the course of three televised debates, been able to emerge relatively unscathed.

He didn’t deliver any knockout punches – but he didn’t take any either.

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Pool via EPA

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has been defending his record in office

He defended his record and stayed on message: that his last four years in office might not have been perfect, but that a Liberal government will continue to deliver on the vision that first caught the eyes of voters in 2015.

That’s not to say he didn’t face any attacks from the other leaders on stage.

He was cornered by the Conservative leader over federal deficit spending and the costs of the Liberal platform, which Mr Scheer said was “simply written on the corner of a napkin”.

Mr Scheer himself was under pressure to deliver a strong performance on Thursday after political analysts – and polls – suggested he has struggled to gain any real traction in recent debates.

The question is whether either performance will be enough to break the deadlock between the Liberals and the Conservatives.

National opinion polls indicate the two parties remain tied in first place – as they have been since the beginning of the campaign in mid-September.

More policy, fewer barbs

With six politicians on stage, there wasn’t too much time for much more than sound bites.

Still, this debate was more subdued than prior ones and the party leaders had brief discussions on some of the key policy issues that have arisen in this campaign.

The debate opened with a lengthy exchange on climate policy. Later, Mr Trudeau pulled into a back-and-forth on his commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous Canadians.

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Reuters

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A crowd of partisan supporters await the arrival of the party leaders to the debate venue

Quebec voter Lise Pigeon, who has multiple sclerosis, pressed leaders on whether they would soften the current right-to-die laws to apply to people like her, who are not terminally ill but have severe chronic illness.

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The question came after a recent Quebec court ruling that overturned part of the federal and provincial laws on medically assisted dying laws.

Mr Trudeau vowed to relax the law “in six months” if re-elected. Mr Scheer said a Conservative government “will evaluate the decision”.

Controversial secularism bill remains an issue

Bill 21, passed by Quebec’s provincial legislature in June, bars civil servants deemed to be in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols at work.

The Quebec secularism bill has been a major issue on the campaign trail – and questions about whether they would challenge the legislation in court haven’t stopped coming for the party leaders.

Critics say it is discriminatory but its supporters have praised the law as a reasonable step towards enshrining the separation of Church and state in Quebec.

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But many in Quebec support the controversial law, which puts the political leaders in a sticky spot, since the province – with 78 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons – is a crucial battleground.

Moderator Patrick Roy pressed the leaders on just that, saying: “We get the impression you’re being really cautious not to displease Quebec voters,”

To varying degrees, most the federal leaders have spoken out against the legislation – except the Bloc Québécois, which supports the bill – while saying they want to respect the jurisdictional rights of Quebec.

Mr Trudeau has boasted that he was the only party leader who might use the courts to fight the law.

Mr Singh, a practicing Sikh who wears a turban, has been pushed in the last few days over on his view of the federal government’s role.

“What I do want to do is always fight against division,” he said, adding his message to voters is: “Sure I wear a turban, but we share the same values.”

Third-place hustle

The current polling numbers suggest there is a strong possibility that voters will elect a minority government.

That has brought increased scrutiny over what policies the NDP, the Bloc and Greens would back in a minority situation.

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Reuters

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Bloc Québécois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, accompanied by his wife, arrives for the federal election debate

The Bloc leader said following the debate that he would not prop up either a Conservative or a Liberal government in a minority situation and would be in Parliament only to speak for Quebec’s interests.

The party, which only runs candidates in Quebec, is surging and Mr Blanchet sought to position himself as the leader best placed to defend values of voters in that province.

Mr Singh has already begun to lay out his priorities in such a scenario, including investments on a national drug plan and on housing. He was less firm on his stance on a controversial oil pipeline project supported by both the Conservatives and the Liberals, saying post-debate that a decision on the project’s future should be “reasonable and prudent”.

Ms May said the Greens would not support any government that is not adequately committed to strong action on climate change.

With files from The Canadian Press

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