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Federal party leaders were defending Quebec against charges of racism on Friday – a day too late, Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet shot back – as they returned to the road hoping to capitalize on any post-debate momentum as Canadians start voting in advance polls.

No stranger to recent federal election campaigns, the controversial issue of secularism in Quebec once again burst onto the scene at Thursday’s English-language debate, when Blanchet objected strongly to the phrasing of a question by moderator Shachi Kurl.

Kurl asked about Blanchet’s support for “discriminatory” laws in Quebec such as one known as Bill 21, which bars some civil servants in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols or garb. Blanchet in turn accused her of painting all Quebeckers as racist.

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative rival Erin O’Toole in separate campaign events on Friday asserted Quebeckers are not racist, while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said it was unhelpful for the fight against systemic racism to single out any one province or territory.

Quebec, with 78 seats, is a key battleground that could determine the outcome of the election. At dissolution, the Liberals held 35 seats in the provinces, the Bloc 32, the Conservatives 10 and the NDP just one.

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, for his part, described the question about Bill 21 and Bill 96, which proposes to strengthen the role of French in Quebec, as “unacceptable” and an attack on the province. He called for Kurl and debate organizers to apologize.

In statement Friday, the Debate Broadcast Group said Kurl’s question about the bills were to give Blanchet a chance to explain his party’s view on them.

“The question addressed these bills explicitly; it did not state that Quebecers are racist,” the statement said.

Both Bill 21 and Bill 96 have been panned by civil liberties and human rights groups as discriminatory. Bill 21, which has widespread support in the province, has been challenged in court, though the province has pre-emptively used the notwithstanding clause to protect it from a challenge under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Blanchet defended both laws during the debate as legitimate and reflective of Quebec’s values.

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He also objected to how the issue of systemic discrimination had become “a political tool” to use against Quebec. “It became a tool to say Quebec is this and that and racist and xenophobic and all of that,” Blanchet said in the debate.

The only leader to challenge Blanchet during the debate was Green Party Leader Annamie Paul, who invited the Bloc Quebecois leader “to get educated about systemic discrimination.”

Trudeau has previously spoken out against Bill 21, including during the 2019 federal election, as well as a ban on face coverings adopted by the Quebec government. That issue also figured prominently in the 2015 election when the former Conservative government mulled a niqab ban for public servants. He reiterated his opposition to the secularism law on Friday.

Yet the Liberal leader also said he was “taken aback” by the premise of Kurl’s question, saying during a campaign event in Hamilton.: “It is wrong to suggest that Quebeckers are racist. As a Quebecker, I found that question really offensive.

“Yes, there’s lots of work to do to continue to fight systemic racism across this country and every part of this country. But I don’t think that that question was acceptable or appropriate.”

Trudeau made the comments as the Liberals announced they were launching a new advertising campaign in Quebec.

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O’Toole went further, promising that as prime minister, he would never challenge a law passed by a provincial legislature.

“Quebeckers are not racist, and it’s unfair to make that sweeping categorization,” the Conservative leader said during an event in Mississauga, Ont. “They’ve made decisions and laws passed by their national assembly. I will respect that.”

Singh said during a news conference in Ottawa that systemic racism and discrimination are not isolated to one province or territory, suggesting one of the biggest examples is Ottawa’s failure to address boil-water advisories on First Nations.

“This is not a problem of any one province or territory,” he said before flying to British Columbia to vote in an advance poll in his riding. “It exists everywhere in Canada. And to tackle it, we’ve got to acknowledge that it’s everywhere and work together towards eradicating it.”

Blanchet, who also voted in an advance poll on Friday, accused the other three leaders of coming too late to Quebec’s defence.

“I will let Quebeckers measure the credibility of these renewed affections, which did not appear when the time was right,” he said in French.

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Trudeau says no regrets for election call during the pandemic; O’Toole pitches a ‘changed’ Conservative party

Canada's federal election: Four highlights from Thursday’s English-language leaders’ debate

He also defended the law, saying in English: “Religion has never protected equality for women within the state and never will. We are not the ones working with discrimination in mind.”

Others were equally critical of Trudeau, O’Toole and Singh, but for different reasons: Not standing up to Blanchet and clearly denouncing Bill 21.

“When the other party leaders did not step in to argue that Bill 21 does engage in act of systemic discrimination, that’s shameful,” said Mustafa Farooq, chief executive officer of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which is challenging the law in the Court of Appeal of Quebec.

Canadians United Against Hate founder Fareed Khan accused Blanchet of getting “all huffy” during the debate, adding: “I would say to Mr. Blanchet, if he was in front of me: `If you don’t want to be labelled as xenophobe and a racist then don’t support xenophobic, racist legislation.”'

Singh, meanwhile, revealed the NDP will release the full costs of its campaign promises on Saturday, as he faced several questions about why Canadians have yet to see the fine print on its platform with the final vote just 10 days away.

Both the Conservatives and Liberals have released fully costed platforms.

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“We’ve been working with the PBO, and it certainly does take time,” the NDP leader said in reference to the parliamentary budget officer.

“The PBO is obviously very respected and they’ve got a great track record of being able to cost our platform. So we wanted to work with them, and we’ll have our costed platform released on Saturday.”

On Friday, Statistics Canada reported the economy added 90,000 jobs in August – the third consecutive monthly increase.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.1 per cent for the month, compared with 7.5 per cent in July, bringing the rate to the lowest level since the onset of the pandemic last year.

Gains were concentrated in full-time work and in the hard-hit service sector, led by gains in accommodation and food services as restrictions eased in much of the country.

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