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For three decades, Quebec political leaders avoided English-language debates because the risks were high and the potential rewards few. The province’s anglophone voters overwhelmingly support the Quebec Liberal Party, leaving little for any leader to gain in a high-tension exercise in their second language.

With the sovereignty issue dormant, opportunity opened. Jean-François Lisée, the PQ Leader, whose party is running a distant third, was the first to sign up. “I agreed to this first because I wanted to speak to you directly, beyond stereotypes,” Mr. Lisée said on Monday during the first English-language election debate since 1985, and the first one ever televised. The strongest debater and English speaker among the candidates, he also knew he would have the advantage. By taking the plunge, he made it difficult for the others to say no.

The debate, which broke little new ground, still made history.

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From left, Manon Massé of Québec Solidaire, PQ leader Jean-François Lisée, CAQ Leader François Legault and Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard,take part Monday in the English-language debate in the Quebec election.Allan McInnis/The Canadian Press

The last time provincial leaders debated in English, Robert Bourassa was the incumbent Liberal premier and Pierre-Marc Johnson led the Parti Québécois. The encounter was broadcast on radio only, on a Saturday. The Montreal Canadiens beat the Vancouver Canucks 7-0 in the old Forum that night on their way to their second-last Stanley Cup. The debate was a battle over hundreds of millions in spending plans on hydro-electric projects (that were built) and a Hyundai automotive plant (opened in 1989 and closed in 1994).

The idea of taking each other on in English was fraught for leaders. Liberals have avoided such debates for fear of being seen by francophones as soft on French protection. Parti Québécois leaders did not want to anger their nationalist base. This week, French-language media ran several dire commentaries predicting the debate would be another step toward turning Quebec from a French province to an officially bilingual one.

It was a jarring and welcome departure for anglophones to see Quebec leaders, universally francophones for generations, speaking uninterrupted English for 90 minutes. “I was born in ‘76, lived here my entire life and this event is blowing my mind,” said Marc Lucke, an investment consultant from Montreal and an avid follower of politics. “It is astonishing.”

The leaders covered topics important to the province’s 600,000 people who speak English as a mother tongue, along with the 45 per cent of Quebeckers who speak some English. While the leaders stumbled for words at times, they stuck to their ideas and plans without major faux-pas. The moderators, news anchors Mutsumi Takahashi and Debra Arbec, offered occasional vocabulary tips, and cracked down when the candidates veered off topic or spoke over each other.

The debate is unlikely to change the trajectory of the election: Mr. Lisée outperformed the others with his sharp tongue and the fluent English he learned from TV sitcoms and a stint as a news correspondent in Washington in the 1980s, but anglophones are unlikely to turn to a separatist party, even with independence dormant.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard held his own and already has 70 per cent of non-francophone support, according to polls. Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault, whose party is the front-runner for the Oct. 1 vote, was under fire, as he has been for more than a week. Manon Massé of the fourth party, Québec Solidaire, had the toughest challenge, with rough English, but got her points across.

There were moments of second-language levity: Mr. Lisée, who was once a PQ political adviser, recounted writing a speech in which former premier Lucien Bouchard said, in English, “When you are in pain and you get to the hospital, you don’t need a language test, you need a blood test.” Mr. Couillard interrupted: “That was a good speech.”

The leaders argued over local anglophone issues such as French training, school boards and hospitals. But as in the past week of the campaign, the debate was dominated by immigration, and Mr. Legault’s proposal to cut immigration quotas and expel immigrants who fail values and language tests. Mr. Lisée and Mr. Couillard tag-teamed the CAQ leader on it.

“Mr. Legault is trying to get an excuse to reduce immigration, for whatever reason or whatever problem he has with immigrants,” Mr. Couillard said. “Immigrants are frightened by what the CAQ was proposing.”

Mr. Legault countered that the Liberals have been in power for most of the past 15 years, but failed to improve the system of language training and integration.

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