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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and New Democratic Party Leader Thomas Mulcair participate in the Munk Debate on Canada's foreign policy in Toronto, on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2015.


The three major party leaders sparred during Monday night's foreign-affairs debate over the right mix of compassion, self-interest and military force to inject into the country's foreign policy – from the war against the Islamic State to the Syrian refugee crisis to the threat of terrorism.

With the stakes rising as election day approaches, each leader turned in more animated performances than in the previous three debates. The Liberals and Conservatives are in a tight national race in the polls, and the NDP has shown signs of lagging with the vote three weeks away.

Conservative Leader Stephen Harper was unapologetic  at the Munk Debate as he defended his almost 10 years in office, declaring his rivals to be "chasing headlines" in their proposals to receive large numbers of Syrian refugees immediately.

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau appeared to be trying to capitalize on his party's momentum in the campaign, making repeated bids to stand out during the debate, including invoking the memory of his late father who was Canada's 15th prime minister.

Thomas Mulcair, the NDP Leader, accused Mr. Harper of abandoning Canada's decades-old role as peacekeepers, vowing if he became prime minister, he'd recommit this country to that task.

In one memorable exchange over a 2015 law that allows Ottawa to strip the citizenship of dual citizens convicted of serious crimes, Mr. Harper confronted Mr. Trudeau over his unwillingness to take such a measure. "Are you seriously saying … we should never be able to revoke citizenship from somebody? Why would we not revoke the citizenship of people convicted of terrorist offences against this country?" Mr. Harper said to applause from the Munk debate audience at Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto.

Mr. Trudeau suggested the measure was un-Canadian. "You devalue the citizenship of every Canadian in this place and in this country when you break down and make it conditional for anybody. … We have a rule of law in this country and you can't take away citizenship of an individual because you don't like what someone does."

Mr. Mulcair lampooned Mr. Harper's approach to lobbying the United States over approving the Keystone XL pipeline project to transport more oil sands crude to that country. President Barack Obama's administration has repeatedly delayed making a decision on the file and the Conservative Leader famously declared publicly he "won't take no for an answer" from Washington.

"Well guess what. The answer was 'no' and you weren't able to do anything about it," Mr. Mulcair said.

The NDP chief attacked Mr. Trudeau, his rival for the centre and left-of-centre vote, repeatedly, including chastising him for supporting C-51, the anti-terror bill passed into law this year that expands the powers of Canada's spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

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"Sharing information on peaceful protests? That's fair?" Mr. Mulcair asked Mr. Trudeau. "Going against basic rights and freedoms? You voted for that, Mr. Trudeau."

Mr. Harper earned a big response from the crowd, however, when he interjected, "The threat we face today is not CSIS, it's ISIS," referring to one of the acronyms for Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The audience of more than 2,500 was clearly moved by the leaders' debate, and proceeded to ignore instructions by debate organizers that they should refrain from applauding. Just about halfway through the event, they began to clap, laugh and murmur – adding another element that was absent from debates in past election campaigns that were organized by the broadcasters' consortium.

Mr. Trudeau's emotional tribute to his father followed Mr. Mulcair's attack on the former prime minister, where the NDP Leader said it was the New Democrats who were the only party to oppose the invoking of the War Measures Act in 1970 to deal with the FLQ crisis – measures that included jailing hundreds of people.

"Throughout this campaign, in direct references and indirect references, both of these gentlemen have at various points attacked my father," Mr. Trudeau said. "Let me say very clearly, I am incredibly proud to be Pierre Elliott Trudeau's son. And I am incredibly lucky to have been raised with those values," he told the audience.

"It's quite emotional for me to be able to talk about him, because it was 15 years ago tonight that he passed away, on Sept. 28, 2000. And I know he wouldn't want us to be fighting the battles of the past; he'd want us squarely focused on the future and how we're going to respond to Canadians' needs, and that's what we're doing tonight."

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After enduring repeated criticism for Ottawa's strained relationship with Washington, Mr. Harper took a swipe at both his rivals over their pledges to pull Canadian fighter planes from the air war against Islamic State forces. He said withdrawing from the joint military mission with the U.S. in the fight against IS militants would severely erode ties with Washington.

"If you really want to poison the relationship, that would be the way to do it," the Conservative Leader said.

With reports from The Canadian Press

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