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Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole arrives at TVA for the first French-language debate of the federal election campaign in Montreal on Sept. 2, 2021.

ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty Images

On one level, you had to wonder whether Erin O’Toole would want to turn up for the TVA debate. A party leader can’t really snub the first French-language debate of an election campaign, but Mr. O’Toole must have feared he was walking into a buzzsaw.

This debate is where his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, saw his Quebec campaign blow up in 2019 over his abortion views. And both francophones on the stage, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, had reason to target Mr. O’Toole.

So walking out in one piece was the first goal. And Mr. O’Toole did that. Not without some scrapes.

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Trudeau attacked over election call in French-language debate; O’Toole targeted for vaccinations, childcare

The Conservative leader is now arguably the front-runner in English Canada, and he’s trying to get something going in Quebec. His party is back in third, but a rise in support in the province could bring him momentum across the country. And it would certainly chip into the Bloc’s support.

So far, Mr. O’Toole has been a highly scripted candidate. You had to wonder how he’d think on his feet, in his second language, in his first televised leader’s debate.

And it all seemed to go pretty well for the first third of the debate. He outboxed Mr. Trudeau when the Liberal Leader accused him of supporting two-tier health care, pointing to a Liberal attack video on the topic that was labelled as “manipulated” by Twitter.

The Conservative Leader was able to use the exchange to plug his promise to increase funding transfers to provinces, “without conditions,” for the “universal and public” health care system. And he said that he, unlike Mr. Trudeau, would respect Quebec’s jurisdiction by not dictating how the funds are used. “I trust the provinces in their jurisdiction,” he said.

That’s a Quebec-friendly position. And Mr. O’Toole got out his talking points about his priorities (Quebec version), which he called a two-for-one: respect for the Quebec nation and economic recovery.

Canadian federal election 2021: Latest updates and essential reading ahead of Sept. 20 vote

So far, so good. Mr. O’Toole’s French was a little wooden, but serviceable. He pivoted away from questions about whether his Conservative candidates were all vaccinated (it’s pretty clear they are not) without too much fuss.

Then came the questions about the $6-billion child care deal that Mr. Trudeau’s government recently signed with Quebec, and that’s when Mr. O’Toole took some damage.

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The Liberal government signed similar deals with seven other provinces, but Quebec’s is particularly advantageous. The province has had subsidized child care since the 1990s, and would now get a major injection of federal money.

Moderator Pierre Bruneau asked if Mr. O’Toole was going to tear up the deal with Quebec, and that’s where the Conservative Leader’s script failed. “We will consult,” he said. He talked about collaboration, and having a plan for all Quebeckers – he proposes federal tax credits for child care instead – and said he would work with Quebec Premier François Legault.

“But the $6-billion?” Mr. Bruneau asked. Mr. O’Toole said he had a plan for Quebeckers. And that’s where Mr. Blanchet, the sharpest sword on the stage, sliced through his vague words, mocking him for “repeating the word ‘plan,’ without details.”

The irony was a point worth noting. Here was the leader of the Bloc, attacking Mr. O’Toole for being unwilling to live up to Justin Trudeau’s deal. “For once, we agreed with Mr. Trudeau,” he said.

Federal election 2021: What are the challenges facing the major political parties before Canada votes on Sept. 20?

Sometimes, just the questions hurt. Mr. Bruneau started one by remarking that half of Mr. O’Toole’s party doesn’t believe in climate change. And Mr. Trudeau knocked him for planning to weaken gun control. But none of Mr. O’Toole’s opponents made a breakthrough.

Mr. Blanchet tried to set the other three leaders back on their heels by complaining of Quebec-bashing in English Canada. He asked them to declare that Quebec is not racist, and that the Quebec government’s refusal to agree there is systemic racism in the province does not make it racist. It was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh who pushed back.

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Mr. Blanchet also blasted Mr. Trudeau for buying the Trans-Mountain pipeline, and the Liberal Leader defended it aggressively as a transition measure to protect jobs in the West.

Mr. Trudeau sought several times to argue for restrictions for the unvaccinated, notably on air and rail travel, insisting those who haven’t yet received their shots have pushed Canada into a fourth wave. Mr. Singh focused heavily on taxing the “ultra-rich,” attacking Mr. Trudeau, who argued that he was taxing hyper-profitable banks.

But no leader landed a killer blow.

In the end, Mr. O’Toole walked out with a few scratches, but he was still in one piece. And for the Conservative Leader, that was the goal.

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