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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole take part in the federal election English-language leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 9, 2021.

POOL/Reuters

Justin Trudeau’s handling of sexual harassment in the military, of the crisis in Afghanistan and of relations with China was heavily attacked in the final leaders’ debate of the election campaign, as the Liberal Leader defended his record on the world stage and said he would move “harder and faster” to tackle climate change if re-elected.

The sometimes chaotic debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday night had as many moderators as leaders and also included questions from individual voters. A similar dynamic at Wednesday night’s French debate led to an event heavy on talking points.

The leaders all pitched their plans for COVID-19 recovery, as well as their visions for fixing long-term care homes. But the debate was primarily focused on Mr. Trudeau and he was put on the defensive from the start, forced to justify his decision to call an election in the middle of a pandemic and with two years left in his mandate.

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Mr. Trudeau accused Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole of saying “all the right sounding things,” but continued his criticism of the Tory Leader for not requiring his candidates to be vaccinated.

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The Liberal Leader said he was proposing a “radically different” agenda from his opponents over ending the pandemic and the economic recovery and they required decisions “now, in the coming weeks, this fall, not a year from now, not two years from now.”

Heading into his opening statements, Mr. O’Toole was asked how voters can trust that he will be the one leading a Conservative government’s agenda when he is out of step with many in his party over gay rights, vaccinations and climate change.

“I am driving the bus to make sure we get this country back on track,” Mr. O’Toole responded. “And I’m here to defend the rights of all Canadians: women, members of the LGBTQ community, [and] Indigenous Canadians.”

Mr. Trudeau faced off against Mr. O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, and Green Party Leader Annamie Paul in the high-stakes debate – the only one held in English during the five-week campaign. Heading into the Thursday evening event, and with just 10 days left in the campaign, the Liberals and Conservatives were locked in a dead heat in the polls.

For the first time in more than a decade, all of the major parties are proposing some form of a price on carbon but their proposed targets to cut greenhouse-gas emissions vary significantly and came under intense scrutiny in the debate.

“Mr. O’Toole can’t even convince his party that climate change is real because they voted against that,” Mr. Trudeau charged. “That’s perhaps why his plan is so weak. His plan is to go back to the [Stephen] Harper targets.”

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“He has great ambition, that’s part of the reason we are in an election in a pandemic – is his ambition. He doesn’t have achievement. He never meets his targets,” Mr. O’Toole responded. He also acknowledged that Conservatives “had to win back some trust” on the issue.

“Let me tell you, you’re not stuck with these two. Better is possible,” Mr. Singh countered. He added that an NDP government would invest in a clean economy and end fossil-fuel subsidies.

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole takes part in the federal election English-language leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. It was the first and only debate held in English during the campaign.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

On foreign affairs, Mr. Trudeau defended his decision to call the election as the Taliban took over Afghanistan, leaving hundreds of Canadians and Afghan translators stranded.

“You called an election sir. You put your own political interest ahead of the well-being of thousands of people. Leadership is about putting others first, not yourself,” Mr. O’Toole said.

Mr. Trudeau accused the other leaders of “talking down” the work of Canadian Armed Forces, diplomats and consular officials did in Afghanistan. “We know Canadians sacrificed in Afghanistan for a better future. We need to stand by the people who helped us, who helped themselves, and we will with even more people coming to Canada in the coming months,” Mr. Trudeau said, adding that Canada has been working with other countries such as Qatar to get people out.

Mr. Trudeau was pressed over the imprisonment of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. He said over the past three years Canada has worked with international allies to put pressure on China “in every single one of their meetings,” as well as the United States.

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“Canada’s voice has been absent Mr. Trudeau,” Mr. O’Toole countered. “We should be leaders for our values, sir. And you’ve let the Michaels down, and we have to get serious with China.”

Mr. Trudeau responded, “If you want to … get the Michaels home, you do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific. That is what [former prime minister Stephen Harper] tried for a number of years, and didn’t get anywhere. You need to engage in a sophisticated way with our allies.”

Over his government’s most recent controversy: sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military, Mr. Trudeau said there are “systems and institutions that need to change” across the country, and said his government has brought in stronger policies and processes to support survivors.

“This is not an issue with easy answers. You have to fall back on process,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Ms. Paul, the only woman leader on stage Thursday, pushed back. “I do not believe that Mr. Trudeau is a real feminist. A feminist doesn’t continue to push strong women out of his party,” she said, citing former Liberal cabinet ministers Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould, as well as former Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who have been highly critical of Mr. Trudeau.

“I won’t take lessons in caucus management from you,” Mr. Trudeau replied, referring to internal strife plaguing the Green Party.

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Mr. Blanchet who, at one point in the debate, acknowledged he is “not very much interested in leading Canada” seized on the first question directed at him on Quebec’s Bill 21 and Bill 96. “You deny that Quebec has problems with racism,” moderator Shachi Kurl said as she asked why his party supports the “discriminatory laws” which “marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones.”

“These laws are not about discrimination. They are about the values of Quebec,” Mr. Blanchet said. He accused Ms. Kurl of unfairly criticizing Quebec in her question.

Bill 21 bans some public-sector workers such as teachers and police officers from wearing religious symbols on the job. “Those are legitimate laws that apply on Quebec territory,” Mr. Blanchet said.

The exchange holds the potential to change the momentum of the campaign in Quebec for the Bloc Leader who has struggled to gain traction, and it was the main focus of questions put to Mr. Blanchet after the debate.

The leaders also battled over Indigenous issues, with Mr. Singh going after Mr. Trudeau for “taking Indigenous kids to court,” which the Liberal Leader tried to refute.

“You can’t take a knee one day, if you’re going to take Indigenous kids to court the next,” the NDP Leader said.

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“Mr. Singh you love that line about taking Indigenous kids to court, it’s actually not true. We have committed to compensating those kids,” Mr. Trudeau said. The federal government is challenging orders from the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal on discrimination of Indigenous children.

Answering an audience question about Indigenous issues, Mr. Trudeau said that over the past 150 years, “Canada has failed in its relationship with Indigenous peoples.” Mr. Trudeau said over the past six years his government has “stepped up” on the path of reconciliation, although the other leaders accused him of falling short.

Mr. Trudeau also criticized Mr. O’Toole for saying he would raise flags that have been at half-mast on federal buildings to mark the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential schools.

“He didn’t talk to or listen to any Indigenous leaders when he made that decision. That’s something that is important and symbolic but wouldn’t cost a cent,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Mr. O’Toole responded that, “I am proud of this country and I think if you love your country, you can dig deep to make it better.”

The voter response to the debates will be key to determining the election result on Sept. 20, said pollster Nik Nanos with Nanos Research. If any party seizes momentum out of the debate it will be “very difficult to stop.”

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“If you’re on the losing end of that trend line, there’s not enough time to turn it around,” he said.

As it stands, Mr. Nanos said the polls show the country on track to “a weak minority government” where the question is “will it be blue or red.”

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