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The four leaders are seen alongside moderator Pierre Bruneau (centre) ahead of the TVA debate on Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019.

Joel Lemay/The Canadian Press

Canada’s three major federalist party leaders took turns attacking the Leader of the resurgent Bloc Québécois in the first French-language debate of the election campaign, illustrating their concerns that the sovereigntist party could rebound on Oct. 21 and play an important role in the next Parliament.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau launched hostilities against Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet, accusing his party of trying to “fuel divisions” because of his Quebec separatist agenda.

Jagmeet Singh and Andrew Scheer piled on, with the NDP Leader saying Mr. Blanchet wanted to return to the federalist-sovereigntist debate. The Conservative Leader added that the Bloc won’t have the ability to implement its promises in opposition.

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“Despite your best intentions, there is nothing you can do for Quebec,” Mr. Scheer said.

Mr. Blanchet confirmed that the Bloc continues to support Quebec’s independence, even though the current provincial government of François Legault describes itself as being nationalist and has no plans for a referendum on secession. Mr. Blanchet said he sees himself in the mould of Jacques Parizeau, the former Parti Québécois leader whose government organized a referendum on Quebec sovereignty in 1995.

Mr. Trudeau accused Mr. Blanchet of "going backwards with these debates on sovereignty, nationalism and plans to reopen the Constitution. … This is not what preoccupies Quebeckers today.”

A former television analyst, Mr. Blanchet used his strong communications skills to attack the Liberals and the Conservatives throughout the two hours, arguing that Quebeckers should elect MPs that will represent their values and interests in Ottawa. On the environmental policies of the two parties, Mr. Blanchet said they don’t go far enough to end Canada’s reliance on fossil fuels.

“Mr. Trudeau, you say you don’t want to leave billions of barrels of oil in the ground. After, we’ll try to fix all the damage we caused,” Mr. Blanchet said. “The Conservatives think the market or the Holy Spirit will fix climate change, or that it doesn’t exist at all.”

With 78 seats out of 338 across the country, and the possibility that dozens of ridings could change hands on Oct. 21, Quebec is a key battleground in this election campaign. At Parliament’s dissolution, the Liberals held 40 seats in Quebec, followed by the NDP at 14, the Conservatives at 11, the Bloc at 10 and the People’s Party at one.

The French-language debate was broadcast on TVA, Quebec’s biggest private-sector broadcaster, reaching mostly francophone Quebeckers who are among the country’s most fickle voters. Two other debates organized by a media consortium will be held next week, with the leaders jousting in English on Monday and again in French on Thursday.

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Green Party Leader Elizabeth May and People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier were not invited to the TVA debate, but will participate next week.

The debate moved at a lightning pace from issues such as death with dignity to local matters like the closing of a Quebec textile plant.

On Quebec debate stage, a very different campaign in the spotlight

On the fact that Canada’s medically assisted suicide law was recently struck down in a Quebec court, Mr. Trudeau promised that his government would not appeal the ruling and would ease some of the restrictions. Mr. Singh agreed with that position, while Mr. Scheer said his government would appeal to obtain clarity from the courts.

The Conservative Leader challenged Mr. Trudeau on deficit spending, saying he is mortgaging the future. The Liberal Leader replied that Mr. Scheer has refused to reveal his fiscal plan.

“We saw this film with [Ontario Premier] Doug Ford, who refused to reveal his financial plan, won the election, and then cut, cut, cut, in education, services and services for francophones,” Mr. Trudeau said. “That’s exactly what Mr. Scheer will do.”

The Bloc is the only party that supports all of the demands laid out by Mr. Legault’s Coalition Avenir Québec government: a promise not to intervene in court challenges to its code restricting religious dress among some public servants; more power over immigration; imposing French-language laws over federally regulated companies in the province; and a single tax return to be administered by the Quebec revenue agency.

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Mr. Scheer has said that he is against a values test for immigrants, such as Mr. Legault wants, but during the debate, he did open the door to Quebec administering a test similar to Ottawa’s citizenship test.

“It’s normal for the Quebec government to look for ways to protect the history, language and culture of Quebec,” Mr. Scheer said. “An evaluation to make sure people know the history and culture is normal, and in the same spirit as the current federal regime.”

The first portion of the debate was dedicated to Quebec’s secularism law that would force provincial government workers in positions of authority, such as police officers and teachers, from wearing religious symbols on the job.

Mr. Trudeau was the only leader to state that Ottawa could eventually intervene in a court challenge against the law, which prompted Mr. Blanchet to say it would be unacceptable for taxpayers to foot the bill.

Mr. Blanchet and Mr. Trudeau were the most at ease in French, while Mr. Singh was comfortable in the language throughout the debate. Mr. Scheer got his message across but struggled at times to make his views heard. He was hit from all sides during the first segment of the debate on the issue of abortion, in which he reiterated that a Conservative government would not reopen the issue.

A poll released this week by Nanos Research, found that the Liberals were in the lead in the province with the support of 35 per cent of respondents, followed by the Bloc at 22 per cent. The Conservatives were at 17 per cent, followed by the NDP at 13 per cent and the Greens at 10. The People’s Party of Canada was at 2 per cent.

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The poll was sponsored by The Globe and Mail and CTV, with 828 respondents surveyed from Sept. 21 to 30. It has a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Because of a smaller sample size, the margin of error is 5.7 points outside of Montreal; it is 4.4 percentage points in Montreal.

Respondents were asked: “If a federal election were held today, could you please rank your top two current local voting preferences?” A report on the results, questions and methodology for this and all surveys can be found at tgam.ca/election-polls.

Mr. Singh toured Montreal’s Atwater Market with his wife ahead of the debate, where he was told by a man to cut off his turban and “look like a Canadian.” Mr. Singh said he disagreed and added that the beauty of Canada is that “Canadians look like all sorts of people.”

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