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Ontario Progressive Conservative Party Leader Doug Ford, left, Ontario New Democratic Party Leader Andrea Horwath, Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Party of Ontario Leader Mike Schreiner ahead of the Ontario party leaders' debate, in Toronto, on May 16.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s opposition leaders took aim at Doug Ford’s handling of the pandemic and his $10-billion proposed Highway 413 at the province’s televised debate Monday night, with some of the tensest clashes over COVID-19 and climate change.

The 90-minute debate at TVOntario’s midtown Toronto studios took place with just over two weeks left before election day on June 2. Mr. Ford and the three opposition leaders, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca and Green Leader Mike Schreiner, debated for the second and final time of the campaign.

As the discussion moved to the pandemic, Mr. Del Duca asked the PC Leader why he failed in February of 2021 to listen to the province’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table when it warned that his reopening plans would be a disaster.

He also asked why Mr. Ford, as the third wave threatened the province’s hospitals, decided to ignore scientific advice and ban playgrounds, and gave police extra powers to enforce pandemic rules. Mr. Del Duca charged that this amounted to a return to “carding,” arbitrary police stops.

“Everybody watching at home knows that in February, 2021, when the science table told the Ford Conservatives don’t reopen so rapidly and they ignored it, that made subsequent waves of COVID dramatically worse for Ontario families,” Mr. Del Duca said.

Ms. Horwath raised the thousands of deaths in long-term care, which came despite Mr. Ford’s promise of an “iron ring” of protection. She pointed to legislation passed that was meant to shield long-term care homes from legal liability, accusing the PC Leader of helping his “buddies” in private-sector long-term care.

The PC Leader said he had “inherited a broken” system, but acknowledged that his government “didn’t get everything right.” And he lashed out at the Liberal Leader, saying it was easy to criticize from the sidelines, while Mr. Ford was making the “tough decisions.” He also said that the previous Liberal government had allowed its supply of personal protective equipment to expire.

“Mr. Del Duca, you left the cupboard bare,” Mr. Ford said.

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All three opposition leaders targeted Mr. Ford’s plans to build Highway 413, a project environmentalists decry for carving through protected Greenbelt lands. Mr. Schreiner said it would pave farmland needed to grow food. Mr. Del Duca called it “reckless” and said he would spend money repairing schools.

Mr. Ford used the attacks to repeat his central campaign message, that his is the “party of yes” that will build things.

“If it was up to the three of you, you wouldn’t build nothing,” Mr. Ford said.

Ms. Horwath, whom recent polls have put in third place behind Mr. Del Duca, seized on chances to criticize the Liberal Leader. As he pledged funding for new schools, she said the Liberals had 15 years to improve schools when they were in power.

“Where were you when all these decisions were made?” she asked Mr. Del Duca. “Were you out getting a coffee?”

The format for the debate, hosted by TVO’s Steve Paikin and the Toronto Star’s Althia Raj, included head-to-head sections for pairs of leaders chosen by lot. The first exchange was between Mr. Del Duca and Mr. Ford, and saw the two leaders talk over each other on economic issues.

The PC Leader pointed to Mr. Del Duca’s time as a cabinet minister under former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, who led the party to its near wipeout in 2018, when it was left with seven seats.

“You destroyed the province,” Mr. Ford said. “The economy was going downhill quicker than the Canadian bobsled team.”

Mr. Del Duca dismissed Mr. Ford’s assertions as “fiction,” including the PC Leader’s accusation that the Liberals would kill the government’s moves to cancel licence-plate fees and temporarily cut gas taxes.

At one point, the PC Leader turned his sights on Ms. Horwath to tout his party’s endorsement by three private-sector skilled trades unions – despite the NDP’s traditional union ties.

“You’ve lost touch,” Mr. Ford told Ms. Horwath. “You’re out of touch with the hard-working people of this province.”

Before the debate, a crowd of about 200 people, largely made up of supporters of Mr. Ford, Ms. Horwath and a health care union, but also some Liberals, shouted slogans as they awaited the leaders’ arrivals at TVOntario’s studios. Mr. Ford’s campaign theme song blared on loud speakers.

Some anti-Ford protesters briefly blocked the PC Leader’s bus. Police and security guards jostled with the crowd. One man was injured as he fell to the pavement. He was conscious as he was put on a stretcher and taken away in an ambulance.

Last week, the Toronto Star reported that Mr. Ford’s team had insisted that he be allowed to bring a binder of papers. In the past, other leaders have used notes in the province’s televised debates. Ms. Raj raised the issue as the evening began, telling viewers the leaders were asked not to bring notes. Nonetheless, Mr. Ford referred to a binder and read some of his statements.

Want to hear more about the Ontario election from our journalists? Subscribe to Vote of Confidence, a twice-weekly newsletter dedicated to the key issues in this campaign, landing in your inbox starting May 17 until election day on June 2.

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