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Federal party leaders participate in the French-language leaders' debate in Gatineau, Que., on Sept. 8.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Federal party leaders battled over child care, the pandemic recovery and Quebec identity politics in the official French-language debate.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, the Bloc Québécois’ Yves-François Blanchet, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh and Annamie Paul of the Green Party took part in the widely broadcast debate in Gatineau on Wednesday. The debate could have an influence on a campaign where the outcome is viewed as uncertain with less than two weeks left.

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Mr. O’Toole faced criticism from Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Blanchet over child care. The Conservative platform costing showed the party would replace the $29.8-billion over five years in planned Liberal spending on a national child-care program with a new tax credit to cover child-care costs that would reduce federal revenues by $2.6-billion over the same period.

The Liberal plan works out to $6-billion for Quebec to enhance its existing child-care program.

“Mr. O’Toole doesn’t even understand the Quebec child-care system, that we want to use as the inspiration for the rest of the country,” said Mr. Trudeau.

Mr. O’Toole defended his plan, but he did not directly address how he would respond to Quebec’s expectation of a $6-billion transfer.

“We will help all families immediately,” he said. “I will always respect provincial jurisdiction.”

The Bloc Leader said the Quebec government will not be pleased with the Conservative platform’s costing on child care.

“The Conservative plan … is $6-billion less in the pockets of the Quebec government,” said Mr. Blanchet.

The same leaders will meet again Thursday night for the only English-language debate. Advance polls open this weekend and election day is Sept. 20.

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In photos: Federal Leaders square off in French-Language debate

This week’s two debates are the only ones organized by the Leaders’ Debates Commission. Four of the party leaders – minus Ms. Paul – also took part in a French-language debate last week organized by the Quebec television network TVA.

Wednesday’s debate took place just two hours after the Conservatives released the costing details of the party’s platform.

When the leaders faced off over health and the pandemic, Ms. Paul established the high human stakes of the theme with a reminder that her father died in a long-term care home during the second wave of the pandemic.

“I will never forget that,” she said. “I will never forget all the thousands of people who lost loved ones.”

The fault lines in the debate over health were about the perennial theme in Quebec politics – the power of the provinces. Quebec Premier François Legault weighed into the federal election campaign last month, restating the call of provincial and territorial premiers for a major increase in federal health transfers.

Mr. Legault said Ottawa should increase the annual transfer by $28-billion and also increase the transfer by six per cent a year. He said these transfers should come without conditions, while praising the Conservatives for offering unconditional increases to the Canada Health Transfer.

In keeping with his promise of a “federalism of partnership” under a Conservative government, Mr. O’Toole promised on Wednesday night to increase federal funding by $60-billion over the next decade.

However, his platform costing released earlier in the day showed that only $3.6-billion of that would come in the first five years.

“I will increase health transfers in a way that’s stable, predictable, and without conditions,” said Mr. O’Toole. “Without conditions, because it’s a question of respect.”

The Conservative Leader presented his party as the only choice for fiscal responsibility.

“With the NDP and Mr. Trudeau, we will have spending without limits,” he said.

For his part, Mr. Trudeau said he will increase health transfers to the provinces by $25-billion but with conditions, working with the provinces “to ensure results” especially in the long-term care sector, which was ravaged by COVID-19 in Quebec. He cited the arrival of federal troops to help manage certain long-term care homes at the height of the pandemic’s first wave.

“Mr. O’Toole doesn’t understand that it’s the federal government’s job to defend the Canada Health Act,” said Mr. Trudeau. “Mr. Blanchet forgets that when the Army forces arrived in long-term care homes in Quebec, there were federal doctors there.”

The Bloc Leader, meanwhile, accused both Liberals and Conservatives of treading on provincial responsibilities in health and weakening provincial capacity to respond to the crisis of the pandemic. Faced with Quebec’s staggering long-term care death toll during the pandemic and asked whether some modesty was in order on the issue of whether to collaborate with the federal government, Mr. Blanchet said the disaster was in part the fault of a stingy federal government.

“The federal government doesn’t hire doctors, doesn’t hire nurses, doesn’t hire specialists in health,” he said. “The federal government, on the contrary, has been withholding money for a long time that, if it had been given to the provincial health systems that were asking for it, there would have been a more solid, robust, effective health system from the beginning.”

The Liberal and Bloc leaders clashed over Quebec identity in perhaps the most emotional exchange of the night. Referring to a discussion about reconciliation and free speech, Mr. Blanchet asked the Prime Minister, “If we shouldn’t tell Indigenous nations what to do and what to think, why does he tell the Quebec nation what to do and what to think?”

“Because I am Québécois, Mr. Blanchet!” Mr. Trudeau said. “A fact that you forget constantly. I am a proud Québécois, I have always been Québécois, I will always be Québécois. I am here to say you don’t represent Quebec unanimously.”

The debate began with a question about whether party leaders would commit to not triggering an election if there is another minority Parliament.

Mr. Trudeau did not directly answer and repeated his view that it is an important time for Canadians to weigh in on the direction of the country.

Mr. O’Toole said his party will focus on issues like ending the pandemic, supporting mental health, balancing the budget and growing the economy.

“After six years of Mr. Trudeau, we have lots of debt and no opportunities for our youth,” he said.

Mr. Singh made clear throughout the debate that his focus was on Mr. Trudeau, rather than Mr. O’Toole.

“You have an important choice in this election,” he said. “You can choose four more years of Mr. Trudeau, who has allowed the ultra-rich to exploit the system, or you can choose the NDP, who have clearly said that millionaires will pay their part to invest in the future of people.” Later in the debate, he accused Mr. Trudeau of calling the election for “egotistical” reasons.

On the environment, a key issue in Quebec, both the Liberals and the Bloc – the province’s leading federal parties in this Parliament – came under attack. Although Mr. Blanchet said Canada can’t reduce its greenhouse gas emissions while increasing the extraction of oil, Mr. O’Toole and the debate’s moderator, broadcaster Patrice Roy, confronted Mr. Blanchet with views from his time as a provincial cabinet minister in 2013 that backed oil extraction in Quebec.

Mr. Trudeau came under fire from Mr. Singh about Canada’s attempts to meet its Paris climate targets, calling the Prime Minister “a big talker” who hadn’t followed through on his promises.

The debate ended with a return to firearms, which was a major issue in last week’s TVA debate.

Mr. Trudeau accused Mr. O’Toole of lacking leadership on the issue. Mr. O’Toole replied that “Mr. Trudeau will say anything to win,” and is distorting the Conservative position.

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