If you have been following the election campaign solely in the English language, Wednesday night’s French-language leaders’ debate would have shown you there’s a different race developing in Quebec.
Albertans might not expect to see Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau under attack for buying a pipeline for Western oil instead of helping Quebec export clean energy. English-speaking Canadians don’t often hear Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer playing up his plan to have the Quebec government collect federal taxes. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, like his Liberal and Conservative counterparts, was accused of unprogressive opposition to a ban on religious symbols in Quebec’s public sector.
Then there was the actor on this stage who is an unknown to most Canadians: Yves-François Blanchet, the Bloc Québécois Leader trying to resuscitate the separatist party that seemed nearly dead not long ago.
It was Mr. Blanchet, a former provincial cabinet minister and TV pundit, who stepped into the role of debate disrupter, portraying himself as the defender of Quebec values.
He started by pressing Mr. Scheer on his personal views on abortion, arguing they are out of line with Quebeckers’ values – and that eventually allowed Mr. Trudeau to step in to say that three leaders onstage were aligned with Quebeckers, and one, Mr. Scheer, wasn’t.
Then Mr. Blanchet took the other leaders to task for being out of touch with Quebeckers’ “progressive” secularism on Bill 21, the provincial law that bars religious symbols in the public service. Mr. Blanchet took Mr. Trudeau to task for refusing to rule out federal intervention in a court challenge of the law, arguing Quebeckers’ tax money can’t go to challenging a Quebec law supported by 70 per cent of Quebeckers. Then he criticized Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh for saying they were against the law, even if they wouldn’t intervene. Those leaders “would endure the secularism of Quebeckers,” he said, while Quebeckers want to “promote” it.
The Bloc Leader took up a fair bit of space in this debate, putting other leaders off balance. Mr. Scheer and Mr. Singh are awkward enough in French that they sometimes couldn’t parry the debating points. Mr. Scheer appeared to get flustered. Mr. Trudeau was able to handle the debating points, but he took hits, too.
Moderator Pierre Bruneau asked about people who feel betrayed by Mr. Trudeau’s decision to buy and expand the Trans Mountain pipeline – a bigger political albatross for the Liberals in Quebec than elsewhere in Canada. Mr. Trudeau argued it was necessary, despite the need to deal with climate change, because there has to be a transition to clean energy, and Canadian oil was being sold to the U.S. at a discount. Mr. Singh attacked. Then Mr. Blanchet stepped in to argue that Quebec should develop clean energy exports but Ottawa was sinking money into Western oil.
But the Liberal incumbent, usually the target, wasn’t the loser, because Mr. Blanchet did more damage to Mr. Scheer. The Bloc and the Conservatives are competing for francophone votes, after all. Mr. Blanchet portrayed the Conservative Leader as a pro-oil politician uninterested in climate change, and echoed a lot of Mr. Trudeau’s criticisms of Mr. Scheer.
Winning debating points isn’t everything. Mr. Scheer got to tell Quebeckers he’d help them keep money in their pockets. Mr. Trudeau got to warn against a return to Stephen Harper conservatism. Mr. Singh came across as sympathetic and sincere. But Mr. Blanchet got to shuffle the cards of this campaign.
It’s hard to know the impact now. But we know the stakes were high. Mr. Trudeau must win the lion’s share of Quebec seats to win the election. Mr. Scheer’s Conservatives need to prevent that, and win some Quebec seats themselves. The NDP is in danger of being routed in the province. Mr. Blanchet might represent the Bloc’s last hope to return as a force – and there have been unclear signs of life in polls that suggest he might emerge as Mr. Trudeau’s chief challenger in Quebec.
Mr. Blanchet still has a long way to go. He has to convince Quebeckers they need to vote for a party that can’t form government. His vocal support for sovereignty seems to clash with the current mood. But he had a big part in framing the first debate – in knocking the other leaders, notably Mr. Scheer, off balance. And he might still change the campaign.
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