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

POOL/Reuters

All three major party leaders are calling for an apology from the consortium of media broadcasters involved in the federal leaders’ debates over a question about Quebec laws during the recent English-language debate.

The question, posed by moderator Shachi Kurl to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet during the Sept. 9 debate, has set off a firestorm of criticism in Quebec, including a unanimous call from the provincial National Assembly for a formal apology for the “hostile” views expressed against “the Quebec nation.”

Quebec Premier François Legault has also denounced the question asking about Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans some public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols, and Bill 96, which concerns language rights.

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The issue has reverberated on the federal campaign over the past week, where the parties are hoping to make gains in seat-rich Quebec. On Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh all agreed the consortium should apologize.

“The premise of the question was wrong and quite frankly insulting to Quebeckers. We know there is lots of work to do across the country to fight against systemic discrimination, to stand up against intolerance,” Mr. Trudeau said during a campaign event in Halifax. “But Quebeckers are not racist. And yes, I think the consortium should be explaining itself and excusing itself and … making an apology.”

Mr. O’Toole, whose party has been making a play for Quebec votes over the past weeks, said he will defend the interests of Quebeckers.

“We’re tired of Quebec-bashing and singling out Quebec, and I think the consortium should recognize that and apologize,” he said at a campaign stop in Jonquière, Que.

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Mr. Singh – the first racialized leader of a major federal political party – later echoed the calls. “It’s a mistake to imply that only one province has a problem with systemic racism when it’s a problem everywhere in Canada,” he said in an e-mail statement on Wednesday. “Implying that it’s only in one province hurts the work being done to fight systemic racism.”

Still, Mr. Trudeau said last weekend he will “stand up for people’s fundamental rights” and has not ruled out intervening in a court challenge to Bill 21 – something Mr. O’Toole said a Conservative government would not do.

The National Council of Canadian Muslims, however, criticized the three leaders for their stance. Fatema Abdalla, communications co-ordinator at the NCCM, said there was nothing wrong with the debate question itself.

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“We must be clear that a law that enshrines second-class citizenship to Quebec Muslims, Sikhs and Jews must be called out as discriminatory. At this very moment, we must see a clear commitment to calling it for what it is,” she said.

Ms. Abdalla said her organization has appreciated previous condemnation of the law by Mr. Trudeau, and called on all party leaders to intervene in a legal challenge.

During what was expected to be his last swing through Quebec on Wednesday, Mr. O’Toole said he has made efforts to change his party’s message in order to address past concerns about the Conservatives’ positions on issues such as climate change.

Mr. O’Toole said that since becoming party leader last year, he has worked to build a welcoming Conservative movement that is, among other qualities, inclusive, diverse, forward-looking and socially progressive.

“We’re not your dad’s Conservatives any more,” he said.

Part of his efforts, he said, include reaching out to Quebec, adding he hoped voters in the province would look at his party’s platform and proposed “Contract with Quebec” that includes increasing Quebec’s power over immigration, preserving the history and built heritage of Quebec, and respecting the right of Quebec to pass its own laws to protect its language and culture.

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At dissolution of Parliament, there were 10 Conservative MPs out of a total 78 seats in Quebec, and 35 Liberals, 32 members of the Bloc Québécois, and one New Democrat.

The question posed to Bloc Leader Mr. Blanchet during the debate continues to be a point of contention in the province.

Jean-Marc Léger, president of polling and marketing firm Leger, said the debate issue is having a major effect on support for the Bloc, which has increased by 3 per cent in the past few days. “The race has tightened here in Quebec,” Mr. Léger said.

He said the Quebec Premier’s reaction to the debate also obliged the federal leaders to condemn the question, noting the topic of identity is always a sensitive issue in the province. But Mr. Léger added he doesn’t see it having a major impact in other parts of Canada, even though the majority of respondents in a recent survey found the question to be appropriate. The biggest concern for party leaders – particularly Mr. Trudeau – is the rise of the sovereigntist movement represented by the Bloc, he said.

On Tuesday, Quebec’s National Assembly unanimously adopted a motion calling on the Leaders’ Debates Commission to formally apologize for “hostile” views expressed “against the Quebec nation during the anglophone televised debate of September 9, 2021.”

The motion called for the message to be sent to the moderator, Ms. Kurl, and the members of the consortium of broadcasters that are part of the debates commission, including APTN News, CBC News, CTV News and Global News.

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The Assembly also unanimously adopted a motion condemning the comments made by Ms. Kurl related to Quebec. The motion said the comments portrayed Quebec as a “society of racism and discrimination” and called for an end to “Quebec-bashing.”

During the Sept. 9 debate, Ms. Kurl asked Mr. Blanchet why his party supports the “discriminatory laws” that “marginalize religious minorities, anglophones and allophones.” Bill 21 bans some public-sector workers such as teachers and police officers from wearing religious symbols or attire on the job.

“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.

Ms. Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, has not commented formally on the controversy since the English debate. In response to a question from The Globe and Mail, Ms. Kurl declined comment and referred questions to the debate consortium.

Leon Mar, a spokesperson for the Debate Broadcast Group, directed The Globe to a brief statement he issued last Friday, which said the question addressed the two pieces of legislation explicitly and “it did not state that Quebeckers are racist.”

The broadcast group is contracted by the Leaders’ Debate Commission to produce the English-language debate, the statement said, adding the group selects moderators “who have complete journalistic and editorial independence.”

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- With reports from Menaka Raman-Wilms in London, Ont.

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