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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Hamilton on Sept. 10 that he doesn't regret calling the election during the pandemic. "No, absolutely not" .

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said he “absolutely” does not regret calling the federal election during the COVID-19 pandemic, and he pledged to be “ferocious” in the last week of the campaign, as his main competitor, Erin O’Toole, pitched a changed Conservative Party ready to earn voters’ trust.

The leaders began their final bids for votes on Friday, a day after the last leaders’ debate and with just 10 days to the Sept. 20 election.

Mr. Trudeau highlighted the Liberal promise to spend much more on health care than the Conservatives are proposing. Mr. O’Toole accused the Liberal Leader of “arrogance and entitlement” and said “Mr. Trudeau called an election for himself. The parties agreed months ago not to have an election.”

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The Liberal Leader has been criticized for calling the vote as Canada entered a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Asked by a reporter on Friday if he had any regrets about that, Mr. Trudeau replied: “No, absolutely not.”

“This is a time when Canadians should get to be very clear on how they want to end this pandemic,” he said.

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The two leaders were united on one issue, which underscored the importance of Quebec for their electoral fortunes. Both said they were concerned over a question about Quebec’s Bill 21, which bans some public-sector workers from wearing religious symbols, and Bill 96, which concerns language rights, that were posed to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet in Thursday’s English-language debate. The moderator called the laws discriminatory. The leaders said they felt the question implied the province is racist. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said on Friday systemic racism needs to be eradicated everywhere.

The Conservative and Liberal leaders promised to stay positive in the final stretch, but also levelled personal shots. Mr. Trudeau hearkened back to the 2015 election in which the Liberals won a majority, again comparing Mr. O’Toole to former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

“Erin O’Toole is proposing to bring us back to Harper’s approach on climate change. I am going to be ferocious in standing up for Canadians and relentless in pushing forward for the better world I know Canadians want,” Mr. Trudeau said at a campaign stop in Hamilton.

The Conservative Leader has taken his party closer to the centre of the political spectrum in the five-week campaign, in contrast to his “take back Canada” pitch in last year’s leadership race. At that time, he derided cancel culture and embraced the gun-rights lobby and free votes on issues of conscience such as abortion rights.

“I’m running to restore trust in the prime minister and prime minister’s office,” Mr. O’Toole said when asked about the different message just 12 months later. “I would ask Canadians to look at Canada’s recovery plan, look at my track record of bringing people together and vote for uniting the country.”

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In the first week of the campaign, the Liberals’ lead in the polls disappeared and they are in a dead heat with the Conservatives. Pollster Nik Nanos said the Conservative strategy to broaden their pool of supporters has worked. “There are more Canadians today that would consider voting Conservative than at the beginning of the campaign,” he said. On the flip side, he said the Liberal Leader is “trying to sharpen his message in order to mobilize progressive voters.”

Mr. Nanos said both leaders will likely make a strategic voting pitch in the final days. The Liberals, he said need to persuade NDP and Green supporters to flip to them, and the Conservatives have to try not to split the vote on the right with the People’s Party of Canada.

On Friday, Quebec Premier François Legault slammed the debate moderator’s question. It was Mr. Legault’s second intervention this week in the campaign. On Thursday, he said he would prefer a federal government led by Mr. O’Toole.

“I was very surprised that somebody who was supposed to be the referee decided to be part of certain teams” and called the laws discriminatory, Mr. Legault said in Quebec City. “That was an attack for sure against Quebec.”

Mr. O’Toole criticized what he called a “sweeping characterization” from debate moderator Shachi Kurl, a pollster. He said he respects the laws the National Assembly in Quebec passes, but added: “I won’t introduce a law like Bill 21 federally.”

The Liberal Leader said he was “taken aback” by the question, which he called offensive. “There’s lots of work to do to continue to fight systemic racism across this country,” Mr. Trudeau said.

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Leon Mar, a spokesperson for the Debate Broadcast Group, in a brief statement on Friday said the question addressed the two pieces of legislation explicitly, “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. The group selects moderators “who have complete journalistic and editorial independence.”

Mr. Singh addressed the controversy at a campaign stop in Ottawa on Friday morning.

“If anyone thinks that systemic racism or systemic discrimination is isolated to one province or territory … that hurts the fight against those forms of discrimination,” he said. “To tackle it we’ve got to acknowledge that it’s everywhere.”

In Thursday’s debate, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul took issue with comments Mr. Blanchet made about systemic racism. The Bloc Leader said he recognized the existence of systemic racism during a vote in Parliament in June, 2020, but since then it has been used against Quebec.

“It became a tool to say Quebec is this and that and racist and xenophobic … instead of opening a discussion, trying to find a solution,” Mr. Blanchet said. He added that he would be open to discussing the issue outside a debate.

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Ms. Paul, who is the first Black and Jewish woman to lead a political party, said she invited Mr. Blanchet to get educated about systemic discrimination. Mr. Blanchet called her comments an insult, to which she replied: “That was not an insult, it was an invitation to educate yourself.”

With reports from Ian Bailey and Menaka Raman-Wilms in Ottawa, and Kristy Kirkup in Hamilton.

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