Debate Skirts Crucial Issue of Immigration - New Canadian Media
Screen grab of the five party chiefs at the only English-language leaders' debate in Gatineau, Quebec, on Sept. 9, 2021.

Debate Skirts Crucial Issue of Immigration

“I’m still undecided after watching the debate because I don’t think there was that one moment that was a game changer.” – Paula Arab, an undecided voter.

In an election most Canadians do not want, nobody got anything of substance from political leaders who clashed against one another in last night’s only English-language television debate.  Hyped as a pivotal moment for undecided voters in the final stretch of the campaign, the crucial issue of immigration or challenges faced by newcomers got no airtime.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, Green Party Leader Annamie Paul and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet all attacked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau for calling an election during a pandemic and the Afghanistan crisis.

Trudeau, appearing agitated and taking fire from all sides, did not muster much of a response other than saying Canadians must “make a choice” about which leaders’ plan is best for the future.

“I’m still undecided after watching the debate, because I don’t think there was that one moment that was a game changer,” said Paula Arab, a Vancouver-based media and communications strategist, who is an undecided voter.

“Overall, the one who seemed most prime ministerial was O’Toole, while Trudeau was desperate. Beyond that, there wasn’t enough substance to really make an informed decision,” she said.

Difficult format

The two-hour debate covered five themes – affordability, climate, COVID recovery, leadership and accountability/reconciliation – and was moderated by Shachi Kurl,  president of the Angus Reid Institute, with the participation of journalists Rosemary Barton, Melissa Ridgen, Evan Solomon, and Mercedes Stephenson.

Kurl had to preside over a format decided upon by the Debate Broadcast Group, which resulted in chaotic cross-talk, party leaders interrupting each other with prepared one-liners and little in the way of substantive discussion on what matters most to Canadians.

“This moderator did a great job keeping the leaders in line and on topic. She ran a  tight ship,” said Arab.

Alex Martyniak, the executive director of the EU Chamber of Commerce in Canada – West, said Kurl stood out the most among all those on stage.

“One would hope one day she will stand on the other side answering the questions,” he said.

Flak over Quebec’s secularism law

Kurl, however, came under fire from Bloc Quebecois’ Blanchet for her opening question directed at him about Quebec’s Bill 21 “secularism” law which restricts the wearing of ‘religious symbols’ by public servants in positions of authority such as teachers, police officers, judges, and lawyers. 

Blanchet, bristling at the question, answered that “those laws are not about discrimination, they are about the values of Quebec,” and then went on to say “you may repeat as many times as you like that those are discriminatory laws,” before adding later that he has no interest in leading Canada.

The question and response has given Blanchet’s Bloc Quebecois, a regional party that wants Quebec to be recognized as a nation, a much needed wedge issue to portray themselves as the protectors of the people of Quebec.

Current polls have suggested Trudeau’s Liberals could take as many as 41 Quebec seats, an increase from the 35 seats they won in the 2019 election.

“The Bloc will likely benefit from this exchange, as it wants a minority government to give it more autonomy,” said Gurmant Grewal, a former Conservative MP, who represented the Surrey riding of  Fleetwood—Port Kells from 2004 to 2015.

Rating the performance of the leaders in the debate, Gurpreet Singh, a South Asian radio talk show host and political commentator said Trudeau portrayed a lack of confidence in his answers while O’Toole remained calm during the debate and came across as a reasoned politician.

“Singh and Paul did a far better job than I expected and brought a different dynamic to the leadership debate being from visible minority backgrounds.

“Paul should also get credit for taking on everyone on issues of systemic racism and reconciliation, including the so-called progressives like Singh and Trudeau, but they were better when answering questions coming from voters directly,” he said.

A name not in the room

Beyond the fiery exchanges, one other name stood out in the debate.

Many of the leaders referred to Jody Wilson-Raybould, who served as justice and veterans affairs minister before being expelled from the Liberal caucus following the SNC-Lavalin scandal in 2019.

Wilson-Raybould, who has become a fierce critic of the government and sat as an Independent following her expulsion from the Liberal Party, is not running for re-election.

Paul mentioned Wilson-Raybould to challenge Trudeau’s self-proclaimed identity as a feminist while O’Toole referenced her when talking about building partnerships with First Nations.

Wilson-Raybould’s book – “Indian” in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power – comes out next Tuesday and is expected to provide fodder to attack Trudeau’s record in the stretch run to polling day on Sept 20.

Political analysts across the country, U.K. and the United States, whose punditry dominated post-debate analyses on news feeds, said the exchanges between the leaders did not give Canadians much in the way of substance to sway the undecided voter. They mostly agreed that the format needed to change.

The absence of any discussion on immigration policies, the opioid crisis and issues pertaining to New Canadians, who form the largest voting bloc in more than 40 of 338 federal Parliamentary ridings, was a lost opportunity, said a Victoria-based political analyst, working for the BC government.

Some highlights

Here are some of the highlights of the debate which you can watch here

The party has “bold plans about how we can invest in people, but we are the only party with a credible plan that will not put the burden on people, that will not cut the help that they need.” – NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on leadership and accountability.

“This election will allow Canadians to choose who they want to lead the country in the next phase of the COVID-19 recovery.” – Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau on why he called an election during a pandemic.

“It has been a very difficult period, and do I wish that our party had been further ahead, particularly at this moment.” – Green Party Leader Annamie Paul on the lack of support from her own party.

“I am driving the bus to make sure we get this country back on track.” – Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole, responding to the moderator’s question, “How can voters trust that it’s you and not your caucus that will be in charge of a Conservative policy agenda?” 

“We recognize that there are systems of institutions that need to change across the country and that’s why, from the very beginning, we stepped up with policies, new policy — stronger policies and processes to support every survivor. Everyone comes forward because nobody should deserve to work in a workplace where they are being discriminated against, where they are being harassed or hassled.” – Trudeau on sexual misconduct allegations in the Armed Forces.

“A feminist doesn’t continue to push strong women out of his  party when they are just seeking to serve.” – Paul challenging Trudeau’s claim he is a feminist. Trudeau responds that he will not take caucus lessons from Paul.

“Mr. Trudeau, you should not have called this election. You should have gotten the job done in Afghanistan.” – O’Toole

“We know the impact on women and girls in Afghanistan. It’s heartbreaking. And it could have been avoided,” – Singh 

“It’s unfortunate to hear the members, the leaders on this stage talking down the incredible work that our Canadian Armed Forces, that our diplomats, that our consular officials did from the beginning of the summer … well before this election.” – Trudeau.

“You’ve let the Michaels down, and we have to get serious with China.” – O’Toole tells Trudeau about Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor who were detained in China in what is largely viewed as retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for extradition to the United States on fraud charges.

“This is a national and international issue and we need national leadership on it and we need it across party lines.” – Paul on climate change

“Canadians can’t afford another four years of Trudeau on climate issues.” – Singh

“We inherited a government from the Conservatives that did not believe in the fight against climate change and we had a lot of catching up to do…The Liberal’s climate change plan is the strongest.” – Trudeau

Canada has failed in its relationship with Indigenous people…my  government has stepped up on the path of reconciliation.” – Trudeau on reconciliation with First Nations.

 “I want to build partnerships and have Indigenous leaders have governance over the federal government, finally delivering on our commitment to Indigenous peoples.” – O’Toole

 “How do you restore trust when you’ve got a prime minister that takes a knee one day, and then takes Indigenous kids to court the next? And how do you restore trust in a country as wealthy as ours?…It starts by actually walking the path of reconciliation, not with the empty words but real action.” – Singh

“We’re goings to get bills down for the internet, for cellular phone. We’re going to get grocery bills down.” – O’Toole on his party’s plan to give seniors a break. 

 “Our commitment is to invest in our healthcare system to defend it. Unlike Mr. Trudeau and Mr. O’Toole who believe in private, long-term care delivery… “We want to see everyone have access to medication. We want to include dental care into our health-care system and mental health services, and to do all that we want to make sure that the billionaires are paying their fair share, so we can invest in you.” – Singh 

“Canada needs to get out of the pandemic first and that’s by vaccinating everyone.” – Trudeau 

“We need less partisanship. We need more diverse voices, so that we can get the access to the best ideas in a more cooperative and collaborative way.” – Paul

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A multiple-award winning journalist, Fabian Dawson is an internationally acclaimed author, filmmaker and media expert. His work over the last four decades spans the globe and he also serves as a consultant/strategic advisor to a variety of international companies. As deputy editor-in-chief of The Province, part of the Postmedia chain, Dawson led initiatives within a special publications group to provide directed content for a variety of organisations. He was named the 2019 recipient of the Bruce Hutchison Lifetime Achievement Award at Jack Webster Awards. Dawson has been invited by the governments of India, Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong and the United States to act as a media observer/advisor on a variety of Asian-Canada issues. Dawson, now operates FD Media, which specializes in harnessing editorial assets to revenue generating opportunities.

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