5 Serene Takeaways From the Most Chaotic Debate of This Election

In the most unwieldy debate of the election, Justin Trudeau took his lumps.
September 10, 2021, 1:10pm
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, left, and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, take part in the federal election English-language Leaders debate in Gatineau, Que., on Thursday, Sept. 9, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

With 10 days to go in a Canadian election that is a dead-heat between the ruling Liberals and opposition Conservatives, Thursday night’s English-language debate represented the best chance for a leader to break open this campaign and unite the country with their eloquent policy proposals and well-placed zingers.

Of course, the reality is that almost never happens (anyone remember “You had an option, sir?” No one?) and Thursday night’s debate in Gatineau, Quebec, appears to be no exception, with a format that resulted in mild-to-medium chaos and few chances for substantial, um, debate. 

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Canada’s English-language debate featured five leaders, four of whom lead national parties, three who poll in double digits, and only two who have a realistic shot at being prime minister. Justin Trudeau, who has been prime minister for the past six years, spent most of the night being hammered from all sides, but particularly from his two main rivals, Conservative Erin O’Toole and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh. 

Also in the debate was Green Leader Annamie Paul, likely making her first impression on most Canadians, and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet, who does not have any candidates in English Canada, and largely participated in his very own debate. 

If you decided to do something productive with two hours of your Thursday night—Netflix, learn a new language, run a scam on your buds—and missed the debate, here’s some of what you missed. 

Trudeau took a lot of hits 

One of the disadvantages of having been prime minister is that you have a record, and Trudeau spent much of the night being pummelled over his. Both O’Toole and Singh criticized Trudeau for not meeting climate emission targets (Singh repeatedly called it the “worst track record in the G7”), while (a noticeably agitated) Trudeau responded with various versions of “actually, we have” and touted experts’ praise for his new climate change plan. O’Toole also likely got the line of the night on this subject, saying Trudeau “has great ambition; that's part of the reason we're in an election in a pandemic is his ambition, but he doesn't have achievement.” It is worth noting however, that O’Toole has the least ambitious climate targets of the major federal parties. 

Paul said she didn’t consider Trudeau a “real feminist,” something he is rather well-known for calling himself, because several high-profile women have left his caucus under tumultuous circumstances. ”I won’t take lessons on caucus management from you,” Trudeau responded to Paul, who faced an internal revolt about her leadership earlier this year. 

Both Singh and O’Toole also went after Trudeau for calling an election instead of focusing on getting people out of Afghanistan. (Kabul fell to the Taliban on the same day, August 15, Trudeau called the snap election.)  

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“You put your own political interests ahead of the well being of thousands of people,” O’Toole said.

Trudeau responded by suggesting his opponents were insulting the successful work of Canada’s military and diplomats in getting Canadians and their Afghan allies out of Afghanistan. 

Annamie Paul likely won over some people

Most talking heads (and yes, Twitter folks) seemed to agree that Paul likely made the best impression of any of the leaders. After spending much of this year dealing with internal infighting, and seeing her party polls tank to even below the far-right fringe People’s Party, perhaps Paul wasn’t expected to add much to the debate. However, compared to the other four leaders, she largely attempted to answer the questions and steer the debate towards some civility. Paul, the only female leader on stage and the first Black leader of a major Canadian party, likely won a few fans over one tough exchange with Blanchet, who she suggested “educate” himself on systemic racism. When the Quebec nationalist leader said he was insulted, Paul responded: “That is not an insult, it’s an invitation to educate yourself.”

The Format Was Unpleasant

Moderator Shachi Kurl of the Angus Reid Institute definitely moderated more than most, interrupting several leaders on their very first questions, and had a particularly combative night with Blanchet, whom she asked about his support for “discriminatory” Bill 21, the controversial law that forbids public servants from wearing religious symbols such as turbans or hijabs. Blanchet was seething in his post-debate scrum with reporters, repeatedly suggesting Kurl had called Quebecers racist (she did not).

The format of the debate was fast-moving, moving from question to question (which were all grouped under larger topic areas like climate change or leadership and accountability) with relative speed, not allowing much time for leaders to speak with substance, and then followed with quick one-on-one, or one-on-one-on-one segments, before moving on again to a new question, from a rotating cast of journalists. There was also an open debate segment, which between five people can tend to get a bit shouty. 

Singh really should have released his costed platform already 

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The Liberals have had a costed platform since Sept. 1. The Conservatives released theirs earlier this week. The NDP has not. Singh had a number of strong one-liners in the debate, but was put on his heels when it came to pesky details, like how he’s going to pay for some of his big ideas. Trudeau repeatedly painted the Liberals as the progressive party with realistic plans that can be paid for, the subtext being the Liberals desperately need to win over some NDP-leaning voters in order to stay in power and keep the Conservatives from forming a government. 

Nowhere was the conflict between Singh’s big vision and lack of nitty-gritty policy more obvious than when he took a question from the CBC’s Rosemary Barton asking whether he valued young people being able to buy homes more, or their (better-off) parents being able to keep their equity in their homes. Perhaps a bit of a trick question, but Singh’s attempt at saying “both” was tough to watch. 

Marek Won the Debate

Part of the debate format was taking live questions from Canadians. One was from an 18-year-old Indigenous man named Marek McLeod from Ontario, who initially stumbled over his question, muttered something under his breath, and after some encouragement from Kurl, got a strong question in. 

"How can I trust and respect the federal government after 150-plus years of lies and abuse to my people? And as prime minister what will you do to rebuild the trust between First Nations and the federal government?" he asked.  

It was an endearing moment in a debate that had few.

Follow Josh Visser on Twitter.