The Most Painfully Awkward Moments From Canada's First Election 2019 Debate

The most interesting thing about the debate was the fact that JT didn't show up.
Elizabeth May shakes Justin Trudeau's invisible hand. Photo by Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press

In a show of how exciting Canadian politics are, the most interesting thing about last night's leaders’ debate was the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn't even show up for it.

Think about that: the prime minister running for re-election could not be bothered to attend the debate, which was hosted by Maclean’s and CityTV. (Maybe he was busy watching the US Democratic party debate, which by the sounds of it was a lot feistier.)


Trudeau’s opponents made sure that his absence remained a constant theme throughout the night.

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer repeatedly skewered Trudeau’s absence and record, saying at one point that the PM is “afraid” to show up to be questioned on TV.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh surprised many by attacking Scheer and Green Party leader Elizabeth May early on, while May offered as many incoherent answers as she did clear ones.

All of it helped deliver a night punctuated by a good number of, well, awkward moments that we’ve conveniently compiled.

May shakes hands with invisible Trudeau

The debate’s organizers set up an empty podium for Trudeau, just in case he changed his mind and decided to show up. Whether or not it was their intention, it also served as a passive aggressive bit of shade, which May capitalized on.

As the candidates greet each other, May went up to the empty podium and “shook hands” with the absent prime minister.

Singh offers Scheer a “protip”

In response to Singh’s spiel about his plan to expand health and dental care, Scheer repeated something he said earlier, arguing that you can’t increase services when you have lots of debt. He said that it’ll lead to more taxes and less prosperity.

In the middle of Scheer’s rather robotic answer, Singh, perhaps a little frustrated by the response, interjected by saying, “I can’t believe you’re doubling down on this…I’m gonna give you some advice, protip: don’t double down on that, it didn’t work for you last time.”


May can’t get a word in

May tried to be assertive throughout the night but, particularly in the first segment of the economy debate, her attempts to insert herself into the discussion were almost always blocked by Singh going at Scheer, Scheer responding, or Scheer going at Trudeau.

May tried several times to interject with a “But” or a “Well, I don’t think…”, but none of it worked for a good few minutes. The two men monopolized the momentum of the debate. Shocking, we know.

It took moderator Paul Wells stopping the debate to redirect things back to May.

Scheer can’t give a straight answer on compensating Indigenous children

Scheer was asked whether he would oppose the recent Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that Ottawa must pay compensation to Indigenous children who suffered under an unjust, on-reserve child welfare system.

Scheer began by giving a generic answer about how important it is that Indigenous peoples receive the same services as all Canadians. But he snuck into this non-answer a pretty standard version of the “I-have-an-Indigenous-friend” card, as if to compensate for his wishy-washy response.

“I have a great relationship with Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde. He actually comes from my home riding,” he said.

Contrasted with both May and Singh, who both gave clear answers in support of the tribunal ruling, Scheer’s response was indeed a little awkward.

Scheer pivots to SNC-Lavalin when asked about Indigenous issues

At one point, Scheer was asked whether he agreed that Canada should align its commitments to Indigenous peoples with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Scheer answered by saying that doing so would allow “one Indigenous community or another” to “hold hostage” energy projects (e.g. pipelines), preventing them from going forward.


May and Singh snapped back by saying that Scheer had no idea what he’s talking about.

Then Wells asked May whether she was being serious when she proposed to have SNC-Lavalin (if found guilty) fix the water crisis on Indigenous reserves. If not, what’s her actual proposal?

In the midst of a May-Singh back-and-forth, Scheer decided to weigh in by bringing the discussion back to his favourite topic of the night: Trudeau and the SNC-Lavalin scandal.

It was a pretty obvious maneuver that, despite touching on a real scandal, was a complete deflection away from an arguably much bigger disgrace: that, for years, multiple reserves across Canada have not had access to safe drinking water.

Wells let the ensuing discussion go for a bit before he reeled it back and said, “This was supposed to be about Indigenous issues.”

May calls Scheer Trump’s puppet

May decided to save her most aggressive assault of the night for Scheer, who had been calling Trudeau too “weak” and “afraid” to stand up for Canada against China and Trump on the world stage.

“I looked at your policies on foreign policy today, Andrew,” May said. “And I realized if anyone wants to know where you stand, just figure out what Trump wants.”

“[Trump] might as well be the ventriloquist and you’re Charlie McCarthy!” she continued. (This is the second time in as many weeks that Scheer has been compared to a literal dummy. Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj aptly observed that he shares a likeness with Annabelle, the killer doll from The Conjuring, and now we can’t get that image out of our heads.)


Scheer basically ignored May’s dig. Maybe he knew that the audience wouldn’t get a reference to a 1940s puppet TV show anyway.

Singh criticizes May’s Greens; May tries to mock him with laughter

At one point in the night, Singh found an opening to rattle off a number of differences between his NDP and the Green Party including, crucially, how May hasn’t come out to say unequivocally that her party backs a woman’s right to choose.

May immediately responded by saying, “Excuse me! Those are absurd statements! I’m awfully sorry…”

She then proceeded to do one of those forced laughs you do when you try to replace the lack of a coherent answer with nonchalant giggling. Who knew reproductive rights were such an LOL?

May didn’t respond to any of Singh’s actual points.

Perhaps the most awkward moment of the night.

May calls out Scheer out on his unequivocal support for Israel

The last part of Thursday’s debate focused on foreign policy. The subject contained arguably the most issues and files than any other category.

May accuses Scheer near the end of night of trying to move Canada away from a neutral position in the Israel-Palestine conflict and as a total backer of Israel.

“There is only one side that tries to minimize casualties, and that is Israel,” Scheer said. “I will absolutely support Israel’s right to defend itself.”

Right before this exchange, Scheer briefly boasted that he’s banned from Russia for his support of Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin occupied and annexed Crimea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.

May retorted to Scheer’s unequivocal support for Israel: “So it’s not OK for Russia to occupy Crimea but it’s OK for Israel to occupy Palestine?”

Scheer didn’t respond. It was a rare gotcha moment (and a bit of an awkward one for Scheer) that the other candidates more or less brushed over, but the audience was sure to have caught.

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