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It's Hard to Imagine a Bleaker Leaders' Debate at a More Important Time

It was a six-way screaming match full of lies and one-liners. But lost in all that shouting was a glimpse into what Canada really is now.

by Drew Brown
Oct 8 2019, 2:44pm

Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Conservative leader Andrew Scheer 'debate' each other. Photo via The Canadian Press.

This election is scant on debates. Literally, in that last night was the only chance Anglo viewers will get to see four of the major parties (and two fringe-party spoilers) go head to head about the issues. But also figuratively, in that this campaign has really never been about issues as much as larger, less determinate questions like “Is Canada racist?” or “Who is a journalist?” (The answers are “astonishingly” and “right-wing propaganda outlets,” respectively.)

But where the campaign trail is nothing but nightly dueling sound bites from the announcements of the day, debate night is when we see which politicians can be forged into steel by the heat and pressure of the live spotlight, and which ones will simply wither, crack, or melt. As you might expect, the 2019 election delivered the debate we deserve: six people incoherently shouting one-liners at each other.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau skipped the first English debate at the very beginning of the election, letting Green Leader Elizabeth May and the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh do a few practice layups on Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, whose main accomplishment for the first outing was suggesting that Indigenous rights are holding Canadian resource extraction “hostage.”

Then there was a French debate last week where Trudeau showed up to watch Scheer self-immolate en fran çais, safe in the knowledge that few people outside Quebec would actually pay attention. For anyone who missed that performance, there is a second French leaders’ debate coming up where you can probably watch Scheer get slammed around like a smirking volleyball again.

But last night was the big night. On a shadowy brutalist stage at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, a bonafide Media Consortium brought six party leaders together for a two-hour battle royale moderated by a rotating panel of high-powered female journalists. Yes, six politicians: May, Trudeau, Scheer, Singh, and two wildcards, Maxime Bernier (People’s Party) and Yves-François Blanchet (Bloc Quebecois). Each round started with a question to a randomly selected leader, at which point another leader was given the opportunity for rebuttal. This happened a couple of times, at which point another leader got the chance to ask anyone else on stage any question at all before descending into a six-way open brawl for four minutes.

If this sounds like A Lot, that’s because it was. The evening opened with a question about “how you will show leadership for Canada on the world stage” that first went to Bernier, who immediately disavowed the legitimacy of the United Nations. Everyone else ignored the question and used it to give their opening remarks. Then the moderator at the time, CTV’s Lisa LaFlamme, read through a list of Bernier’s greatest hits on Twitter and asked him why he would say rude things about multiculturalism or climate activist Greta Thunberg, giving him a soapbox to opine about how the real fascism in Canada is that no one wants to publicly debate with him about how admitting too many immigrants leads to white genocide. Three cheers for airing all this out in the marketplace of ideas! The whole exchange highlighted the wisdom of the organizers in bringing him on the stage.

Anyway, it went on like this for two hours. There were a few interesting questions put to the floor. The exchange over Quebec’s discriminatory Bill 21 was revealing, if depressing—the clash of principles on stage ran from Singh insisting that “Bill 21 makes me feel sad” to Trudeau’s “We have convictions! We might theoretically challenge the law in the future, maybe!” to Blanchet musing that Anglos just don’t understand secularism (or that the recent BQ tweet calling for voters to elect “people who resemble you” isn’t racist: it’s just a Quebec thing). The CBC’s Rosemary Barton asking Trudeau flatly if the Trans-Mountain Pipeline Extension is “Canada’s last pipeline,” and his failure to give a firm answer, also stands out as a significant moment.

But for the most part anything thrown out was very quickly reassembled into each party’s pre-written script. Federalism? Work with provinces on climate plans, because you can’t negotiate with physics. Fight provinces who don’t want climate plans, because we have to move forward. Abandon federal climate plans, because you can’t trust Trudeau. Climate change is not a real problem, but if it was the solution is fewer immigrants. Give Quebec more money to make its own decisions. Universal pharmacare: there’s a federal component, which the wealthy will pay for.

Trudeau and Scheer would regularly tumble into incoherent shouting matches—notably, about carbon taxes or abortion—only to have Singh knock them both flat with a pithy one-liner from the other side of a room. Despite earlier warnings to the audience to hold their applause, Singh got big cheers for suggesting that men shouldn’t be yelling about regulating women’s bodies.


Singh was working overtime throughout this debate. Most leaders applauded his decorum in handling the shockingly banal racism of the campaign trail, but he was the only one there to outright challenge both Bernier’s presence at the debate and his outrageous comments about immigration and “Canadian values.” Scheer, of course, got some time to push back against Bernier’s closing rant against dairy supply management, a subject which absorbs a truly baffling level of mental energy in this country.

Tellingly, the segment dedicated to discussing “Indigenous issues” spent very little time on Indigenous issues. (Maybe because Aboriginal Peoples Television Network was excluded from any real input into the debate?) Most of the questions thrown out on the topic turned into arguments about Quebec’s place in the federation or why it was taking so gosh darned long to build pipelines, which confirmed that at best most parties view Indigenous issues as a subset of other policy concerns (infrastructure! the environment!), and at worst as an expensive inconvenience in the way of, as Scheer phrased it, “making Canada a country where big things get built again.”

Singh was again most effective when he managed to work in a zinger about the Liberals appealing the compensation agreement for First Nations children harmed by government policy. With the Liberals vastly scaling back the rhetorical importance of reconciliation from the 2015 election, the NDP seems to have assumed the role of tackling colonialism in Canada. (Maybe at the 2023 debates there will be a real discussion about all that.)

The final segment on “the environment” is where the rubber hits the road. May hit her stride about the urgency of the climate crisis and casually noted that the oil sands need to be shut down by 2030. Trudeau and Scheer collapsed into another verbal slap fight over whether or not carbon taxes are good only to have Singh suggest that “you don’t have to vote for Mr. Delay or Mr. Deny, there are other options,” where May jumped in to argue that yes, and that other option is the Green Party. Trudeau recovered his footing in the last 20 seconds to recap what the Liberal campaign has come down to: only Red or Blue can win, and only Red has an actual climate plan. (Please do not spend too much time reflecting on the fact that in arguably the most important climatological moment in human history, Canadian voters basically face a choice between “a climate plan whose chief merit is that it exists” and “no plan.”)

Anyone tuning into the debate to hear the party leaders say anything substantive or compelling was likely disappointed by the two hours of loud shouting we got instead. But there are a few important takeaways from the debate about the general state of Canadian politics two weeks out from an election.

First, it is abundantly clear that those on the commanding heights of our media apparatus learned nothing over the past few years about how to handle far-right provocateurs gaming decrepit liberal institutions. (Pro-tip: Do not ask a political shock jock “what do you have to say about your outrageous tweets?” to open a national forum.) Second, that playing spoiler as the Bloc Quebecois leader in an English-language debate is probably the most fun job in Canadian politics, even if their presence is a weird anachronism that makes no sense. Third, while it is fashionable to say that this election is stupid and meaningless, that’s not quite true. It is stupid, but the meaning so far seems to be how disconnected our federal political discourse has become from the host of regional dysfunction brewing across the country.

Ontario aside—and Scheer telling Trudeau “if you’re so interested in Ontario affairs, why don’t you run for the provincial Liberals” is one of the better lines of the night—all federal parties have more or less capitulated on anything involving a national vision. The exchanges about Bill 21 highlighted that there is little appetite for anyone to wage cultural war in Quebec over the rights of religious minorities. Nearly every Crown corporation in Saskatchewan is on strike. New Brunswick is in the middle of a francophobic political meltdown and Newfoundland and Labrador is sinking under the weight of a megadam. Alberta is running an in-house inquisition to root out environmentalists and stoking some climate-denying separatist sentiment that it may not be able to control. Provincial governments from coast to coast are all fucking themselves and their citizens into different corners while federal leaders race around the country speaking only to very specifically microtargeted demographics identified through data mining instead of addressing Canada as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. And then, when you do get them together on television for two hours, they just shout slogans at each other.

It’s bleak, man. It is harder to imagine a more depressing election at a more important moment in time. But hey: at least the debate is over. That’s something that can inspire us all. Christ.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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