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Canada's PM Contenders Clash Over the Economy, Terrorism, and Pipelines

In what polls predict will be a true three-way race, the prime minister bore the brunt of the attacks in the two-hour face-off Thursday night in Toronto.

by Rachel Browne, Hilary Beaumont and Justin Ling
Aug 7 2015, 4:05am

The top candidates in the Canadian federal election clashed over the economy, pipeline proposals, Quebec separatism, and what to do about terrorism in the first — and possibly only — debate featuring the full slate of leaders.

In what polls predict will be a true three-way race, the prime minister bore the brunt of the attacks in the two-hour face-off moderated by Maclean's Magazine and held a downtown Toronto television studio on Thursday. 

It happened at the same time as American Republican candidates duked it out in the Cleveland Cavaliers arena and came just days after Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the start of longest campaign in Canada's history — a full 78 days. 

Social issues were largely absent from the debate. Youth underemployment was barely mentioned, and the national crisis of missing and murdered indigenous women was left out of the discussion entirely.

On the economy, Harper — who has been in power nine years — painted a glowing picture of Canada as the most stable economy among G7 nations, even as the three other party leaders charged him with delivering successive deficits. Left-leaning NDP leader Thomas Mulcair retorted that Harper is being deceptive about the health of the economy, and positioned himself as a centrist alternative for change.

"What we're seeing here tonight is that you're going to do everything you can to hang on to your job. I'm going to do everything I can to create jobs for average Canadians," said Mulcair.

In a strange moment, Harper said he didn't dispute that Canada was in a recession, but that the troubles are limited to an energy sector that has been battered by the plunging price of oil.

And Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, who repeated his unwavering support for Canada's "middle class," criticized Harper for being "completely disconnected with the reality that people are facing across the country."

"I'll tell you what won't grow our economy," Harper scoffed at one point, "the kinds of plans these guys are presenting, where they want to increase [Canada Pension Plan] taxes ... These are not the ways you handle economic turbulence of low oil prices." 

Related: PM Stephen Harper Triggers Canada's Longest Election Campaign Since 1872, Amid Faltering Economy

Pipeline proposals and their impacts on the environment have been a major point of tension across Canada as the federal government tries to push oil into world markets and First Nations leaders saying they aren't being consulted about the use of their land.

In a media scrum after the debate, VICE News asked Mulcair to clarify which pipeline proposals he supported and which he was against, and why. He did not name a single pipeline and would not answer the question.

"Of course I think the answers to that were extremely clear tonight. What we have said is this: Mr. Harper has evaporated, eviscerated in fact, a large number of environmental legislations in Canada. We can talk about the number, the Waters Protection Act, the Species at Risk Act, the Fisheries Act, large sections of those have been taken away. So Canada no longer has a credible, thorough environmental assessment process, so that's the number one problem."

Mulcair was not clear during the debate about his position on the future of major pipeline proposals. "Opposing these pipelines in advance is just as bad as supporting them in advance," he said.

Mulcair added that TransCanada's Energy East pipeline proposal could be "a win, win, win" for everyone, but that Harper hasn't handled it properly.

Supporters for the major political parties rally outside the leaders debate in Toronto/Hilary Beaumont

Green Party leader Elizabeth May took aim at Mulcair on his unclear positioning on the pipeline projects. The Greens are the only federal party in Canada that opposes all new pipeline proposals.

"I noticed because I was in one of the corners here waiting to take this mic, that Mr. Mulcair again didn't answer the question on pipelines, and it's very clear to me he doesn't oppose the Kinder-Morgan pipeline," she told reporters. "That's not a question of putting it through a better environmental assessment — the people of British Columbia do not want the Kinder-Morgan pipeline and the tankers coming out of the port of Vancouver, and sadly for the voters of many ridings of British Columbia, the candidates for the NDP are claiming that the NDP opposes Kinder-Morgan."

In a surprising move that made things especially tense — and momentarily took the heat off Harper — Trudeau made specific hay of Mulcair's position on Quebec separation. The NDP argues that the province should be allowed to leave Canada if a simple majority of the provinces votes for separation, while the other parties support making the number higher than 50 percent plus one vote.

"Mr. Trudeau has an obligation if he wants to talk about this subject to come clean with Canadians. What's his number? What is your number? What is your number, Mr. Trudeau?" Mulcair demanded to know.

"I'll give you a number: Nine. My number is nine," Trudeau replied. "Nine Supreme Court justices said one vote is not enough to break up this country and yet that is Mr. Mulcair's position. He wants to be prime minister of this country and he's choosing to side with the separatist movement in Quebec and not with the Supreme Court of Canada."

Related: Canadian Premiers Call For Oil Export Expansion Amid Promises to Fight Climate Change

On foreign affairs, Harper stood his ground on his government's approach to rooting out terrorist threats at home, and Canada's mission in Iraq against Islamic State militants.

"It would be foolish not to go after this group," Harper warned.

But May slammed the government's new anti-terror law, known as Bill C-51, saying it erodes civil liberties while making Canadians "less safe" and "less able to disrupt plots."

Mulcair reiterated his promise to repeal the bill should he be elected prime minister, and charged Harper with unfairly targeting Muslims in their anti-terror rhetoric. Harper "singles out mosques," said Mulcair, "who knows why he's using that language.

Harper rebuffed the accusation, saying that "Muslims are the vast majority of victims of [jihadist extremism]."

During the debate, Trudeau was the only leader to specifically point out the problem of youth underemployment, citing "coffee shop workers."

In 2012, the underemployment rate for people 15 to 24 was 14.3 percent compared to 6 percent for those 25 to 54 and over 55.

In a scrum after the debate, VICE News asked Trudeau to specify his plans for addressing youth underemployment.

He responded, "We need them to understand that they can start jobs, start their careers, without being burdened by student debt, and make sure we're working with industries, working with corporations, working with schools and partners to make sure there's a path to employment for young people."

VICE News asked him to be more specific, and he replied that the Liberals have put forward a range of initiatives, including discussions and roundtables on the rise of unpaid internships. But he did not specify a plan to deal with underemployment.

Another reporter said it was likely that more young people tuned into The Daily Show's final episode than watched the debate. Trudeau responded that young people are engaged, but unconvinced that formal politics has any role for them. He said, "politics doesn't have to be as cynicism-inducing as Mr. Harper has made it."

Although four debates are confirmed so far, this may be the only English debate in which all four leaders come together on one stage. Voting day is on October 19.

Follow Rachel Browne, Hilary Beaumont, and Justin Ling on Twitter: @rp_browne, @hilarybeaumont, @justin_ling

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