Federal leaders face off in final debate of the election campaign

OTTAWA — The dominance of climate change as a key issue in the federal election campaign continued Thursday night, occupying the first segment of the final scheduled debate among the six leaders.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau sought immediately to position himself in contrast with his main opponent, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, though without even mentioning Scheer’s name. He simply alluded to other conservative leaders in Canada, saying the Liberals are ready to stand up to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and the oil industry.

Scheer’s conservatism was also attacked from the other direction by People’s Party of Canada Maxime Bernier, who sought to paint his former Conservative party colleague as simply another version of the Liberals. Positioning his own party as far more conservative than the one he left has been a key strategy for Bernier.

“Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Scheer have the same stance on climate change,” he alleged, before further attacking one pillar of Scheer’s approach to address emissions abroad.

Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, meanwhile, attacked Scheer’s proposal for a coast-to-coast energy corridor as just one of many impositions on Quebec’s authority.

Thursday night’s French debate got off to a much less frantic start than the officially sanctioned English debate on Monday, also at the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Que.

But in segments where the group of six were divided into smaller groups of three, tempers flared quickly and often, especially when Trudeau and Scheer were pitted against each other in a segment on the economy, each accusing the other of untruths and exaggerations.

Scheer also took heat Thursday night for the fact his platform has yet to be fully published it is expected to be released, along with a full costing, on Friday.

Monday’s two-hour contest had faced lengthy bouts of crosstalk and mudslinging and several leaders had complained the format didn’t allow enough time to get their points across.

Still, voter surveys had suggested the two previous televised debates gave a boost to the NDP and Bloc Quebecois, but didn’t move the needle for the front-running Liberals and Conservatives.

With 78 seats in Quebec, the province holds major sway over whether the election ends with a majority or minority Parliament and all six leaders were in some sense fighting for their political lives on Thursday.

The NDP’s continued loss of support in a province that once handed them Official Opposition status is a continued sore point for leader Jagmeet Singh. Earlier Thursday he had dismissed the fact the Bloc Quebecois is picking up some of those voters but went after their environment stance Thursday night.

Meanwhile, Scheer was widely considered to have taken the hardest hit in Quebec after the previous French-language debate put on by television network TVA, and though his aides had been bullish on Tory chances in the province, they’ve now dialled back that enthusiasm.

Thursday night was also the first time Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was able to debate in French, she’d been left off the stage during the TVA contest earlier in the campaign, though commented along on social media.

Thursday’s debate featured five themes: economy and finances, environment and energy, foreign policy and immigration, identity ethics and governance and services to citizens.

Ahead of the debates, the Conservatives and Liberals had sought to energize their respective supporters by taking jabs at each other.

The Liberals released new ads on Thursday that took aim at Scheer, hoping to deflect from scrutiny of Trudeau himself with the Liberal leader saying in one ad that Scheer “wants you to think this election is about me — I think it’s about you.”

The Conservatives fired back on Facebook with a video urging Trudeau to fire former cabinet minister and Toronto candidate Judy Sgro, who told a radio station that her black constituents in Toronto told her they loved Trudeau even more after learning he wore blackface. Sgro has apologized.

Trudeau has likewise apologized for wearing brownface and blackface, which he says he now understands to be racist, after a series of images of him from 2001 and the 1990s rocked his campaign last month.

Mindful that he might end up having to support either one of those parties in a minority Parliament, Singh laid out some conditions earlier Thursday for doing so.

His terms largely matched his campaign platform — national pharmacare and dental care programs, more affordable housing, eliminating interest on federal student loans, a tax for the super-rich and action on climate change.

But he added a new item: changing the way the country votes.

Electoral reform is an especially sore spot for the Liberals, who promised that the 2015 election would be the last under the traditional first-past-the-post electoral system, only to scuttle the recommendations of the committee they put together to examine the issue.

Singh’s NDP backs a system of mixed-member proportional representation, which advocates say better reflects the will of voters as expressed in the popular vote. Singh said the issue is about “giving power back to people.”

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