OTTAWA — Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took the brunt of criticism from the other leaders in Monday night’s debate among the federal party leaders.
Regardless of the question, the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh took every opportunity to repeat his favourite theme: that Liberals and Conservatives alike pander to wealthy corporations whereas the NDP will fight for ordinary Canadians with investments in child care, pharmacare and dental care.
“Mr. Trudeau does not have the courage to take on the insurance and the pharmaceutical lobbyists who don’t want this to happen,” Singh said. “You vote New Democrats, we’re going to make sure we’re going to make these things happen because we don’t work for the powerful and wealthy … We work for you.”
The Greens’ Elizabeth May prayed publicly that Trudeau would not be re-elected, with a plan to fight climate change that in her view doesn’t move quickly enough.
His government has done more on climate change than any Canadian government ever has, Trudeau shot back, and has made major policy changes, such as introducing a new child benefit, that have lifted thousands of families out of poverty.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called Trudeau a phoney and a fraud.
“Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada,” Scheer said. “You know, he’s very good at pretending things. He can’t even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he’s always wearing a mask.”
Scheer accused Trudeau of wearing masks on Indigenous reconciliation, feminism and on his concern for middle-class Canadians.
“Mr. Trudeau, you’re a phoney and you’re a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country.”
The format of the debate gave Trudeau no immediate opportunity to respond to Scheer’s attack, but he repeatedly went after Scheer at other times for his personal anti-abortion views and for promoting tax cuts for the rich.
Scheer rounded on Trudeau again later, raising the SNC-Lavalin affair. He accused Trudeau of breaking ethics law, shutting down parliamentary inquiries and firing two senior female cabinet ministers who objected to his trying to pressure his former attorney general to halt a criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant.
“Tell me, when did you decide that the rules don’t apply to you?” he said.
“Mr. Scheer, the role of a prime minister is stand up for Canadians’ jobs, to stand up for the public interest and that’s what I’ve done,” Trudeau responded.
Trudeau then veered onto one of his favourite themes, accusing Scheer of giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Canadians and conducting himself just like Ontario Premier Doug Ford. He also noted that Scheer hasn’t yet released a fully costed platform, which he called “a disrespect for every Canadian.”
“You’re choosing, just like Doug Ford did, to hide your platform from Canadians and deliver cuts to services and cut taxes for the wealthiest. That’s not the way to grow the economy.”
As for the People’s Party’s Maxime Bernier, Trudeau said, his job on the debate stage was to say the things Scheer only believes privately.
Earlier Monday, the shadow of Ford loomed large over the pre-debate campaign trail as the Liberals kept lumping the Ontario premier together with Scheer, while the Conservatives did their best to pry the two apart.
Front-runners Scheer and Trudeau — deadlocked in the polls, by most accounts — made brief appearances in Ottawa before joining their four other foes in making final preparations for the debate, the first to feature all six leaders.
Trudeau joined a group of Ontario teachers in a bid to highlight ongoing tensions between the province’s education workers and the Ford government — tensions that eased ever so slightly the night before when a last-minute agreement saved parents across the province from a potentially disruptive strike.
Ford’s cuts to services such as education have made him unpopular with voters and a drag on federal Conservative fortunes, observers say. Indeed, the premier’s absence from the Scheer campaign became all the more glaring over the weekend when Alberta Premier Jason Kenney glided in to pitch for Scheer in Toronto, including in Ford’s home turf of Etobicoke.
Trudeau has been trying to take advantage, linking Ford to Scheer every chance he can. The premier will oppose and interfere with Liberal efforts to reduce child poverty and increase federal child benefits, Trudeau said, warning Scheer would only make matters worse.