Meanwhile, in Quebec, a parallel election

Justin Ling: In the first French-language leaders debate, Trudeau and O’Toole bent over backwards to pitch themselves as the PM who’d spend the most and do the least

If the federal election turns on a question of who is best to lead the country into an uncertain future, the first debate of the campaign put a fine point on the idea that, for Quebec, no leadership is good leadership.

For two hours in the TVA studios in Montreal, the four party leaders with representation in Quebec sparred about who was best-placed to, in effect, send the most money while doing the least in Quebec.

Canada’s asymmetrical federalism isn’t new. But there hasn’t been an election like this in decades, if ever, and it was on full display on Thursday evening. The two likely contenders for Prime Minister bent over backwards to pitch themselves as better partners of Premier Francois Legault than the Bloc Quebecois.

Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet arrived with a set of demands: More money for childcare and more money for health care, in particular. But less interference with how Quebec spends that money. More Bloc, Blanchet promised, would mean more wins for Quebec.

Plenty of those challenges were levelled directly at Justin Trudeau, his main competitor in the province and the one who he was promising to shake the coins from. But their squabbling largely took place in a narrow bit of real estate: Trudeau wouldn’t commit to hiking health-care transfers, instead promising to make a series of one-time payments to Quebec and the other provinces, but he was quick to tout the $6 billion no-strings-attached cheque he promised the province to expand access to childcare.

At one point, the two sparred over whether, as Blanchet proposed, the Prime Minister ought to be more concerned with capping oil production—bad news for Alberta—or whether, as Trudeau suggested, he ought to be capping carbon emissions.

And hanging on the margins of the debate between the two was Conservative leader Erin O’Toole and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh. Two men capable in french, but not proficient enough to fire off facts and arguments like Trudeau and Blanchet.

O’Toole, for his part, tried to out-Bloc the Bloc. Health-care transfers? You bet. More authority for immigration? Sure thing. Banning religious symbols? Fine with me. O’Toole, who continues to struggle in Quebec even as he rises in the polls elsewhere, made a compelling pitch to Bloc voters: “I agree with him,” O’Toole said of Blanchet at one point. “The difference is that I’m the only one who can be the Prime Minister.”

Singh spent most of the debate calmly appealing to the progressive electors who fled his party in droves over recent years, mostly flocking to the Liberals or Bloc. In so doing, he often sounded like the only leader who wanted to govern the whole country: Not merely as an equal partner to Premier Francois Legault. A national fight against climate change, a national vaccine passport, a national effort to eliminate for-profit health care. Perhaps it’s the freedom of a leader with a sole MP in the province, but Singh seemed disinterested in building new walls around Quebec’s growing self-governance.

The trend towards Quebec’s increasing autonomy has been in the works for decades, and has only accelerated since the election of nationalist-populist Legault. But in the midst of a particularly competitive election, one where Quebec could be the difference between a Liberal or Conservative government, some of the wedges are becoming particularly concerning.

At the apex of the debate, Blanchet laid into the Prime Minister, demanding to know why federal money was being put up to finance a court challenge to Quebec’s Law 21—an odious law which bars many religious minorities from certain government jobs.

“Quebecers are not racist!” he hectored the Liberal leader.

Trudeau’s metered retort, that the money came from an independent program and that his government had not yet decided whether it would join a challenge against the law, was largely shouted down by the Bloc leader.

Trudeau’s position on the bill hasn’t changed much since the last election, just two years ago. But it’s O’Toole’s Conservatives that have suddenly found new appreciation for the law. Where his predecessor, Andrew Scheer, once talked about defending individual liberties, O’Toole has all but endorsed the bill.

In the Tory platform, O’Toole is pledging to “respect the jurisdiction of the Québec National Assembly by neither intervening in nor providing federal funding to support legal challenges to Law 21.” And his newfound appreciation for the law was on high display Thursday evening.

“Our country is divided—and the best way to bring the country together is to respect provincial jurisdiction,” O’Toole answered when Maclean’s asked about his newfound appreciation for discriminating against religious minorities.

The growing political desire to talk about Quebec exclusively in foreign terms was equally apparent when the topic of systemic racism came up. Blanchet, again leading the charge, demanded Singh apologize to Quebec for tacitly accepting that it was a nation capable of systemic racism; and to Bloc MP Alain Therrien, for calling him “racist” last year. 

Singh declined to apologize, but noted that Quebecers themselves have been the victims of discrimination—but stood fast in underscoring that people in the province, like Joyce Echaquan, have felt the effects of that systemic racism.

After the debate, Blanchet doubled down. “I acknowledged, as an anthropologist, that [systemic racism] exists,” Blanchet said. “But it became a weapon—in the hands of Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Singh, who are using it systematically against Quebec. Quebec has the right to refuse to use those words, because they are used politically against Quebecers.”

Legault had set the stage for this kind of jousting. After years of a cordial relationship between Quebec and Ottawa, Trudeau’s relationship with Legault took a turn last week, when the Quebec leader admonished Trudeau’s refusal to boost health-care transfers to the provinces “without condition.”

“What’s being proposed by these two parties,” Legault said of the Liberals and the New Democrats, “it’s more tricks, more centralization and bureaucracy. It’s not what we need.”

But Legault had plenty of nice words for O’Toole and his plan to double the annual increase in health transfers to the provinces: A massive downloading of federal funds. “It’s exactly what we’ve demanded,” he said.

Legault’s comments were so blunt that it earned a rather clear headline in La Presse: “Legault throws flowers at O’Toole, the flowerpot at Trudeau and Singh.”

The high-wire act of negotiating Canada’s relationship with Quebec has always been a difficult one. With some exception, though, Quebec’s unique status as a nation-within-a-nation has served both sides well. But with a ton of seats on the line, there appears to be a newfound desire to speed up that decentralization, particularly by Erin O’Toole, without much appreciation of cost, efficacy or long-term effects.

Maybe this election was a bad idea after all.

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