OTTAWA — The only English-language debate to feature all six federal party leaders devolved Monday into crosstalk and mudslinging as the leaders tried to break the impasse in voting intentions that has persisted through three weeks of campaigning.
As the incumbent prime minister, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau inevitably bore the brunt of the attacks, with the sharpest coming from Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who called him "a phoney and a fraud."
But the format of the debate and the sheer number of leaders on stage made substantive debate on policies difficult and, with leaders talking over one another, often impossible to hear.
As Trudeau and Scheer battled for first place in the minds of voters, other party leaders tried to position themselves as alternatives.
After a set-to between Trudeau and Scheer over who has the better climate-change policy, the NDP's Jagmeet Singh told viewers they don't have to choose between "Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny."
Elizabeth May, whose Green party is seeking to supplant the New Democrats as Canada's third party, framed the choice differently.
"At this point, Mr. Scheer, with all due respect, you're not going to be prime minister," she said bluntly at one point. She predicted that Trudeau's Liberals will win at least a minority government so "voting for Green MPs is your very best guarantee, Canada, that you don't get the government you least want."
Maxime Bernier, Scheer's one-time leadership rival who quit the Conservatives to form the People's Party of Canada, took the opportunity to defend his fledgling party against accusations that it is far-right and anti-immigration. He insisted he is proud of Canada's diversity but argued, "we don't need legislation like the Multiculturalism Act to tell us who we are."
Proposing to halve Canada's annual immigration intake is hardly radical, Bernier contended, when the majority of Canadians support cutting back immigration. Bernier also questioned his erstwhile leadership rival's conservative credentials, saying he thinks Scheer is really a liberal.
Trudeau countered that Bernier's role on the stage "seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately."
Yves-Francois Blanchet, whose separatist Bloc Quebecois is running candidates only in Quebec, had the least at stake in the English debate. He used it to defend Quebec's secularism law, which bans certain public servants, including teachers and police, from wearing religious symbols, and to argue that Quebec doesn't need federal politicians telling them "what to do or not to do about its own values."
In a debate that very often featured after-the-bell jabs right before the tumbling roster of moderators moved on to new topics, Singh cracked the most jokes.
More than once, someone called him "Mr. Scheer" by mistake; after the second time, Singh said he'd even worn a bright orange turban so they'd be easy to tell apart. Scheer joked back that his own slight height advantage should have done the trick.
But in the main, like the other leaders, Singh was deadly serious about his targets. Regardless of the question, he took every opportunity to hammer 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."
Trudeau attempted to remind voters of his government's record: lifting 900,000 Canadians out of poverty, creating almost one million jobs, robust economic growth, cutting taxes for the middle class. And he argued that the Liberals have done more to tackle climate change than any Canadian government in history — but not enough, May needled him.
Trudeau also cast himself as a champion of diversity, inclusion and human rights, pointing out that he's the only federal leader to leave the door open to intervening in a court challenge to Quebec's secularism law.
But Scheer, who was widely panned for a weak performance in last week's French debate on Quebec's TVA network, seemed determined to make up for it with a strikingly combative performance Monday. Right from his opening remarks, Scheer went after Trudeau on everything from the SNC-Lavalin affair to his recent apology for appearing in blackface several times in the distant past.
"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 got back-up of a sort from Blanchet, who accused Scheer of being willing to sacrifice thousands of innocent SNC-Lavalin employees and of "playing this old card, you're trading the idea that Quebec is corrupt."
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."
The shadow of Ford loomed large over the pre-debate campaign trail earlier Monday as well.
Trudeau met a group of Ontario teachers in a bid to highlight ongoing tensions between the province's education workers and the Doug 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.
Scheer, who began his day promising free admission to national museums, called Trudeau's photo op with teachers a "disgusting" attempt to politicize education. In the debate later, he suggested Trudeau seek the vacant leadership of the Ontario Liberal party, since he's so interested in provincial issues.
The six leaders will face off again Thursday in the official French-language debate.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 7, 2019.
— With files from Lee Berthiaume
Joan Bryden and Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press