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As Trudeau skips first debate, May and Singh take aim at Scheer

With Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau absent from the first unofficial debate of the 2019 election campaign, the leaders of Canada’s progressive opposition parties took aim at Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer Thursday night.

While Green party Leader Elizabeth May and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh are locked in close competition in the national polls, they presented a united front against Scheer’s positions at a leaders’ debate hosted by Macleans and Citytv.

Pincered onstage between May and Singh, Scheer appeared visibly frustrated at times while his fellow opposition leaders took turns trying to poke holes in his positions.

“(Mr. Scheer) says he would cut taxes, he would certainly cut taxes, there’s no question about that. He would cut taxes for the wealthy, and he would cut services for families,” Singh said, invoking the spectre of Doug Ford’s provincial government.

“That’s not true,” quickly became a frequent refrain from Scheer.

As the opposition leaders traded barbs on the economy, environment, First Nations rights and foreign affairs, Trudeau was speaking to hundreds of party faithful in Edmonton.

But while Trudeau was gone from the Toronto stage, he was not forgotten. The debate organizers left Trudeau’s designated podium empty on the stage. And the three opposition leaders pounced on the Liberal leaders’ absence.

Scheer accused Trudeau of being afraid to defend his record on the Toronto stage — a rare point of consensus between the debate participants.


    “We’ve seen what long-term, permanent deficits have done to this country in the past,” Scheer said.

    “That puts a huge strain on our social services like health care and education, and it means that right after the election (Trudeau) will raise taxes when he doesn’t need your …vote.”

    On the economy, Scheer attacked May and Singh’s economic proposal as beyond the federal government’s means after years of deficit spending under the Trudeau government. But when asked how he would balance the federal books within five years while cutting taxes, Scheer would only say that a Conservative government would limit growth in government spending — while his fellow leaders accused him of planning to cut services.

    On Indigenous issues, all leaders agreed they would prioritize bringing clean drinking water to the dozens of First Nations that don’t have it. But Singh and May also continued to press the Conservative leader, both taking issue with how senators in his caucus defeated an NDP private member’s bill that would have implemented the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

    Scheer pushed back and said he disagreed with the bill because he argued it would give Indigenous nations a veto over projects like pipelines, and create “tremendous uncertainty” in the Canadian economy.


      During the discussion of energy and the environment, there were sparks between Singh and May as the NDP leader listed areas where his party is allegedly different from the Greens: that they believe in abortion rights, the unity of Canada, and keeping Conservatives out of power.

      May shot back, calling the characterization “absurd” and false, but that she wouldn’t go down the “rabbit hole” of explaining why.

      The Green leader also framed her own environment plan, which calls for slashing emissions to 60 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and freezing all new fossil fuel development, as the only credible platform to address climate change.

      “You can’t negotiate with physics,” she said. “It’s not business as usual. It’s not politics as usual.”

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      Before the debate began, a scene on Yonge St. suggested the two-day old campaign has already gotten nasty. Outside a street near Dundas Square, the leaders arrived through a gauntlet of shouting supporters from every party, as well as a boisterous collective of climate activists.

      Partisans for the People’s Party shouted hoarsely about Maxime Bernier’s exclusion from the debates. One man with a megaphone who stood with them repeatedly called on Singh — a Sikh who was born in Scarborough — to denounce the Air India bombing and ridiculed him for wearing “that thing on your head,” a derogatory reference to the NDP leader’s turban.

      The vote is Oct. 21.

      With a file from Tonda MacCharles

      Alex Boutilier

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