The leaders of the four main political parties in the House of Commons faced off in the first French-language debate of the 2021 federal election campaign. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Yves-François Blanchet, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh participated in the “Face-to-Face,” an exercise facilitated by the TVA network.

At the end of the summer and at the dawn of the new school year, many experts believe that this debate marks the beginning of the real campaign. While the latest polls suggest little movement in the voting intentions of Canadians, the Face-to-Face debate represents a key opportunity for the four federal leaders to stand out and secure votes in Quebec.

Remember that in the last election (2019), the Face-to-Face marked a turning point in the campaign for the Conservatives. Former leader, Andrew Scheer, had stumbled on the issue of abortion by maintaining the vagueness of his personal position; a fall that had largely benefited the Bloc Québécois.

Last night, the leaders debated for two hours on the following three themes: the pandemic, social policies and the Canada of tomorrow.

Our team of experts in Quebec identified five key takeaways from their exchanges:

1. An “unnecessary” election

From the outset, the three leaders confronted Justin Trudeau for launching an unnecessary election campaign as the fourth wave of the pandemic hits the country. The argument of an already “functional” parliament was made repeatedly. The Liberal leader countered that the choice to call Canadians to the polls to seek a third term was justified by the need to have voters’ voices heard on the pandemic exit strategy. The outgoing Prime Minister seemingly failed to justify the calling of a general election during a pandemic.

2. A debate that will not go down in history

This face-to-face debate is not a turning point in the election campaign. None of the exchanges in this debate are likely to result in a significant change in voting intentions.

3. No winner, no knockout

All four leaders had good and bad moments. In his first debate as party leader, Conservative Erin O’Toole managed to position himself as an alternative. As the least known leader, Quebecers discovered an Erin O’Toole with a calm demeanor and a good command of French. He was able to court Quebec nationalists on issues such as official languages, balancing the budget and economic recovery, and probably consolidated his gains.

The most experienced of the group, leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, was combative and defensive in many of the exchanges. The leader of the Bloc Québécois, Yves-François Blanchet, strongly defended the interests of Quebec and became heated at the end of the debate in response to accusations that he had bypassed the BAPE when he was Minister of the Environment. As for Jagmeet Singh, he was able to deliver the messages to his supporters.

4. Health transfers 

Federal-provincial relations have caused some flare-ups, particularly when it comes to health transfers. Erin O’Toole criticized the paternalistic nature of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party on this issue, noting that the Conservative party is committed to increasing health transfers to the provinces by at least 6% per year. (Read more about the health transfers issue on our website)

In a similar vein, a line from Jagmeet Singh in reference to the use of the private sector in health care services resonated: “Profits have killed our seniors. I cannot stand by and watch this tragedy,” he said, referring to the tragic deaths in Quebec’s long-term care facilities during the pandemic.

5. No coalition government

Asked a few times by the debate moderator about the formation of a coalition government in the event of a minority, neither Justin Trudeau nor Erin O’Toole answered directly. On this issue, the Liberal leader reiterated that he wanted a “clear mandate” from Canadians and that he thought another election might be called in 18 months.

Green Party leader Annamie Paul will join Trudeau, Blanchet, O’Toole and Signh at the two other events organized by the Leaders’ Debate Commission on September 8 and 9, in English and French.


Authored by: Josiane Hébert, Pierre Tremblay and Iman Marzouk