The separation of church and state hot topic in French-language debate

OTTAWA—The separation of church and state took the stage during the first French-language debate of the election campaign.

The controversial Quebec secularism law — known as Bill 21 — that bans some public sector employees, including teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols in the workplace, featured prominently in the first section of the debate, along with abortion rights and same-sex marriage.

Bill 21 is overwhelmingly popular among francophones in Quebec, where four federal leaders tried to make their marks with voters on Wednesday night, facing each other all together for the first time in this campaign.

Liberal Justin Trudeau, Conservative Andrew Scheer, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh and Yves-Francois Blanchet of the Bloc Québécois argued the issues in a debate hosted by the private TVA television network and the Montreal newspaper Le Journal.

Quebec Premier François Legault has urged all federal party leaders to promise to stay out of the court challenges against the secularism law.

None of the party leaders has called for immediate intervention in existing cases, and only Trudeau has said a government he leads might seek to intervene.

“I do not want to close the door,” Trudeau said, to the federal government one day needing to defend the rights of Canadians.

“Because for me, the defence of rights, be they for women, for francophones outside of Quebec — the federal government has a role to play.”

Singh, who wears a turban as an expression of his Sikh faith, has said he would not intervene to challenge the law, despite opposing it.

Singh sought to counter any suggestion that his personal religion would get in the way of his strong support for secularism as a public value.

“I am for the separation between church and state,” said Singh, adding that he supports the rights of women to abortion, same-sex marriage and medical assistance in dying.

“I will defend these rights with all my strength,” he said.

Scheer said he would not impose a secularism law federally, but that he would also not intervene in Quebec’s

Earlier, Scheer was put on the defensive as he was pressed by all his political rivals to elaborate on his personal views about abortion.

“Quebecers can be confident that a Conservative government would not reopen this debate,” Scheer said in one of the debate’s first exchanges, with Blanchet.

Scheer was pushed to clarify his stance on abortion this summer after it emerged that his Quebec lieutenant, Alain Rayes, had told candidates in the province that backbench MPs would not be allowed to bring forward any bills or motions on the issue.

That goes against party policy and created confusion until Scheer, a practising Catholic who has voted in favour of restricting abortion rights in the past, said he would oppose any attempt to reopen the debate should he become prime minister.

Scheer repeated that position on stage again Wednesday night, but his political rivals pressed him to go further.

That included Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, who asked him directly whether he personally believes women should have the right to abortion.

“I have always been open about my personal views,” Scheer said.

None of the federal parties have seen much movement — either gains or losses — in opinion polls despite weeks of campaigning, which some experts attribute variously to a degree of comfort with the status quo as well as a rise in public disillusionment and strategic voting.

The Liberals and Conservatives remain locked in a fight for first place, hovering around 33 per cent support nationally, but with the Liberals apparently having a small edge because so much Conservative support is concentrated in the Prairie provinces.

A strong Liberal showing in Quebec, where polls show them with a small but consequential lead, could sustain the Liberals in power; a strong Conservative showing could sink them.

Trudeau was able to ride a wave of unhappiness with a decade of Conservative rule under Stephen Harper to power in 2015 in an election campaign that saw the NDP start in the lead before giving way to the Tories only until voters rallied behind the Liberals to give them the win.

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Four years later, Trudeau’s record in office — including his broken promise on electoral reform and decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline — has turned off many of those same voters, especially progressives, who cast their ballots for the Liberals.

Despite that disappointment with Trudeau, Christian Bourque, executive vice-president of polling firm Leger, said there does not seem to be the same type of overwhelming drive for change that existed in 2015, when a majority of Canadians were ready for a new direction.

“So there’s this sort of comfort with the current government, even though some may be disappointed with the leader,” Bourque said. “So there’s no urge for that amount of change. And at the same time, there’s nobody convincing them of the need for change on the other side.”

That speaks to another problem for both the Liberals and Conservatives: both Trudeau and Scheer are trailing their respective parties in popularity, making them liabilities rather than assets on the campaign trail.

Yet none of the other party leaders has been able to capitalize. Both Bourque and McMaster University assistant professor Clifton van der Linden, whose company Vox Pop Labs created the Vote Compass election tool, believe is a reflection of a rise in strategic voting in Canada.

“What’s interesting is that even though you do see fluctuations in evaluations of party leadership, those aren’t necessarily translating into vote swing,” said van der Linden.

“So a lot of people are locked into their positions, and I don’t think it’s driven by affinity for the leaders themselves. I think in many cases it’s sort of a pragmatic calculus on the part of Canadian voters in this campaign.”

That would help explain why the NDP, for example, has failed to make much progress despite Singh having run what many believe to be a smooth campaign to this point: progressive voters are worried about the Conservatives and sticking with the Liberals.

Complicating matters for all the parties is that their policy proposals aren’t very different from each other, said Bourque, noting each has promised a combination of tax cuts and more spending when it comes to affordability and helping Canadian make ends meet.

Where there are stark differences, such as on climate change, they are largely between the Conservatives and those proposed by the Liberals, the NDP and the Greens, each of whom has promised to make it a priority.

“So it’s not forcing people to coalesce on the centre to left of the political spectrum,” Bourque said.

Of course, even though it is past the halfway mark, the election campaign is far from over and Wednesday’s French-language debate was seen as an key opportunity for the four participating leaders to talk directly to Quebecers, in particular, and start gaining some momentum.

And momentum often begets momentum, said van der Linden, who noted the NDP benefited from a surprise “orange wave” in 2011 in Quebec, where many voters still haven’t decided who to support — underlining the importance of Wednesday’s debate.

“The real volatility always happens at the end of the race, because you have undecideds who aren’t factored into polling numbers,” he said.

“And I think regional Quebec is a very volatile region in terms of where those votes will go. So (Wednesday’s) debate could be really instructive as to how regional Quebec is going to swing, and that could determine the ultimate makeup of the next government.”

TORONTO STAR

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