Last night we saw the first of two debates in French, with the “Face à Face” Debate on TVA, a format that has proved to be successful and very popular in Quebec. It was a four-way battle between leaders with different goals and it was the first time we saw the leaders operating in French. While the debate had some memorable moments, those who were looking for a clear-cut winner came away disappointed.
The only clear result from tonight was who came out the loser of this debate, and that was Conservative Andrew Scheer. He was evasive on direct questions that have been put to him during this entire campaign; looking uncomfortable and at times unsteady in his second language. He again continued to avoid giving basic answers to questions about his views on same sex marriage and abortion access, trying to give his “the issue is settled” answers. The more he evades these questions, the more precise and pointed the questions about these topics get, making his attempts to waive this aside all the more useless. It wasn’t a good look and put him a step below the other performers.
Liberal Justin Trudeau, New Democrat Jagmeet Singh and Blocist Yves-François Blanchet all had different goals coming into this debate and all can feel confident that they came away achieving what they needed to. Singh was particularly successful in this, with a stronger than expected French with a tone and manner that was relaxed and confident. He also hit on key issues for his campaign and the fact that he was drawing fire from Mr. Blanchet showed that he wasn’t pushed to the margins. His performance has won praise from across the spectrum and media, with Maclean’s Paul Wells even going so far as to say that his performance was a “revelation”. In the days to come it will be interesting to see how the electorate responds to the night’s events.
But yesterday was also striking for a couple of things that happened during the day that couldn’t go unnoticed and that seems to be a growing part of the narrative of this campaign. While these two things happened completely independently of one another, it’s hard not to link them. First was this interaction that happened in Montreal earlier in the day:
This video of Jagmeet Singh dealing with someone telling him to “cut off” his turban to look “like a Canadian” has gone viral and has struck so many people. People have commented on not just the man’s comment, which was just ugly, but also Mr. Singh’s gracious and calm reaction to the whole thing. Many people reacted online that they couldn’t have done the same and probably would have reacted in an angrier way. The fact that this happened so publicly and in such a casual way was also so striking. But while that was bad, something that happened right after the debate put that whole situation in a different light and spoke loudly about a certain party:
“Optez pour des femmes et des hommes qui vous ressemblent”… Roughly translated that says “Choose women and men who look like you.” That came from the Bloc Quebecois right after the debate, in their closing statement. To call it a dog whistle comment doesn’t go far enough because the human ear can’t hear a dog whistle. There was nothing hidden, secret or covert in that statement. It was blunt, out in the open and said without shame. Of course, this comes from the same party who in the last campaign put out this ad:
To see a party that seeks to have seats in the House of Commons openly use ignorant language like that and tries to get elected by beating up and demonizing minorities is just beyond the pale. That’s especially true for a party that dares to try to paint itself as a progressive force, because there is nothing progressive about trying to use someone’s race or religion as a cudgel against anyone in an attempt to win votes.
But here’s the thing folks, I can’t tell you that the Bloc will get punished or suffer for this. The fact that a random person stopped Jagmeet Singh in the street and casually did what he did gives us a clue to as to where people are at on this, rightly or wrongly. In his piece on the debate, Paul Wells also pointed out that “ Singh’s point all along has been that if Quebecers will only listen to him, they’ll like what they hear.” This moment and the debate that happened last night will be a true test of that view. Will they listen to his ideas, his principles and his values, or will they listen to the party that points at Singh and says “vote for those who look like you”.
This is part of the narrative that we’re seeing play out in this campaign and honestly, we’ll only know the answer after the votes are counted. And through it all, Jagmeet Singh has kept plugging along, running a campaign based on love and hope, while keeping a smile on his face while facing things that would make so many of us crumble. So while no one won last nights debate, it did say a lot about where this campaign could go and sets us up for two big nights next week when the Commission Debates take place.