David Staples: The best and worst moments of the 2021 federal leaders’ debate

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For a PM depending on female voters to win, Paul’s comment had the feel of an electoral kill shot

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One moment stands out as the most unforgettable of the 2021 English-language federal leaders’ debate, Green Party leader Annamie Paul’s takedown of Justin Trudeau for not moving faster to curb sexual harassment in the Canadian Armed Forces.

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Trudeau argued that his government had no choice but to follow process.  “It’s unsatisfactory to say we’re relying on process in this,” the Liberal leader acknowledged. “We just want to have easy answers but this is not an issue with easy answers. You have to fall back on process.”

Paul was having none of that. She quickly raised the stakes by invoking the prominent female Liberals that Trudeau had made unwelcome in his caucus. “I do not believe that Mr. Trudeau is a real feminist. A feminist doesn’t continue to push strong women out of his party when they are just seeking to serve. And I will say their names tonight and thank them. Thank you, Jane Philpott. Thank you Jody Wilson-Raybould. Thank you, Celina Caesar-Chavannes.”

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For a prime minister depending on female voters to win, Paul’s heartfelt acknowledgement of the three departed Liberals had the feel of an electoral kill shot.

Here are a few more of the best and worst moments of the debate, which saw Trudeau get a remarkably rough ride throughout:

Worst: After Paul’s sharp attack, Trudeau shot back: “I won’t take lessons on caucus management from you.”

Paul has indeed faced ugly internal dissent in her party, but she’s the leader of a failed party and will be lucky if she wins her own riding. Was it really necessary to snipe at her? In the context of this discussion on harassment, it also came off as tone deaf.

Best: Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, was a hero of the evening, partly by not letting any of the leaders seize control of the debate by refusing to let them talk over her. But Kurl’s big moment came when cameras shifted to a young Ojibwa man in Sault Ste. Marie, Marek McLeod. He started to ask his question on live TV, then forgot what he was going to say and froze.

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“Oh shit!” he said.

“You got it, Marek,” Kurl said, just then. “Keep going.”

That’s what McLeod did, gathering himself and asking his question on federal-Indigenous relations like a champ. For anyone who has had a rough moment in public speaking — which is pretty much everyone — Kurl’s kind, timely and successful intervention hit the spot.

Best: Trudeau got in one great zinger on Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole near the end: “Mr. O’Toole, who says he wants to get all of Canada vaccinated to 90 per cent in the coming two months, can’t even convince his own candidates to get vaccinated to 90 per cent.”

Worst: When O’Toole attacked Trudeau for failing to get the two Michaels, Kovrig and Spavor, out of Chinese detention, Trudeau shot back: “If you want to get the Michaels home you do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific. That is what Mr. Harper tried for a number of years and didn’t get anywhere.”

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The two Michaels were detained by China in 2018. Harper was out of power in 2015.

Trying to somehow shift blame to Stephen Harper for Trudeau’s own clear and current failure of diplomacy? Pathetic.

Best: O’Toole stood up forcefully for the oil and gas industry, saying. “All Canadian families deserve an economic recovery including families in Western Canada that feel left out after six years of Mr. Trudeau. Our natural resource sector is a leader in environmental social governance. Any time Canadian resources are removed from the global supply change you know who fills that gap? Saudi Arabia. Venezuela. Russia.”

O’Toole then bashed NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh for pushing only for a recovery in green energy programs. “I want to see Canadians get back to work, in all sectors and in all regions, and I’m proud of what we produce in our country,” O’Toole said.

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These comments will surely please Albertans but might they also resonate with Canadians who want sensible policy? One can hope.

Best: O’Toole brought up Canada’s failure to get all of our people and allies out of Afghanistan, saying: “Canadians should never leave behind people who are at risk because they helped us,” then turned to Trudeau and scorched him: “What did Mr. Trudeau do? You called an election, sir. You put your own political interest ahead of the interest of thousands of people. Leadership is about putting others first, not yourself, Mr. Trudeau.”

A terrible moment for Trudeau, a strong one for O’Toole, who I saw as the debate’s clear winner.

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