Four notable moments from the French Conservative leadership debate
Conservative Party of Canada leadership hopefuls Scott Aitchison, Roman Baber, Patrick Brown, Jean Charest, Leslyn Lewis, and Pierre Poilievre squared off in the second official party debate on Wednesday night in Laval, Que.
Contrary to some expectations, given the revived conversation over firearm laws in the wake of a mass shooting in Texas, there was no substantial talk about gun control during the debate. Instead, the candidates did seek to differentiate themselves on inflation, official languages, and foreign policy.
From a few fiery exchanges on hot policy files, to the candidates' ranging French proficiency, here are some key moments from the French-language debate.
FIERY BILL 96 & BILL 21 EXCHANGES
Unsurprisingly, two controversial Quebec bills, Bill 96 and Bill 21, consumed a large chunk of debate on Wednesday night.
The former, which seeks to affirm that the only official and common language of Quebec is French and ensure that French is used exclusively in workplaces and municipalities, was adopted by the National Assembly on Tuesday. The latter bans several types of public workers, including teachers and police officers, from donning religious symbols while on the job and was passed in 2019.
Brown argued that Bill 96 goes against Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. He and Charest accused Poilievre of changing his opinion of Bill 21 based on who he’s speaking to, sometimes supporting it, sometimes opposing it.
Poilievre refuted this, stating he has consistently opposed the legislation and would vote against it if tabled in the House of Commons.
Charest said the federal government shouldn’t take a neutral stance on this.
Justice Minister David Lametti told reporters on Wednesday that Ottawa is prepared to intervene in both cases, when the bills reach the Supreme Court.
Meanwhile Lewis said Bill 96 is a “bad” bill and “not a good approach” but added that learning the French language has been a joy personally and the next leader of the party should at the very least commit to learning it.
Baber and Aitchison also voiced their concern with the bills.
A LOT OF NOTE-READING
Speaking of language, it was very clear that not all six candidates have the same French proficiency.
While Charest and Poilievre were largely able to engage without looking down, making points and stating their position while facing the opponent they were speaking to, throughout the night it was common to see Aitchison, Lewis and Baber consulting their notes during their responses and not getting in on as much of the open debate portions.
Brown found himself somewhere in the middle, holding his own in French exchanges, while also at times referring to his notes.
During the opening, Baber acknowledged his lacking French skills, asking for some forgiveness.
He said he knows how important it is for the prime minister to be able to speak both English and French, and said that for the last three months—and not years as the translator communicated to viewers’ —he's been taking French lessons nearly every morning.
Then, when the topic of official languages came up, Lewis said that she's committed to continue learning, and that the process so far has been, according to the English translator, "a wonderful experience."
MORE ATTACKS, ACCUSATIONS OF FLIP-FLOPPING
Wednesday's event was the last scheduled debate the party has planned for this leadership race, though it has suggested it's possible another could be convened in the coming months.
Not taking any chances, the French-language debate saw the candidates take the chances they could to differentiate themselves from their opponents. And this time, there was no sad trombone buzzer to stop the candidates from veering off the question at hand. This resulted in more pointed attacks coming from the candidates.
At various points during the night, both Charest and Brown made efforts to direct their critiques at Poilievre and his positions.
At one point, Brown accused him of flip-flopping on his position on the carbon tax, and then later on he suggested his opposition to vaccine mandates has only really become his position since running for leadership, stating that during the pandemic he tweeted thousands of times but not about COVID-19 vaccine mandates, which Poilievre refuted.
Poilievre did not hold his punches either though, suggesting Brown could not be trusted citing his time as Ontario PC leader, and going hard after Charest's record as Quebec premier. Few, if any, of the evening's attacks were directed at the other three candidates on stage.
CHINA RELATIONS AND BANNING HUAWEI
Contenders also got an opportunity to share how they believe Canada should navigate its precarious relationship with China, including whether they, like the Liberal government, would ban Huawei from Canada’s 5G rollout.
Brown went first, arguing that exporting clean energy and supporting China in lowering its emissions is one way to improve relations with the superpower, which he says have been fractured since the Harper government days. It was yet another way to sneak in a subtle jab at Poilievre who served as a cabinet minister for the former prime minister.
Brown also accused Poilievre of being the only contender with the support of a Huawei executive, an apparent reference to Vice President of Corporate Affairs Alykhan Velshi. However, Velshi denied this, telling CTVNews.ca that he is not supporting any specific Conservative leadership campaign.
Poilievre, meanwhile, said Canada can both balance economic interests and defend our democratic values and principles when confronting China. Similar to the English-language debate, he called on Charest to unveil how much he was paid to work as a consultant for Huawei after leaving provincial politics.
His line of questioning garnered a roaring applause from the audience.
Charest fought back, noting, as he has in the past, that he didn’t work on any issue with the company that would have jeopardized Canada’s national security interests. He also touted his involvement in helping to free Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from detention in China.
Returning to Canada’s relationship with China, Charest argued that Canada ought to completely review its security legislation having to do with telecommunications.
He also suggested that Canada wasn’t invited to join the new Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity because of its poor standing globally. “We’re missing in action,” he said.
This article has been updated to reflect that according to Baber’s campaign, he has been learning French for the last three months, and not three years.