Scheer, Singh and May debate China, Indigenous issues and an absent Trudeau

The three opposition politicians in the Maclean’s/Citytv federal leaders’ debate tonight had plenty to divide them, but they were united in condemning Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to skip the first debate of the election campaign.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Party Leader Elizabeth May all accused Trudeau of not having the courage to defend his record.

“I think I’ve found some consensus. I think we can all agree that Justin Trudeau is afraid of his record and that’s why he’s not here tonight. He has made life more expensive and mismanaged the economy,” said Scheer.

Singh and May both agreed with Scheer, but that unity vanished when Scheer challenged them to explain how they would pay for the national pharmacare programs their parties have promised.

Scheer said 95 per cent of Canadians are already eligible for coverage and the federal government should focus on helping those who fall through the cracks, rather than rolling out an expensive universal drug program.

“You cannot increase health care services when you are paying more and more money to pay the service charges on the debt and that is what all these plans will lead to,” said Scheer. “Every dollar that goes to a bond-holder or banker for the debt that they hold is another dollar that can’t be used to expand those services.”

Singh promised to introduce universal pharmacare within a year and to fund it by closing offshore tax havens, increasing taxes on the rich and closing income tax loopholes. May said a pharmacare program is essential and could be funded by increasing corporate taxes.

All three leaders said they opposed Quebec’s religious symbols law, otherwise known as Bill 21, but none of them would step in to oppose the law.

Indigenous issues

The federal government was last week ordered to pay what could be billions of dollars in compensation to First Nations children who were harmed by the on-reserve child welfare system. The leaders were asked if they would appeal that ruling. Both Singh and May said they would not.

Singh took Scheer to task for not saying he would accept the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling, which also called for payments to some parents and grandparents.

“It’s essential that the outcome of this type of decision actually gets the kinds of resources to the people that need it the most,” said Scheer.

“I didn’t hear if you would accept the ruling or not. This is Indigenous kids that are not getting equal funding,” said Singh. “Mr Trudeau certainly hasn’t listened to rulings in the past, he’s appealed four or five times previous rulings.

“Mr Scheer; it isn’t surprising, but it is appalling that he hasn’t said he would accept the ruling. Let me be very clear — yes a New Democratic government would accept the ruling.”

Dealing with China

The leaders were asked how they would deal with Canada’s largest foreign policy challenge: relations with China. Singh said he would abandon hope of a free trade deal with China and focus on fair trade that ensures Chinese workers and standards are on a par with Canada.

“Anyone who gives an answer confidently saying what they would do with China isn’t telling the truth,” said May. “China right now, and Canada’s relationship with China, are imperilled by some rather large forces that are outside of our control.”

Chief among those forces, said May, is President Donald Trump; she said Trump is “poking China with a stick” and driving a trade war that has Canada caught between the two economic superpowers.

“As much as I am concerned with China stopping canola imports and turning down our hog products, the No. 1 concern must be the safety of Canadians,” she said. “Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor should be our concern right now. Not trade, not anything else.”

Scheer agreed with May that Kovrig and Spavor, who have been accused of spying by China and have been in Chinese custody since December, should be a top priority. He also said there are ways the Canadian government could express its displeasure with China, including withdrawal of Canadian funding from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Moderator Paul Wells challenged Scheer on his decision to publicly support Brexit and how that could complicate matters for him if he becomes prime minister.

“Justin Trudeau has ridden out this whole three-year process and the result has been that when he meets a British prime minister he is seen as the representative of a valued ally, Canada,” said Wells.

“By taking sides in a question like that, do you risk jeopardizing half of that delicate balance?”

Scheer said that he only offered his opinion on Brexit after Trudeau had done so, before pivoting to Trudeau’s position on China.

Scheer and Trump

The discussion then shifted to relations with Russia and Ukraine. Scheer said he was proud to be banned from entering Russia and would, as prime minister, continue to stand up for Ukraine against Russian aggression.

May took the opportunity to remind the leaders that Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, is also banned from the country and that Scheer’s foreign policy positions were not much different than Trump’s.

“I looked at your policies on foreign policy today, Andrew, and I realized if anyone wants to know where you stand, just figure out what Trump wants,” she said.

“You will do what Trump wants. He might as well be the ventriloquist and you are Charlie McCarthy,” May added.

Scheer dismissed the accusation as false and said that while Canada has to increase funding to its military, he is fully committed to NATO.

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