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Trudeau targeted in English leaders' debate

Singh and May take jabs at one another as they battle over who will emerge Oct. 21 as the third party on Parliament Hill

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took the brunt of criticism from the other leaders in Monday night's debate among the federal party leaders.

Regardless of the question, the NDP's Jagmeet Singh took every opportunity to repeat his favourite theme: that Liberals and Conservatives alike pander to wealthy corporations whereas the NDP will fight for ordinary Canadians with investments in child care, pharmacare and dental care.

"Mr. Trudeau does not have the courage to take on the insurance and the pharmaceutical lobbyists who don't want this to happen," Singh said. "You vote New Democrats, we're going to make sure we're going to make these things happen because we don't work for the powerful and wealthy ... We work for you."

The Greens' Elizabeth May prayed publicly that Trudeau would not be re-elected, with a plan to fight climate change that in her view doesn't move quickly enough.

His government has done more on climate change than any Canadian government ever has, Trudeau shot back, and has made major policy changes, such as introducing a new child benefit, that have lifted thousands of families out of poverty.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer called Trudeau a phoney and a fraud.

"Justin Trudeau only pretends to stand up for Canada," Scheer said. "You know, he's very good at pretending things. He can't even remember how many times he put blackface on because the fact of the matter is he's always wearing a mask."

Scheer accused Trudeau of wearing masks on Indigenous reconciliation, feminism and on his concern for middle-class Canadians.

"Mr. Trudeau, you're a phoney and you're a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country."

The format of the debate gave Trudeau no immediate opportunity to respond to Scheer's attack, but he repeatedly went after Scheer at other times for his personal anti-abortion views and for promoting tax cuts for the rich.

Scheer rounded on Trudeau again later, raising the SNC-Lavalin affair. He accused Trudeau of breaking ethics law, shutting down parliamentary inquiries and firing two senior female cabinet ministers who objected to his trying to pressure his former attorney general to halt a criminal prosecution of the Montreal engineering giant.

"Tell me, when did you decide that the rules don't apply to you?" he said.

Trudeau responded: "Mr. Scheer, the role of a prime minister is stand up for Canadians' jobs, to stand up for the public interest and that's what I've done."

Trudeau then veered onto one of his favourite themes, accusing Scheer of giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Canadians and conducting himself just like Ontario Premier Doug Ford. He also noted that Scheer hasn't yet released a fully costed platform, which he called "a disrespect for every Canadian."

"You're choosing, just like Doug Ford did, to hide your platform from Canadians and deliver cuts to services and cut taxes for the wealthiest. That's not the way to grow the economy."

As for the People's Party's Maxime Bernier, Trudeau said, his job on the debate stage was to say the things Scheer only believes privately.

Trudeau was expected to spend much of the night on the defensive, facing attacks on his record from all sides.

For Scheer, it was the first time he's shared the stage with former leadership rival Bernier, who left the Conservatives in 2018 to start up his own People's Party of Canada. Bernier was not invited to either the debate sponsored and hosted by Maclean's magazine during the first week of the campaign, nor last week's French-only debate on TVA in Montreal.

The Conservatives appeared all day to be leading up the debate with a plan to go after the Liberals for an allegedly secret plan to tax profits on home sales made within one, two or three years of purchasing. A new website and multiple tweets to that effect were met by the Liberals with a press conference where Liberal Steven MacKinnon reiterated that Trudeau had kiboshed the proposal, which was mentioned in a 2018 report to Ontario caucus as an idea that had come up in townhall meetings. The Conservatives responded saying MacKinnon had "confirmed" the plan, even though he had said the opposite.

Bernier, whose success depends on wresting disgruntled voters away from the Conservatives, is a wild-card populist whose presence was expected to introduce an element of unpredictability to the proceedings.

Scheer, whose performance in the TVA debate has been widely panned, professed to be unconcerned.

"That changes nothing for me, because I am always there to replace Justin Trudeau," he said.

Singh and May were expected to take jabs at one another as they battle over who will emerge Oct. 21 as the third party on Parliament Hill - a position long held by the New Democrats.

May has been doing her best to parry an NDP narrative that her candidates are opposed to abortion, but that got a little harder Monday with word that Marthe Lepine had been "removed" as the Green candidate in an eastern Ontario riding for "views about abortion that did not align with (Green party) policy."

As for the Bloc's Yves-Francois Blanchet, he was under the least pressure, having little to gain or lose in front of a national audience primarily of English-speaking Canadians.