MONTREAL — Gilles Duceppe went on the niqab offensive in the leaders' debate Friday night, saying the Liberals and NDP are out of sync with what he calls a consensus in Quebec on the controversial issue.
The Bloc Quebecois leader squared off against his rivals on a topic that has left the New Democrats looking increasingly vulnerable in the province that's home to its deepest base of support.
The Bloc has started making inroads into the NDP's substantial lead in recent polls, with Quebecers appearing to shy away from Leader Tom Mulcair's steadfast position that women should be allowed to have their face covered when they are sworn in as Canadian.
Duceppe said support for banning the veil at citizenship ceremonies is overwhelming in Quebec.
"I am very much at ease with the decision of the national assembly, which is unanimous on this question," he said.
"The mayor of Montreal, the mayor of Quebec City, the mayor of Saguenay, 93 per cent of Quebecers. It is a basic question."
The NDP won nearly 60 of Quebec's 75 seats in 2011 under Jack Layton, reducing the Bloc to four seats. For the sovereigntist party to become relevant once again, it needs to win back many of those voters who turned to the NDP four years ago.
Besides sparring with Mulcair on the issue, Duceppe also had a heated exchange with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
"People are at home right now wanting to know what we are going to do to put money in their pockets, to create jobs," Trudeau said. "The niqab doesn't create any jobs, Mr. Duceppe."
That prompted Duceppe to fire back: "The wearing of the niqab doesn't create any jobs either."
Earlier in the debate, Duceppe attempted to portray himself as the defender of the common man as he stressed the need to increase corporate taxes on banks and oil companies.
He said the Competition Bureau should have more powers to investigate companies that hike gasoline prices, especially ahead of long weekends.
He also told the TVA-organized debate that action is necessary to rein in the rates financial institutions slap on credit cards.
"Regarding the banks, we have to control the rates they charge on credit cards and that is something the federal government can do," Duceppe said.
He has said during the election campaign the tax rate for banks has dropped to 15 per cent from 20 per cent in 2007 and that it should climb back to that level over three years.
Duceppe also wants the 20 per cent rate to apply to oil companies and contends such hikes will not lead them to fleeing Canada.
One of the most amusing moments in the debate came when Duceppe twice referred to former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney as Art Carney, the "Honeymooners" actor who died in 2003.
"Art Carney, who was head of the Bank of Canada," the Bloc leader said.
"Mark," corrected Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau.
"Mark, rather, excuse me," replied a sheepish Duceppe.
Duceppe also tried to pin Mulcair and Trudeau down on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, asking them to promise to vote against the agreement if the supply management system is not kept in its entirety.
He never got an answer, although Mulcair issued a letter earlier Friday saying an NDP government would not feel bound to support the deal.
Quebec's milk, egg and poultry producers form a powerful lobby in the province and have made it clear they are not interested in financial compensation in exchange for concessions on supply management, which limits foreign competition.
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