NEWS
01/17/2017 15:40 EST | Updated 01/18/2018 00:12 EST

Tory candidates Leitch, Blaney target Bernier in French-language debate

QUEBEC — All 13 Conservative leadership candidates crossed swords in a French-language debate Tuesday as they tried to cement their credentials ahead of the vote in May.

Each of the 13 read a 30-second opening statement with varying degrees of proficiency in French.

Kellie Leitch quickly fired a salvo at rival Maxime Bernier, accusing him of being a liar for supposedly giving big corporations more than $200 million when he was industry minister while at the same championing himself as someone who wants to end corporate welfare.

MP Steven Blaney also targeted Bernier, criticizing his rival's promise to get rid of the supply-and-demand system in agriculture.

Blaney, one of only two francophones in the debate, said farmers work hard while Bernier likes to "go jogging."

"They (farmers) are not in the room tonight because they are working," Blaney said.

Bernier, the other francophone hopeful, defended his record as a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's former Tory government even though he was not successful in getting the supply-and-demand system abolished.

Many of the anglophone candidates, including Lisa Raitt, Deepak Obhrai and Brad Trost, appeared to struggle in the debate and read pre-prepared answers.

The other participants in the debate were Chris Alexander, Michael Chong, Erin O'Toole, Andrew Scheer, Pierre Lemieux, Rick Peterson and Andrew Saxton.

Many of the candidates spoke of the importance of Quebec within Canada, as well as the need for the Conservatives to have a bilingual leader.

"One cannot understand Canada and one cannot prepare to govern Canada without understanding Quebec," said Alexander, a former immigration minister.

Chong, who has been an MP since 2004, also played up the French fact.

"I believe in values and principles," he said. "I am a friend of francophones. I am a francophile. I have always believed in the French fact. ... And as leader, I will defend the French fact in North America."

One of the odder comments of the night came from Peterson, a Vancouver-based businessman.

"Thirty years ago, under the other Trudeau, Pierre Elliott, my family almost lost everything — our home, our jobs, our hopes," he said. "In the fridge there was only a jar of pickles. Under Justin, we're on the same road."

The debate was held against the backdrop of rumours that celebrity businessman Kevin O'Leary will finally launch his campaign Wednesday afternoon in Toronto.

O'Leary, who does not speak French but is taking lessons, said he's "getting frustrated" with how many candidates are still in the running.

He said the crowded field has reduced the debates to "just a bunch of sound bites."