QUEBEC — The 13 Conservative leadership candidates squared off in a French-language debate on Tuesday that often saw Maxime Bernier the target of his rivals.
MPs Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney, in particular, took aim at the former cabinet minister on different topics.
Leitch accused Bernier 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.
"Maxime has no lessons of transparency to give," Leitch said. "Maxime is the liar and the impostor."
Later, she fired another salvo at Bernier, the only francophone aside from Blaney in the Quebec City debate.
"When he was tourism minister, Maxime spent the following sums: $8,000 on an Ottawa-Edmonton-Calgary flight and $23,000 to attend a conference in Laos via the beautiful city of Paris," Leitch said.
"Maxime, to beat (Prime Minister Justin) Trudeau; you mustn't behave like Trudeau."
Blaney also targeted Bernier, criticizing his rival's promise to get rid of the supply-and-demand system in agriculture.
Blaney said farmers work hard while Bernier likes to "go jogging."
"They (farmers) are not in the room tonight because they are working," he said.
But Bernier 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.
"I am proud of being the only MP in Ottawa who stands up to promote (the interests of) consumers so they can get these products at half the price," he said.
Many of the candidates struggled in French on Tuesday and resorted to reading out answers that had been prepared in advance.
The other participants were Lisa Raitt, Deepak Obhrai, Brad Trost, 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."
There will be another debate, in Edmonton, on Feb. 28, and the leader will be chosen May 27.