MONTREAL — Quebec's four would-be premiers sparred in their second language on Monday, making pitches in choppy English to the anglophone community in the province's first-ever televised English-language debate.
The leaders described how Anglo-Quebecers are respected members of the community, despite the fact a mini-controversy erupted in the province about the fact there was actually going to be an English-language debate.
"French is the official language in Quebec,'' Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said. "But English is not a foreign language.''
He asked Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-Francois Lisee if he could say the same thing.
"Yes,'' said Lisée. "French is the official and common language. English is a Quebec language.''
Francois Legault, leader of the Coalition Avenir Quebec, whose party is leading the polls, said "anglophones are part of Quebec history and the anglophone community played a huge role in building Quebec society.''
Manon Masse, co-spokesperson for the fourth-placed party, Quebec solidaire, said her party is committed to instituting quotas to ensure the civil service has a certain percentage of visible minorities and representation from the English-speaking community.
While the debate themes were targeted to the province's anglophone minority, such as access to the labour market for English-speaking youth, the election campaign's hot-button theme of immigration quickly surged to the forefront.
Couillard, responding to a debate question from an anglophone refugee from Nigeria, said, "the way we talk about immigration and immigrants is not always positive.''
"It's distressful the way you speak about immigrants,'' he said directly to Legault, whose party wants to expel immigrants who fail to pass a French test after three years in the province.
"Immigrants need to feel welcome by their political leaders.''
Legault fired back that his party's policy is "reasonable and done in other countries.''
The debate moderators asked each leader if they would hold an inquiry into the topic of systemic racism in Quebec, should they be elected premier Oct. 1.
Couillard and the Liberals tried to host a similar conference in 2017 but cancelled it after coming under intense pressure from the PQ and the Coalition.
Only Masse, whose English is the poorest among the leaders, said "of course'' she would.
Couillard, Legault and Parti Quebecois Leader Jean-Francois Lisee said no.
"There is racism in Quebec,'' Legault said. "But no systemic racism.''
Earlier in the debate, Legault told Anglos that, "you are no longer forced to choose between Quebec and Canada.''
Instead of being forced to choose between the "old and tired Liberal government'' and the sovereigntist PQ, Legault said his party is offering Quebecers a "strong Quebec within Canada'' when they vote.
"The Liberals have been in power for 15 long years,'' he said, glossing over the PQ minority government between 2012 and 2014. "It's time for a change.''
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Lisee began his opening speech by reminding Anglos his party has promised to not hold a sovereignty referendum within a first mandate.
He made sure to state "French should be the common language'' in the province, but also said his party defended the English-speaking community during the Liberals' centralization efforts in the health network.
"I recognize the value of Quebec's English-speaking community,'' Lisee said. "I stood with you in battles against the Liberal government when it took away control over English hospitals and tried to scrap English school boards.''
Couillard, whose party has historically enjoyed the overwhelming support of the anglophone community, said his strong fiscal management in the early years of his mandate has allowed the province to have the means to reinvest in health care and education services.
Masse said her party will end tax breaks for big corporations and the "super-rich.''
While Monday night's debate was historic, it was certainly not without controversy.
Pundits on French-language television said the English-language debate set a "dangerous precedent'' because future party leaders will be under strong pressure to attend similar debates in following elections.
A nationalist group went to far as to accuse Lisee of "betraying'' his people for participating in the English debate.
The first debate took place last week, while another French-language showdown is scheduled for Thursday.
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