Quebec Election 2018: English-language debate round table

Commentary on last night’s historic English-language party leaders’ debate.

Ahead of the Quebec provincial election on Oct. 1, the first-ever televised English-language party leaders’ debate was aired on all four anglo networks last night, with hosting and moderating duties being shared by familiar faces from the Montreal affiliates.

From the (far) left to the right of the screen, Québec Solidaire’s Manon Massé, the Parti Québécois’s Jean-François Lisée, the Coalition Avenir Québec’s François Legault and Parti Liberal de Québec’s Philippe Couillard (you know, our Premier) tried their best to relay the most anglo-friendly parts of their platform, attack their opponents’ weaknesses and avoid breaking a sweat (in their second language). Results were mixed, but the 90-minute broadcast had enough meaty policy talk for the wonks and dramatic peaks for the more casual followers of Quebec politics.

Our City Team weighed in on the leaders’ performances and handling of questions and barbs during the six-part debate. Next time we do this, there may be a drinking game component to the commentary — but we’ll probably save that for the feds. For now, here are our (relatively) sober thoughts about last night’s debate, which aimed to focus on six specific issues: Education, Health, Economy, Identity/Immigration, Environment and English-speaking Quebecers.

The following round table conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. As it was written in real time during the debate, some of its entries will be in the present tense.

Knee-jerk first reactions — who seemed poised and confident and who seemed uncomfortable?

Lorraine Carpenter: Couillard came off nervous in his opening statement — you can tell he knows there’s a three-way onslaught coming. He’s also looking a little over-tanned and leathery, not a great look in the Trump era.

Dave Jaffer: Lisée seemed incredibly comfortable and confident from the start, like he rigged the thing and already knew he was going to win.

Rob Jennings: He’s a well-educated man. He also didn’t shy away from saying he was absolutely for sovereignty.

DJ: This is true. Also, it was pretty obvious that Massé was uncomfortable communicating in English, but let’s be honest: QS ain’t gonna win much more than they did last time.

[ENVIRONMENT] Who seems most interested in making getting around Montreal easier (transit, cycling, driving)?

RJ: They didn’t talk about public transit much, did they? (Sorry, I’m a train geek.) Who do we think would make getting around the city easier for Montrealers?

DJ: Gun to my head I’d say the PQ and QS, but I’m not basing that on tonight. I thought we’d hear more about this issue and I’m kind of disappointed we didn’t. Then again, I’m not sure you win votes that you don’t already have by spending (wasting?) your time talking about this and I’m not sure you lose votes by not.

RJ: Yeah, transportation was only kind of mentioned during the environment part, and they mostly focused on energy technologies. Massé wants to make batteries in a publicly-run factory (I dig it). Legault wants to build giant hydro dams (because that never caused any problems in the past…) On the other hand, Legault has two sons who show him how to recycle. We should all be so lucky.

DJ: His large adult sons.

RJ: Good thing they’re large. Recycling is the heavy lifting of waste management. Also, Massé is right about recycling vs. recuperation.

DJ: I’m not 100% sure you got my reference, but that’s okay.

[EDUCATION] It was a bit all over the place, but what did you come away with?

RJ: Lisée is right about immersion in CEGEP, but Legault is right that he has changed his mind — Lisée has proposed getting rid of Anglo CEGEP in the past. Massé didn’t do a good job on this one, shifting the discussion to learning in the workplace. And Couillard tried to attack the CAQ by making it about school boards.

LC: “Service centres” will replace school boards under CAQ, who also want to reduce school tax by $700-million.

RJ: What is the new name for CLSCs going to be?

DJ: The school board stuff turned into a slap fight and that bored me. I liked some of the ideas regarding immersion — whether we’re talking at the Grade 5/6 level or at the CEGEP level — but the long game of those advocating for it is pretty transparent. TL;DR it’s nominally about economy but it’s actually about identity.

LC: I’m not an expert but I find it odd that Legault is convinced that putting kids in school at the age of four will solve the drop-out problem. Pretty much every kid is in daycare/pre-K at that anyway, so what’s the difference exactly?

RJ: The difference is you can still subsidize private high schools so the upper middle class can check out of the public system at their convenience.

[HEALTHCARE] This too was all over the place. What did you pull out of it?

RJ: A lot of the health policy talk was hard to follow. Couillard and Legault tried to explain their convoluted administrative solutions to healthcare issues but I couldn’t make heads or tails of them. I give Massé points for trying to move the conversation towards the overarching issues, dental care, for example. Also LOL @ “mouthcare.” [Couillard said “mouthcare” instead of “dental care” at one point. –Ed]

DJ: Isn’t mouthcare a Pornhub category? And yes, I agree; a few of them talked a lot of shit and repeated campaign promises we’ve already heard. The section was a mess, and to a degree the moderators should have done more.

LC: Free dental care for everyone is a major campaign promise for QS, and Couillard says it’s unrealistic. Both the QS and PQ are talking about extending CLSC services, a change I think most people can get behind.

DJ: Every time Legault talked it seemed like he was going after Couillard for salary-related stuff, and if I recall correctly, he started this tack with regards to medical specialists. That seemed like a clumsy attempt to yoke together that Couillard was a doctor and the Minister for Health and Social Services before being Premier and the fact that doctors make a lot of money. Also, I’m pretty sure that Lisée accidentally suggested that all nurses were women.

RJ: Legault straight up said that he knew the financial side better because he’s a chartered accountant and Couillard’s only a doctor, to which Couillard replied, “if you were my accountant I’d fire you” or something like that.

DJ: You almost have to admire a someone who tells a neurosurgeon that they’re “only” a doctor.

LC: As if Legault isn’t rich as f**k.

DJ: I mean, he only started one airline.

[ECONOMY] Another minor mess. Who said the most interesting things?

RJ: Both Legault and Couillard said Lisée would inevitably raise taxes. The worst part of it is Lisée denied it. Balancing budgets seems to be top economic priority for all the mainstream parties. Remember when the Federal Liberals proudly campaigned on running a deficit to increase funding for public services? We need some of that in this province. Massé tried to play the Robin Hood card, but I’m not sure if anyone heard her.

LC: Couillard is really coming off like Mr. Austerity with his repeated mentions of keeping seniors in the workforce.

DJ: No one heard Massé, but to be fair everyone knows what QS advocates for in this area.

Massé seemed very uncomfortable in English. How much of a liability do you think this will end up being?

LC: Yeah, she is the closest to a sweaty Richard Nixon type up there, if only because of her language skills.

DJ: I live in Saint-Marie–Saint-Jacques. She’s my local candidate and I was planning on voting for her before this debate started. But it’s a liability. If someone wanted to hear what QS was about, they didn’t learn much outside of that they are opposed to the world ending.

RJ: Massé’s English is a bit of a liability, but to be honest I don’t think any anglo voters (or any voters) should decide who to vote for based on TV debates, especially one where all the candidates are speaking in their second language.

DJ: I don’t either. But some will.

LC: It’s a sad reality that some people will base their vote entirely on this broadcast, and maybe some snippets that circulate on social media or (among the older crowd) CJAD or whatever. In an ideal world we’d all look past the superficial stuff.

RJ: They should read my cheat sheet instead.

LC: Yup.

DJ: *Extreme Harrison Ford Voice* Don’t get cocky, kid.

Do we care whether Couillard calls us “anglos” or “English-speaking citizens”?

DJ: I get why he thinks we do, but I don’t.

RJ: I mean, either one beats tête-carré, but if he wants to make us feel like he understands anglo frustration, he’s going to have to work harder than that.

DJ: It’s a distinction without a difference. It’s not what they say, it’s how they mean it.

LC: I don’t care about being called an anglo, but that’s me. I throw around mildly offensive terms more than I should.

RJ: I refer to myself as an anglo. “English-speaking Quebecer” is a mouthful. But maybe it’s “our word.”

Based on what we saw tonight, who should immigrants and minorities be most afraid of?

LC: CAQ, and not just because of Couillard’s frequent accusations that the party is anti-immigrant. Legault denied the existence of systemic racism outright. The PQ appears to be rolling back the Islamophobia of the Marois era, at least for this audience.

DJ: The CAQ, obviously. Legault had an opportunity to come across in any way he wanted and he literally said there’s no systemic racism in Quebec — which is something I figured out 15 minutes after moving here in 1997. That said, I wonder what Lisée would be saying if Legault wasn’t up there to make him look reasonable.

RJ: Yeah. It’s a damn good thing Quebec doesn’t have the power to directly deport people (just make their lives more difficult before Ottawa does), because Lisée’s right — Legault wants to. On the other hand, a PQ government would do everything it could to make it possible.

LC: Lisée said, “It’s good enough for the U.K.” regarding non-French-speaking immigrants being granted entry to Quebec, and that was in defence of being called anti-immigrant. Hmmmm.

DJ: Yeah that was fucked. I started writing a note about it but then Lisée said “you’re not keeping up” to Legault and I started writing a joke. Around that same time, Couillard said, of Lisée, “What problems he has with immigrants, I don’t know.”

RJ: I don’t think he actually has problems with immigrants in theory. He’s just happy to use it as a wedge issue.

Which party leader surpassed your expectations?

DJ: I think that Lisée did the best job for most of the debate. He came across as smart and sharp and knew how to attack the Liberals without coming across as histrionic, and he made Legault look uninformed. That said, Couillard had to take on attacks from everyone on every issue, pretty much, and he didn’t buckle. He seemed calm, cool and prepared.

LC: My expectations for Lisée were so low that it wouldn’t have been hard for him to impress me.

RJ: Yeah, it’s really too bad Lisée’s main issue (by default) is separation. If he was an Ontario NDP we’d all vote for him and he wouldn’t pander to Islamophobes.

DJ: Sure, but if he were an Ontario NDP candidate he’d lose to a giant beer can in a Maple Leafs jersey with the number 69 on the back.

RJ: Yup. And in Quebec our beer cans run airlines.

DJ: I used to fly Beer Can Air until they stopped serving beer on their flights, which was the most blatant case of fraudulent advertising since Lionel Hutz’s suit against the film The Neverending Story.

Which party leader’s performance disappointed you?

DJ: Massé. Her struggles in English were a severe handicap and after a certain point, she needed the moderators to include her. I’m still going to vote for her, because I believe in the things she believes in — except one — but yeah, I know a good person when I see one and I don’t know that I’d trust the other three to help me remember a phone number.

RJ: I hate to say it, but Massé. I wonder whether [QS co-spokesperson] Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois should have done the debate. Most of what she said was spot on, but she just didn’t have the confidence in English.

DJ: I was wondering about that. Why didn’t he do the debate?

LC: Massé being a woman is a plus, and it might have looked odd to have the less experienced quasi-celebrity dude there instead.

DJ: He would have looked like someone’s teenaged son.

LC: I’ve got to agree that Massé was disappointing, but that also doesn’t change the fact that I will probably vote QS.

What was your favourite part of the debate?

DJ: It was pretty funny how often and in how many ways Couillard and Lisée both called Legault stupid but it was even funnier that it didn’t seem like Legault understood he was being called stupid.

RJ: Lisée yelling at Legault on immigration “You cannot expel them!” as the moderators desperately try to rein them in. I have to say, he (Lisée) did his best to repair his reputation as a xenophobe.

LC: Mine was almost the same bit, with Lisée yelling “Fess up!” over Mutsumi’s shushing.

DJ: That two seconds at the end where Massé gave the “can you guys shut the fuck up, you’re giving me a headache” face and gesture was pretty great, too. I like when politicians break kayfabe and accidentally act like people. ■

The General Election is on Oct. 1. but you can vote as early as Sept. 21. For more information, go to