Scheer as Debate Piñata, in the Language of Molière

L. Ian MacDonald

Oct. 3, 2019

What was to be a showdown between Justin Trudeau and Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet played out with Andrew Scheer ‘au coeur des attaques’

There were no knockout punches in Wednesday night’s TVA French-language leaders’ debate, and all four participants were left standing at the end, each with something to take from the evening’s proceedings.

Andrew Scheer, for one, could have done without the prosecutorial tone of Justin Trudeau on abortion and a woman’s right to choose, and whether Scheer supported it as a husband and father. “You’re hiding behind every answer,” Trudeau accused the Conservative leader. Even so, Scheer managed to recite his lines that a Conservative government would not re-visit the issue with a vote on abortion under any circumstances in a new Parliament.

For his part, Scheer posted a good-humoured caution to Trudeau for his persistent propensity for running against Stephen Harper, as if the former Tory leader and prime minister’s name were still on the ballot. Trudeau was at it again in the TVA debate.

“That was 2015, congratulations,” Scheer reminded the Liberal leader about his win in the last election. “We’re now in 2019. Clear your calendar.”

From social policy to the environment, Scheer was surprisingly the main target of his opponents, and of the news media which had been previously preoccupied with a more likely setup for debating points between Trudeau and Yves-François Blanchet and the reviving Bloc Québécois.

After all, Trudeau and Blanchet made a much better local news story between two Quebec favourite sons competing for votes. In Blanchet’s case, he needs to take the Bloc only from 10 to 12 seats to regain standing as a recognized party in the House. Blanchet has a lock on that in ridings outside the Greater Montreal Area, though he poses no threat to the Bloc record set by its founder, Lucien Bouchard, in 1993, when he won 54 seats in the House and became leader of the opposition.  Normally, he would then have lived in Stornoway, the opposition leader’s residence, though Bouchard was not signing up for that. Again, in the 2006 election that returned a minority Conservative government, Bloc leader Gilles Duceppe won 51 seats. Blanchet isn’t anywhere near that, but should his Bloc seat score come in somewhere between the high teens and low 20s, he could well hold a balance of power in a minority House.

All the more reason for Trudeau to up the Liberal seat score at the expense of both the Bloc and the Conservatives, who hope to increase their Quebec deputation beyond their current dozen members.

For the Liberals, who won 40 out of 78 Quebec seats in their 2015 majority, an enhanced Quebec score would increase their prospects of another majority mandate certified by Ontario with its 130 seats, a majority of them in the 416 area of downtown Toronto and the 905 suburban ridings surrounding it.

Returning to the Quebec electoral map, it is Blanchet, no less than Scheer, who is standing in Trudeau’s way. As for the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, the fourth player on the TVA stage, he’d be thankful to retain a couple of the Quebec seats won by the New Democrats in 2015, itself a huge reduction from the 59 won by Jack Layton as the golden boy in 2011.

All of which made Scheer kind of a weird target for both his opponents and the French-language media. “Scheer au coeur des attaques,” headlined Le Devoir Thursday. For its part, the tabloid le Journal de Montreal, the print sibling of TVA, headlined a “dure soirée pour Scheer.”

And yet Scheer struck a balance on several issues, including Quebec’s Bill 21 with its rules on limiting the religious clothing worn by government employees such as a teachers and cops. It’s not something he would have done, he said, “but it’s there. Let’s see the courts.”  Which is an exceedingly fair-minded reading of Bill 21.

And Scheer deserves points for sensitivity in speaking of Quebec “as an island in a sea of English in North America.”

For himself, Scheer noted that he learned French in the capital’s immersion programs. “I can speak the language of Molière with an Ottawa accent,” he quipped. His accent may put him at a disadvantage in his second language, though his grammar and syntax were unexpectedly strong.

Whatever else made him the piñata of the night, he can’t be faulted for that.


L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine.