In an era where most Canadians have little trust in political promises, how important are election debates when assessing candidates? While the tendency might be to focus on what each candidate promised to do if elected, sometimes the most important insight is gained from what was not said. 

When candidates refuse to answer “yes” or “no” questions or attack other candidates instead of answering direct questions, they are not being transparent about their true intentions. It is in this wiggle space—where candidates are not comfortable answering honestly and directly—where we must take a closer look. 

Last night, the five federal party leaders engaged in the first official debate of the campaign at the Canadian Museum of History—an ironic backdrop given that the questions and answers spoke very little about the Indigenous elements of their platforms. A good number of the questions related to pandemic-related issues like deaths in long-term care homes, CERB, mandatory vaccinations, and opening the border with the US. They also covered climate change, pipelines, daycare, and the situation in Afghanistan. They had few questions and little discussion about core Indigenous issues. 

But each party had their own notable squirming moments. 

Green Party leader, Annamie Paul, was noticeably taken aback by questions related to her position on Israel. She was asked about the positions of those in her party who called out human rights violations against Palestinians, and how that has nearly caused an implosion of her party. Paul responded first by saying she did not accept the premise of the question, then did not answer the question directly by referencing her commitment to international law. When pressed about her previous position and the fact that it is not stated in her platform, Paul responded that the Green Party did not have a position. 

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s weak spot was clearly the subject of the Trans-Mountain pipeline. Singh was questioned about his previous statements that the pipeline would continue to operate, and was asked for how many more years that would be. He responded that he has always been against the pipeline. However, when pushed on whether he would shut down the pipeline, he did not answer and instead said he would take stock of the situation. 

Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois, is in a unique situation in that he is not vying to be the Prime Minister of Canada, but instead vies to represent the interests of Québec. That said, it is important to understand where his positions fit within the larger political landscape, as they are often called upon to support other minority governments. Blanchet did not directly answer the question of why his platform speaks to welcoming only French-speaking refugees, even though the majority of refugees do not speak French. He instead deflected by making a claim about discrimination against foreign students being penalized if they speak French. When pushed on whether Quebec would accept non-French speaking refugees, he again dodged the question by focusing on education. 

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau responded to some of the controversial questions directly and at times, offered heated responses, like his defence of mandatory vaccinations and the use of vaccination passports. However, when questioned about why he has not released the amount government spent on contracts to obtain vaccinations, he deflected by saying they invested the right amount to get enough vaccinations for Canadians. When pushed about why he hasn’t released the amounts, his response was that he can’t share the cost of contracts with private companies. An odd response given that Canadians can do online searches for government contracts with private companies above $10,000. 

Of all the leaders who appeared uncomfortable answering questions directly, Conservative leader Erin O’Toole did the most squirming. The majority of his responses to questions seemed to simply restate the problem or make general comments about Conservatives supporting “Canadians and Quebecers.” Question after question he avoided answering “yes” or “no.” When pressed on whether he’d remove the six billion dollars promised by Liberals to the provinces for daycare spaces, he said he would collaborate with provinces. When asked about his contradictory position about increasing oil and gas production but still meeting the Paris targets, he never explained how the plan works. And when asked directly if he’d commit to officially recognizing Indigenous languages, he responded that there are two national languages, and he could support some services in Indigenous languages.

While all party leaders answered some of the questions directly, the ones they didn’t are cause for concern. Debates are supposed to allow us to compare the positions of the party leaders while under pressure. Contradictory, ambiguous, or evasive answers operate as red flags. When politicians squirm, pay close attention. There is usually more to the story.

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