What are the election issues that matter most to religious voters?
That was the purpose of the first-ever all-candidates debate held by the Archdiocese of Toronto, at the John Bassett Theatre in Toronto.
The 1,000-seat event sold out in three days. Dubbed, “The Federal Election Debate from a Catholic Perspective,” the event garnered deep interest among Catholics and people of diverse faith backgrounds.
The issues discussed included immigration and refugees, the environment, poverty, religious freedom (with an emphasis on Christian persecution), and human dignity/life issues (abortion, palliative care and euthanasia).
All five parties, including the controversial and brand-new People’s Party of Canada (PPC), had representatives join veteran news journalist and moderator Don Newman.
Cardinal Thomas Collins opened the evening with a prayer. He also requested reasoned and respectful dialogue on all sides.
The first topic the candidates debated was poverty. In 2016, the Canadian census showed that more than 22,000 people live in shelters across Canada.
Liberal candidate Francesco Sorbara and Conservative Party candidate Garnett Genuis sparred over the Conservative Party’s plan for tax cuts. “Frankly Garnett, your universal tax cut that you have brought forward only benefits the wealthiest in Canada,” Sorbara said.
Wilfred Laurier professor David Haskell spoke for the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), arguing that newcomers to Canada are at the highest risk of living in poverty. He also said the PPC party’s plan for less immigration would help reduce poverty levels. “One of the only things that the federal government could do to get housing prices lower is to reduce overall demand. Research says the most effective way to do that in Canada is to lower immigration levels,” said Haskell.
On religious freedom, most of the candidates focused on religious freedom around the world, but NDP candidate Matthew Green pointed to Quebec’s Bill 21 as an example of religious persecution here in Canada. “We also have to look domestically. I am very worried about legislation like Bill 21. That’s an example of state-sponsored discrimination against religious minorities. When religious minorities are targeted, all of our rights are at risk,” said Green.
The most contentious—and most defining issue, for the mainly Catholic audience—was human dignity, with a focus on abortion and euthanasia. Prior to 1969, all abortion was illegal in Canada. Questions about abortion have permeated this election cycle, alongside the topic of euthanasia, which was also deemed legal when it was authorized by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2016.
Each candidate made clear that his or her party would not re-open the abortion debate.
Liberal Francesco Sorbara and NDP candidate Matthew Green were adamantly pro-choice.
Green Party candidate Dan Turcotte offered a slightly different approach. “Let’s think about the actual women that we’re talking about. If the laws are in place, what can we do to help the women? We need to promote their health, their safety, and their education, so they don’t end up in broken situations,” said Turcotte.
Still not good enough for the moderator Don Newman, he summed up audience sentiment with his follow–up question on abortion: “Abortion is probably the single biggest issue for Catholics, and none of you have been able to really give much comfort to the Catholics in the room. I’m wondering why, then, any of them should be voting for any of you?” His question was met by cheers from the audience. Still, none of the candidates gave a response that satisfied the audience.
The last two topics debated were newcomers and the environment.
PC candidate Garnett Genuis and NDP candidate Matthew Green argued over whether irregular border crossings at entry points were considered “queue jumping” or a legitimate means of claiming asylum. “We think we need to focus on the world’s most vulnerable refugees—who aren’t necessarily those folks seeking asylum from upstate New York,” Garnett said.
That’s when Green jumped in. “I reject the framing of that question as though they just cross the border and walk into the country. That’s not so. What they do is present themselves at the border to the RCMP, after which they are taken in for indefinite detention.”
After an energetic 90 minutes, Cardinal Thomas Collins closed the evening by thanking everyone for what he called a “lively, passionate, and respectful debate.”
Missed the debate? You can still watch it at www.intothecastle.com.
Tune into Context next week—Wednesday, October 9, at 8 pm on YES TV—for our second election show on the issues that matter in Canada’s October 21 election: FAITH AND POLITICS.
PLUS, in case you missed it – Context’s season premiere, covering the election issues religious voters care about: