Canadian opposition leader gets Quebec boost ahead of crucial debate

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Quebec’s influential provincial leader on Thursday said a vote for Canada’s opposition Conservative Party would be a better choice than one for Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the Sept. 20 election, a boost for the relatively unknown challenger ahead of a crucial debate.

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Conservative leader Erin O’Toole here took over his right-leaning party last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and insiders concede he has had trouble introducing himself to voters.

“To get more power back to Quebec, it seems to be easier with Mr. O’Toole than with Mr. Trudeau,” Quebec Premier Francois Legault told reporters.

Quebec accounts for 78 of the 338 seats in the House of Commons and is crucial for any party seeking office. Legault spoke the morning after a French-language debate that posed few problems for Trudeau, who is a fluent French speaker and whose constituency is in Montreal.

Legault, who represents a Quebec nationalist party, said he favored O’Toole as head of a government with a parliamentary minority – which depends on opposition support – instead of a majority government because none of the parties fully represent the province.

Unlike Trudeau, O’Toole has said clearly he would not challenge a Quebec law, backed by Legault, that bans most public servants from wearing religious symbols.

Polls show O’Toole with a slight lead amid voter unhappiness with Trudeau’s decision to call an election two years early. (Polls:)

O’Toole, Trudeau and three other party leaders will participate in the only debate in English – spoken by two-thirds of Canada’s 38 million people – at 9 p.m. Eastern Time on Thursday (0100 GMT on Friday).

“This is perhaps the single most important two hours of O’Toole’s political life… there are a lot of open minds out there so things could shift quickly either way,” said a Conservative strategist who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Trudeau, who has been in office for six years, lashed out at O’Toole during the French debate on Wednesday, accusing him of favoring restrictions on abortion and wanting to loosen gun controls.

Trudeau benefited from major stumbles by opponents during debates in both the 2015 and 2019 campaigns, which he won.

“This is really, really important to both” Trudeau and O’Toole, said Frank Graves, president of the Ekos Research polling company. “They screw this up, they lose the election.”

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