Canadian leaders' debates

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Joe Clark and Stockwell Day during the 2000 election debates.

Canadian leaders' debates are leaders' debates televised during federal elections in Canada, made up of two debates, one in French and one in English, usually held on back-to-back nights. The first time these debates were held was during the 1968 election.[1] They are currently produced by a consortium of the main Canadian television networks, namely the CBC/SRC, CTV, Global and TVA, although other channels such as CPAC (and C-SPAN in the United States[why?]; English-language debate only) carry the broadcasts as well.

Inclusion criteria[edit]

Although there are usually a dozen or so political parties registered with Elections Canada at any given time, not all party leaders participate in the debate. The rules have shifted over time, but the most accepted criteria requires that a political party needs to have representation in the House of Commons as well as proven popular support in the country of at least 5 per cent of popular vote in the polls.[1] Over the years, there have been at least three, and as many as five, leaders at each such debate.

Following the 1988 federal election, after a decision of the Attorney General of Canada to stay a prosecution under the Broadcasting Act initiated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) against several Canadian Television networks, at the instance of the CRTC, a private prosecution was instituted on behalf of the Green Party of Canada by former Chief Agent and Treasurer[2] Greg Vezina against CBC, CTV and Global, claiming that these broadcasters had breached the Television Broadcasting Regulations 1987, because they had not included the Green Party and other accredited and registered small political party leaders in the leaders' debates during a federal general election and had failed to provide equitable time to them.

In R. v. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation et al., [1993] 51 C.P.R.(3d), the Ontario Court of Appeal held that debates were not of a partisan political character. The Court believed that while the participants in a debate may very well be partisan, the program itself, because it presented more than one view, was not. The Court therefore ruled that debates were not covered by the relevant section of the regulations and notwithstanding provisions of under the Canada Elections Act limiting, restricting and in many cases prohibiting contributions of political advertizing and broadcasting, declared both Acts to be 'a complete code' and therefore there was no requirement to provide any time at all for parties or candidates excluded from debates during election campaigns no matter how many candidates or parties were excluded so long as two or more were included in such programs. (Broadcasters and other media used the same reasoning to exclude commentators and representatives from smaller parties in news and public affairs panels and programs both during and in between elections in Canada.) The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada which refused to grant leave to appeal (without reasons as is the custom) in decision 23881 by Justices La Forest, Sopinka and Major JJ, released on May 6, 1994.[3] Subsequently, the CRTC issued Public Notice CRTC 1995-44, Election-period broadcasting: Debates, which stated, In view of this judgment, the Commission will no longer require that so-called "debates" programs feature all rival parties or candidates in one or more programs.[4]

In both the 1993 election and the 2000 election, Greg Vezina working as an independent producer and the Green Party and the Natural Law Party of Canada organized All Party Leaders Debates which invited the leaders of all registered and accredited parties to participate. On both occasions the leaders of the major parties declined, but the leaders of the other smaller political parties participated. While all other members of the Election Broadcasting Consortium failed to broadcast the 1993 program after announcing they would, in both the 1993 and 2000 the one hour debates were carried on CBC Newsworld and the debates and another hour of town hall questions and answers afterword on CPAC (English: Cable Public Affairs Channel and in French: La Chaîne d'affaires publiques par câble). The 2000 Debate was the first of its kind broadcast and archived on the Internet on the Democracy Channel website[5]

Prior to the 2008 election, the Green Party, which, from at least the 1997 election until 2008, was consistently the highest-polling party among those without a seat in Parliament, had unsuccessfully argued on several occasions for a role in the debates.

Some commentators[who?] have questioned the rationale for allowing the Bloc Québécois to participate in the English-language debates, given that the Bloc does not contest any ridings outside the predominantly French-language province of Quebec, and garners little support from that province's anglophone residents. In the 1993 French-language debate, Reform Party leader Preston Manning opted to make only an opening statement, as he was only fluent in English at the time.[6] However, as parties with seats in the House of Commons prior to the election, they qualify (or qualified) regardless of this criticism. In 2011, there was considerable controversy about the exclusion of Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who had participated in the 2008 debate.

2005/6 debates[edit]

Party leaders and participants
Liberal leader, Paul Martin Conservative leader, Stephen Harper
Paul Martin, Liberal Stephen Harper, Conservative
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois Jack Layton, leader of the NDP
Gilles Duceppe, Bloc Québécois Jack Layton, NDP

There were four debates for the 2006 election. The first two were held in Vancouver. The French-language debate was on Thursday, December 15, followed the next day by the English debate, which was moderated by Trina McQueen, who was President and COO of CTVGlobemedia from 2000 to 2002. The final debates were scheduled for Gatineau or Montreal, the English-language debate on Monday, January 9, the French-language debate on January 10.

The four participants were Liberal leader and incumbent prime minister Paul Martin, Conservative leader Stephen Harper, NDP leader Jack Layton, and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe.

2008 debates[edit]

Party leaders and participants
Conservative leader, Stephen Harper Liberal leader, Stéphane Dion
Stephen Harper, Conservative Stéphane Dion, Liberal
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois Jack Layton, leader of the NDP
Gilles Duceppe, Bloc Québécois Jack Layton, NDP
Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party
Elizabeth May, Green

Two debates took place during the 2008 election. The French language debate was on October 1 from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. EDT and was moderated by Stéphan Bureau. The English language debate was held the following evening, from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. EDT, and was moderated by Steve Paikin. Both were held at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.[7] The timing of the English debate, at exactly the same time as the previously-scheduled U.S. vice presidential debate, means that Canadian networks did not have to preempt any popular simulcast American programming in order to carry the domestic broadcast. Sources close to the consortium reported that this was indeed a key motivation for choosing the October 2 date.[8]

The five participants were Conservative leader and incumbent prime minister Stephen Harper, Liberal leader Stéphane Dion, NDP leader Jack Layton, Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, and Green Party leader Elizabeth May.

The consortium had originally announced that the Greens would again be excluded from the debates, despite securing sitting MP Blair Wilson as the Greens' first MP just prior to dissolution. Two parties, the Conservatives and the NDP, opposed the inclusion of the Green Party, citing a deal struck between the Green Party and Liberals where the Liberals would not run in Green Party leader Elizabeth May's riding, Central Nova, and the Green party in Liberal leader Stéphane Dion's riding, Saint-Laurent—Cartierville. Stephen Harper and Jack Layton said that if the Green Party were included, they would not participate in the Leaders' Debates. Dion said that while he supports May's inclusion, he would not attend if the prime minister does not, and the Bloc Québécois said it never threatened to boycott the debates.[9] The media consortium in charge of the debate decided that it would prefer to broadcast the debates with the four major party leaders, rather than risk not at all. The Green Party indicated they would lodge a formal complaint with the CRTC.[10][11] Tony Burman, a former CBC News Chief and Chair of the Network Consortium called the process "a sham" and called for an independent body to govern the debates.[1]

A considerable public outcry resulted, with extensive coverage on TV, radio, and websites.[12] The NDP leader in particular came under pressure from his own members and supporters.[13] Former prime minister Joe Clark called for May to be included.[14] On September 10, the Conservatives and NDP announced they no longer opposed May's participation; shortly thereafter, the consortium invited May to participate.[15]

Format and draw results[edit]

The following format was to be followed for the 2008 debates:[16]

  • Each leader will have 45 seconds for an opening statement, and the same length for a closing statement.
  • The debates will each be divided into eight themed segments (one question per theme). The leaders will be informed of the themes, but not the questions, five days prior to the debates.
  • Questions will be posed by Canadians via pre-taped segments. These will be selected from questions submitted to the consortium via email.
  • For each question, each leader will have 45 seconds to respond, followed by eight minutes of open debate.

The parties and the consortium later agreed to allot additional time to the economy because of the 2008 global economic crisis. The opening and closing statements have been eliminated.[17]

Pursuant to draws held on September 19, the following order was used for the debates:[16]

Language Order of: First Second Third Fourth Fifth
French Responses to first question Conservative Liberal Green Bloc NDP
Post-debate scrums Bloc Conservative Liberal Green NDP
English Responses to first question Green Liberal Conservative NDP Bloc
Post-debate scrums Liberal Green Bloc NDP Conservative

2011 debates[edit]

Party leaders and participants
Conservative leader, Stephen Harper Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff
Stephen Harper, Conservative Michael Ignatieff, Liberal
Gilles Duceppe, leader of the Bloc Québécois Jack Layton, leader of the NDP
Gilles Duceppe, Bloc Québécois Jack Layton, NDP

Two debates took place during the 2011 election. The English language debate was held on April 12, 2011 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m. EDT, and was moderated by Steve Paikin. The French language debate was held on April 13 from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m. EDT and was co-moderated by Paul Larocque and Anne-Marie Dussault. Both were held at the Government Conference Centre in Ottawa.[18] The original timing of the French debate, which after it was chosen became in conflict with a Montreal Canadiens Playoff hockey game, and as a result was moved ahead by one night. The four participants in both debates were Conservative leader and incumbent prime minister Stephen Harper, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, NDP leader Jack Layton, and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe. Green Party leader Elizabeth May was excluded from the debate by the media consortium, as her party did not have representation in the House of Commons.[19]

The English debate was best known for Layton's attack on Ignatieff for having the worst House of Commons attendance record of any of the party leaders. Layton said “You know, most Canadians, if they don’t show up for work, they don’t get a promotion." This quote has been compared to Brian Mulroney's “You had an option, sir — you could have said 'no.'” rebuttal to John Napier Turner.[20]


  1. ^ a b c Burman, Tony (September 10, 2008). "Former CBC News chief: The election debate process is a sham". The Globe and Mail (Toronto). Retrieved 2008-09-11. 
  2. ^ [1] Alberta Greens Newsletter Volume 6 Number 3 Autumn 1994
  3. ^ [2] Judgements of the Supreme Court of Canada, Bulletin of May 6, 1994
  4. ^ [3] Public Notice CRTC 1995-44
  5. ^ [4] link to Democracy Channel website
  6. ^ Hébert, Chantal (2008-09-10). "Networks have lost their journalistic backbone". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2008-09-10. 
  7. ^ News Release - 2008 Leaders' Debate, September 8, 2008
  8. ^ Brennan, Richard (2008-09-27). "It's duelling debates for Canadian viewers". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2008-09-30. 
  9. ^ "Green leader blames Harper, Layton for being barred from debates". Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  10. ^ "News Release - 2008 Leaders' Debates". CNW group. Retrieved 2008-09-09. 
  11. ^ Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (September 2008). "Greens can't participate in leaders debates, networks rule". CBC News. Retrieved 2008-09-09. [dead link]
  12. ^ "May gets green light with a push from the people". Globe and Mail (Toronto). Retrieved 2008-09-11. [dead link]
  13. ^ MacCharles, Tonda (September 10, 2008). "May pins hopes on outcry". The Star (Toronto). Retrieved 2008-09-11. 
  14. ^ "Let Elizabeth May speak". Globe and Mail (Toronto). Retrieved 2008-09-11. [dead link]
  15. ^ Broadcast Consortium to invite Elizabeth May to participate in 2008 Leaders' Debates, press release, September 10, 2008
  16. ^ a b Broadcast Consortium press release, September 19, 2008
  17. ^ Economy engulfs TV debates, Bruce Campion-Smith, Toronto Star, October 1, 2008
  18. ^ News Article - Canadians heard our message: Leaders, April 12, 2011
  19. ^ News Article - Leaders' debates set without May, March 30, 2011
  20. ^ [5]