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Conservative leadership contenders square off in campaign’s only French-language debate

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The four candidates vying to replace Andrew Scheer as leader of the Conservative Party are taking part tonight in the only French-language debate of this campaign.

Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan take part in the first of two debates in Toronto.0:00

The four candidates vying to replace Andrew Scheer as leader of the Conservative Party have taken the stage tonight in Toronto for the only French-language debate of this campaign.

CBCNews.ca is carrying the debate live with English translation (the debate is being carried live in French here).

The start of the event was delayed for about 40 minutes and got underway just after 7:40 p.m. ET.

The debate is a chance for the two frontrunners — former cabinet ministers Peter MacKay and Erin O'Toole — to solidify their bases of support while appealing to voters backing rival candidates. For political newcomers Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan — a Toronto lawyer and a rookie MP elected last fall, respectively — it's an opportunity to introduce themselves to party members who may be less familiar with their policies and beliefs.

Watch | Conservative leadership debate opening statements (with English translation)

Erin O'Toole, Peter MacKay, Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan deliver their opening statements in the first of two CPC moderated debates in Toronto.4:16

None of the candidates speak French as their first language. There will be no translation or interpretation provided to the candidates on stage.

Dan Nowlan, co-chair of the Conservative Party's leadership election organizing committee (LEOC), will moderate the debate. The debate will be held in Toronto but there won't be a studio audience.

This debate is particularly important because it presents candidates with one of their few opportunities to address a large number of voters in Quebec.

The province has not elected many Tory MPs to the House of Commons over the last 20 years — the party hit its high-water mark with 12 MPs in 2015 — but Conservative Party members in Quebec have an outsized influence in leadership contests.

The Conservatives weigh each riding equally, regardless of how many votes are cast in them individually. That means a riding in Quebec with a few dozen voting members carries as much weight as a riding in Alberta where hundreds of ballots could be cast.

Half of the ten MPs in the Quebec Conservative caucus have endorsed MacKay. They include Steven Blaney (who placed ninth in the 2017 leadership race) and Jacques Gourde — the only Quebec Conservative MPs elected in Stephen Harper's 2006 breakthrough in the province who are still sitting in the House of Commons today.

MacKay also has the backing of two Quebec senators, seven former MPs and senators from Quebec and most of the candidates who ran for the party in the province in the last election.

O'Toole has only one Quebec Conservative MP backing him (Richard Martel, first elected in a byelection in 2018), along with two former MPs and three sitting senators — although one of his supporters, former Speaker of the Senate Leo Housakos, has considerable sway in the party's Quebec wing.

The topics up for debate include the economy and its recovery from COVID-19, the Official Languages Act, the military and its equipment, the environment, natural resources, the candidates' plans to "defeat the Liberals" and agriculture and agri-food independence.

The candidates will do it all again tomorrow night with a English-language debate. The topics for the English debate include government pandemic measures, seniors, "how to win a majority government and broaden the coalition," issues affecting Indigenous people and social conservatism.

The leadership election process, which will be conducted entirely by mail, is scheduled to end on August 21.

About the Author

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.

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