By ALLISON DUNFIELD
Globe and Mail Update
The five leaders of the main political parties faced off Wednesday night in the same room for the first time in this election campaign at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for the French-language debates.
And in their opening statements, rival party leaders aimed at Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.
Leading off the 90-second opening statements was Gilles Duceppe for the Bloc Québécois.
"We know in Quebec that the future" will be decided by a referendum, he said.
He took aim at Mr. Chrétien and talked about the economy.
"The economy is going well so how come the unemployed are getting less money and fewer and fewer benefits," he said. "Tonight I'll have questions that you'll want to put to him," he said, referring to the Liberal leader.
Tory Leader Joe Clark followed, saying that Quebeckers had only two choices in the election, "arrogance and futility," if they voted for the Liberals and the Bloc.
With a Liberal government, he said, "the people of Quebec always lose out." Mr. Clark cited free trade as examples of what his government had achieved while it was in power.
Asking for the Bloc vote, he said that by voting for the sovereigntists, Quebeckers risked voting for the same result.
NDP Leader Alexa McDonough, wearing a striking red blazer contrasting with the four men in black and grey suits, made an opening statement that criticized the Alliance, Tory and Liberal obsession with paying down Canada's debt.
"This evening, politicians will talk to you about how they would like to use the enormous surplus in Canada. They will talk about cutting taxes for big corporations." The NDP leader juxtaposed this with examples of those who wouldn't benefit from tax cuts to corporations.
"This doesn't help the cancer patient waiting for treatment. This doesn't help the student who can't afford to go to university."
She again emphasized the NDP's proposal to use the surplus to improve health care, along with the environment and social spending.
"The Liberals have chosen to waste this surplus," she said, adding that the Tories and the Alliance are on the same wavelength as the Liberals when it comes to the federal surplus.
Canadian Alliance Leader Stockwell Day portrayed himself as the future leader of Canada, someone with new ideas than Mr. Chrétien, in his opening remarks.
"We're the only ones that can replace the worn-out government led by Jean Chrétien."
He said the Alliance would implement a plan to cut taxes and put more money in the pockets of Canadians. Appealing to Quebeckers, he said that as Alberta treasurer, he cut taxes and did away with debt while respecting the needs of families.
Mr. Chrétien, who was the last to speak, presented Canada with his vision of the future — a prosperous country with a continuing strong economy and Canadians employed in record numbers.
"We must invest in future, know how investment and research."
Mr. Chrétien admitted that not everyone has benefited from the Liberal tax cuts and that he must do more for lower income Canadians.
The first of two back-to-back debates, hosted by Stephan Bureau of CBC Radio-Canada, along with panelists Lina Dib of TVA and Daniel Lessard of Radio-Canada, is also the first in many years in which all party leaders will participate in French.
The opening comments and coverage of each issue: health care, finances, leadership, justice and the role of government.