News that the premier had declined the invitation spread fast with a mix of disappointment and anger in the anglophone community.

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QUEBEC — Premier François Legault is being heavily criticized for declining an invitation by a consortium of news media to participate in an election debate in English.

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And minus his participation and that of Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon — who also said he would not join in — organizers announced late Friday they were canceling the event, which had been scheduled for Sept. twenty.

“The goal was to allow all Quebecers to hear the party leaders discuss, debate and question their visions and priorities for Quebec and help all voters make an informed choice,” the media consortium said in a statement.

“Without the participation of all the main party leaders, the English-language media consortium representatives agree it would not be a fair and informative exercise. As a result, there will be no English-language party leaders’ debate in this election campaign.”

The statement came at the end of a day that started with Legault announcing he would not participate. The news was delivered by the premier’s press attaché, Ewan Sauves, who said in a statement Legault has already committed to other debates.

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“We have declined invitations for two debates, including one in English,” Sauves said. “The premier is already participating in two debates organized by the TVA and Radio-Canada networks.

“You have to understand each debate requires a not-negligible amount of preparation time.”

Four of Quebec’s main English-language broadcasters announced this week they had invited the leaders of the five parties with seats in the National Assembly to an English debate during the fall campaign.

The televised 90-minute debate was to take place two weeks before the vote. The consortium consisted of CBC, CTV, Global and CJAD.

They had hoped to mirror what was considered a successful English-language debate during the 2018 election campaign in which the leaders of the four largest parties, including Legault, participated. It was Quebec’s first-ever televised leaders’ debate in English and was covered extensively by both the anglophone and francophone media.

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At the time, Legault, who was in the opposition, was courting Anglophone votes. He released campaign videos in English in which he urged anglophones to free themselves from the Liberals, who he said were taking them for granted.

Much of the 2018 debate focused on issues of concern to minorities. There is no lack of those at present, given the controversy over Bill 96 — the overhaul of the Charter of the French Language — and other Coalition Avenir Québec legislation.

Language would not be a barrier in a debate between the five leaders, all of whom are fluent in English. And aside from being premier, Legault is also the minister responsible for relations with English-speaking Quebecers.

News of his declining the invitation spread fast, with a mix of disappointment and anger from the English-speaking community. Legault’s decision comes as the anglophone community prepares to protest Bill 96 on Saturday, at a rally that appears to be picking up steam.

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“This is another slap in the face,” said Sylvia Martin-Laforge, director general of the Quebec Community Groups Network, an umbrella group representing English-speaking Quebecers. “It feels contemporary.

“His refusal is seen as part of a pattern of what we’ve seen over the last four years — the disrespect of the views of our community, Bill 21, Bill 40, Bill 96.”

Martin-Laforge added Legault “might be uneasy defending” the record of his government “to English-speaking Quebecers in an English debate.”

“He should remember that he keeps telling us he’s the premier of all Quebecers,” Martin-Laforge said.

“François Legault and Paul St-Pierre Plamondon have proven their incredible insensitivity to Quebecers whose mother tongue is not French,” added Colin Standish, spokesperson for the Canadian Party of Quebec. “It shows they do not believe we are equal Quebecers.”

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Before Legault’s announcement, three party leaders — Dominique Anglade of the Liberal Party, Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois and Éric Duhaime of the Conservatives — had confirmed they would participate in the debate.

“Today François Legault is turning his back on English-speaking Quebecers,” Anglade said in a statement to the Montreal Gazette. “We, Liberals, will always seek to form a government that represents all Quebecers regardless of the language you speak and where you come from.”

“After dividing Quebecers between essential and non-essential, vaccinated and non-vaccinated, people of faith and secular ones, François Legault now tries to divide us between anglophones and francophones,” said Duhaime. “The premier is not a statesman.”

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Legault’s refusal was followed by St-Pierre Plamondon’s.

“The PQ will not participate in a leaders’ debate in English,” he tweeted. “The official and common language of Québec is French. We will, of course, be available to answer questions from anglophone journalists” after the two French debates.

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Duhaime suggested the debate proceed without the two.

“I suggest we install two empty chairs for the PQ and CAQ leaders while M. Anglade, Mr. Nadeau-Dubois and I debate and speak to the English-Quebec voters.”

Daniel Béland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said Legault and his advisers probably think he has nothing to gain from showing up to an English debate, given the unpopularity among anglophones of Bill 96 and other CAQ legislation that would likely dominate the proceedings.

“The CAQ has little hope to gain more electoral ground among Anglophones — and their policy agenda reflects that reality,” Béland said in an interview.

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