Election leaders’ debates will be more accessible than ever, commission says

Both events will be held in the Ottawa area and are tentatively scheduled for October

Canadian political junkies will be able to access this fall’s federal election debates with unprecedented ease thanks in large part to strong media partnerships, the commission responsible for organizing the events said Wednesday as it lifted the veil on plans for the televised campaign confrontations.

Both events will be held in the Ottawa area and are tentatively scheduled for Oct. 7 in English and Oct. 10 in French, said Michel Cormier, the executive director of the Leaders’ Debates Commission.

The production group includes broadcasters CBC News/Radio-Canada, Global, and CTV; newspapers Toronto Star, Le Devoir and the magazine L’Actualite; and digital outlets La Presse, HuffPost Canada and HuffPost Quebec.

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The large, diverse group of media partners means the debate should have strong reach across Canada, Cormier said: “Canadians will be able to watch the debates on the platform of their choice, at the time of their choosing.”

Perhaps the biggest change over debates in the past is that the events will be free to stream and distribute for anyone, meaning any Canadian can set up an event or gathering in order to watch the show, he added.

The debates will also be translated into several different languages, including some Indigenous languages, as well as Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi and Italian, though Cormier said that list is not finalized.

Canadians with disabilities should also have easier access, he noted, as the debates will have sign language interpretation, closed captioning and described video.

The ease-of-access is important, Cormier said, because leaders’ debates could serve as points in the campaign where “all people have access to the same information in real time, that’s unmediated and undistorted.”

Some work remains to be done for the commission, including the interpretation of the criteria under which leaders will be allowed to participate.

Those criteria have already been set by the federal government, and leaders must meet two of the three: representation in the current House of Commons by a member who was elected as a member of that party; a determination of whether the party will run candidates in 90 per cent of electoral districts; and whether the party received at least four per cent of valid votes in the last election.

A party can also meet the third criterion if the debates commissioner decides it has a “legitimate chance” of winning seats.

Based on those criteria, the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP and Bloc Quebecois already qualify. Green party Leader Elizabeth May will also likely make the cut, since the party has two seats in Parliament and is on track to field candidates in more than 90 per cent of ridings.

That leaves Maxime Bernier, leader of the nascent People’s Party of Canada and a longtime Conservative until he quit the caucus last summer to form his own party. Bernier doesn’t meet the first threshold, since he wasn’t elected under the PPC banner. However, the party has nominated 306 candidates — 90.5 per cent of Canada’s 338 available seats, a spokesperson said.

That means Bernier’s participation depends on whether the debates commissioner — former governor general David Johnston — believes the party has a chance to win seats this fall.

The formation of a federal commission to organize debates is a departure from the way televised discussions between party leaders were traditionally put together.

Prior to this year, debates were often organized by a consortium of Canadian broadcast networks. Following the 2015 election, however, which was marked by controversy over who would be taking part, the federal government established the commission to provide a neutral third-party organizer.

Conservative leader and incumbent prime minister Stephen Harper refused to participate in the consortium debates; Tom Mulcair, who was NDP leader at the time, then refused to take part without Harper.

Harper eventually joined a consortium-produced French debate, but the only English events were smaller debates organized by various producers, with varying participation by leaders.

Cormier said Wednesday the commission was “very confident” the debates this year would be a success.

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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