There was a moment during the Quebec election’s first French televised debate on Sept. 13, when Québec Solidaire spokesperson Manon Massé looked into the camera (comically reminiscent of The Office) and mutters an exasperated “Ouf!”

Liberal Party leader Philippe Couillard, Parti Québécois (PQ) leader Jean-François Lisée, and Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) leader François Legault were continuing to angrily yell over each other, apparently oblivious to what planet they were living on.

Massé was successfully channeling all Quebecers who might just be tired of the humdrum campaign. I laughed despite myself.

That moment was superseded earlier by another scene-stealing soundbite that set the tone for the night, when Raymonde Chagnon, the first of eight citizens who were trotted out in front of the cameras to ask their respective election-related questions, reacted by being thoroughly unimpressed by the rehearsed talking points and political rhetoric.

After the four politicians responded to her concerns about healthcare conditions in long-term seniors’ homes, moderator Patrice Roy asked Chagnon if she felt she was now more informed and enlightened on the issue. “Pas tellement (Not really),” she replied. Her no-nonsense, honest reply, coupled with her deadpan expression, earned her instant meme status. She quickly became an overnight Twitter sensation.

I only watched the televised debate the following day because I’m currently out of the country with a seven-hour time difference, but before even watching her in action I already knew all about Chagnon because of social media.

While it was easy to laugh about it at first glance, I discovered something much more profound when I actually watched it — something I wasn't expecting.

Chagnon broke my heart. I’ve seen women like her before. Tough, resilient, standing firm, trying not to buckle from sheer mental and physical exhaustion as they tend to the daily needs of aging parents or aging spouses. It was no coincidence that two of the eight questions were asked by older women concerned about their aging husbands.

Women are the primary caregivers and continue to often carry the overwhelming burden of care for their loved ones. Those who live with lower incomes are the ones who struggle the most.

Whatever additional assistance they get isn't enough, and there's never any breaks from the relentless routines they follow every day to care for an ailing loved one.

They are the ones hopelessly sandwiched between conflicting responsibilities and demands. They're the ones who usually make up for the serious gaps in basic healthcare by giving everything they have and leaving nothing for themselves. Chagnon represents all the people who get continuously lost between the cracks and suffer the most when governments slash budgets. They have neither the patience nor the time for empty political rhetoric, and, I suspect, neither do many other ordinary Quebecers these days.

Heated debates, cacophonous yelling, some solid points

One would be hard pressed to see how anything that took place Thursday night would necessarily change the opinion of undecided voters.

As the incumbent, Couillard naturally spent a good chunk of his time having to defend against his opponents’ attacks on his government’s brutal austerity measures and cuts to healthcare and education. He was, however, always quick to remind listeners that they resulted in consecutive balanced budgets that have, in turn, allowed Quebec to pay off significant debt and increase its credit rating. It's really his trump card and what he hopes will be enough to lead enough Quebecers to vote for him and his government again.

Throughout the debate, he came off as calm, composed, and collected; almost disaffected. That man will never develop any wrinkles because he simply refuses to scowl, raise his voice or lose his cool. While it may come off as cold and passionless almost robotic to some, I suspect that many voters respond to the "things are under control" confidence it probably inspires.

Lisée was also strong, standing his ground, not allowing his opponents to take up too much of the spotlight. Appearing well-prepared and quick with the jabs when the opportunity arose, glimpses of the former journalist would appear here and there. He did a good job of holding Couillard’s feet to the fire for the Liberals’ lacklustre record on healthcare, calling him out for a “lack of compassion,” but ultimately nothing new was revealed in the debate that would sway an undecided voter towards the PQ.

If anyone managed to charm a few new voters their way, I think QS spokesperson Manon Massé did just that. Appearing reasonable, genuine, composed, and knowledgeable about the topics she engaged in, she was the candidate I suspect most ordinary Quebecers related to and would want to sit down and have a beer with. I really enjoyed her positions on certain questions and it was easy to tell that when she spoke of healthcare issues (“Healthcare is about more than just medical specialists, it’s about prevention, nurses, assistants, even maintenance, because when an infection hits a hospital setting, it affects everything”) she spoke like an insider. I also really appreciated her willingness to engage in respectful debate, remaining composed and rarely speaking over others. The only time she raised her voice was when she was defending minimum wage increases. Both the PQ and the QS have promised that the minimum wage would increase to $15 per hour if elected.

Regarding the environment, Massé chastised all the other party leaders, calling their meager half-measures to combat climate change “mesurettes.” The QS has promised to divert $12.5 billion destined for Generations Fund to pay down the debt into an economic transition into greener energy and less of a dependence on fossil fuels, what Massé referred to as an “ecological revolution.” That predictably led to a heated exchange with Couillard who insisted that a financial debt is just as important a liability for young Quebecers, while Massé insisted that an environmental debt is a much bigger burden. Here again, it comes down to ideology and priorities. Those who believe the environment is a much bigger issue than balancing the budget will be inclined to vote for QS. Understandably, the younger voters are, the more inclined they are to side with Massé. Unfortunately for QS (and for the environment), the younger voters are, the less likely they are to show up to vote. While 18-to-39-year-olds will, for the first time, have the same electoral weight as baby boomers in this election, the turnout rate in this age category has been in decline. In 2014, during the last Quebec provincial election, the voter participation from this demographic was 56 per cent, while the overall participation turnout that year was 71 per cent.

While the debate netted no clear winners or losers, if I had to choose one person who needed to perform well but stumbled, it would be Legault. While he occasionally managed to get in some good points, calling the Liberals’ track record in healthcare “shameful” and seemed genuinely interested in investing in better quality services for seniors, he often appeared too angry, too emotional, and too loud. Yelling “I’ll never forgive you!” to Couillard for cuts his government had made to education, it was the kind of emotional outburst a female politician would have never been able to make without being hung out to dry by pundits.

Immigration a hot-button issue

Predictably, Couillard led the counter-attack on Legault when it was time to discuss immigration. The CAQ leader defended his controversial position to expel recently arrived immigrants after only three years if they failed a French test. "Why should someone fail a test if they can take French classes for free?" he asked. It was probably a moment in the debate that would have made every immigrant or child of immigrants groan. To ask that question is to fundamentally lack a basic understanding of the obstacles and unique challenges that await immigrants when they move to a new country and attempt to learn one or two new languages while also trying to make a living.

Then he made things worse. "We're not talking about expelling citizens," he helpfully clarified. "We're talking about expelling immigrants who aren't citizens yet." Somehow, Legault felt that reasoning made sense and he expressed his concern that he was unjustly being painted as “racist” by the Liberals and other Quebecers.

Couillard quickly quipped that people were reacting that way because talk of expulsions was scaring Quebecers. "You scare them," Couillard told Legault.

While Couillard was very clear in reiterating his promise to maintain annual immigration levels at about 50,000 people, since Quebec continues to need workers due to labour shortages across the province, Legault insisted that the only viable solution to proper integration was a reduction in immigration by 20 per cent, which amounts to roughly 10,000 fewer people per year.

While the PQ has no problem with the current number of immigrants coming to Quebec annually, Massé gave the most interesting and inclusive response to the question.

She insisted that the number was irrelevant ("50,000, 60,000... it doesn't matter... ") and that what truly mattered was how they were received and integrated into daily life. Reminding everyone that “they [immigrants] chose us”, she pointed out the serious lack of diversity in government institutions and said that it’s imperative that the government lead by example. “We need to support Quebec culture and encourage new arrivals through proactive measures so they can be proud of being part of 'our gang.'”

I can tell you, as the daughter of immigrants, that this is the absolute best way to approach immigration and the win/win scenario it can be for everyone. However, one has to wonder how this inclusive and welcoming discourse can co-exist with Québec Solidaire's stated intention to bar people who wear ostentatious religious symbols such as turbans and hijabs from working as judges, correctional officers and police officers. What kind of message of inclusion are those folks receiving?

Of course, while Québec Solidaire has pledged to find $13 billion more for Quebecers via tax hikes, reforming the income tax structure, and cracking down on tax evasion, many Quebecers (as witnessed by the patronizing half-smiles on the other three men's faces while Massé spoke of financial issues) remain skeptical if Quebec will ever vote for a party that aims to return it to its progressive roots. To many, despite its many interesting ideas and progressively sound environmental platform, QS remains hopelessly a fringe party supported by tree huggers and young students unaware of "real life." Perhaps this will be the election that it will gain more legitimacy and many will give it a chance and see it as a viable alternative to the status quo of two parties that have alternatively shared power in Quebec for years or the new right-of-centre party that can't stop scapegoating immigrants.

By the time Roy asked the final question about what their values were for Quebec, it was clear from their answers, that, despite their differences, love for Quebec, its culture and its future, were the one common ground they all had. No one came off as utterly unlikeable or engaged in Trump-style populism or ad hominems. Yes, there was yelling, but it all stayed within the realms of civilized.

'I'm a woman'

One final note: at the very end, when the broadcaster flashed some numbers showing how much air time it had given to each of the leaders, it was noticeable that Massé had spoken four or five minutes less than the three men. When the moderator mentioned it, Massé shrugged and muttered “I’m a woman.” Both Patrice Roy and many viewers immediately took that to mean that she was alluding to having been the victim of sexism, by intentionally being deprived of equal time. It wasn’t the case and she later clarified her statement when she told the press that she simply “wasn’t interested in participating in a cock fight.” She added, “Talking over one another isn’t what Quebecers want.”

It’s no secret that women are often socialized and conditioned from an early age to avoid angry public yelling and that they are encouraged to wait their turn to speak; to “play nice.” It's conditioning that often works in mens' favour in classrooms, in boardrooms and other public arenas where you have to fight for your voice to be heard. Social conditioning or not, politics is cut throat and the time to make their points and sell voters on their platforms is limited and decreasing daily. While she wasn’t necessarily blaming anyone other than her own lack of inclination to get down and dirty like the boys, and it’s commendable not to want to play that game, that’s for better or for worse the game she signed up to play right now and it’s pointless to want to change the rules mid-tussle. “Go big or go home,” my coach used to say, and with two weeks to go, you go big. That being said, sexism in politics continues to be a real issue, and one has to wonder what kind of impression Massé would have made with voters if she had engaged in loud and emotional antics, frequently pointing jabbing fingers at opponents and yelling over them like the other three often did.

Party leaders still have 15 days of campaigning ahead of them and two other televised debates one in English next Monday and another one in French on Sept. 20, which promises to be much more cutthroat as the stakes increase to make up their minds.

Can you feel the excitement and anticipation? Pas tellement.

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