As we head into the final sprint of a marathon election campaign, Monday night brought two surprises.
Justin Trudeau, whose juvenile musings on foreign policy had cost him dearly in the past, delivered his best performance at a debate confined solely to foreign policy.
And our national security, our place on the world stage, the value of Canadian citizenship, our relations with our biggest ally and our responsibility to help those fleeing war and persecution delivered the most passionate and animated moments of the 2015 election campaign.
One could drop all cynicism for an evening. All three leaders, Trudeau, Conservative Leader Stephen Harper and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair had strong nights.
There was a wealth of one-liners that worked, but beyond that, substantive arguments over issues that should concern all voters.
For one night at least, three men who would be prime minister spoke of Canadian values instead of balanced budgets. And behind the rehearsed lines, there seemed to be some debating that came from the heart as well as the head.
It’s a guess, because the numbers aren’t in, but it’s unlikely this debate drew huge viewership, which is a pity because this encounter even had the potential to move votes.
Yes, the cliché goes, you don’t win elections on foreign policy.
But, in Trudeau’s case, you can shore up what was thought to be your weakest flank and head into the final weeks with momentum.
Harper, whose longevity in office has made him one of the senior leaders in the G7 has an obvious comfort level on foreign policy, but Trudeau held his own when the two went toe-to-toe.
Mulcair also showed an easy familiarity with the foreign files up for debate, but for every time Trudeau showed passion, Mulcair — except for a couple of ill-advised one-liners that just sounded surly — tried to appear statesmanlike, attempting to cast himself as a man who Canadians could see sitting down at the table with world leaders..
Canadians got two distinct world visions when Trudeau and Harper clashed.
The Liberal leader said Harper has turned his back on what this country once was when it came to accepting refugees, and it is being noticed around the world.
They want to know what’s going on here, Trudeau said. His call for the entry of 25,000 refugees is not about politics, he said, it is about returning this country to its former role.
It was a theme Trudeau turned to time and again — the way we have forsaken a peacekeeping role, the way Harper has created two tiers of Canadian citizens, the way he used the fear of “a terrorist behind any leaf and rock” to further a mean-spirited agenda, the way he has poisoned Canada-U.S. relations because he simply doesn’t like Barack Obama.
Mulcair made many of the same arguments, harkening back to an era when Canadians went down to the docks to help the most fragile and ill of newly arrived Irish refugees.
“That’s Canada, that’s who we are,’’ Mulcair said.
He said under Liberals, Canada went from first in the world in peacekeeping to 32nd. Under Harper, we have fallen to 68th, he said.
But Harper called his refugee policy “generous and responsible” and accused the other two of chasing headlines — which brought Mulcair’s toughest push back of the night when he told Harper that it was disrespectful to so characterize honest efforts to help the world’s neediest and weakest.
Harper again repeated his baseless claim that Liberals and New Democrats would thrown open the door to refugees without security checks.
This debate will be remembered for some of the best lines of the campaign.
Trudeau told Harper in the north, the locals believe he is “big sled, no dog.’’
Harper defended his anti-terror bill, C-51 by telling Canadians they should “not fear CSIS but ISIS,’’ and he defended his relationship with Obama, then said if you want to really poison bilateral relations, pull out of the anti-ISIS coalition, a reference to both his opponents who would end Canada’s participation in bombing missions in Iraq and Syria.
There was likely nothing said Monday that would cause Harper’s bedrock base to wobble.
But if your view of Canada’s place in the world is one that is more accommodating and a little less elbows up, both Trudeau and Mulcair gave a good accounting of themselves. It was, however, more important for Trudeau’s case that the Liberal leader passed such a crucial test.