CBC News anchor Debra Arbec is most curious to learn what specific plans the four Quebec provincial party leaders have for the English community. Global News anchor Jamie Orchard, who has two kids in school, would like to learn what plans the leaders have in mind for the English educational system. CTV News anchor Mutsumi Takahashi would love to know how the leaders conduct themselves when they think they’re addressing a different audience.
The three anchors should get answers to their questions Monday, Sept. 17, in a historic event: Quebec’s first-ever televised provincial party leaders debate in English. In the spirit of co-operation, network rivalries will be put aside and the debate will be presented on CTV, CBC-TV and Radio, Global, City, CJAD and the Montreal Gazette’s home page, montrealgazette.com.
Orchard will host, while Arbec and Takahashi moderate. In addition to their opening and closing statements, Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard, the Coalition Avenir Québec’s François Legault, the Parti Québécois’s Jean-François Lisée and Québec Solidaire’s co-spokesperson Manon Massé will debate on different issues and also field questions culled from the English community.
“This is an incredibly rare and exciting situation,” Orchard says. “I think it goes to show that for the right reasons, we as competitors can work together so that we can all represent the English community. In this area, there is a sense of camaraderie.
“You might not see this happen in Toronto, where the English community is the majority. But we stick more together here where the English community is the minority.”
The last time there was an English-language debate among party leaders was in 1985, with the Liberals’ Robert Bourassa and the PQ’s Pierre-Marc Johnson, and that was broadcast only on radio.
“So this is unprecedented and huge for us,” Arbec says. “We’ve all made requests to have TV debates in English before, but, finally, we’ve got them all together and we will have the opportunity to press them on issues about the anglophone community.”
“Yup, there will just be no escaping us in English that evening,” Takahashi muses.
While noting that the event is unprecedented, Takahashi has been frequently asked why three competing networks would ever want to collaborate together. After all, it’s highly doubtful this kind of network collaboration would occur in other parts of the country or, for that matter, pretty much anywhere else in the world. With the stakes often so high, the media world is rarely moved into a solidarity mode.
“This is not to say that we don’t all have elements of competition between the networks, but we think of journalism first and our raison d’être here, for all of us, is to do what is best for our community,” Takahashi says. “In this particular case, what is best is to do this together. We can’t kid ourselves. There was no way these leaders were going to give three different TV debates in English. They were only going to give us one.”
Not to detract from the needs of the English community, but Takahashi is quick to point out that anglos don’t live in a vacuum.
“What affects us affects all Quebecers,” Takahashi says. “I think it will be interesting to see how the leaders, who are so used to responding to issues of health care, education, immigration and the economy in French, choose to position themselves when they are speaking to a different audience.
“But I don’t want people to think that if they watch us, we’re going to be talking about anglos and only anglos. We’re part of a greater community, and our needs are very much reflected in francophone needs as well. We’re not working in isolation in an English bubble.”
Perhaps not so surprisingly, given the size of our anglo community, the three women have shared history. Orchard, who has been a Global anchor for the last 21 years, was a CTV reporter for the two years previous. Arbec, who has been the CBC anchor for the last seven years, previously hosted the late-night news at CTV for more than a decade. Takahashi, recently named a Member of the Order of Canada, has worked with both women over the course of her 31-year run as CTV news anchor.
The three are quick to stress that they won’t be using the debate to editorialize or push their own agendas. As moderators, Arbec and Takahashi will seek to ensure that the four leaders get equal time. And should the leaders not be able to finish their remarks in time, will they be reticent about jumping in to shut them down?
“I’m quite good at that, actually,” Arbec cracks. “We’ve all done many debates and interviews over the years. We know how to cut people off and rein them in all the time on air — that’s what we do for a living.”
“There’s usually a protocol to debates where the participants are supposed to allow the others to express their vision and to educate the public as to what they offer,” Orchard says. “Of course, they don’t often follow these rules, but I have no doubt these ladies will keep them in check.”
In the past, an overwhelming majority of anglo and ethnic voters have supported the Liberals, but the three feel it could be different as sovereignty is pretty much off the table for this election.
“I think the reason the leaders agreed to the debate this time is that they feel that vote might be in play for all of them,” Orchard says. “Certainly, there is a feeling that anglophones and allophones might toy with the idea of voting for another party, like the CAQ.”
“This is the first election in 37 years where sovereignty is not an overriding issue,” Takahashi says. “So for the first time, we’re having an election with views from the left and right of the spectrum.”
“Let’s not have illusions that the West End of Montreal is suddenly going to turn from Liberal to CAQ — that’s highly unlikely — but there are votes to get on the West Island and even more so in the Eastern Townships, where there are some real races shaping up, and the CAQ has a real chance in a number of seats,” Arbec says. “So listening to the English community will certainly be important to Couillard and Legault.”
Regardless, apart from billions of dollars in promises from the leaders, what the electorate has mostly been hearing in this campaign are stories about candidates who have had to pull out for a variety of reasons, some more scandalous than others.
“That’s what I’ve been hearing from voters who are so frustrated by all these distractions,” Arbec says. “That’s why I’m so looking forward to this debate, because that’s when we’ll get a good sense of who the leaders are and which ones we can most trust.”
This spirit of cooperation among these anchors is most heartening.
“Yes, it’s all well and good that we’ll be working together for the debate,” Orchard says, “but make no mistake, we’ll all be competing against one another and out for our own networks after.”
Then the gloves come off again.
“But no worries. We all know each other,” the grinning Takahashi chimes in. “And we all know where the skeletons are buried.”