Shachi Kurl’s reflections on the English-language leader’s debate

Shachi Kurl, president of the research foundation Angus Reid Institute, was the moderator of the 2021 English-language leaders’ debate.

Sept. 25, 2021 – I watched the 1988 federal election debate sitting on the floor of our family room as a child. Three hours. Three leaders. I remember the body language of the politicians. I remember some of their words. I never imagined one day I would moderate the leaders’ debate myself.

Since the night of the English-language debate on Sept. 9, it seems everyone has taken the opportunity to share their views, opinions and reflections about it. With the election now finally behind us, I’m sharing mine.

Some viewers and politicos have wondered why a pollster was moderating the debate. If more Canadians had been given a chance to meet me before the event, I would have shared that I am a pollster, yes. But the first half of my career was spent as a broadcast journalist, covering politics.

Working as president of the non-partisan Angus Reid Institute (with wonderful colleagues who gave me leave to work on the debate independently), has been a transition from telling Canadians their stories using quotes and interviews to doing the same thing by interpreting numbers. I no longer work full-time in a newsroom. But my values and commitment to asking tenacious questions and pressing for answers never changed.

The debate executives’ decision in the early summer to have me moderate was undeniably different. But not without precedent. I had moderated the B.C. election televised debate in 2020 and my style and approach were very well received. So I was asked to do it nationally and was proud to as someone whose life experience had been largely outside the Ottawa bubble.

My very presence in the role occupied space generally reserved for people unlike me. I am a Vancouverite. I am not a member of the press gallery. I approached the debate from the perspective of what people in their living rooms wanted to hear about. That was important.

More than a hundred amazing professionals worked to produce the leaders’ debate. But when you go to air, it’s just you, the moderator. As only those who have done it know, it’s one of the toughest jobs in television. There is a LOT going on. You’re simultaneously keeping the participants on time, listening to producers in your ear with time counts or updates, listening to the leaders’ responses and trying to keep them on topic or ensure they answer the question, and watching the leaders’ body language and non-verbal cues.

It’s a blur. A fast moving, organic, sometimes chaotic blur. Were there a few moments I’d have dealt with differently? Over a period of 120 minutes, of course there were.

As to the format, you should know I didn’t design it. The representatives of every party leader were presented with it by the Debate Broadcast Group, and they signed off on it. Everything from the amount of time they’d have to respond to questions and debate each other, to the fact that there were no opening and closing statements. The point at which they’d face a direct question. All agreed to by every participating party well ahead of the debate.

Perhaps future decisions about how many debates – or how many leaders should be on stage – will be different. But in the recent debate, I was dealing with five leaders in two hours. What has changed most since I watched that first debate 33 years ago is the nature of political communication itself. It is faster, tighter, more soundbite driven. Thus, the vision for this event, agreed to by the debate’s editorial team, was a tough style of probing and pressing leaders, not merely giving airtime for unchallenged statements.

Given the chance, politicians will often evade questions, stick to talking points, ignore what they’re asked and switch to what they want to say instead. When that doesn’t work, some attack the questioner. The last decade has crystallized this approach.

Against this backdrop, a “silent” or “invisible” moderator would be on a collision course with the reality of what the leaders often do if they can: veer off topic, talk over each other, run the clock and rag the puck. Sitting back, asking general questions, letting them say whatever they wanted for as long as they wanted, giving in when a leader already at the end of their time asked for more, was untenable.

Timekeeping was crucial. The leaders aren’t public-speaking newbies incapable of making their point in 45 seconds. They are well-acquainted with time limits in the House of Commons. Meantime, the networks had offered a specific to-the-second allotment of time on a night when they were competing for eyeballs with the opening night of the NFL season and a Canadian star playing championship tennis. Not unlike a pilot’s job, a crucial part of the mission is to land the 787 safely without crashing because you ran out of runway.

After the 2019 debate, much criticism centred on the fact that segments ran long because timekeeping hadn’t been strict, resulting in outrage over the final debate themes getting short shrift. For the debate in 2021, I ensured each section got its scheduled time, as agreed to by all leaders. I landed the plane.

I was neither a mannequin reading questions prepared for me nor a maverick asking whatever came into my head. I had a hand in editorial direction. The debate covered a lot of ground. We chose topics based on input from about 20,000 Canadians who responded to a call from the networks to share the issues they wanted to hear about.

Every question was reviewed by the debate’s editorial team, which included representatives from all the networks that organized and produced it – CBC, CTV, Global and APTN. More than a dozen senior journalists and news executives had seen and vetted the questions I asked, as well as those of my journalist colleagues.

The question to Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet created a controversy in Quebec, taking on a narrative and a legend of its own. It led the National Assembly to censure me, cartoonists to ridicule me and party leaders to demand an apology.

So here was the question: “You deny that Quebec has problems with racism. Yet you defend legislation such as Bills 96 and 21, which marginalize religious minorities, anglophones, and allophones. For those outside the province, please help them understand why your party also supports these discriminatory laws.”

To those asking me to take it all back: I stand by the question. Unequivocally.

I stand by it because the question gave Mr. Blanchet the opportunity to talk to people outside Quebec, about secularism, about laïcité. He could have shared the Quebec perspective with the Rest of Canada. He chose not to.

I stand by it because the Quebec government has or signaled it will override the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect Bills 21 and 96 from legal challenges over discrimination. And because the National Assembly included provisions in Bill 21 and 96 to override the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, leaving many Quebeckers feeling vulnerable and as Quebec Superior Court Justice Marc-André Blanchard put it in regard to Bill 21, dehumanized.

I stand by it because what does it say about the state of our democracy that a question is deemed unaskable. Who gets to decide which issues are appropriate to discuss during a federal election campaign? What does it really say about the convictions of our political leaders when they choose to make me a target to divert from their own stance on a critical issue of personal freedom?

What does it say about journalism when seasoned reporters and political commentators were shocked that I dared to “go there”? Is the state of our federation so weak that we cannot even raise questions about it?

Alexander Tytler, the 17th-century Scottish philosopher, wrote democracy lasts only about 200 years. A quote commonly attributed to him says that part of the cycle moves from courage to liberty, then to abundance, to selfishness, to complacency, then apathy, and eventually back to bondage. I hope we are not on the downslope of this cycle.

During my silence – appropriate during the election campaign – people encouraged me to educate myself about Quebec. I don’t live there, but I have spent time in places like the Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean and La Malbaie. Operating entirely in French, I experienced a lasting immersion in Québécois pride and history, and in Quebeckers’ outlook on secularism, survival and the strong desire to maintain culture and language.

Learning is never finished. I have heard and listened to what people have said about the question, and the hurt it caused in Quebec. Could it have been phrased differently? Yes. Do I ultimately believe a change in wording would have prevented Mr. Blanchet, Quebec Premier François Legault, and party leaders Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole and Jagmeet Singh from exploiting it all for their own purposes? No.

Becoming the story was not a life goal. Yet what happened was just craven politics. What else would Mr. Blanchet have done in the midst of a sagging campaign? Politically, it made sense that Mr. O’Toole, Mr. Trudeau, and Mr. Singh piled on in order to protect their Quebec campaigns rather than stand on principle.

Other things were a little harder to take. Columnists wrote that I was “aggressive,” or “shrill,” likening my tone to that of a “mom,” using “chains” to keep order. The only square they didn’t blot on that particular bingo card appears to be “nasty woman.”

But this isn’t about them. It’s about Canadians. I did the debate as a public service, not to earn gold stars. Some people didn’t like it or didn’t like my style. That’s okay. Polling from our own organization found that 53 per cent of older men found the debate engaging, I’ll take that split. It is notable that number rose to 65 per cent among women 18 to 34. Past, meet the future.

For all the disagreement, and there has been a lot, I’ve had thousands of messages of appreciation from across the country, including Quebec. Notes of thanks for not taking the leaders talking points at face value. People who wrote saying they don’t usually watch the whole debate, but did that night with their children. Teenagers who talked about the debate in class and concluded I was “badass.” Women thanking me for being prepared, fierce, professional and strong.

On the way out of Ottawa, I stopped in Toronto, where I was met at the hotel door by a bellman.

“I think I saw you the other night.” Here we go, I thought to myself.

“And what did you think?”

“It was great!” I could tell he had more to say. He was holding back.

“Look, it’s okay. I can take it.”

“I just want to tell you … I just … I’m really glad you asked that question.”

This column was originally published in the Sept. 25 edition of The Globe and Mail.

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