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Heated Debate Marks Canada Election Campaign

The leaders of Canada's four major political parties have squared off in two debates in Vancouver ahead of January elections. Campaigning started with the fall of the Liberal minority government, in the wake of a corruption scandal.

Although this election started over an investigation of corruption during the tenure of former Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, most of the questions concentrated on other issues.

One was the long-simmering issue of the French-speaking province of Quebec separating from Canada. In a stern attack on Bloc Quebecois Leader Gilles Duceppe, an admitted separatist, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin said he would fight for a unified Canada. In both debates, one conducted in French and one in English, Mr. Duceppe made it clear that in 30 years, he sees Canada and Quebec as two separate countries.

A referendum on Quebec independence failed in 1995. Mr. Martin said Mr. Duceppe is making a proposed new referendum on sovereignty a campaign issue. Mr. Martin says he will fight to keep Canada unified. "I am not making this election about the referendum," he said. "The fact is, Gilles Duceppe has made it very clear what his motivation is, and I am going to meet him on every street corner, in every city and in every town and village in Quebec."

For the last few days, same-sex marriage has been another contentious issue between the Liberals and the Conservatives.

If he wins, Conservative Opposition Leader Stephen Harper is promising another vote in parliament on same-sex marriage, which was recently legalized in Canada. Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin says this is something that cannot be done without over-ruling the Charter of Rights.

Mr. Harper disagrees, saying that a vote in parliament is all that is needed. "Obviously, when we make that decision, there are certain rights that would have to be respected," he contended. "As I said, if parliament wanted to change the definition of marriage, it would have to recognize the same sex marriages that already exist. But clearly, the Supreme Court has said that parliament has the right to make the decision, and I think that is a point that Mr. Martin keeps jumping over."

As in previous elections, Canada's system of public healthcare also played a prominent role. Opposition leaders criticized what they consider the system's shortcomings, such as long waits for surgery and a shortage of family doctors. Mr. Martin says a recent injection of $35 billion ($41 billion Canadian) will help ease problems.

Canada follows the British Parliamentary System, which means votes are cast for local candidates. The party with the most elected candidates, or Members of Parliament, forms a government, and the leader becomes prime minister. In the last election in June of 2004, Mr. Martin's Liberals elected the most members, but not a majority of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

Current opinion polls show Mr. Martin and his Liberals leading, but suggest it is unlikely the party will be able to form a majority government. The political leaders meet in January for another set of debates before the January 23 vote.