Canada's Trudeau on defensive over election call

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under concerted fire on Thursday for calling an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During a heated two-hour debate in Montreal, Trudeau's three opponents told him that now was not the time for a vote.

Trudeau triggered the election last month just two years into a four-year mandate, saying Canadians needed to decide whether the Liberal government was right to spend billions of dollars to protect people and businesses from the pandemic.

Trudeau's Liberals currently lead a minority government, which leaves him dependent on other parties to govern.

"Yes, we can work to do big things during a pandemic but we need a clear mandate, not just for a government but a parliament, to understand what Canadians want for the next years."

Trudeau's gamble could however backfire when voters go to the polls at the end of the month.

Surveys show that the Liberals' early big lead has vanished, leaving them neck and neck with the Conservatives.

Liberal insiders putting it down to public unhappiness with the vote and fatigue with Trudeau who's been in power since 2015.

Thursday's debate also focused on Quebec matters, including a 2019 law on secularism which bans public employees from wearing religious symbols at work.

Trudeau said he would be willing to challenge the law federally, while Conservative leader Erin O'Toole made clear that as prime minister he would not act.

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