HAMILTON, ONTARIO (REUTERS) - Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, facing potential defeat in a snap Sept 20 election, defended on Friday (Sept 10) his decision to go to the polls early and said his main rival would undermine the country's fight against Covid-19.
Trudeau, who heads a minority Liberal government that depends on the opposition to pass legislation, called the election in the hope that Canadians would reward his handling of the coronavirus pandemic with a clear majority of the seats in the House of Commons.
But polls show voters are unhappy that Trudeau, 49, who has held power for six years, called the vote during a fourth wave of the pandemic. Conservative leader Erin O'Toole, 48, holds a slight lead over the Liberal leader, surveys show.
Asked whether he regretted the election call, Trudeau told reporters in Hamilton, Ontario: "Absolutely not... What we see is a very clear contrast between all the different parties on how we need to move forward as a country."
Attacked daily by rivals for taking Canadians to the polls this month, Trudeau has struggled to turn the campaign towards policy issues, and he is running out of time.
On Friday, a day after an inconclusive leaders' debate, Trudeau blasted O'Toole for arguing that Covid-19 vaccinations are a personal choice and should not be mandated.
Unlike the Conservative leader, Trudeau requires his fellow Liberal candidates be inoculated against the virus and last month his centre-left government introduced vaccine mandates for domestic travel.
"He's better and quicker to stand up for the rights of those who choose not to get vaccinated than he is for your wife and your kids' rights to be safe from Covid-19," Trudeau said, as children played behind him on an indoor soccer field.
O'Toole also was campaigning in Ontario, which has the most parliamentary seats of all Canada's 10 provinces.
"Last night in the debate, I reminded Canadians that nobody asked for this election," O'Toole said in Mississauga. "Justin Trudeau forced an election in the middle of a pandemic. Once again, he put himself ahead of others."
The final stretch of the campaign kicked off after Statistics Canada reported that the national unemployment rate fell to 7.1 per cent in August, its lowest point since the onset of the pandemic.
"We have now recovered 95 per cent of the jobs lost during the Covid-19 recession," Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said, speaking alongside Trudeau.
"Prices are rising. Our debt is rising, and our economy is shrinking," O'Toole said, referring to an unexpected economic contraction in the second quarter.
A rolling Nanos Research poll of 1,200 voters on Thursday showed the Conservatives with 33.3 per cent support and the Liberals at 31.3 per cent. The left-leaning New Democrats had 19.2 per cent.