POLITICS
08/07/2015 17:56 EDT | Updated 08/07/2015 21:00 EDT

Two Reasons Americans Should Care About Canada's Election Debate

Candidates' vastly divergent positions on Keystone XL and ISIS could end up weighing on U.S. politics.

ROBERT MICHAEL via Getty Images

The United States wasn't the only country that hosted a major televised debate Thursday night between candidates vying to serve as the next head of government. In Toronto, four national party leaders gathered to participate in the first debate of Canada's race for prime minister, which pitted Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, who has served as the PM since 2006, against leaders from three other Canadian political parties: Elizabeth May of the Green Party, Justin Trudeau of the Liberal Party and Thomas Mulcair of the New Democratic Party (NDP).

The debate wasn't as raucous or nearly as entertaining as the Republican primary debate, but Canadian leaders touched on some key issues during the two-hour affair that could have consequences for U.S. politics. Here are two reasons Americans should care about last night's other debate.

Keystone XL

Credit: Pablo Martinez/Associated Press
President Barack Obama arrives at the TransCanada Stillwater Pipe Yard in Cushing, Oklahoma, on March 22, 2012.

The Canadian leaders spoke at length about the controversial oil pipeline expansion, which would be a boon to the nation's oil production but has strained relations with the U.S. Environmentalists in the U.S. have opposed the pipeline and are pressuring the Obama administration to reject the permit application that would allow Keystone to cross the border. But Republican candidates have touted it as a potential source of jobs and a way to wean America off oil from hostile foreign nations. The Republican-controlled Congress passed a bill to approve construction of the pipeline earlier this year, although Obama swiftly vetoed it, much to Canada's dismay. TransCanada, the company seeking to build the pipeline, has estimated that it would boost Canadian oil industry revenues by as much as $3.9 billion.

Debate moderator Paul Wells pressed Harper on the topic, asking him what he has to show for a decade's worth of effort to increase energy exports. But Harper was optimistic that the next U.S. president will be more receptive to the project, suggesting that if he is reelected, he will ensure that Keystone XL remains a major topic in the two nations' dialogue. "I'm actually very confident, looking at the field, that whoever is the next president will approve that project very soon in their mandate," said Harper. 

However, if Mulcair or May is elected, the Keystone conversation could take a very different turn. Both are opposed to the project, citing concerns that job production would mainly benefit the U.S.

"I want to create those 40,000 jobs here in Canada," Mulcair said Thursday.

May concurred. "[T]he Green Party opposes every single one of the pipelines that are proposed," she said, referring to Keystone and another proposed project from Houston-based Kinder Morgan that would increase pipeline capacity between Alberta and the coast of British Columbia. May called them "risky pipeline schemes to get unprocessed oil out of this country" and export Canadian jobs. 

Like Harper, Trudeau has expressed his “steadfast” support for the pipeline, although that didn't stop him from attacking Harper for using the issue as a "scapegoat around the world for climate change." Trudeau also proposed revisiting the idea of a "North American energy partnership." That idea recalled a speech he made in June, when he called for a clean energy agreement among North American nations that would allow them to coordinate their climate change policies in international agreements.

The Islamic State and Syria

Credit: Hussein Malla/Associated Press
In this Wednesday, June 25, 2014 file photo, Kurdish peshmerga fighters take positions on the front line with militants from the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in Tuz Khormato, 62 miles south of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, northern Iraq. 

Canada has been increasingly involved in U.S.-led efforts against the Islamic State group. Under Harper's leadership, the government has deployed around 70 Canadian troops to train Kurdish fighters near the Syria-Iraq border. Canada has also joined the U.S. in launching airstrikes in Syria, a controversial move that the NDP has criticized for potentially benefitting the Assad regime.

Harper defended Canada's involvement in the Syrian airstrikes. "What we are doing in ISIS is precisely the mission that our international allies think we should be doing," he said Thursday. "These are the priorities: hit them in the air and help to train people, particularly the Kurds, on the ground." 

But the other candidates strongly disagreed -- a difference that could have important consequences for the future of Canada's involvement in the fight should one of them replace Harper. The only other countries contributing jet fighters to the Syrian airstrikes, aside from Canada, are Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

"This is an American-led mission," said Mulcair. "This is not a United Nations mission ... So we think that we are taking a wrongheaded approach here, and we know that a lot of the horrors that we are seeing are the direct result of the last misguided war."

Trudeau said Canada should be involved in the fight against ISIS, but did not endorse airstrikes. "We support being part of the coalition against ISIL," he added, speaking of the Liberals. "We simply disagree that a bombing mission is the right way to go about it."

Trudeau would not send combat troops, he told CBC earlier this year, but would instead focus on training local troops -- a strategy that Canada has employed in Afghanistan.

May echoed his sentiments. "Why does this group of despicable thugs put their horrific acts on YouTube?" she said. "Because they want to draw us into the region."

"[W]e are actually doing what they want when we go in with bombing missions," she later said.