OTTAWA—Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau began the 2021 federal election by calling it the most consequential moment for Canada since 1945.
That year, the world was poised to begin rebuilding itself after the Second World War forced a reckoning of the global economic, social and political order.
Whether the COVID-19 pandemic will trigger a similar shift is impossible to know — because it isn’t over.
But the federal election nearly is, and the outcome is also all but certain.
Polls put Liberals and Conservatives in a dead heat, the New Democrats and Bloc Québécois gaining strength in their respective orbits, the Green Party teetering and a wild card: the People’s Party of Canada, whose right-wing libertarian ideology is finding new purchase among voters furious at what they see as massive government overreach in pandemic response.
Though Trudeau emerged from Rideau Hall on Aug. 15 framing the election against the backdrop of the Second World War, it was a far more contemporary war that dragged his campaign off message from the start: the collapse of Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban.
The issue became a proxy of sorts in the early days, an of-the-moment example flagged as something the government could have been focusing on as opposed to plunging into an election the Conservatives and NDP described as a selfish ploy to secure a majority.
They had insisted from the outset the election was unnecessary: Trudeau’s minority Parliament was functioning and indeed had only just survived a confidence vote on its latest budget.
But both were ready to go to the polls nonetheless.
A 163-page platform from the Conservatives dropped on day two, momentarily destabilizing the Liberals’ efforts to paint that party into a corner early on the question of mandatory vaccination.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole had ducked when on the first day of the election he was asked about the Liberal promise to mandate COVID-19 vaccines for all federal workers and for those travelling on interprovincial planes and trains.
His campaign eventually settled on an answer: no mandatory shots because rapid tests could be subbed in, an approach they felt was both reasonable but also in line with the perspectives of their base.
Still, O’Toole has spent the campaign pushing the party much farther to the centre than the beacon of right-wing values he promised to be when he won the job in August 2020.
His platform was full of seemingly progressive — for the Tories — ideas like giving more voices to union workers, a robust housing platform that addressed both supply and demand, billions more in health-care spending for the provinces, a national mental health strategy and even a promise to ban puppy mills.
He also walked away from a long-standing conservative obsession with balanced budgets, pledging to bring down the deficit over 10 years largely by relying on the eventual end of COVID-19 supports and the economy hitting record growth — a very similar fiscal track to the Liberals.
On Sunday, as his rivals ran around the country to energize and motivate voters, O’Toole kept a low-key pace, making a stop in Markham, Ont., a city whose ridings are the kind of tight races the Tories need to win on Monday not just to form government but also to prove to the base O’Toole’s centrist appeal is real.
“Now is the time for Canadians to make a choice,” O’Toole said. “We can choose to settle for second-best — for a party that hardly tries and barely delivers. Or we can choose to believe in a brighter, better, more united future.”
But, during the campaign O’Toole’s new ideas have run up against Liberals eager to pounce on old fears: that Conservatives would regulate abortion or be too permissive on guns.
O’Toole is pro-choice and insists his government would never regulate abortion, despite a sizable faction among his candidates who’ve in the past pushed bills that would do exactly that.
On firearms, things are less clear, beginning with a claim during a French language debate he’d uphold a ban on assault rifles. That turned into him eventually saying he’d also keep regulations outlawing some 1,500 kinds of guns — pending a review. His platform had promised those regulations would be gone immediately.
The firearms issue was one of two storylines emerging out of leaders’ debates, the second coming from the English event: Quebec’s Bill 21.
The law bans certain public sector employees from wearing religious symbols, and the debate moderator’s description of the law as discriminatory — which many believe it is — deeply offended BQ Leader Yves-François Blanchet, and by extension many Quebec voters who support the bill’s focus on secularism.
To that point, Blanchet’s campaign hadn’t much momentum but the image of English Canada criticizing Quebec values gave him renewed purpose.
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A boost too came from ever-popular Quebec Premier François Legault, who opined that the BQ and the Tories were best placed to advocate for the province’s interests, whilst the others were too dangerous in that regard.
Both boosts put a stop to what little momentum the NDP may have had in Quebec, but elsewhere in the country their fortunes seemed bright on the eve of the election.
Though both the New Democrats and Liberals may compete for the same pool of progressive voters, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh spent the campaign fishing in new places, like online gaming livestreams or on TikTok trying to woo those tired of the political status quo.
Over and over he hit Trudeau on the head with the PM’s failed promises to, among other things, finally bring clean drinking water to all First Nations, as Singh sought to make the point the Liberals simply cannot be trusted.
That an election was called at all was just another example, Singh argued, as the Tories would undo signature Liberal items like a $10-a-day national child-care plan and roll back aggressive climate change targets.
But despite spending much of the campaign attacking Trudeau’s honesty and credibility, Singh insisted he has “no personal problem” with his Liberal rival or any other party leader as he campaigned Sunday in Burnaby, B.C. with disaffected Liberals.
He did not rule out supporting either the Conservatives or the Liberals if Canadians elect a minority Parliament.
“I’m looking to make government work. That’s our goal every step of the way,” Singh said. “I want to make sure Parliament works for you and your families, provides you the help that you need to get to the things that you need.”
Trudeau has sought to counter the NDP’s narrative primarily on the question of climate change, pointing repeatedly to the fact his party’s plan has received the green stamp of approval from many noted climate experts, while the NDP’s has received significant criticism.
Trudeau reiterated another aspect of his closing argument on Sunday — this one aimed at the Conservatives — as he pointed to the struggles Alberta and Saskatchewan are having with the fourth wave.
“We’re seeing right now what the wrong choices made in Alberta and Saskatchewan have led to,” he said a rally in Montreal.
“We do not need a Conservative government that won’t be able to show the leadership on vaccinations and on science that we need to end this.”
Both provinces are Conservative strongholds, but with Alberta Premier Jason Kenney now reimposing lockdowns and a vaccine identification system despite earlier promises to the contrary, it’s further wind in the sails of the People’s Party.
At the outset of the campaign, leader Maxime Bernier didn’t have enough support to make the cut-off for the leaders’ debates, but by Sunday, his party, with its anti-lockdown, anti-mandatory-vaccine bent was widely predicted to at least pick up one seat and potentially cost the Tories a few more.
The extent to which PPC voters turn out, and where, will be worth watching on election night but voter turnout itself remains another unknown.
Elections Canada has warned of potential delays at polling stations due to COVID-19 restrictions, which could affect turnout.
Meanwhile, an estimated 1.2 million mail-in ballots were sent to voters. Those returned won’t be counted until Tuesday, including ballots from ridings where even a few hundred voters could change the outcome locally and in turn, nationally.
Among them Nanaimo-Ladysmith, home to one of the Green Party’s two current MPs, Paul Manly. Leader Annamie Paul — who is trying to win a Toronto riding — only just hit the West at the end of the campaign to try to bolster her troops there.
When he called the election in August, Trudeau’s rationale was that it was time for the country to make a decision.
“In this pivotal, consequential moment, who wouldn’t want a say?” he told reporters outside Rideau Hall.
It was time, he said, for Canadians to determine “where our country goes from here.”
After 35 days, voters will now deliver their answer.
With files from Althia Raj and Alex Ballingall
Stephanie Levitz is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @StephanieLevitz
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