Monday’s federal election in Canada has certainly redrawn the map of the world’s second-largest country — and for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, that is a map that sees his Liberals shut out completely of the two western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Now facing four years of leading the House of Commons a dozen seats short of an overall majority, Trudeau faces the daunting prospect of trying to re-establish the Liberal brand inside the two western provinces that returned Conservatives to 47 ridings. Only Jagmeet Singh’s New Democrats managed to hold a single seat in Edmonton against the Conservative blue wave of Andrew Scheer.
Not for the first time have Albertans turned their backs on the Liberals. Trudeau’s father Pierre as Prime Minister, earned western scorn for his National Energy Programme in 1980 that attempted to gain greater control over the Canadian energy industry centred on Alberta and Calgary.
It was a policy that led to a deep rift between Albertans and Ottawa. With the Liberals this time around campaigning on a promise to get tough on carbon emissions, stand by a carbon tax and accelerate climate control measures, that old rupture has again been raised.
While the threat of separation from Canada has always been an issue for French-speaking Quebecois, the rift in Alberta has led some in the past to raise the spectre of Alberta breaking away from federal Canada.
It was an issue that Trudeau addressed immediately after his Liberals were confirmed as the winners in Monday’s election. Speaking from Montreal, Trudeau spoke directly to voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan, telling them they “are an essential part of our country”.
“I have heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you,” he said. “Let us all work hard to bring our country together.”
During the 40-day campaign, Trudeau had repeatedly warned that a Conservative government would make deep cuts to the public spending that would hurt all Canadians. He said that the election result provided the Liberals with a clear mandate to go in a different direction.
“From coast to coast to coast, Canadians rejected division and negativity,” he said on Monday night. “They rejected cuts and austerity and they voted in favour of a progressive agenda and action on climate change.”
Coast to coast? Not quite. The Liberal victory was based on overwhelming electoral support in the Greater Toronto Area and southern Ontario where one-third of Canadians live, in Greater Montreal, portions of Atlantic Canada, and in and around Vancouver. In effect, there’s an urban-rural divide now that Trudeau must address moving forward.
In Quebec itself, a province that has held two referendums on independence — the last in 1995 was won by the federalist forces by the narrowest of margins — the separatist Bloc Quebecois (BQ) won 32 seats, up from the 10 it held before the election was called. The Liberals won 35.
The BQ campaigned on a message with populist overtones. The province has been historically viewed as a cultural battleground, and the campaign heated up there on issues ranging from the banning of religious symbols to the placement of future pipelines. The BQ’s gains on Monday were largely made at the expense of the New Democrats, who were reduced to just a single seat in the French-speaking province, and five Liberal losses.
In Ottawa’s new parliament, the BQ says that it will vote on issues on the basis of how they affect Quebeckers.
Singh, the New Democrats’ charismatic leader has ultimately failed to give his party the breakthrough that they sought on the national stage. His party went into the election holding 37 seats.
It always faced an uphill battle given the resurgence of support for BQ support in Quebec and was caught in growing support for the Greens. Nearly 8 per cent of Canadians cast ballots for NDP candidates, allowing the party to claim 24 seats.
The Greens won 6.5 per cent support but won only three seats — a dichotomy that is exacerbated by Canada’s first-past-the-post election system, the same as used in the United Kingdom. During the campaign, Singh did perform well in televised leaders’ debates and was enthusiastically greeted by voters — but he didn’t transform that into actual votes cast and real seats on Monday.
And during the campaign, despite holding onto the single non-Conservative seat in Alberta and Saskatchewan, he forsook appearing there and instead focused on holding seats in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia.
Now, though, he plays kingmaker for Trudeau, being able to implement elements of the New Democrats election platform into government policy under the Liberals as a price for his party’s support.
So what of Trudeau himself? His fresh-faced brand has taken a hit, but certainly not fatal. University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas said a less skilled politician would have been “toast” after the blackface scandal. Now he faces his political challenge yet — bringing together a Canada politically, geographically, and ideologically fractured.
Mick O’Reilly is the Gulf News Foreign Correspondent based in Europe.