Canadians are heading for a federal election, and they’re in a hurry about it. This is a “snap” election called on Aug. 15. The election is set for Monday Sept. 20, less than three weeks away and less than six weeks since the election call.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calculated that an early election might result in a majority for his Liberal Party, which lost that status after the last scheduled federal election, in September 2019. The sitting Parliament could have continued for two more years.
Speculation in Canadian media – blessedly accessible via the internet – is that Trudeau calculated on an upsurge in support based on his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada. This included a rapid ramp-up of vaccinations, after a slow start, and his decision to re-open the border with the United States – the longest undefended frontier in the world.
Unfortunately for Trudeau, the delta variant interfered, pushing up daily COVID infection rates. Plus, Trudeau’s U.S. counterpart, President Joe Biden, decided against opening the U.S. land border, although Canadians can enter the U.S. by air.
Another Biden decision, though not linked to either Canada or COVID, has also emerged in the Canadian campaign. By sheer coincidence, the election call came on the same day that Kabul fell to the Afghanistan Taliban, setting off a scramble to evacuate westerners in the country, Americans and Canadians alike.
Trudeau has been criticized for stranding Canadian diplomats, aid workers and some military personnel in Afghanistan. The criticism is more pointed because it comes from a decorated military veteran, Erin O’Toole, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, the opposition in the federal parliament.
O’Toole drew attention early in the campaign on another issue that resonates in the United States. He suggested raising Canadian flags that had been lowered to half-staff as part of a national reconciliation for deaths of Indigenous children found in unmarked graves at residential schools. “This is not the time to tear down Canada,” O’Toole said.
Polls suggest Trudeau may have miscalculated. The rolling three-day average of poll results compiled by the Toronto Globe and Mail late last week showed O’Toole as the preferred winner by the narrowest of margins, 33.6% to 33.4% for Trudeau. The Globe and Mail is Canada’s largest and most respected newspaper, often compared to the New York Times for its comprehensive political coverage and its leftward editorial slant.
These are national polls, and they must be viewed with caution. Canada’s parliamentary system relies on the outcome in 338 separate districts, or ridings, and not on the national vote or even the vote by province. The leader of the party that wins the most seats forms the government – if it wins a majority straight out or if it can secure support from another, smaller party on votes of confidence. Often, these involve budget matters.
Through the current Parliament, Trudeau has relied on the New Democratic Party, which stands farther to the left on the national political spectrum. This has been uncomfortable for Trudeau, especially because the NDP is more militant on environmental issues, especially climate change. The Green Party lies even farther left, but it trails the major parties.
Another complication unique to Canada is the Bloc Quebecois, which has a history of supporting nationhood for the province of Quebec. That goal has been toned down, but the Bloc is aggressive in seeking special status for the province.
Liberals held 155 out of 338 seats in the Parliament that was dissolved just over two weeks ago. Conservatives had 119 seats. The NDP’s 24 seats gave the government a majority in the 338-seat House. The Bloc had 32 seats, the Green Party two seats. Independents – some of them former Liberals – held five seats and one seat was vacant.
This gives the Liberals 46.4% of the seats, though the party gained only 33.1% of the vote, down from almost 40% in the 2015 election that swept Trudeau to office with a parliamentary majority.
In 2019, Conservatives had a larger share of the popular vote nationwide, 34.3%, but it’s the vote in constituencies, or ridings, that counts. Nevertheless, the contest is a national one, and national issues almost always influence the election results – just as they do in U.S. congressional elections.
Two debates have been set between party leaders, in French a week from today, Wednesday, Sept. 8, and one in English the next day. Both will be held at the Canadian History Museum in Gatineau Quebec, across the river from Ottawa.
Although the formal campaign has been brief, election results may be drawn out. Mail-in ballots will not be counted until after polls close, and election officials project that it may take from two to five days to complete the count.
There’s also anxiety about turnout, partly because the election comes with a fourth wave of COVID-19 but also because there’s widespread apathy. Political scientist Eric Merkley of the University of Toronto was widely quoted in Canada when he explained this. He said, “A lot of people probably aren’t sure why there is an election.”
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Gary Lloyd of Grand Forks for suggesting a look at Canada’s coming election.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.