How Bernard Trottier upset Michael Ignatieff

Trottier pulled off the biggest election night shocker of them all

The giant killer

Photograph by Blair Gable

The Longest Yard Restaurant & Bar on Bloor St. West in Toronto is a little unusual; you can tell because its website has a “politics” section. The pub is particularly famous for two things: its chili, and its political dinner debates. About a year ago, it hosted a discussion of Senate reform led by Liberal Sen. Art Eggleton and Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal. Part of the fun (if this is your idea of fun) was a long quiz on the rules and lore of the Senate. No one was too surprised when a familiar 46-year-old local businessman and political trivia enthusiast scored 100 per cent and walked off with the honours.

The pub is in the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and shortly before the May 2 election, the management made a surprising prediction in a press release: its pub-quiz winner would become its MP. Conservative Bernard Trottier, a business consultant for IBM Global Services, stunned the country by following through and defeating the incumbent, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. It is the first personal defeat for a Liberal leader in a general election since 1945, when late-arriving CCF soldier ballots in Prince Albert, Sask., added a small blot of humiliation to prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s resounding national victory.

Trottier, for all his love of parliamentary minutiae, did not originally set out to kill the giant with his own hands. As president of the Conservative riding association, he spent much of 2009 seeking prominent local citizens willing to enter a race against a glamorous Opposition leader who was having fireside chats with Barack Obama. “A lot of these people pointed the finger at me and said I should run,” says Trottier, a father of two who grew up in a French-speaking home in St. Paul, Alta., and hasn’t quite been able to abandon his beloved Edmonton Oilers. “As someone with a young family, I wasn’t that keen to do it. For a while, in my career, I’d been on a plane every week travelling to some part of the world, but I’d finally developed a base of local clients and achieved a nice work-life balance.”

Trottier, however, had a secret. He thought Etobicoke-Lakeshore was winnable. Ignatieff had already rankled Lakeshore residents by promising to move to the riding and then opting for a residence in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Yorkville instead. As the Liberal leader’s determination to force an election solidified, Trottier knew that perceptions of Ignatieff’s opportunism weren’t a fiction cooked up at Conservative HQ. “The Prime Minister left Rideau Hall on Saturday morning [Mar. 26], and that afternoon I was already knocking on doors,” he says with obvious pride. “Nearly everybody I spoke with that first day was angry that there was an election at all.”

Trottier, who calls himself a “centre-right libertarian,” didn’t shy from talking economic issues at the doorstep. The opposition parties tried to earn populist credibility by denouncing corporate tax cuts, but Trottier found that tactic easy to defuse. “I want Canada to be a pro-business kind of place, the kind of place people want to invest in and emigrate to, and that kind of long-term branding is where the corporate taxes come in,” he says. “It sounds like I’m parroting the party platform, but it’s what I really believe.”

The Conservatives who spurned Trottier’s pleas to run must have thought that Ignatieff’s visibility would be an insurmountable advantage. But when the time came, Trottier found “shadow-boxing” congenial—so much so that he let his campaign manager use impossible-to-obtain tickets to the Masters golf tournament in mid-race, and turned down offers of added volunteer assistance from the Tory high command after they noticed his strong performance. Trottier says Ignatieff’s TV debate performance provided him with a major boost among undecideds, and Ignatieff’s discussion of the lingering “coalition” issue with Peter Mansbridge on CBC-TV’s The National supplied another.

“With two weeks to go,” says golf-loving campaign manager Bruce Richard, “we got the results of a poll that showed us just four points behind. That gave us all heart.” A late endorsement from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford supplied a last push—but Richard would still spend election night with his eyes glued to a spreadsheet, not quite believing the numbers until late in the evening. Ignatieff was obviously caught off-guard by the result, but given a couple of days to recover from the shock, Trottier says, the defeated Liberal did phone to offer congratulations and advice on outstanding local issues. “It was a short, polite chat.”


How Bernard Trottier upset Michael Ignatieff

  1. Perhaps the raised-in-Ontario-and-elected-in-Alberta PM could ask his new raised-in-Alberta-and-elected-in-Ontario MP to play a role in liaising-recruting within Québec’s francophone business community with the aim of building a true conservative wing in the province. Franco-Albertans, like all francophones living in provinces other than Québec are seen by francophone Québecois as long lost cousins of la belle province, and as such have a capital of sympathy that could benefit the party, the government and the country.

  2.  “Trottier knew that perceptions of Ignatieff’s opportunism weren’t a fiction cooked up at Conservative HQ”

    Liberal arrogance/entitlement is easily matched by conservative hubris and smarmy self- righteousness.

    Oh good lord Cosh, as if they weren’t all opportunists, it’s part of the reason they run; have we ever had a more opportunistic PM? Politics has now become largely about branding in our bright and shiny new world[ the only real question of interest to me is was it always thus? Or did our fathers and grandparents still cling to more then a semblance of honour?]  
    Who’s best able to brand the other guy a liar, cheat, cad, flopper, foreigner, unCanadian…when in truth it would take Soloman to decide where more blame lay, leave alone how much.
    Welcome to our new world order of politics CC. I wonder if you feel any sense of shame or remorse at all in playing your small part in allowing it to evolve?

    • All politicians and most people are ambitious, and in wanting to succeed will seize the opportunities that lead to success. It is not a bad thing, it is human nature. 
      As to the rhetorical question “have we ever had a more opportunistic PM?”, in the not too distant past, the name Jean Chrétien comes to mind, calling an election in mid-mandate, just to win another mandate, which his party already had. I don’t know if this is such a bad thing; fixed election dates which would remedy such opportunism might create other problems.As for our fathers and grandparents, well, it might be good to remember that once upon a time, take Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s time at the turn of the 20th century for example, campaigns were fought hard and dirty at all levels, including the local level, because the livelihood of many people in each community depended on the results: most “public service” jobs, from the contract for the local post-office, to a job as a colonisation agent out West, depended on being a contributing member of the party in power. As for the newspapers back then, they were the official organs of the political parties, and were used to recruit and mobilize the grassroots members. Many column inches were used to brand the other guy liar, cheat, cad, flopper, foreigner, unCanadian… In that sense, today’s Internet and social media is not a new world order, but a more rapid way of doing politics like it’s been done for over a century in Canada.
      What is new, and essential, is that it allows people like Cosh, and you as a Cosh commentator, to remind us, not only that the emperors have no clothes, but sometimes the commentators don’t have any either. 

      • Thx for the historical overview; although you make a number of understandable assumptions, given that almost all of my post was rhetorical in nature. I’m aware human nature hasn’t changed very much really[ intersting is how you choose to highlight Laurier, while i would have picked Sir John A :)] Indeed it could be easily argued that both our polticians and journos are better educated and essentially more honest then at any previous point in our history. That’s actually why i find the sins of the fathers more forgivable then ours – they had a fairly valid excuse – ignorance – one we most certainly lack. Obviously then i reject your naked commenter jab. The fact the well educated knowledgeable men and women can buy into such a cynical exercise as branding ones opponents in such a ludicrously transparent manner should be a concern to all of us. And it is the branding i have the most difficulty with. It clearly implies the brander likely has no real conviction that it may be true or even care if it is – it’s the very definition of cynicism.
        This isn’t 19th century anymore. There are no more existential threats to the nations well being that might have at least partially justified such demonstrably low ball tactics. The fact is that SH approved such things because winning and exercising power is all he is interested in. If you want to make the very valid point that JC set the ball rolling, be my guest, i wouldn’t dispute it too vigourously myself.

        • My apology. The naked commentator jab was meant in this case for commentators like Cosh (whose writings I greatly admire but not in a fawning sort of way I hope), and not to those who post short comments about what they write. Although, now that you mention it, I could be guilty of such an offense (and it would be an offense, when one has a physique fit for  career in radio or print journalism).
          This isn’t the 19th century anymore, and yet it is.  The great numbers of newspapers that could be bought for next to nothing in the 19th century, improvements in delivery of mail and said papers, letters and columns in papers signed “True Patriot”, ‘True Canadian”, etc. resemble to a large extent the popularization of comments and commentaries on the Internet of today. 
          Furthermore, the serialized parts of Jonathan Kay’s book on truthers and conspiracy theorists that I have read seem to indicate that ignorance and a good education are unfortunately as best buds today as they were generations ago.
          I don’t know if today’s politicos are more cynical that the one’s of generations past, or just more openly so, nor do I yet accept as a fact that Harper is only interested in winning and exercising power (an accusation I would level at Chrétien and Martin), but I would argue that there are serious existential debates (and not threats) to be had in terms of what kind of society we want to live in and the role of governments in our lives. Such debate is not a blood sport, but it can’t always be a polite discussion around a cup or two or three of tea.

    • I don’t, thanks. I realize that line of the piece is a little bit editorial, but I think Trottier is entitled, on fairly objective grounds, to a little deference when it comes to his understanding of the voters of Etobicoke-Lakeshore. (I also wrote a long piece saying very, very specifically that I didn’t see any reason for concern about Ignatieff’s motives for returning to the country. At the riding level his “opportunism” problem wasn’t about coming back to Canada; it was about promising he’d move into the riding and then not doing it. Honestly, what candidate wouldn’t get punished for acting that way?)

      • Greetings from one even further out there in Rupert’s land then yourself[ NWT…cough…cough…Calgary, that’s a Southern city isn’t it?]
        Thx for replying CC. I much appreciate that you appear to be one of the diminishing # of Mac guys who do, for whatever reason.
        The distinction between local and the larger picture is one i missed entirely…agree with you entirely. I did read your bigger piece by the way[ was it the one where you took that ludicrous tory AA to pieces?] and even defended you somewhat[ probably as TimesArrow?] So my bad again.
        As for guilt/remorse, or more reasonably a bit of a guilty conscience, i’m not letting you or your breatheren off so lighly – notwithstanding your longer piece. As i said somewhere else on the thread, it’s the branding thing that has me riled up. While i’m no shrinking violet, and i don’t think it’s at all a good idea to change the game into a no contact sport. [ that would kill off politics forever as a spectator sport] Nevertheless the cynicism of deliberately branding your political opponent in the publics eye [ mostly through AAs] is a great sin. I don’t particularly care if the game goes on amongst the pros and those who are still paying attention these days – debate, even rough debate is good And let’s admit it, we are never [ much less shame] gonna beat the sin out of the politician.  But to intentionally piss in someone elses soup when you damn well know your narrative is as full of holes as a a swiss cheese, is deplorable. IMO it’s the media’s duty to out this crap and piss on it from a great hight; the only columnist doing this in a consistent manner is Coyne – with a fair amount of handwringing elsewhere all around. I’m not trying to pin all this on SH – but he’s now the leading purveyor of this bilge, and it will likely only get worse IMO.

        Epistle from a real Rupert’s lander,[ howzat! for branding eh? Now if only i had the resources to make an effective AA…care to donate? Absolutely no tax sub though i’m afraid]   and a mostly favourable [but not unreservedly so] admirer of your work.  

  3. No better story than when the long-shot wins the Derby!!

    Sounds like a winner.  Young. family man, pro-business and economy, hard-working and dedicated, whiz at parliamentary procedure, centre-right libertarian, from Alberta but francophone wow!

    Still think Canadian politics will be verrry interesting.

  4. Local guy works hard campaigning against the unpopular leader of an imploding party, and triumphs:  this is your biggest shocker of the election?  Allow me to introduce you to Québec…

  5.  Another of the Toronto Conservative caucus. They’ll all be lucky to keep their seats in 2015, so it’s time for old man Harper to show the Big Smoke some love (and by love I mean money).

  6. On  the pre-election saturday I had a brief and terse chat with the man.  It was at Tim Horton’s. He basically found that I “knew a bit too much” specially on why our banking system resiliency was not a product of “prudent made in canada  strategy ” as he would have liked us to believe,  rather , as luck would have it,  because liberals- Chretien/Martn era- would not allow a 30 to 1 debt to asset ratio as an acceptable risk ratio for the major banking sector – as was prevelant in US (Under the SEC ruled Bush regime). .. After comically taking on a patriotic mantra…We ARE BETTER THAN USA… he scooted out of Timmy’s leaving me realize I just met another odiuos duplicious politician who can not stand anything but the dogma that he is programmed (or programmed himself) to spew.

    Libreterian my eye, the man is at best disingeniuos and worst a corporate stooge. LOL

    Sorry for the long rant. I know I can use some editing!

  7. Say what you will about the Conservatives, whoever has M. Trottier on staff has the very best behind them. The people of Etobicoke-Lakeshore are fortunate to have such a talented, broadly-experienced, and well-lettered representative in Ottawa. Give him some time to learn the ropes, then he will be ready for some leadership positions.

    Mr. Ignatieff showed some grace through the reported call to M. Trottier election night. It’s nice to hear this very human side to the story.

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