How Justin Trudeau held on: The story of a gruelling, messy campaign - Macleans.ca

How Justin Trudeau held on: The story of a gruelling, messy campaign

The path to a Liberal minority was paved with low points and sloppy moments. In this election, there were no undiluted victories.

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Trudeau accepted his minor victory: ‘Let us all work hard to bring our country together.’ (Adam Scotti/Liberal Party of Canada)

Even before the biggest rally of Justin Trudeau’s 2019 re-election bid took a disturbing turn, Liberal strategists were pleading for it not to be compared with the largest of his triumphant 2015 campaign. It was easy to see why. About 2,000 Liberal loyalists turned out to pack a Toronto airport-strip conference space on Oct. 12—sizable by Canadian election standards, but far fewer than the 5,000 who had rocked an arena in nearby Brampton, Ont., for Trudeau’s showpiece event four years ago.

But it wasn’t only the numbers that made the comparison unwelcome to Liberal operatives who were pushing back against the narrative that Canadians were seeing a diminished Trudeau this time out. That Brampton rally in ’15 came after his Liberals had soared to first place in the polls from third at the start of the race. His jabs in the leaders’ debates had knocked his more seasoned adversaries, Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair, back on their heels. All his platform gambles—like allowing that he’d run deficits and going all-in on help for Syrian refugees—came up winners. So, the next prime minister had bounded into that junior hockey rink in his shirtsleeves to declare over wild cheering that he was “open and confident and hopeful.”

Who doubted him? Trudeau was on a history-making roll. By contrast, this fall, he was stuck—locked in a clinch with Conservative Andrew Scheer. Now it was NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh’s turn to make progressive voters feel good. Even in Trudeau’s home province, the resurgent Bloc Québécois was denying him breathing room.

READ: Justin Trudeau’s post-election speech: Full transcript

So, out on Airport Road, the Liberal supporters who dutifully gathered pondered what had changed. Parmpreet Rai, 25, a law student, said that Trudeau couldn’t have helped disappointing progressives who had projected all their dreams onto him in ’15. “I don’t think it’s realistic to think you’ll get all the results in four years,” Rai said. “It’s going to take another four years, even more.”

While hundreds who arrived early to get good places lined up at the doors, Dan and Nicky Banks, a middle-aged professional couple, found chairs off to the side. They reflected on differences between the campaigns of ’15 and ’19. “Last time, Justin Trudeau was able to talk about hope and hard work, which was a nice change from Stephen Harper,” Dan said. “This one is messy and a bit unpleasant.” Trudeau’s re-election bid, Nicky added, was coming in the “dark and scary” age of Donald Trump and the global rise of the populist right. “That weighs heavy on my mind,” she said, “and I certainly don’t want that at our national level.”

A little after 4 p.m., Dan and Nicky and Parmpreet, and all the other worried Liberals, were allowed to stream into the Orion Ballroom. Inside they found a metre-wide, slightly raised walkway running diagonally from a door at the back corner, across an expanse of open floor, to a podium set up at the centre. That’s where Trudeau would speak, engulfed by the throng. Those hoping for a touch of his hand quickly took in the layout and staked out places along that narrow walkway. He was slated to arrive around 5 p.m.

But the appointed hour came and went, and the only actions along the gangplank were plainclothes RCMP security officers walking it, again and again, asking for purses to be removed from its edge and for the crowd not to lean in too much. When Trudeau finally appeared, fully 90 minutes late, something was badly off. His customary uniform—a slim-fit dress shirt, sleeves rolled up, tie neatly knotted—was replaced by an oddly bulging suit jacket. A bigger security detail than usual hovered around him as he walked to the podium.

justin trudeau mississauga
Trudeau attends a rally during an election campaign visit to Mississauga, Ont., on Oct. 12, 2019. (Stephane Mahe/Reuters)

The jacket, it turned out, was to cover a protective vest. His warm-up acts, MPs Navdeep Bains, Omar Alghabra and Chrystia Freeland, struggled to keep the restive crowd engaged during the wait. Of course, Trudeau was not to blame for a security alert. Yet somehow it all felt fully in keeping with campaign’s disheartening drift. As the guy said, “messy and a bit unpleasant.” Trudeau, though, is a pro. He smiled and swirled and shouted. Still, his voice was hoarse, his message more often attack than uplift. Scheer? Trudeau accused him of campaigning on “fear and empty promises.” Singh? “Remember this,” he said, casting back to his glorious 2015 romp, “the NDP couldn’t stop Harper.”

If the final results denied any party undiluted success or inflicted irredeemable failure, perhaps that was fitting. The Liberals’ 157 seats were enough for Trudeau to govern with a minority, but represented a plunge from 2015’s 184-seat majority bumper crop. The Conservatives edged up to 121 from 99 last time, even though Trudeau made himself so eminently vulnerable. While Singh dodged the decimation many had predicted, his NDP’s 24 seats were far fewer than the 44 in 2015 that cost Tom Mulcair the party’s leadership. And, in a campaign punctuated by a worldwide climate change demonstration, the Greens managed a mere three seats, mocking their dreams of a long-awaited breakthrough. Only the Bloc, by coming back to 32 from 10 seats, could truly celebrate—a dismal revival for anybody who believes in Canada.

READ: Andrew Scheer’s post-election speech: Full transcript

On its way to this equivocal ending, Campaign ’19 provided a rich harvest of low points. Take your pick. There was, for instance, a Chinese-language Facebook ad in which the Conservatives claimed—falsely—that the Liberals planned to legalize hard drugs. Less brazen, perhaps, was a Liberal social-media spot that ominously asked where the Conservatives would find the multibillion-dollar savings they’d need to implement their platform. The supposed answers popped up one by one. “Your Canada Child Benefit Cheques? Support for Seniors? Student Grants? Infrastructure Projects?” For the record, the Tories targeted only the last option.

Not exactly sticking to the high road, the NDP claimed Trudeau’s Liberals had doled out $14 billion in corporate tax cuts, allowing businesses to “buy jets and limousines,” in return for past donations from “billionaire families.” In fact, the donations tallied up by the NDP mostly predated Trudeau’s leadership. Anyway, the tax breaks in question were to let businesses write off machinery and equipment purchases, and were brought in to offset Trump’s massive U.S. tax cuts.

If the partisan claims were often dubious, or downright deceptive, the personal attacks were corrosive. “You are a phony and you are a fraud,” Scheer told Trudeau in a debate. Trudeau hit back by weaponizing Maxime Bernier, the ex-Tory who lost his Quebec seat while drawing anti-immigrant right-wingers to his People’s Party of Canada. “Mr. Bernier, your role on this stage tonight seems to be to say publicly what Mr. Scheer thinks privately,” Trudeau said in an obviously rehearsed one-line feat of defamatory mind reading.

It was that sort of campaign. Sometimes, more often than Canadians like to think, their elections turn mean. But this one’s down-and-dirty tone took hold in a way that nobody, not even the savviest campaign veteran, could have predicted—with the surfacing of some old snapshots.

John Geddes


The photo of Trudeau in brownface that upended the campaign (Darryl Dyck/CP)

Chapter one: ‘I should have known better’

A racist photo of Justin Trudeau emerged—and it kept getting worse

The Liberal tour was about to depart from Halifax for Winnipeg on the evening of Sept. 18, when everyone’s phones blew up with seismic election news—not from a Canadian publication, but from Time magazine. “Justin Trudeau Wore Brownface at 2001 ‘Arabian Nights’ Party While He Taught at a Private School,” blared the headline that would detonate the second week of the federal election campaign.

“Oh my God, there’s a photo,” the Canadian Press reported someone gasping to colleagues on the airport-bound media bus.

A press conference was hastily arranged on board Trudeau’s campaign plane as it sat on the tarmac. The Liberal leader emerged from the curtained-off front section to stand in the aisle facing the reporters travelling with the national tour. “I deeply regret that I did that,” he said. “I should have known better. But I didn’t.” His usual over-earnest delivery was gone, replaced with a tight, clipped voice and facial expression to match. He looked like a house with all the curtains drawn.

Each time he paused, the journalists bellowed questions until one voice won out. He repeated the same points and phrases: I am taking responsibility for this, I am deeply sorry, I didn’t know it was wrong at the time but now I do, I am focused on continuing to fight the good fight.

READ: The saddest victory party in Canada

One reporter asked: Do you think that photo was racist? “Yes,” Trudeau said flatly, nodding. “I didn’t consider it a racist action at the time, but now we know better.”

He was careful to say at other points that this was his action alone, but he also repeatedly framed it as a collective learning opportunity, a lesson in how society has evolved. “If everyone who is going to be standing for office needs to demonstrate that they’ve been perfect every step of their lives, there’s going to be a shortage of people running for office,” he said. “I think what is important is that, yes, people get challenged on mistakes they’ve made in the past, that they recognize those mistakes and they pledge to do better.”

Until this point, the Liberal campaign had been gleefully unearthing and lobbing into the public sphere various unsavoury past statements from Conservative candidates. Trudeau was asked if he was now rethinking his condemnation of those people. “This is something, like everything, that you have to evaluate on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Another reporter asked if that gala was the only time he’d done this. The answer was excruciating: in high school, Trudeau said, he had dressed up for a talent show “with makeup” and sang Day-O. It would soon emerge that there were at least three photos and one video of Trudeau wearing blackface or brownface at different events, from his high school days to the Arabian Nights fundraiser when he was a 29-year-old teacher. Trudeau eventually said he had forgotten one incident and kept the others secret from his party because, “Quite frankly, I was embarrassed.”

RELATED: The fallout from Justin Trudeau’s brownface photo

But beyond his expressions of regret and self-recrimination, even in the first few hours after the revelations sent the entire election campaign into a tailspin, Trudeau seemed to be advocating for some measure of clemency based on his public record and general enlightened good-guyness. “I stand here before Canadians, as I will throughout this campaign, and talk about the work we have to do to make a better country together,” he said.

The problem, of course, was that Trudeau’s costume choices blew a hole right through the threadbare remains of the idealistic, uplifting and enlightened personal brand that swept him into office in 2015.

The scandal was covered everywhere, from the BBC and the Guardian to the Washington Post and Stephen Colbert. Closer to home, there were speculative news stories about whether Trudeau would need to resign as leader.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer again displayed a tendency to overplay his hand the night the story broke when he declared in Sherbrooke, Que.: “What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.” The video of Trudeau in blackface had reached the media by way of the Conservative campaign, who had received it from a “concerned” individual, Scheer said. The following day, campaigning in St-Hyacinthe, Que., he sought to place Trudeau’s offensive behaviour and secrecy about it in the same frame as the SNC-Lavalin affair. “Once again, we see with Justin Trudeau one set of rules for himself and one set of rules for the rest of us,” the Tory leader said.

Behind the scenes, though, top Conservative campaign strategists immediately suspected the blackface photos had come to light too early in the campaign to inflict maximum damage on Trudeau. “The feeling was, this is too early,” one senior Conservative told Maclean’s. “Why couldn’t this come in October?” He said research into voter engagement in past campaigns shows they pay closest attention around the time the campaign is launched, and then again in the last two weeks. By this calculus, Trudeau was lucky that his worst nightmare began unfolding 10 days in—just when voters are least likely to be making up their minds.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh chose to focus not on the perpetrator but on those—like him—who would feel targeted by Trudeau’s ugly games of dress-up. “The people that see this image are going to think about all of the times in their life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are,” he said. Later, Singh accepted a phone call from Trudeau, but he refused to discuss the conversation publicly “because I didn’t want to be used as a tool in his exoneration.”

READ: Jagmeet Singh’s moment. Andrew Scheer’s opportunity.

The steady dispatches on Conservative candidate misdeeds issued by the Liberal war room, of course, ceased immediately. A study by McGill University found blanket coverage of the scandal on Twitter and Facebook within hours, but that klieg light dwindled to a candle within days. What’s more, most of the tweets came from Conservative partisan accounts and were seen mostly by like-minded people.

EKOS Research detected a “visceral shock” in the electorate that dropped Liberal support by 10 percentage points in the two days following the blackface revelations, but that effect faded quickly. Other opinion polls registered a less dramatic dip, but it smoothed out before long. Nothing of that surprisingly muted public reaction could possibly have been predicted that night on the Halifax tarmac as the entire campaign convulsed.

The last question Trudeau answered was from a reporter who asked him what would go through his mind as he fell asleep that night. “I’m going to be thinking about how much harder I’m going to have to continue to work to demonstrate to Canadians that I’m focused on building a better world with less discrimination, less intolerance and less racism,” he said. “And this choice that I made many years ago, which was the wrong choice and one that I regret deeply, I need to—I am—owning up to [it], and I’m going to focus on moving forward.”

Then he offered a terse “Merci” and disappeared to the front of the plane.

Trudeau would need to find a way to change the channel, quickly. But the tone and stakes of the campaign were now set.

Shannon Proudfoot


The home of a couple in Surrey, B.C., served as a backdrop of normalcy for Scheer’s tax pledge (Frank Gunn/CP)

Chapter two: Can we talk taxes?

There was one thing the Liberals and Tories agreed on: the middle class needed their help

It took Trudeau just four days to pirouette from the blackface calamity to a single-minded determination to restore calm to the rattled Liberal ranks. In the neatly fenced backyard of a home in Brampton, Ont.—an everyday-folks backdrop beloved by political image-makers of all partisan stripes—he announced his counterbid to a big tax-cut pledge Scheer had made the previous week. It would take serious number-crunching to tally up the difference between the Liberals’ pitch to increase the amount an individual can earn before income tax kicks in and the Conservatives’ vow to cut the lowest tax rate.

Nobody needed a tax accountant, however, to figure out this much: Trudeau wasn’t going to be responding substantially to any more questions about his past proclivity for putting on a lot of dark makeup. Starting on that patio, he would instead doggedly deflect the debate to his raft of promises, ranging from genuinely substantial to purely symbolic, that were grouped under the heading of “affordability.” So, in Brampton, in the heart of one of those hotly contested suburban ridings you hear so much about, he vowed to not only trim taxes but also to persuade telecom giants—somehow—to cut consumer cell bills by 25 per cent.

The notion of having to compete with the Liberals over who cares most about the costs of ordinary life drives Conservatives crazy. When it comes to cutting taxes, they try to put up markers like a gang tagging their turf with spray paint. Ottawa MP Pierre Poilievre, Scheer’s go-to guy on the file, wouldn’t engage in a direct compare-and-contrast exercise on the Conservative and Liberal tax platforms. “They’re lying,” he told Maclean’s flatly, pointing as examples to the way, after the 2015 election, the Liberals tightened small-business tax rules and got rid of niche tax breaks like the credits for kids’ sports and arts lessons.

READ: The slip-up in the Liberals’ biggest policy promise

Still, the symmetry between Trudeau’s Brampton tax commitment and the pledge Scheer made exactly a week earlier in a living room in Surrey, B.C.—another campaign-stop backdrop redolent of what party tacticians think of as normalcy—invited close scrutiny. For starters, the promises are almost identically costly: either would mean Ottawa would forgo about $6 billion in taxes. The Liberals proposed to raise the “basic personal amount” that’s not taxed to $15,000 from around $13,000. The Conservatives vowed to cut the rate on the lowest tax bracket—income up to $47,630—to 13.75 per cent from 15 per cent.

Trudeau would insist for the rest of the campaign that the two ideas were actually worlds apart. His voice taking on a tone of theatrical incredulity, he said the Conservative proposal would give a bigger cut to an individual making $400,000 than somebody earning $40,000. True enough. The Liberal proposal, unlike the Conservative cut, phased-out benefits for individuals making $147,000 or more. But David Macdonald, a senior economist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the Liberals reduced tax savings for only the top two per cent of individuals. Below that level, the Liberal policy, just like the Conservatives’ alternative, offered more tax savings to most higher-earning families than to those below them on the income ladder.

But that’s the sort of nuance that rarely cracks the consciousness of even those voters paying the closest attention. And so the parties heaped on promises designed to be easier to grasp. The youth vote was key to Trudeau’s 2015 majority win. Trying to reignite some of that excitement, he promised to boost Canada Student Grants by 40 per cent, and extend the grace period before students have to pay back school debt to two years from six months. Scheer said he’d restore those Stephen Harper-era boutique tax credits the Liberals got rid of, including letting parents claim up to $1,000 in kids’ sports and fitness activities and $500 related to signing children up for arts and educational extras.

If they sparred on what exactly to offer, Trudeau and Scheer sure agreed that middle-class Canadians are finding it harder to get ahead. Pollsters also reported, not surprisingly, that many voters fretted about their finances. But are times really tougher? Late in the campaign, Statistics Canada reported that the economy added 54,000 mostly full-time jobs in September, and unemployment fell to a historically low 5.5 per cent. Average hourly wages were up a plump 4.3 per cent from a year earlier.

In the decade since the last recession, there’s no evidence the average Canadian should be struggling more to make ends meet. James Marple, a senior economist at TD Bank Group, pointed to wages rising, on average, 2.4 per cent a year in that period, which is above inflation. What individuals face differs based on where they live, how old they are and what sort of work they do. So how income gains are spread around matters, Marple notes. “But,” he said, as no politician with a decent self-preservation instinct ever would, “it wouldn’t be true to say there have not been average real income gains over and above inflation in Canada in either the short or medium term.”

Given upbeat jobs numbers and a sustained healthy income growth, the Liberals might have tried a campaign asking Canadians to choose stable economic stewardship—a classic bid to exploit the advantage of incumbency. But a senior Liberal strategist said opinion research suggested that would have fallen flat. “What we were finding was that a referendum on ‘Are you better off than you were four years ago?’ wasn’t necessarily going to play out in our favour,” he said. “People don’t feel it’s morning in Canada. There’s a kind of global malaise.”

Both Liberals and Conservatives played to that undercurrent of anxiety, but neither party figured out how to turn it into a clear advantage. Pollster Greg Lyle, president of Innovative Research, said affordability was indeed the campaign’s No. 1 issue—yet the Liberals and Conservatives were tied at 23 per cent among the voters who cared most about the issue. Lyle said first the Conservatives, then the Liberals, aired ads on affordability that seemed, based on his testing, to boost both Scheer’s and Trudeau’s scores when viewers were asked if the leaders “care about people like me.” “So [the Conservatives] engaged, the Liberals responded,” he said, “and neither was able to advance on the other, but not for lack of trying.”

In a campaign ultimately defined by near parity between the two big parties, they fought the central battle over affordability to a mutually frustrating draw.

­John Geddes


Trudeau met with an unsmiling Thunberg before the climate march in Montreal on Sept. 27 (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Chapter three: Taking to the streets

The climate strikes offered an opportunity, and an unexpected risk

“Affordability” may have been the animating mantra of politicians during the federal race, but citizen concern over climate change literally mobilized Canadians, both adults and children, to protest government inaction on the climate crisis by marching in the streets— from Tofino to St. John, and as far north as Inuvik in the Northwest Territories.

The climate strikes, which saw some 7.6 million people rally globally, bifurcated Election 43 chronologically and thematically. Never has the spectre of climate disaster—unprecedented flooding, forest fires, droughts and extreme weather—so informed a Canadian political race, or infused it with such a sense of urgency; at least for a few. A 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report announced that governments have 12 years to significantly cut carbon output. An April 2019 federal government climate report stated Canada is warming at an average rate twice as fast as the rest of the world. Green Party leader Elizabeth May repeatedly called the election “a referendum on climate change.”

READ: Greta Thunberg’s visit to Alberta was no ordinary celebrity drop-in

Cross-country strikes predictably became a political showcase for leaders—as well as a sobering reminder that Canadians could vote in 2019 for political leaders who didn’t take climate science seriously. The presence at the Sept. 27 Montreal march of 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, the Swedish activist who originated the strikes, made it the place to be. It drew 500,000, among them May, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and Yves-François Blanchet, leader of the Bloc Québécois.

If the Liberal campaign was expecting a sunny photo op, it would be sorely disappointed. Before the march, Trudeau, in his capacity as PM, met privately for 15 minutes with an unsmiling Thunberg, who was not about to be used as a political prop. When asked by media if she delivered a message to Trudeau, she said she’d told him he’s “obviously not doing enough,” before adding that she delivers the same message to every political leader she meets.

Trudeau’s broken 2015 election promise to end fuel subsidies, his government’s maintaining of the Harper government’s lampooned greenhouse gas emission targets and his purchase of the $4.5-billion Trans Mountain Pipeline made him a ready target at the march—literally. “Arrest at Montreal climate strike after protester allegedly throws egg at Trudeau” likely wasn’t the feel-good headline the Liberals were seeking when their leader walked through downtown Montreal amid signs reading “Now or never” and “Us yelling at our government before we all die.” Exactly what Trudeau was striking wasn’t clear. His government? Himself?

May has repeatedly called this federal election ‘a referendum on climate change’ (Green Party of Canada)

May used the opportunity to echo Thunberg’s urgency: “Greta Thunberg has warned us that our house is on fire. This extraordinary young woman has called on the adults to do our job and keep the children safe.” She also took a shot at Trudeau, telling iPolitics that the PM should be “afraid” of Thunberg: “She’ll see right through anyone who’s a hypocrite.” Blanchet used the moment of eco-consciousness to slag Conservative leader Andrew Scheer as a “climate change laggard” for his platform that simultaneously promises Canada will remain a major fossil fuel energy source and also reduce global emissions. (Later, Scheer would promise that axing the Liberal’s carbon tax would be a priority if he became PM.)

No surprise then that Scheer sat the strike out. He made his own statement, flying from Montreal to Vancouver to announce that his government would build new roads and transit systems to cut commute times. In so doing, he made a tenuous climate-change link: wider roads would reduce emissions because people would spend less time idling in their cars; and idling in traffic jams, he suggested. The pledge was discredited due to “induced demand”—that expanding road capacity will in fact increase traffic by encouraging drivers to use it.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh joined climate strikers in Victoria on Vancouver Island, where he’d spent the previous three days campaigning against possible Green Party encroachment on NDP ridings (the Greens and NDP called for economic restructuring based on renewable energy sources). In an announcement on coastal protection in Ladysmith, B.C., Singh took a shot at Trudeau, saying the Liberal leader’s pipeline purchase meant he couldn’t be trusted on climate promises.

READ: What Canada’s pro-oil boosters fail to grasp about climate change

Trudeau worked on damage control later with reporters. “I recognize, and I said this directly to Greta, that we have to do more,” he said, standing behind a lectern the hue of Green Party green. If re-elected, his government would spend $3 billion (offset by revenue created by the pipeline, he promised) on “natural” solutions to climate change, like planting two billion trees over 10 years, a move May has slammed as inadequate in number.

The day’s celebration of Thunberg also gave Liberal opponents opportunity to recycle criticism the teenager had made of the government in June 2019, the month the Liberals declared a climate emergency and approved the expansion of the pipeline: “One second they declare a #ClimateEmergency and the next second they say yes to expand a pipeline,” Thunberg wrote on Twitter. “This is shameful . . .”

Days later, pollster Nick Nanos coined “the Greta Thunberg effect” to describe a significant drop in support for Trudeau amongst voters aged 18 to 29 within 24 hours of his meeting with her, from nearly 35 per cent to a little more than 24 per cent.

Yet there was no clear beneficiary of the decline. Scheer and May saw slight increases, while the number of undecideds actually rose by four percentage points. When all age groups were combined, Nanos found, the gap between Trudeau’s personal popularity and Scheer’s was the smallest since the campaign began, with support for Trudeau as preferred prime minister at 28.26 per cent and for Scheer at 27.99 per cent; some 18 per cent of voters were still undecided. What that meant, if any meaning could be discerned, is that the march that would most reveal how seriously Canadians take climate change was not on the streets, but to the polls.

Anne Kingston


Singh was praised for how he handled an encounter at Montreal’s Atwater Market (CBC)

Chapter four: ‘That’s the beauty of Canada’

After being written off, Jagmeet Singh showed what he was made of

The second leaders debate of the campaign—a French-language debate on TVA—would begin on Oct. 2, at 8 p.m., in the network’s Montreal studios. Earlier that morning, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his wife, Gurkiran Kaur Sidhu, visited Atwater Market, Montreal’s nearly century-old Art Deco market hall, filled with butchers, cheesemongers, florists, and fruit and vegetable stands.

During a campaign, every destination is a chance to be relatable and real; so Singh was there, according to a media alert from the party, to pick up snacks for his debate prep team. He was trailed by a small coterie of reporters and cameras.

Singh and Sidhu were walking through the market, chatting with what appeared to be a voter, when another man approached them with the gravitational pull of someone who definitely wanted to talk. He was bald, portly, bespectacled and white, perhaps 60 years old. Singh deviated from his route to greet him. “Bonjour, monsieur,” he said, shaking his hand. “How are you? You okay?”

READ: Jagmeet Singh is poised and pitch-perfect in the face of a slur

The last part was an odd phrase to use in a standard politician’s encounter with a member of the public, so perhaps Singh had already caught a strange vibe. The man muttered something that sounded like a garbled greeting and Singh continued, resolutely upbeat: “Pleasure to meet you.”

Now the man leaned in close to Singh’s ear, like he saw himself as a solid dude offering good and necessary advice to a nice but misguided younger man. “You know what?” he said.

“What’s that?” Singh asked.

“You should cut your turban off, and you (inaudible) look like a Canadian,” the man continued. There was no malice in his voice. He was basically friendly and conspiratorial; secure, with an offhand sort of smugness that he was merely relaying what everyone knew to be true.

Singh had been leaning toward him, listening, but now he straightened up slowly and pulled back slightly into his own space. His voice and face stayed locked in pleasant mode as he clapped the man on the arm companionably. “Oh, I think Canadians look like all sorts of people,” he said. “That’s the beauty of Canada. I don’t agree, sir.”

“But in Rome, you do as the Romans do,” the man insisted. Again, it was clear he thought this Singh fellow just needed to be enlightened for his own good.

“But this is Canada, you can do whatever you like,” Singh said. There was no belligerence in his response, but the smile had disappeared from his face and his voice. Sidhu laughed slightly as her husband turned toward her to begin walking away from his interlocutor.

“Alright . . .” the man called, as Singh chuckled softly and walked away.

Then, there was the final baffling comment: “I hope you win.”

Singh and his party had been written off over the last two years, due to anemic fundraising, veteran MPs not running again, a fractious caucus, and waffling and missteps from the new leader. But once the campaign started, Singh impressed voters who found him likable and his party’s message compelling. And yet, even as he lent his party new relevance, that interaction at Atwater Market was only the most pointed example of an undercurrent Singh was forced to confront throughout the campaign.

A quasi-academic version of the question came up often in discussions of the national horse race: How would the NDP fare in Quebec, given that its leader wore a turban? There was the controversy surrounding Bill 21, which bans some public workers in Quebec from wearing religious symbols, toward which Singh took an identical position to the other national leaders: I don’t like it, but I’m not going to intervene. Still, again and again, Singh was grilled on his stance in a way the others were not, without so much as an embarrassed nod from his interlocutors toward the tokenism baked into the question.

In the English-language consortium debate on Oct. 7, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau even felt entitled to chastise Singh at length for speaking “very eloquently about discrimination” but not taking a principled stance on Bill 21 like he…also had not done. “You didn’t say that you would possibly intervene,” Trudeau said, staggering slightly on the word “possibly,” as though he realized his high horse had a broken leg.

There were the voters at campaign stops who would tell journalists—freely, as long as the cameras weren’t rolling—that they liked Singh and appreciated what the NDP stood for, but they just couldn’t vote for him, or maybe the rest of Canada just wasn’t ready for “someone like him.”

And then there was the hideous spectacle of the revelations that Trudeau had repeatedly bedecked himself in blackface and brownface, followed by his self-flagellation tour and the questions that Singh, as the first racialized leader of a national party, faced afterward.

The way he chose to respond to all of these moments was deliberate and consistent, and it was highly visible in the wake of the blackface scandal. Singh’s position was this: you’re asking me about this because I am here, leading a national party during an election campaign. But this kind of thing happens every single day to all kinds of Canadians who are judged or limited because of who they are.

“The kids that see this image, the people that see this image, are going to think of all the times that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are,” he said the night of the brownface revelations. “I want you to know that you have value, you have worth and you are loved. And I don’t want you to give up on Canada, and please don’t give up on yourselves.”

But, aside from other people’s baggage with the existence of people like him, Singh was about to get a chance to make a case for himself and his party on his own terms. It was one he would not waste.

Shannon Proudfoot


After Blanchet’s smooth performance in the French debates, the Bloc’s poll numbers rose (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Chapter five: Enter the Bloc

In the first French debate, a new force emerged. It would soon haunt the Liberals.

Even after the astonishing revelations about Justin Trudeau’s adolescence and young adulthood as a serial blackfacer, Campaign 2019 seemed frozen in a block of amber. Seat projections derived from polls suggested the Liberals were leading, the Conservatives were on course to win about 20 fewer seats, and the other parties were struggling to get up off the floor. The blackface stuff had cost the Liberals a few seats, tops. The campaign was half over, and very little of it seemed to be registering.

That began to change after the TVA network’s French-language debate on Oct. 2.

Debates were a bit of a wild card in this campaign, despite the governing Liberals’ best attempts to nail their timing and format down. Stephen Harper had boycotted, and forced the cancellation of, the English-language debate in 2015 that a consortium of the major TV networks had sought to organize, but he had agreed to a series of smaller debates organized by newcomers (including Maclean’s), in hopes of tripping up Trudeau, then a rookie party leader. Trudeau actually fared well in the 2015 debates, but he hated the improvised scramble of unfamiliar events and actually campaigned on a promise to restore some order to the mess.

Which is how it came to be in 2019 that a federal government-appointed debates commission, led by former governor general David Johnston, decreed that big official debates would be held in the second week of October. On that basis, Trudeau refused to attend upstart debates organized by Maclean’s and the Munk Debates. (The Maclean’s debate went ahead without him.)

But there’s no way to evacuate politics entirely from these decisions, and Trudeau decided he could not afford to skip a third debate organized without the commission’s blessing: the “Face-à-Face” debate Quebec’s TVA network has run in a succession of recent provincial and federal campaigns. They’re good debates, with lots of time for direct confrontations between party leaders, and TVA reaches a vast audience in a province where dozens of ridings have bounced from one party to another over the past 30 years. A clear shot at millions of swing voters: catnip to any party leader.

READ: What does the new Bloc wave really represent?

So, there was Trudeau that night on a circular soundstage with Andrew Scheer, Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet spaced evenly around the rim. Their interrogator was Pierre Bruneau, the courtly TVA nightly news anchor. Within five minutes, Scheer was in big trouble.

Bruneau’s first question, to Blanchet, was whether access to abortion should be called into question during the next Parliament. No, it sure shouldn’t, the Bloc leader said. A Bloc MP who even tried to table a bill “limiting women’s right to control their own bodies” would be “removed from caucus right away,” he said. “There will be no compromise on the matter.”

Scheer, a practicing Catholic who is personally pro-life, deployed the answer he had worked out for this sort of question: it’s perfectly normal for people to have differences of opinion on such matters, but a Scheer government would no more legislate against abortion than Stephen Harper’s ever had. But the Conservative had trouble selling his point in a high-pitched, tentative voice and shaky French. “Cet débat ne va être pas ré-ouvrir,” he said. It translated, approximately, as “This debate will be not to re-open.”

There followed an exchange between Singh and Trudeau on medically assisted dying, but as soon as the debate opened up to an exchange among the four leaders, Trudeau turned on Scheer. “Toi, Andrew Scheer,” he said, using the familiar formulation friends use with friends. “Do you believe a woman should have choice” in matters of abortion? Scheer tried the nothing-will-change line. Trudeau pressed. “Personally. Do you believe, as a leader, as a father, as a husband, that women should have a choice?” Scheer trotted out his line again.

From there it was open season. Singh’s turn came next. “Maybe I can try,” the NDP leader said. “I’m for the right to abortion. I’m for same-sex marriage. I’m for the right to die with dignity. Are you ready to say the same thing today?”

Nothing was as simple for Scheer. Probably that stance would win him support from some voters and comfort others in their decision to back the Conservatives. But on this night, it left him isolated. “We see that there are three of us whose values match those of Quebecers,” Trudeau said, “and a fourth, the Conservatives, who are offside, both on women’s rights and on LGBTQ rights.”

Two other things became clear as the evening progressed. First, that Singh was surprisingly poised—not only in the quality of his spoken French, but also in his bearing, confident, concise and funny. He reminisced about learning French as a kid by listening to Roch Voisine and Patrick Bruel albums on cassette in southern Ontario, and even Scheer had to smile. This sure-footed Singh had been scarce on the ground in the last two years, as he battled caucus defections and hard questions about his background in Sikh nationalism.

“None of the debates has moved our numbers,” an NDP campaign official said a week later. “But that was a good night.” The insider was simply not patient enough: in the campaign’s last 10 days, as that buoyant Singh performance was repeated in the English and French commission debates, the NDP began a steady climb in the polls.

Seasoned NDP campaigners had seen this movie before: certain decimation turns to salvation. “To be absolutely honest, I feel like I have faced those questions prior to almost every single campaign that I’ve been involved in,” said Anne McGrath, among the top NDP strategists. “I mean, I remember being asked if we were done when Jack Layton was leader.”

The other big news out of the TVA debate was Blanchet. He was the fourth Bloc leader since 2015. The party had been routed in the elections of 2011 and 2015 after dominating federal politics in the province since 1990. A former schoolteacher, record-industry executive and environment minister during the 2012-14 Parti Québécois government, Blanchet had been barely noticed since he took over the chaos-racked Bloc in January 2019. But he’s a soother, professorial in tone, bass-baritone in delivery. His most prominent predecessors, Lucien Bouchard and Gilles Duceppe, liked to ratchet stakes up; Blanchet preferred to stay calm.

And unlike Scheer, Singh and even Trudeau, he spoke impeccable French and had no hesitation appointing himself as ambassador plenipotentiary of François Legault, the nationalist and popular Quebec premier. Quebecers liked what they saw and heard. A long Bloc ascent in the polls, deeply corrosive to Liberal dominance in the province, began. ­

Paul Wells


At a stop in Quebec, Trudeau addressed the government’s bid to review the CHRT ruling (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Chapter six: Gone are the ‘good guys’

A decision was due over a landmark Indigenous child welfare ruling. Justin Trudeau had run out of time.

Cindy Blackstock spent her Friday morning repeatedly checking the Federal Court website to see if the Trudeau Liberals would disappoint her yet again. A crusader for those wronged by the First Nations child welfare system, she helped secure a September ruling that would award $40,000 as compensation to each mistreated child and parent; and Oct. 4 was the last sensible day Ottawa could file a judicial review. The actual deadline for such an appeal was Monday, but Blackstock assumed the Liberals wouldn’t want to do something so politically explosive on the day of the English leaders’ debate.

For all Justin Trudeau’s campaign talk of reconciliation, of partnerships with communities and of righting past wrongs, he’d avoided discussing the landmark Canadian Human Rights Tribunal ruling that came down days before he launched the election. Other parties laid down their markers: the NDP and Greens pledged to honour the compensation order, and Andrew Scheer said on Oct. 3 that a Conservative government would review this “far-reaching decision.” The same day, Trudeau bobbed and weaved around questions about the tribunal decision, saying merely Liberals would “continue to work” with Indigenous leaders and communities.

After a morning of waiting, Blackstock left her desk computer and its “refresh” button to grab lunch at a downtown Ottawa food court. In line for a sandwich, she rechecked the court website on her phone, and up popped the government’s bid to review the ruling and block the compensation process with a stay. Blackstock paid for the grilled cheese, which went cold and ignored—“c’est la vie,” she said ruefully—as she raced down to the courthouse for documents. Amid a flurry of media interviews, calls with the Assembly of First Nations and her own Caring Society group’s legal team, Blackstock felt sadness for the thousands of kids she’d represented. “For a brief moment with this decision, there was some recognition of the harms they went through and their families went through.”

In 2015, voting among Indigenous people surged, largely to the benefit of the Liberal leader who promised a renewed “nation-to-nation” relationship—and sported a Haida raven tattoo on his arm. Since then, he’s won some plaudits for holding the promised inquiry into missing and murdered women and girls, ending dozens of boil-water advisories, and going on a building spree of on-reserve schools and other infrastructure. But many Indigenous leaders and advocates have criticized his shortcomings, or actions that were as superficial as bicep ink. Trudeau divided western First Nations groups by pushing ahead with the Trans Mountain pipeline and a liquefied natural gas megaproject; was unable to enact the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People; and made much of appointing the first Indigenous attorney-general, but then demoted Jody Wilson-Raybould and punted her from caucus.

The Liberals have boasted of closing gaps in the child welfare system with new legislation and better services, but Blackstock says that’s mainly come after non-compliance findings and orders by the rights tribunal. “It was framed as ‘we’re the good guys,’” she says, “instead of ‘oh my gosh, we found we were discriminating against kids in 2016 and we didn’t fully comply with the orders and there’s still discrimination.’”

Perry Bellegarde, the grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, had publicly praised the Liberals for doing more for First Nations people than any previous government. After learning Ottawa was challenging the kids’ compensation decision, he had a couple more words on what Trudeau had done: “beyond unacceptable.”

Elections are time for a governing party to boast of its accomplishments and decisions, and for challengers to highlight shortcomings. It gets messy when the party in power must make complex, controversial decisions on sensitive files mid-campaign. C’est la vie—Trudeau and cabinet had to put on their governing-is-hard hats while on the hustings. Government court affidavits had been sworn in advance, so Trudeau would have known this judicial review was happening when he dodged questions about it on Oct. 3. He kept mum about it in his Friday morning news conference, letting journalists break the story hours later. He addressed it during a midday campaign stop, right before a tree-planting photo op in a town on Quebec’s north shore. “Thank you for giving me this opportunity to make things extremely clear,” the leader said in his party-branded Roots bomber jacket, having declined past opportunities to clarify the Liberal position on the matter.

Trudeau insisted his government believes in compensating harmed kids and families, but couldn’t set a payment process by December, as the tribunal ordered. “These are things that need to be done in a respectful way with communities, and in an electoral period we simply do not have time to do it,” he told reporters. Seamus O’Regan, the Indigenous Services minister, told CBC News the tribunal ruling was “very prescriptive.” (It calls for a flat $40,000 to all First Nations children removed from homes by authorities necessarily or unnecessarily, and their parents or grandparents, and kids and parents who received lower-level services than non-Indigenous people.) A court filing that came to light days later revealed high-level government concerns that the compensation order could cost Ottawa between $5 billion and $8 billion. Ottawa is used to large payouts for survivors of residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, but it was resisting a tribunal-ordered package—though only after resisting past offers to negotiate settlements, Blackstock says. “For them to say [now] ‘it’s unfair to us, it’s a lot of money’—is frankly disgusting.”

The day the judicial review was revealed, Jagmeet Singh told reporters the judicial review was unjust and a “moral failure,” adding to his argument there are two Trudeaus: “one that talks about the importance of Indigenous relationships, and another that takes Indigenous kids to court.”

In the commission’s English debate days later, the NDP leader kept up the pressure: he contrasted the court fight with Indigenous people to Trudeau’s push to keep SNC-Lavalin out of court. Singh’s rival replied that the decision had to be reviewed, because of its ramifications to government and “very large, significant settlement amount.” The speaker in this case was Scheer, not Trudeau—but aggrieved Indigenous families and activists would be forgiven if they had trouble distinguishing politicians from the party once vanquished for upsetting First Nations people from the one that promised a brand new day.

Jason Markusoff


Buoyed by the hope of a progressive vote split, Scheer had a playful moment with the press (Jonathan Hayward/CP)

Chapter seven: Thanksgiving

Ten days out, the polls started to swing—and Andrew Scheer was smiling

A knot of photographers and reporters waited on a beach for Andrew Scheer’s arrival in Tsawwassen, B.C., on Oct. 11, looking at a podium and microphone angled perfectly in the sand so the cameras would catch the massive hunk of driftwood and blue-grey smudges of mountain in the background. A Canadian flag fluttered from a wooden sign warning about bonfires; it looked like it might have been spontaneously installed by some Canada-loving summer beach-goers, but the flag would be gone when the event tear-down was complete. The Conservative leader was there to unveil his party’s full costed platform—though he had waited until Canadians began heading to the advance polls to do so.

Eventually, Scheer, his wife, and three of their kids appeared and strode up the boardwalk leading to the beach. Halfway there, with the camera shutters chattering madly, the family exchanged the most awkward hugs imaginable—because can you blame them?—and the kids scampered off to spend the rest of the press conference in a playground out of camera range.

Jill Scheer stood with two dozen lower mainland candidates, arranged in two choir-style formations on either side of her husband, while he talked through his party’s plan. The platform was a road map to balancing the budget in five years, and it was going to mow down a lot of things in its path.

Tens of billions of dollars in cuts would come from deferred infrastructure spending, amounting to $18 billion over five years; slashing operating expenses in the federal government by $14 billion (shrinking employee workspaces and tightening travel budgets are likely methods); and Scheer’s high-profile promise to cut 25 per cent of foreign aid. Those measures, and revenue generators such as cracking down on tax evasion, would help pay for the Tories’ signature “universal tax cut” and a raft of boutique tax credits.

Trudeau keeps telling people how great everything is, Scheer said into the cameras, for the people beyond those screens who obviously didn’t feel that way. “And perhaps in his world, it is,” he added. “But I’m here for the people who just need a break, the people who are doing everything right—going to university, getting a good job, working hard, paying their bills on time—but who still can’t seem to get ahead in life.”

For Scheer and the Tories, Trudeau and his Liberals had seemed, for months, like a maddening retinue of political Weebles. Over and over—and without a helpful shove from anyone but their very own selves—the Liberals had teetered and looked certain to topple over. But then, like the egg-shaped toys with the weighted bottoms, they bobbed back upright to an improbable state of political equilibrium.

There was the SNC-Lavalin scandal and the drawn-out implosion, in full public view, of internal party dynamics, followed by the ethics commissioner’s determination that Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act. And then the unimaginably hideous blackface revelations. Each time, poll numbers dipped for a time and then evened out. Heading into the final two weeks of the federal election campaign, popular support for Trudeau’s Liberals and Scheer’s Conservatives sat almost exactly where it did when the campaign began on Sept. 11: in a dead heat.

If the Liberals couldn’t manage to sink themselves, the Tories seemed to have no buoyancy.

Doug Ford setting various provincial fires had been a drag on his federal cousins; and for his own part, Scheer had spent months being conspicuously disinclined to shoot down anti-immigrant rhetoric and other ugly flirtations around the margins of his party, particularly those attached to the United We Roll movement. More fundamentally, there seemed to be a mismatch between Scheer’s socially conservative personal beliefs and the average Canadian’s default setting. The Liberals had been only too pleased to spotlight this gap, helpfully pointing out every Tory candidate who coughed up regressive views, and old footage of Scheer in the House of Commons comparing the marriage of same-sex couples to a dog’s tail.

But eventually­­­—right around the time Scheer stepped onto that B.C. beach to release his platform—things seemed to change. Jagmeet Singh’s NDP had found some purchase in the polls at last, raising the spectre of a progressive vote split, while the resurrected corpse of the Bloc Québécois continued to surge forward in Quebec, potentially depriving the Liberals of a fat chunk of majority-making seats.

In Tsawwassen, a reporter asked Scheer why, if he was the only federal leader acknowledging the possibility of a recession on the horizon, he was handcuffing himself with this fixation on balancing the budget. It was precisely because there could be headwinds coming that we need to give ourselves the flexibility to cope, Scheer said. “The Liberals have to explain to Canadians, if they spend money quickly when times are tough and they spend money quickly when times are good, when do they ever get back to balanced budgets?” he asked, and the candidates behind him nodded and smiled.

Party officials had noted multiple times that there was not much new in the full platform that hadn’t already been announced with fanfare: it was just now all in one place. This emphasis seemed designed to forestall, precisely, the way in which the platform was received and framed in the hours and days after Scheer’s beach presser: as tens of billions of dollars in cuts, a twist ending.

The sore spot that could resonate with the electorate was made clear throughout the campaign by Scheer’s tendency to respond to any broad question about spending or priorities by repeating, like a doll with a pull-string on his back, that his government would increase health and social transfers to the provinces by three per cent a year.

But the day after the platform announcement, by the time Scheer’s campaign arrived at the Vancouver airport to end the pre-Thanksgiving jaunt to B.C., the mood around the party’s road crew felt noticeably buoyant.

As the bus pulled onto the tarmac near the campaign plane, Scheer grabbed the camera from his videographer and circled the bus hammily, crouching and brandishing the camera like a wildlife photographer who worked for a tabloid. The news photographers instantly saw an irresistible image and piled off the bus with their cameras to chase the leader around the bus, battling lens-to-lens.

Scheer was, of course, smiling.

Shannon Proudfoot


While Liberals warned that a vote for the NDP would lead to a Conservative majority, Singh laid out his party’s priorities for a minority scenario (Darryl Dyck/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

Chapter eight: Misstatements and misdirection

As the leaders took the low road, minority scenarios were the talk of the race’s final days

It’s a safe assumption that nobody watching the final, frantic days of the campaign was contemplating the very real chance of Trudeau falling just short with the same degree of empathy as Brian Gallant. Last fall, Gallant was ousted as New Brunswick’s premier, a mere four years after his youth, good looks and charisma won him a majority and what looked like a lock on a long run in power. In that 2018 provincial election, his Liberals took 21 seats to the Conservatives’ 22, with the upstart Greens and the right-wing People’s Alliance winning three apiece.

It was those Green seats that stung. Had they swung Liberal, Gallant, who is only 37, would still be premier. A year later, he wondered if voters eyeing Singh or May in the federal election grasped what was at stake. “Some may think they are able to send Justin Trudeau a message by voting for a third party but, deep down inside, still want him to be prime minister. I get it,” he said. “They are a little bit disappointed. But they should recognize that our system isn’t set up to send a dual message. You can’t send a message to one party to do better by voting for another party.”

A lot of voters, though, evidently wanted to do just that. As the campaign came down to the wire, the polling firm Innovative Research found that 40 per cent of Canadians preferred a minority outcome, compared to 43 per cent who said they’d like a majority government. (The other 17 per cent were unsure.) Even among self-professed Liberal partisans, more than one in five, a significant 22 per cent, said they’d rather the party they identify with was relegated to a minority.

Trudeau sensed that sentiment, and shifted to tirelessly framing the choice as Liberal or Conservative—with a progressive patchwork in Parliament nowhere on the ballot. “A vote for the Bloc Québécois or the NDP or the Green Party,” he said over and over, “won’t stop a Conservative government.”

Minority scenarios, however, were suddenly the talk of the campaign—so much so that Scheer pre-emptively asserted that, if the result was close and his Conservatives had a few more seats, Trudeau would have to resign as prime minister. He called that “a modern convention in Canadian government.”

The experts disagreed. Carleton University Professor Philippe Lagassé explained how it really works: “There’s no constitutional principle that demands that the party with the most seats gets to form government. It’s a custom. It’s just a custom,” Lagassé said. In other words, Trudeau, as the sitting prime minister, was allowed to try to cobble together enough House seats from the smaller parties to keep governing. In fact, that’s what Gallant did for more than a month after New Brunswickers voted last fall. It took 39 days after the election before he was finally defeated on a confidence motion in the legislature, clearing the way for Conservative Blaine Higgs to take over as premier.

If Scheer’s way of describing how Parliament functions after a close outcome was, let’s say, inventive, that was his preferred mode in the campaign’s dying days. He set a credulity-stretching tone for the final phase of the race during his Oct. 17 news conference in Fredericton, when he insisted that a Liberal minority propped up by the NDP would drive the government so deep in the red that drastic measures would become a certainty. “To pay for even half of these never-ending deficits,” Scheer said, “the Trudeau-NDP coalition would have to raise the GST from five per cent to 7.5 per cent or cut completely the Canada Social Transfer to the provinces.”

He made that up. The Liberals and NDP denied they’d do any such thing. Scheer’s aim was as much to keep raising the possibility of a Liberal-NDP partnership in power as any particular measures they might adopt. “Coalition talk is extremely good for the NDP and extremely good for us,” explained a senior Conservative campaign strategist. “There’s a chunk of Liberals who will vote Conservative to stop a Liberal coalition with the NDP and Greens. And there’s a whole chunk of [progressive] switchers who go, ‘You mean I can vote NDP or Green but still end up with a progressive government? I’ll do that!’”

Trudeau wasn’t quite so brazen in distorting what his main rival was really up to, but the Liberal lines hardly exemplified fair-mindedness. Trudeau’s main thrust around Toronto, where so many seats were at stake, was to equate Scheer and Ontario Premier Doug Ford as politicians who only “serve the wealthy.” “For everyone else it’s cuts, cuts, cuts,” Trudeau said, listing education, child care and health care among Scheer’s likely targets—even though the Conservative platform avoids taking aim at those areas.

As the campaign slid toward its conclusion on a slurry of misstatements and misdirections, where could a diligent voter turn for clarity? Actually, just below its bitter surface, Campaign ’19 featured true innovations in trustworthy analysis. The government’s independent Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) provided costing of any platform plank the parties handed over for checking—an unprecedented exercise in making sure the promises weren’t more expensive than claimed.

And the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD), a think tank run out of the University of Ottawa by former PBO Kevin Page, offered overall analysis of the platforms. On the final weekend of the campaign, while Trudeau and Scheer were ferociously slagging each other, the IFSD put out its “party platforms fiscal bottom line.” Its conclusion: “Federal public finances are basically sound and the election platforms will do little to change this.” One way to look at the choice between the top two parties, according to the IFSD, is that the Liberals would boost Canada’s debt to $800 billion by 2023-24, while the Conservatives would hold it to $760 billion, partly by slowing infrastructure spending and crimping federal spending on operations and services.

Put that way, the choice looked more subtle than stark. Beyond the bottom-line impact, though, the policy differences were monumental. On climate change, for instance, another highly credible policy review—this one by economist Andrew Leach and climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe—gave Scheer’s plan a D for ambition and F for feasibility, while awarding Trudeau’s a B for ambition and A for feasibility. By the final weekend, however, that sort of usefully pointed analysis stood little chance of shining through the fog of deceptive electioneering.

It was enough to drive anyone to nostalgia. Could Canadian politics always have been so low? When Jean Chrétien, still at 85 a formidable figure on the hustings, made an appearance at a final rally in Ottawa for Trudeau’s environment minister, MP Catherine McKenna, she introduced him by citing a bit of political advice he once gave her: “Canadians are reasonable—be reasonable.” That almost sounded like it might work. But, as this campaign wound down, there was no sign anybody had thought to try.

John Geddes


Justin Trudeau on election night in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Epilogue: His father’s footsteps

After his humbling, Justin Trudeau will need a new plan and allies

Trudeau has never shied away from reminding voters about his father. One way he does it is by conjuring up nostalgic images of Pierre Trudeau in a canoe. And so, a week and a day after those blackface photos surfaced, Trudeau paddled a Liberal-red one for the cameras at a campaign stop in Sudbury, Ont., before stepping ashore to announce plans to bring a quarter of Canada’s oceans and lands under environmental protection. Plus, and this was the good part, he said a re-elected Liberal government would offer $2,000 bursaries to low-income families to spend up to four days in a provincial or national park.

Cash for camping was soon being ridiculed as the campaign’s goofiest promise. (More serious denunciations were later heaped on Scheer’s pledge to cut foreign aid by 25 per cent.) But the canoe image turned out to be well worth noting anyway, if only as a visual reminder of uncanny historic parallels. Come election night, Trudeau fils would end up where Trudeau père was back in 1972: reduced by disappointed voters to a minority on his second time out, after sweeping to a majority in an ebullient first run as Liberal leader. This time, there was no way to construe following in his father’s footsteps as anything but a setback. The Liberal popular vote shrank to 38 per cent back in 1972, seven points down from ’68’s “Trudeaumania.” The party’s 33 per cent in 2019 was six points below what “hope and hard work” had won in 2015—and the lowest popular vote share ever for a winning party in a federal election.

After his humbling, Pierre Trudeau adjusted himself accordingly to secure NDP Leader David Lewis’s support during his 1972-74 minority. “He shifted rather dramatically to the left and relied on the NDP,” said historian John English, author of a two-volume Pierre Trudeau biography. “And, in that respect,” English added about what’s to transpire now, “the same kind of scenario is a distinct possibility. History does repeat itself, I guess, in some ways.”

What will Singh ask of Trudeau? In a lengthy election-night speech in Burnaby, B.C., the NDP leader listed his priorities as universal pharmacare, affordable housing, waiving interest on student debt, capping cellphone bills and fighting the climate crisis. But a more combative pledge got his crowd pumped. “We will also make sure that the super wealthy start paying their fair share,” Singh said, prompting supporters to erupt into chants of “Tax the rich” that might have reverberated all the way to the Ottawa offices of the Business Council of Canada.

Inside Montreal’s cavernous Palais des congres, Trudeau’s crowd was oddly thin, numbering only a few hundred when the TV networks declared the race for the Liberals just after 10 p.m. The gathering skewed young: many of those cheering the call were not old enough to have voted in 2015 or to feel how far this evening fell short of last time. When Trudeau finally appeared after 1 a.m.—as Singh and Scheer were still addressing their own supporters—he tried selling his setback win as a benediction from voters.

“From coast to coast to coast tonight, Canadians rejected division and negativity, rejected cuts and austerity, and they voted in favour of a progressive agenda and strong action on climate change,” he said. When Trudeau got around to acknowledging the gaps in that continent-spanning voter endorsement, it was to nod toward the return of the Bloc in Quebec and concede the Liberal shutouts in Saskatchewan and Alberta. “I’ve heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you,” he said. “Let us all work hard to bring our country together.”

In the last hours before polls closed, Conservative aides made a final confident prediction: that only one national party would gain seats, and it would be them. But reality gave the Conservative results-watching crew few real reasons to raise aloft the “Scheer 2019” signs on their seats. Sure, they cheered and sign-wagged when Scheer won his Regina seat, and when the blue challenger beat the Liberals’ lone Prairie icon, Ralph Goodale. Beyond those few thrilling scenes, for this audience, the movie sucked.

When he took to the podium to concede defeat, Scheer urged Conservatives to tuck away the moment for future motivation. “Let’s remember this feeling. Coming close but falling just short. And let’s use it as fuel to redouble our efforts because our work is not over—Canadians are counting on us,” he said. “When the time comes, and who knows when that will be, Canadians will need us to replace the Trudeau Liberals.”

He had the part about uncertainty right: who knows when that will be? The weeks ahead will be likely dominated by emissaries of Trudeau and Singh discussing how a minority Parliament might function. They tend, if history is a guide, to last a couple of years. Speculation about what will happen next began even before election day. After a Trudeau rally held in Ottawa during the stretch run, Liberal MP Greg Fergus, from a nearby Quebec riding, mused about unignorable parallels with the Pierre Trudeau 1972 minority setback. “Just remember,” Fergus said, “two years later, he went on to win one of the biggest majorities up to that time.”

John Geddes
With files from Jason Markusoff
and Shannon Proudfoot


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