Liberals win most seats, but too early to who holds balance of power

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MONTREAL — The mood at Liberal party election headquarters in Montreal moved from cautious optimism to jubilation throughout the evening as the results started making it clear they had managed to squeeze out another victory.

Liberal supporters cheered loudly when they saw that Maxime Bernier, the People’s Party of Canada leader who questions whether climate change is caused by human activity, had lost his long-held seat in the Quebec riding of Beauce, and then hushed for his concession speech. 

The early results from Atlantic Canada showed the Liberals remained strong in the region, but as results from Quebec started coming in, it was looking as though the resurging Bloc Quebecois had done serious damage to their chances to form a majority government.

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The New Democrats were also badly hurt in Quebec, and early results made it unclear which party the Liberals would need to rely on the most to sustain a minority government.

Steven Guilbeault, a prominent environmentalist who won the downtown Montreal riding of Laurier-Sainte-Marie for the Liberals, said he was feeling pretty good.

So was the crowd, which started chanting his name as his face was flashed on one of the giant screens projecting televised newscasts of the election results.

“We’ve had a number of minority governments in Canada’s recent history,” Guilbeault told The Canadian Press on Monday night. “But if that’s the situation, then that’s the situation we’ll be in and we’ll just have to make it work.”

Trudeau is seeking a second term as prime minister, but public-opinion polls suggested throughout the campaign he was in a tight race with Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer.

The Liberals began the campaign framing the election as a choice between continuing their progress on climate change, in reducing poverty and on other issues — hence the campaign slogan, “Choose Forward” — and facing cuts from the Conservatives.

Those Conservatives he was talking about were not always those he was actually fighting in the federal election, however, as Trudeau spoke often about Ontario Premier Doug Ford,a Progressive Conservative who has been unpopular in the province.

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Earlier in the campaign, Trudeau was pushing so hard to tie the federal Conservatives to Ford that Scheer told him during the debates he should run for leader of the Ontario Liberals.

Trudeau sought to hold the coalition of progressive voters that helped the Liberals come to power with a strong majority government in 2015, following a campaign based on hope and optimism at a time when Canadians seemed to desire a change.

This time, the Liberals had to contend with disappointment over controversies such as their decision to purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline project, how they handled the SNC-Lavalin affair and their choice to abandon an unequivocal promise to bring in electoral reform.

The Liberal campaign was also rocked to its core at the end of its first week, after Time magazine published a yearbook photo of Trudeau in dark makeup at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” party organized by the Vancouver private school were he was a teacher.

Two more instances of Trudeau wearing blackface quickly emerged.

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Trudeau apologized for wearing the makeup, which he said he now believes is racist.

Then the polls suggested Trudeau was being threatened from the left, with the New Democrats and Greens rising in popularity and the Bloc Quebecois coming on strongly, too.

That had Trudeau hammering home the message that choosing a “progressive government” is better than choosing a “progressive opposition,” arguing that opposition parties were unable to stop austerity measures brought in by former prime minister Stephen Harper.

Trudeau also campaigned hard for votes that could have gone to the Bloc Quebecois, portraying the Liberal party as one that shares the values of Quebecers on issues like climate change and access to abortion.

“The Bloc does not have a monopoly on Quebec pride,” Trudeau said repeatedly on a whistle-stop tour of the province in the last week of the campaign.

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Still, Trudeau saved his sharpest attacks for the Conservatives, accusing them spreading disinformation and running one of the dirtiest campaigns in Canadian history.

The Liberal leader also started talking more about polarization and divisiveness on the campaign trail, including by saying, when asked to share his greatest regret, that he wondered whether he could have done more to stop it.

The final week of the Liberal campaign moved at a frenetic pace, with Trudeau making six or seven stops a day, moving through southern Ontario, Winnipeg and Calgary on Saturday alone, to hold rallies with enthusiastic crowds.

At times it seemed as if the strategy in those final days relied on him shaking hands — or taking a selfie — with every single eligible voter in Canada.

The strategy was also meant to show Trudeau could still draw crowds of enthusiastic supporters who clamoured for a moment with him, even in places like Calgary where there were protesters outside accusing him of treason.

Laura Vrabie, a Liberal volunteer in the Montreal ridings of Outremont and Rosemont-La Petite-Patrie — where the Grits were making a concerted push for what is considered the NDP’s safest seat in Quebec but fell short — highlighted how the recent surge in support for Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet could erode both Liberal and NDP votes across the province.

“He’s a very charismatic candidate,” she said. “I think a lot of progressive Quebecers might vote for the Bloc or the NDP. But also among those progressives there are definitely some shy Liberals, because they don’t want the Conservatives to win, so they might switch at the last minute.”

The mood at election-day headquarters felt more subdued than previous Liberal gatherings, she said.

“It’s not as crazy as it was last time. Last time there was a poutine-making station.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on Oct. 21, 2019.

Joanna Smith and Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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