REGINA - The music faded out just as Andrew Scheer greeted the crowd Monday with a trademark smile.
By the time the Conservative leader took to the stage at Regina’s International Trade Centre, the room flooded in a Tory-blue hue and the Conservative campaign bus parked inside the hall, the party faithful already knew they would not win the most seats, after all.
Some of the hundreds of supporters who came to celebrate Justin Trudeau’s downfall this night had already headed home. Many others, for the beer stand.
“Our party is strong, it is united, and we are on the march,” Scheer told those who stuck it out at the party’s election headquarters.
“Mr. Trudeau, when your government falls, Conservatives will be ready and we will win.”
Conservatives, he said, had put Trudeau on notice. The party’s lead in the popular vote — at roughly 34.44 per cent over the Liberals’ 33.01 per cent — was an endorsement from the Canadian people that they are a government-in-waiting.
“And Mr. Trudeau, when your government falls, Conservatives will be ready and we will win.”
Scheer, the Ottawa-born, adopted son of Saskatchewan, won’t become the first prime minister to represent a riding in this province since John Diefenbaker. At least, not this time. He won’t be in a position to scrap the carbon tax loathed by many on the Prairies.
And he will not be the one to provide the “brand new day” and “better way” promised in the guitar-heavy Tory campaign song that boomed at Scheer’s events over the past few weeks.
Trudeau’s Liberals are instead emerging from a 40-day campaign, one that often felt like a joyless slog, with a strong minority that will serve as both punishment and reward.
Scheer is headed back to his old spot in the House of Commons with more MPs behind him, but not his popular deputy leader, Lisa Raitt, who lost in battleground Ontario.
Still, he asked supporters to cast their memories back to 2004, when the Conservatives under Stephen Harper reduced the Liberals to a minority and, less than two years later, found themselves in the government benches. He reminded them that, not so long ago, Trudeau seemed unstoppable.
“This is how it starts,” he said. “This is the first step.”
David Criddle, who is in his 60s and from Crooked Lake, Sask., isn’t so sure. For him, the results sting nearly as much as if Trudeau had captured a majority.
“He’s going to be able to do whatever he wants because he’s either going to have Quebec to back him, with the Bloc, or the NDP,” he told HuffPost Canada. “So, it’s not going to be much of a minority government. It’s not going to be short-lived.”
Underestimated throughout his political career, Scheer had told reporters earlier that he would surprise people again. He was first elected in Regina-Qu’Appelle in 2004, a remarkable feat not only because he was 25, but he also took down well-known New Democrat Lorne Nystrom. He’d moved to Regina just a year earlier to build a life in the hometown of his wife, Jill.
Scheer came from behind to win the Conservative leadership in 2017 as the consensus candidate.
But there was no such magic on Monday night. Instead, party backers were left to toast the defeat of Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi in Alberta, People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier in Quebec, and, in particular, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, the only Liberal left in Saskatchewan.
To the extent that this campaign was about anything, it was about affordability. Both Scheer and Trudeau rolled out competing measures that seemed to concede that, whatever the job numbers or economic indicators, Canadians are feeling stretched.
He promised to cut the tax rate on the lowest income bracket — up to $47,630 — from 15 per cent to 13.75 over four years. His party said the so-called “universal tax cut” would save an average, two-income couple about $850 a year.
Liberals fired back by, among other things, pledging to make the first $15,000 of income tax-free for Canadians earning less than $147,667, and scrapping federal taxes on EI payments for maternity and parental leave. They also promised to lower cellphone bills by 25 per cent, with little by way of details.
Scheer’s stump speeches often focused on keeping money in the pockets of Canadians, alleging Trudeau, with all of his privilege, can’t understand the struggles of ordinary people.
The Tory leader sometimes spoke about growing up with his family in a modest townhouse and taking the bus on dates because his family had no car. He was less eager to mention that a career spent in little other than politics unlocked the doors to the official residences of both the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition before the age of 40.
Though sometimes framed as a “nice guy” or “Stephen Harper with a smile,” Scheer had no qualms about throwing elbows. In a key moment during the English leaders’ debate, he blasted Trudeau in deeply personal terms, telling him he doesn’t deserve to govern the country because of the SNC-Lavalin affair and the times the Liberal leader wore blackface.
In that moment, he blew apart his aw-shucks image and became what Conservatives might have sensed Canadians wanted to see up there instead: the type of leader who would call Trudeau a phony and a fraud to his face.
Scheer kept SNC-Lavalin in the mix by promising a judicial inquiry and heftier fines for breaking ethics laws, and publicly inferring Liberals could illegally delete records related to the scandal. At one of his final rallies, Scheer quieted a “lock him up” chant directed at Trudeau.
In a race that often felt nasty, the Conservative leader also proved he was willing to stretch the truth to try to win.
He trumpeted false claims that Liberals had a “secret plan” to hit Canadians selling their homes with a capital-gains tax of up to 50 per cent — a message Tories blasted into battleground suburbs — and that Trudeau would decriminalize hard drugs. His party issued a press release questioning why Trudeau really left a teaching job at Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy at a time when gross, unfounded rumours were bandied about online.
Challenged about spreading misinformation
Scheer spent the final days of his campaign warning that a hypothetical “NDP-Liberal coalition” would raise the GST and cut health transfers to the provinces, claims that came out of thin air. He ducked questions about reports his party hired a firm to “destroy” Bernier’s People’s Party.
The Tory leader faced questions about whether he was spreading misinformation. He was asked, more than once, if he was proud of the campaign he ran. He was asked what he’d tell his five children.
Throughout the race, Scheer had to reckon with his past, including accusations he exaggerated his pre-politics work history by claiming to have been an insurance broker and an odd revelation that he holds dual Canada-U.S. citizenship.
But the bombshell photos of Trudeau wearing racist makeup years ago, the ones that made international news and became fodder for U.S. late-night comedians, failed to move the needle enough for Scheer.
Easton Smith, 19, who was at Scheer’s headquarters Monday, said the blackface scandal revealed Trudeau’s hypocrisy.
“Trudeau acted holier than thou and very hypocritical as he criticized, throughout his term as prime minister, every little mistake that any opponent made, especially Stephen Harper,” he said as results began flowing in.
“And then as soon as he slips up, he blocks it, he tries to get away from it, and he distracts people from it. That’s just not what I look for in a prime minister.”
Despite pledges not to reopen debates on abortion and same-sex marriage, Scheer faced repeated pressure to explain his personal views on social issues. Eventually, he stated publicly that he is “pro-life,” but wouldn’t say if his feelings on marriage equality have changed since a 2005 speech where he compared recognizing gay marriage to calling a dog’s tail a leg.
“I think the polarity has been getting worse, people are fighting for unity and they’re just disrespecting each other more.”
Daniel Selke, a 27-year-old looking to return to sheet metal work, told HuffPost Canada he wished Scheer would have stood “a little bit firmer” in defence of his social conservatism.
“Personally, I’m a little more on the right side of the spectrum than even our party is,” Selke said.
Danae LeDrew, a 25-year-old teacher, suggested Liberals are the ones responsible for whipping up divisive arguments.
“I think Canada has become more divided since the Liberals came into power. I think the polarity has been getting worse, people are fighting for unity and they’re just disrespecting each other more,” she said.
Scheer’s climate plan, the one an expert concluded would cause emissions to rise, seemed to concede the limits of his ambitions on this pressing file. He was the only major federal who didn’t participate in the youth-led climate marches last month.
In the closing chapter of the campaign, Trudeau asked voters to imagine waking up the day after the election to Scheer as prime minister. That’s not actually how it works, but the concession was no doubt meant to keep Liberal votes from drifting elsewhere.
On stage, Scheer asked his disappointed supporters to imagine that their story is just beginning.
“Let’s remember this feeling, coming close but falling just short,” he said. “And let’s use it as fuel to redouble our efforts because our work is not over. Canadians are counting on us.”
As midnight approached, and with it a brand new day, Scheer asked them to believe once more that a path to victory still lies ahead.