MONTREAL — Five days ago, Justin Trudeau slammed his Conservative opponents for one of the “dirtiest, nastiest campaigns” Canada has ever seen. On Monday, the Liberal leader came out on top with enough seats to secure a minority government.
“Coast to coast to coast, tonight, Canadians rejected division and negativity,” he told the crowd at Montreal’s Palais des congrès convention centre, which served as the Liberal party’s election night headquarters.
“They rejected cuts and austerity and they voted in favour of a progressive agenda and strong action on climate change.”
Canadians gave Liberals a second mandate to continue the work they started in 2015, but a measurable division has emerged. The Liberals were shut out of seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan, prompting Trudeau to specifically reach out to voters there.
“And to Canadians in Alberta and Saskatchewan, know that you are an essential part of our great country,” the Liberal leader said. “I’ve heard your frustration and I want to be there to support you. Let us all work hard to bring our country together.”
The environment was a major defining issue that differentiated the Liberal and Conservative platforms. The Tories picked up more seats in the Prairies Monday, where voters welcomed the stronger opposition to Trudeau’s climate plan.
Yet the Liberals’ climate plan is exactly why so many young people showed up Monday night in Montreal to cheer on Trudeau.
Chip Smith’s voice was strained from yelling so much as the night’s results rolled in. The McGill history and political science student volunteered with Liberal star candidate Steven Guilbeault’s campaign. He said he heard a lot of concerns about the environment while door knocking in the riding of Laurier–Sainte-Marie in downtown Montreal.
“We also saw that with the turnout for the [climate] strike recently with Greta Thunburg,” said Smith, who cast his first-ever federal vote.
“I think people know that this is a serious issue and people take as a concern, younger voters especially.” Smith leaped high into the air when it was announced that Guilbeault, a high-profile environmentalist, won.
“If you want to progress the country, you have to focus on the youth and the children of the country.”
Friends Nahidura Rahman and Nayeem Chowdhury also found themselves moving through the excited crowd, each wearing Team Trudeau buttons pinned to their coats. They’re international students from Bangladesh and hope to vote in future elections here.
Rahman said he thinks the Liberals have their priorities in the right places. “They work for the elders, they also work for the child[ren] — that’s the most important thing. Because if you want to progress the country, you have to focus on the youth and the children of the country.”
By late Monday, the Liberals won 156 seats, short of their 177 when Parliament dissolved last month. Despite losing their first-term majority, it’s a massive sigh of relief for the Liberals after a wild 40-day campaign.
Trudeau notably made a pre-campaign assertion that he would not be “looking for wedge issues” during the election. Just two months after that pledge, the Liberals had an apparent change of heart.
Ralph Goodale (who lost his seat Monday) tweeted a clip of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer opposing same-sex marriage in the House of Commons back in 2005. The Tory MP claimed gay couples lack an “inherent feature” for marriage, which he described as a commitment to the “natural procreation of children.”
It was a preview of how the first few days of the Liberal campaign would play out. The Twitter accounts of high-profile Liberals became advent calendars for clips, posted with the intention to humiliate Conservative candidates ahead of Scheer’s campaign stops.
The accounts of Liberal incumbents Maryam Monsef and Melanie Joly went after Conservative candidate Justina McCaffrey, drawing attention to her friendship with Faith Goldy, a fringe white nationalist banned from Facebook for violating its “organized hate” policy. Other Liberals, such as Carolyn Bennett, pressed the Conservatives for green-lighting candidates with anti-abortion stances.
But that strategy came to an abrupt stop a week into the campaign after Time magazine published a yearbook photo of Trudeau wearing brownface makeup in 2001. Trudeau was 29 and a teacher at a Vancouver private school at the time.
Other incidents surfaced, including a video of a young Trudeau wearing blackface during a “costume day” when he worked as a rafting instructor in the ’90s in Quebec. His white hands and knees were also painted dark.
“What I did, the choices I made hurt people, hurt people who thought I was an ally,” Trudeau told reporters in Winnipeg the next day. “I am an ally, but this is something I deeply regret and I never should have done.”
Trudeau had explained that when he became the member of Parliament for the Montreal riding of Papineau, representing the “extraordinary diversity” in the community, he learned that using blackface is offensive. He was 37 when he was first elected.
Queen’s University sociology professor Sarita Srivastava thinks Trudeau’s past use of racist makeup is now part of his legacy, one that is now seen to be much less progressive than when he first took power. When the party released its platform at the end of September, it was one that was “less at the front edge of change and so much safer,” she explained.
“I think that blackface incident can be read together with that diminishing credibility and diminishing status as someone who’s seen as a progressive leader.”
Srivastava pointed to the platform that was more focused on helping the middle class compared to the one from 2015 that outlined Trudeau’s vision for Canada. “His record on climate change is contradictory,” she added. Critics have repeatedly pointed out the irony in the Liberal government buying the Trans Mountain pipeline while simultaneously being unabashed environmentalists.
The Liberals’ minority government result on Monday night marks a significant rebound for a party up against a well-funded Conservative campaign, and weathered by international humiliation from the racist makeup revelations.
Trudeau did bring his own baggage into the campaign including a major broken promise on electoral reform, two separate reports that found him in violation of ethics laws, plus the lingering weight of the SNC-Lavalin affair. And there were political casualties.
Several incumbent MPs from the Montreal area watched the screens in the convention hall as two of their colleagues, Ralph Goodale and Amarjeet Sohi, were swept out of the race by Conservative candidates.
Liberal Marc Miller, who was re-elected in Ville-Marie–Le Sud-Ouest–Île-des-Soeurs, spoke about his disappointment at hearing of the veteran politicians’ losses.
“He has done an immense service to Canadians,” Miller said of the three decades Goodale served in the House of Commons. “He knows these things when he gets into politics, but you know, Canandians chose otherwise tonight.”
In Edmonton Mill Woods, voters decided to send former Conservative MP Tim Uppal back to Ottawa instead of Sohi, who was the natural resources minister. “Right now, I’m regretting the loss of a friend within caucus,” Miller said.
The Conservative ran a tough campaign, using arguably underhanded tactics to knock Liberals from their comfortable majority.
Weeks earlier, the Conservatives had latched onto a debunked rumour about why Trudeau left his teaching job at a Vancouver high school in 2001.
Discord between the Liberal and Conservative camps grew in the last week of the campaign. Both parties dabbled in disinformation with the Liberals claiming Conservatives want to keep assault weapons on the streets, while the Conservative leader used a false claim — a Liberal-NDP coalition government would hike up the GST — to raise the spectre of vote splitting to mobilize voters.
Seemingly, the message didn’t stick.
Emmanuella Lambropoulos, the re-elected Liberal MP for Saint-Laurent, told HuffPost Canada that she thinks voters realized the country “wasn’t on the wrong path” as suggested by the other campaigns.
“Negativity only attracts negativity, It doesn’t attract anything else,” she said, shortly after Trudeau finished his speech.
In the last stretch of the campaign, Barack Obama threw his support behind Trudeau, endorsing his friend for re-election.
To viewers at home, Trudeau’s speech in Montreal unfolded as Scheer had just started speaking in Regina. The Tory leader, in turn, had begun his own speech while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh was still giving his concession address in Burnaby, B.C.
This election campaign may be over, but the discord is still loud and clear.