The 2019 Canadian Federal Election: A Return to Western Alienation

Published: 14 November 2019

André Lecours, University of Ottawa, highlights the issues that shaped the recent Canadian federal elections, and argues that the result emphasise the divide between Western Canada and the rest of the country.

As the campaign for the Canadian federal election of October 21 2019 got underway, the contest between the Conservative and Liberal parties was too close to call. The Liberals were seeking to form another government after four years in power with Justin Trudeau as Prime Minister. For the Conservatives, the challenge was to gain enough seats in Ontario, Québec, and the Atlantic provinces to add to their safe seats in Western Canada. The social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) was looking to salvage enough seats to keep some relevance in Canadian politics, as Quebeckers appeared poised to massively desert the party only two elections after the so-called ‘orange wave’ (orange being the color of the party) swept the province. The secessionist Bloc Québécois (BQ) was in survival mode after internal conflicts over how prominent it should make the independence issue almost destroyed the party. The Green Party seemed poised to gain more than the lone seat it garnered in 2015 considering the importance of environmental issues in recent Canadian political discourse. A new party, the Popular Party of Canada, formed by a disgruntled former Conservative Minister, was seeking to make any kind of headway from a clear right of center position.  

Two issues shaped the campaign. The first was the environment, which in Canada is inextricably tied to the question of expanding pipelines to take Alberta oil to Asian and European markets. While in government, the Liberals walked a tight rope on this issue, implementing a carbon tax while acquiring a pipeline to support an expansion project from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. During the campaign, Prime Minister Trudeau defended his environmental record, arguing that the Liberal approach was sensible and realistic. He was called an environmental ‘phony’ by the leaders of the NDP, BQ, and Green party, all of whom opposed pipeline expansion. Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, for his part, wanted an ‘energy corridor’ dedicated to pipelines, power lines, and rail that would cross the country from West to East. Finding support for this position outside Western Canada was always going to be a challenge despite the inclusion of hydro-electricity (in a nod to Québec) in the corridor.

The second issue that shaped the campaign was, surprisingly, Québec’s secularism (laïcité) legislation, which forbids the province’s governmental employees in positions of authority from wearing religious dress and symbols. The law, which enjoys strong backing in Québec but which has been criticized for being xenophobic by many outside the province, is being challenged in court on the grounds that it breaches fundamental freedom rights as laid out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The BQ, a strong defender of the legislation, pressed all the other party leaders to say if they would intervene in these court challenges were they to become Prime Minister of Canada. Prime Minister Trudeau said he would not intervene ‘for the moment’ (thus presumably leaving room for a Liberal government to side with the plaintiffs if and when the case reaches the Supreme Court of Canada) while NDP leader Jagmeet Singh failed to provide a clear answer. This position of the Liberals and NDP on Québec’s secularism legislation hampered their campaign in Québec and helped the Bloc’s.

The elections were a bittersweet victory for the Liberals, which managed to win a plurality of seats but fell short of another majority (they won 157 out of 338 seats, down 20 seats from 2015). Although it won 26 more seats than in the previous federal election, the Conservative Party was the biggest loser of the contest, failing to make the necessary progress outside Western Canada to claim victory. The NDP lost 15 seats, down to 24, including all if its seats in Québec except one. Despite this disappointing performance, the party can find solace in the fact it holds the balance of power in the current Parliament. Indeed, the NPD is politically and ideologically closer to the Liberals than is any other party and, although it has excluded the possibility of a coalition, it could provide the necessary support for the Liberals to govern in exchange for some elements of its program being reflected in legislation. The BQ is a major winner of the election, coming back from the brink of extinction to win 22 more seats than in 2015 with 32. The Green party made only modest gains, electing three candidates (up two) while the Popular Party of Canada failed to gain a single seat.

The 2019 federal election has highlighted the territorial division between Western Canada (more specifically the Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) and the rest of the country. The Conservatives failed to win only eight out of the 62 seats in the three provinces. Despite voting Conservative so overwhelmingly, Western Canadians in these three provinces could not get a federal government likely to develop pipelines, something viewed as a necessity to stimulate struggling economies in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Hence, the result of the last election is only aggravating feelings of alienation that have recently been reborn in Western Canada.

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