On March 25, Canada’s three opposition parties—the moderate Liberals, the socialist New Democratic Party, and the separatist and left-wing Bloc Québécois—conspired to bring down the minority government of Stephen Harper, the Conservative who has been prime minister since 2006. At the time, the Liberals formed the Official Opposition, the Bloc dominated Québec, and the NDP, with thirty-six seats out of a possible 308, was the smallest party in Parliament, as usual. The Canadian Green party, which won almost 7 percent of the vote in the last election, had again failed to elect even one member of Parliament. Canadian parliamentary elections last only five weeks, and the rush of polls and debates between a no-confidence vote and election day can give politics here an aleatory feel. But still it seemed reasonable to assume that the next Parliament would look roughly similar, with a chance that the Liberals would win enough seats to form a coalition government.
I spent the week before the election driving from Toronto to Vancouver, refusing to believe late polls that showed a two-way race between the Conservatives and the NDP, a national collapse of the Liberals, and the near-destruction of the Bloc in Québec.
The bikers of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, voted Tory. I spent a night there with a contractor affiliated with the Outlaws, the one-percenter gang that controls the town, and he told me that he had never voted Conservative before in his life: “I’m blue-collar, you know. But the people here on benefits are voting NDP, and I’m doing fucking great. So it’s Harper.”
That kind of talk used to be rare in Ontario. It has taken the Canadian right since 1993—when the moderate, benignly elitist, Progressive Conservatives went from 169 MPs down to just two—to consolidate under the leadership of populists from the Prairies and begin marching back east. Stephen Harper was the leader of the Canadian Alliance, the right-wing party that swallowed the Progressive Conservatives in 2003, and he is a master at turning middle-class concerns about high taxes and bureaucracy into a mild, Canadian-style aversion to big government. Canada never had a Thatcher or Reagan, and Harper probed the country for pockets of people willing to re-think Canada’s social contract, systematically targeting subgroups like exurban francophones, wealthy Jewish Torontonians and non-Muslim South Asians. It took eight years, but now that discussion is taking place in every province. In 2004, the Conservatives lost everywhere but the Prairies. In 2006 they won their first seats in Québec, and a minority government, but they failed to win a seat in any of Canada’s three big cities. In 2008 they broke into Toronto and Vancouver. In 2011 they elected 166 MPs, and were the only party to win seats in every province. They dominated Ontario, which is worth a third of parliament alone, and finally broke down the Liberal “Fortress Toronto.”
Just before the election, Harper became the only prime minister in the worldwide history of the Westminster system to be found in contempt of Parliament for concealing costs in his budget. Even his supporters tend to think he’s unnecessarily cagey. He’s dull to look at and listen to, with wire-rim glasses and the bad French of someone who only learned it to win seats in Québec. He has won three elections almost in spite of his personality, by opening an ideological debate Canadians didn’t know they wanted, then winning it.
No one likes Michael Ignatieff, which is strange because Canada, as Americans know it, exists because of a national willingness to elect aristocratic centrists. During the 20th century, the Liberals were the most dominant party in the western world, and its rich, intellectual leaders, like Mackenzie King (who oversaw the assemblage of the welfare state) and Pierre Trudeau (who held the confederation together after the rise of the separatist movement in Québec) built a base in Atlantic Canada, Southern Ontario, and the Federalist areas of Québec. Until Monday, Canadians called the Liberals their “natural governing party,” and they had never finished worse than second in a federal election.
Ignatieff, who looks very much like John Kerry, would have been a prime minister in the classical mode: a novelist, former Harvard professor, and grandson of a Russian count who spent twenty-seven years out of the country and came back, like Benazir Bhutto out of Oxford, with the quiet assumption that he would one day be prime minister. In 2009, Adam Gopnik wrote a tender New Yorker profile of him that made it seem as though Stephen Harper were just a regent, in power by grace of Ignatieff’s patience.
But when Ignatieff called this election, he misunderstood how much the Harper years have changed Canada. It now resembles the US: a superficially populist place, where being an academic is a political liability. Two days before the election, I was in Manitoba with a trucker who was torn between the Conservatives and the NDP. When I asked him why he wouldn’t split the difference and vote Liberal he said, “I’m so done being ruled by fucking Frenchmen and Montréal millionaires.” When I pointed out that Ignatieff isn’t actually either of those, he said “I know, but you know what I mean. They’re all like that. I’m blue collar, and I’m not about to vote Liberal.” That conclusion didn’t always follow.
Canada is also now a more ideological place. The right went Conservative, the left went NDP. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard the phrase “the center cannot hold” in the last week. The Liberal caucus fell from seventy-seven to thirty-four seats, fewer than any major party at the start of the campaign. Ignatieff lost in his own Toronto riding, sharing the anti-Tory vote, like scores of losing Liberals, with the NDP and Green candidates. The only serious base the Liberals have left is on the western half of the island of Montréal, where they won six seats, and Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin, waits to be acclaimed as the party’s savior.
The New Democrats
Before the election, left-wing Canadians were giddy over the NDP. The party had never won more than forty-three seats, but going into the campaign’s final weekend, commentators on CBC were discussing the possibility that Jack Layton, the party’s bald, moustachioed leader, could become prime minister. I spent election morning in Saskatoon, which is hopelessly gerrymandered in favor of the Conservatives, but even there my not particularly political driving companion wanted to vote NDP so badly that she was willing to commit voter fraud, and succeeded in persuading a reporter for the local paper to swear a false oath confirming her Saskatchewan residency.
The NDP is basically a European-style moderate left-wing party, socialist in all but name. It has been growing for years, but when this election was called no one expected the NDP to beat its previous high of forty-three seats, much less form the Official Opposition. They won 102 seats, exactly triple the Liberals’ number. In Québec they won fifty-eight seats, up from a previous high of one, and took almost every Bloc riding—reducing it from forty-nine seats to four.
I watched the returns in Calgary, with a group of decidedly not blue collar Conservative-voting oil company managers and engineers, and even they seemed confused about who really won. When Layton spoke after the returns were in, one of them yelled to me to come watch his “victory speech.” It did have that aspect: he beamed through it, and barely mentioned that the Harper Conservatives had just won their first majority government, or that, collectively, the four opposition parties will have less power in the next Parliament than just the NDP, as the smallest party, had in the last. The Conservatives no longer have to cut deals.
Commentators talked about a national “left-wing surge,” but by the time I got to Vancouver, the excitement had already worn off. To reach opposition status, the NDP cannibalized the Canadian left. Most of their gains came at the expense of the Bloc, another union-backed socialist party, and they split the vote with the Liberals in dozens of moderate ridings, allowing the Conservatives to win a majority with only 40 percent of the popular vote. Now only a huge scandal can bring the government down, and the NDP has already been forced to move to the center, to compete for Tory, rather than Liberal, voters. With the Bloc broken and the Greens still tiny, there’s no longer a party to pressure them from the left. The most likely consequence of the NDP’s rise is that the Canadian center will move right.
The Greens have been working to elect an MP since 1983. On Monday, their leader, Elizabeth May, finally won election from a British Columbia riding, after trying and losing in Ontario and Nova Scotia. Because her party now has a place in Parliament, May will probably be invited to participate in televised debates during the next campaign, which will further raise the Greens’ stature, and give Canadians three major left-of-center parties to vote for (or four, in Québec). They have some members with eco-capitalist tendencies, but for the most part the Greens differ politically from the NDP in that they act more like insurgents and have no ties to organized labor.
Every few years, the sovereigntist movement in Québec is dealt a killing blow. Twice, in 1980 and 1995, it was the failure of an independence referendum. Sometimes it’s a defeat in a provincial election. Sometimes it’s something as small as a defection or a loss in a by-election.
This result was particularly brutal, because no one expected it, and because Gilles Duceppe, the Bloc’s leader and the greatest separatist politician of his generation, lost his own seat and resigned.
The Bloc is the federal sister party to the Parti Québécois. Until Monday they had won a majority of Québec’s seats in every election they contested. There is something bizarre about a separatist party sitting in the Federal parliament, but they were a show of force, and since the 1995 referendum they have been a crucial part of the incrementalist strategy of demanding autonomy from Ottawa bit by bit. In 2006, Duceppe even maneuvered Harper’s government into a motion recognizing Québec as a separate nation within Canada. But it’s clear the nation was tired of them, and the Bloc lost to a party that didn’t plan on winning in Québec. Three of the new NDP parliamentarians are current McGill undergrads, and one is an anglo bartender who will not say whether she has ever actually been to her overwhelmingly Francophone riding.
I watched Duceppe’s farewell speech with the oil workers, who were jeering. They were happier that the separatists had been beaten than they were that Harper had won a majority. On TV, everyone in the hall seemed to be crying, and Duceppe took a very long time to get to the stage. His wife came up to the podium, and when he broke down just before announcing his retirement, she grabbed his face and started kissing him on the cheeks and lips. He went on, and the hall went quiet. Then, from the back, a young male voice yelled out—in English, of all the possible languages to yell in at a separatist gathering—“But!” and paused, then finished in a rush: “We can’t do it without you!” Then I teared up too.
The Bloc will probably never fully recover, but it may not matter. The Parti Québécois is still far ahead in polls for the next provincial election, and only they can call another referendum. Support for independence is still steady at about 40 percent. After four more years of Harper it will be higher. Since the failure of the first independence referendum, in 1980, the movement has had a refrain for moments like this: À la prochaine fois.