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Quick Guide to Canada’s Election

by Eva Holland May 17, 2011
Nearly lost between the Royal Wedding and Osama bin Laden’s death at the hands of Navy SEALs was this news: Canada just held an election that radically altered the country’s federal political landscape.

HERE’S THE CONDENSED BACKSTORY: For the last five years, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party of Canada have formed a minority government — meaning they held more seats in Parliament than any other single party, but that the other parties had the combined numbers to take them down. Harper won his first minority in 2006 and received a second minority mandate in 2008; the 2011 election, triggered by a historic vote that found the Harper government in contempt of Parliament, was Canada’s fourth in the last seven years.

Harper’s campaign pitch for a majority mandate this time around played on the electorate’s frustration with the endless uncertainty and frequent elections that seem to go hand in hand with minority rule. The opposition, meanwhile, was left to try to explain the importance of the contempt vote (getting the public interested in the intricacies of parliamentary process: not an easy task in a soundbite-driven culture) and to highlight Harper’s reluctance to answer questions from the media or his selective screening of attendees at campaign rallies.

The results

On Monday May 2nd, Harper got his wish: 167 seats in Canada’s 308-seat federal parliament, a comfortable (though not an overwhelming) majority. Going in, it was a toss-up — most polls and pundits figured the Conservatives had a shot at majority territory, but it wasn’t a sure thing by any means. So you might call the result a mild surprise.

That’s where the mildness of the election’s surprising results ends, though. As the numbers flooded in from polling stations across the country, phrases like “for the first time ever” and “historic first” rolled in with them.

First, there was the devastating defeat of the Liberal Party, a centrist outfit that has dominated Canadian politics for the last century: They were reduced to a measly 34 seats, their leader was among the prominent candidates who were defeated, and “for the first time ever” they landed in third place, forming neither the government nor the official opposition.

“Plenty of voices are now asking if it’s time to consider serious electoral reform….”

Then, there was the party that stepped up to fill the new Liberal void: The New Democratic Party (NDP), a chronic third- and fourth-place finisher that has traditionally represented the Canadian left. They won local races from Newfoundland to the Northwest Territories and finished with 102 seats, forming the official opposition for the first time ever.

The NDP’s biggest gains came in Quebec, a province where it had previously been shut out in favor of the Bloc Quebecois, a party whose sole purpose is to advocate for the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. The Bloc rose to prominence in the early 1990s, at times winning enough seats in that populous province to form the official opposition — an awkward position for a party with a single major policy plank. But this time around, the Bloc was destroyed — it was reduced to four seats, and its leader resigned on the spot after losing his own seat, too.

Finally, on the west coast, Green Party leader Elizabeth May trounced a Conservative cabinet minister to become the first-ever MP elected under the Green banner.

So what does all this mean?

In the aftermath of the vote, the media hardly knew which narrative to seize and run with. Harper had won his third consecutive government: Was Canada voting for more of the same? But then two political titans had been reduced to ruin, and two fringe-ish parties had asserted themselves: Was Canada voting for change?

Control freak? Photo: some of rebecca’s photos

And there were other storylines to follow up on, too. Harper and the Conservatives had won a majority, meaning they have essentially unchecked legislative power for the next four years — what would the Prime Minister, already gaining a reputation for being a control freak, do with his newfound muscle?

And then there was the fact that the majority was earned with just 40% of the popular vote. For the losers, that doesn’t seem right. Plenty of voices are now asking if it’s time to consider serious electoral reform, a shift to proportional representation and a move away from our current first-past-the-post system. Others blame vote-splitting on the left — after all, the Liberals and the NDP received a combined 50% of the popular vote. Is it time to consider a merger? Should Canadians have voted more strategically, throwing their support to whichever left/center candidate was stronger in any given region?

And finally, Quebec-watchers wonder: Is separatism in the French-speaking province finally dead?

In a winter and spring of revolutions and uprisings in the Arab world, the remaking of Canada’s electoral map doesn’t seem all that dramatic. But by modest, undemonstrative Canadian standards, this is — to quote Joe Biden — a big fucking deal.

Will travelers experience a changed or changing Canada over the next four years? At this point, for all the punditry and polling and analysis and media sound and fury, there’s nothing to do but wait and see.

Community Connection:

The recent election isn’t the only controversy Canada’s facing. As Eva explained in this 2009 article, immigration is also an issue of increasing importance in the country.

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