The first federal election of your scribe’s mortal existence, which he followed studiously from a kitchen high chair, listening to reports on the wireless (OK, we did call it a “radio”), was in June 1957.
It featured “Uncle” Louis St. Laurent, the dull but competent successor to loony but competent Mackenzie King as Liberal prime minister, versus the “Chief,” Ontario-bred Prairie lawyer and Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker.
Veteran popular history author Peter C. Newman vividly described in Renegade in Power the mood in the Grit camp going into that election: “The coterie of Liberal armchair strategists, gently rumbling in the palmy reaches of Ottawa’s Rideau Club, smugly reminded each other of the hoary epithet that the Conservative Party’s problems were, as always, insurmountable, its policies insufferable and its prospects invisible. After 22 fat years, they could not know how wrong they were.”
The Chief, riding a wave of populism fueled by his wild charisma, pulled off what is generally agreed to be the biggest upset in Canadian electoral history, ousting the dignified St. Laurent and winning a minority government. The unabashedly unilingual Diefenbaker even won nine seats in Quebec, five more than in the 1953 vote.
Historians would probably agree the next big electoral surprise was in 2015 when then-New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair, with a mighty fortress already established by Jack Layton in Quebec, seemed poised to lead the socialist hordes to the corridors of federal power for the first time ever.
Out of the blue, leading a rag-tag pack of 34 Liberals, came Justin Trudeau, the Hail Mary would-be saviour of the party, surfing a wave of revulsion against the grim and grey Stephen Harper regime. Trudeau’s spectacular gain of 148 seats for a majority win in 2015 will likely stand in the history books as a record just as unassailable as Wayne Gretzky’s scoring stats.
Apart from these milestones, most Canadian federal elections in recent history have been fairly predictable. A possible exception might be the 1972 campaign, when Pierre Trudeau came literally within one seat of losing power. Running under the pseudo-Maoist slogan “The Land is Strong,” the Liberals salvaged 209 seats to 207 for the Progressive Conservatives, under the leadership of the dour but droll former premier of Nova Scotia, Robert Stanfield of the underwear empire.
Had a seat or two more gone the Tory way, the legacy of Trudeau the Elder would have been reduced to a mercurial one-off flash in the pan, not unlike that of Diefenbaker, who in the 1963 election blew his massive majority after five years of erratic, divisive governance.
Since then, federal elections have pretty much followed a cycle, with a Tory or Liberal regime overstaying its welcome after about a decade in power. Such was the case for the first Trudeau (minus the brief 1979 Joe Clark interregnum), Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien and Stephen Harper.
So, is there a surprise in store in the 2021 federal election? Pollsters agree on one thing at the start of the battle: Based on the current numbers, the Liberals are very likely to win, but will they return to power with another minority or a cherished majority?
Given that, the only real surprise would be some unforeseen or untracked surge to either Erin O’Toole’s Conservatives or Jagmeet Singh’s NDP. Where would such a hypothetical stampede happen? If you are a strategist for either major opposition party, where do you lay down your electoral chips? Where are there possible seat gains to be made? What about Quebec?
La belle province, as is frequently the case, is likely to be a key factor in this election. Not for nothing have Trudeau and the Liberals been making nice to an almost unseemly extent with the almost embarrassingly popular Coalition Avenir Québec government.
From no-strings-attached billions for childcare, to complicity or indifference regarding provocative language laws, to a string of big investments in various economic and infrastructure ventures, Trudeau is betting the house on winning more seats in Quebec.
It may be paying off. Polls in recent weeks show the Liberals widening and solidifying their lead over the Bloc Québécois.
If his snap pandemic election gamble fails and there is a big surprise come Sept. 20, Trudeau can at least take some comfort in having edged out Diefenbaker as Canada’s 10th longest-serving prime minister.