The pandemic election no one wanted is the election Canada needed

The election is a reminder of what the rise of Trump-style populism may mean the next time the country faces an existential crisis

It’s taken a few days for the results of last Thursday’s not-so-great debate to find their way in public opinion polls. And it looks quite unexpectedly like the Liberals may be back in the hunt, poised to do what only a week ago seemed inconceivable and maybe even win a majority.

Has Erin O’Toole’s Trump-inspired platform finally lit a fire under voters?

It’s too early to tell if the massive mobilization that took place during the U.S. elections to stop Trump will repeat itself north of the border. 

Elections Canada has reported that almost six million Canadians cast their ballots in four days of advanced polls that opened Friday. That’s almost 19 per cent more than in 2019. 

Conservative partisans were quick to suggest the wave was showing up for O’Toole after Ottawa’s pundit class had him as default winner of the debate – mostly because he didn’t say anything that left him with egg on his face. Other polling suggests the debate was mostly a wash.

By Friday night, however, pollsters were noting a sizeable shift in Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic provinces and B.C. putting the Liberals up by three per cent nationally – and for the first time since mid-August.

O’Toole supporters dismissed the numbers. But other pollsters have since reported similar trends, noting the CPC’s bleeding of votes to Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party of Canada (PPC). 

Either voters’ only opportunity to see all the candidates in action during the federal leaders’ English-language debate is quickly galvanizing public opinion against O’Toole’s Conservatives, or Canadians are finally paying attention to an election most said they didn’t want. 

There are still a few days left in the campaign. And public opinion polls have been volatile. 

But O’Toole is sure acting like he’s on the run to shore up his dwindling base of support. 

The Conservative leader emerged from the studio in Ottawa where he has been most of this campaign to wade into the abortion debate while campaigning in Ontario over the weekend.

He says a Conservative government would allow provinces to make their own decisions on whether to provide the services, confirming for many voters the party’s soft position on women’s right to choose. He also offered words of support for Alberta premier Jason Kenney’s handling of the COVID crisis, which by any measure has been a disaster. On Monday, O’Toole revived a familiar bogeyman in Quebec, saying a Conservative government would close the Roxham Road border crossing that had been used by asylum seekers driven by Donald Trump’s election in the U.S. 

So much for O’Toole’s moderate conservatism. “True Blue” Erin O’Toole has all of a sudden turned purple, which are the colours of the PPC, offered one National Post columnist. 

The election no one wanted is turning out to be the election we needed to remind us, like our neighbours to the south, what the rise of Trump-style populism here means for our democracy. It’s on a knife’s edge.

Campaign of intimidation

After a summer of slumber from the perils of the COVID crisis – made possible by a massive vaccination effort – Canadians have finally started to turn their undivided attention to #elxn44. 

The number of Canadians who say they’ve been paying “little attention” to the election until recently is at 17 percent. Some 38 per cent of those say they’re voting Liberal, which is one factor contributing to the Liberals’ seeming momentum, according to Abacus Research.

But there have been other factors. O’Toole‘s flip-flopping on the Liberals’ assault rifle ban – which he spent five days trying to explain – has irreparably hurt the Conservatives in Quebec and among women voters. The CPC leader’s position on privatizing some health-care services after the debacle witnessed in long-term care during the COVID crisis, and, crucially, his opposition to mandatory vaccinations have also helped fuel a Liberal surge. Is it any coincidence that the two provinces with the worst record of handling the COVID crisis – Alberta and Ontario – are led by Conservative premiers? With anti-vaxxers now showing up in nationwide protests in front of hospitals, the patience of most Canadians with the antics of a small but vocal minority has been exhausted.

Then there’s the PPC’s spike. At least one pollster has the party in double digits in Ontario, including stealing votes in crucial 905 ridings around Toronto where the Conservatives are hoping to make inroads, but now find themselves some 20 points behind, according to Nanos Research.

O’Toole’s strategists are already making overtures publicly to PPC supporters that a vote for the PPC will only harm the chances of Conservatives forming the next government. As Canada Proud founder and former O’Toole leadership campaign manager Jeff Ballingall told Maclean’s, “You can’t protest (vote) and also get rid of Trudeau.”

But the PPC’s sharp rise is also seemingly giving mainstream voters who may have been thinking about voting Conservative – or NDP for that matter – second thoughts. 

O’Toole had managed to play hide and seek in the first weeks of the campaign to keep those voters in the fold. 

But then angry mobs started showing up at Trudeau rallies and throwing stones. Among them were Conservative supporters. For those considering a vote for O’Toole, the lines between the CPC and PPC, which have never been that distinct on the meat-and-potatoes issues to begin with, have become even more blurred. 

The campaign of intimidation against Trudeau and the Liberals hasn’t stopped at rock-throwing. Liberal signs have been trashed and defaced with swastikas in several ridings. The words “FU Liberals” were spray-painted on the car of one Liberal MP.

And while Conservative supporters can’t be tied directly to all those events, there’s also no denying that the party under O’Toole and its caucus members have done their share of stoking anti-Trudeau sentiment – not to mention pandemic conspiracies, xenophobia and anti-Muslim hysteria now rearing its head as the campaign hits the final stretch. The Conservative party’s election platform, as has been pointed out elsewhere, has had more to say about puppy mills than the rise of racist sentiment during the pandemic, which is not even mentioned.

On Canada’s residential schools tragedy, another issue that was front and centre in the public pre-election, the Conservatives have been similarly duplicitous, with O’Toole now advocating for the raising of flags that have been flying at half-mast in front of federal buildings ever since the discovery of unmarked graves at the former site of Kamloops Residential School back in May. The Conservative party platform has also pledged to make it a criminal offence to block rail lines and other federal infrastructure, as was done by Indigenous protestors and their supporters over pipeline development in northern BC before the pandemic. 

It’s all a play to keep bedrock Conservatives from straying. And it’s beginning to smell of desperation. 

On Monday, O’Toole ventured into disinformation – which has been a hallmark of the Conservative campaign on social media – suggesting in a one-on-one with the CBC that the gun used in the Dawson College shooting in 2006 was “illegally obtained.” The shooter was in fact licensed. 

Does O’Toole have a secret agenda? 

Unlike election runs in 2015 and 2019, Trudeau isn’t selling “sunny ways” this time around. He’s taken up the fight on the campaign trail, sounding the alarm about the election being a choice between what he termed “two radically different visions of Canada.” 

It was always the intention of Liberal strategists to frame this election as a fight between progressive politics and Trumpism bleeding across the Canada-U.S. border. Trudeau hinted at it when he stood in front of Rideau Hall to announce there would be an election. He noted Alberta Conservative MP David Yurdiga’s characterization of mandatory vaccinations as “tyrannical.” Trudeau said then that it was time for Canadians to speak on that and other issues. 

But it was largely missed by the Ottawa press gallery in the cacophony of whether an election should have been called in the first place during a fourth wave of the pandemic. 

To be sure, there were tactical reasons for the Liberals’ election call. Among them, Liberal insiders say, the upcoming Montreal civic elections and an expected election in Ontario in the spring. The Liberals didn’t want to leave it up to the opposition to choose the timing.

But the idea that the Liberals should be punished for calling an election most people (polls told us) didn’t want, still floats in the firmament. The Conservatives continue to flog that horse and to try and turn the election into a popularity contest on Trudeau’s likability. 

Whether it will be enough to paper over the obvious contradictions in the CPC’s platform – or, for that matter, what O’Toole really stands for – remains to be seen. 

For the moment, the stories of families whose loved ones have died, had to have their surgeries delayed or would have lost their livelihoods had it not been for government supports during COVID, seem to have been lost in the ether. 

Poisoned politics

There has been much written and said about Trudeau calling this election for his own personal gain. On the contrary, it’s the Conservatives who have been acting like they should be handed the reins of power for no good reason. 

On the major issues, the party is decidedly out of step with a majority of Canadians. To be sure, some political observers suggest that the Cons have shifted so far right that there is no longer a majority of seats to be had for the party in Canada. At 31 per cent in current polls nationally, the party is three per cent below where it was in 2019. In its base in Alberta, the Liberals are on course to do the unthinkable and win as many as five seats. 

This country’s largely conservative-leaning press has acted like the party’s house organ for most of the campaign. For the first two weeks of the campaign it looked like the Conservatives were going to deliver a knockout punch before the race even got underway with their friends in the media reporting party talking points without any context. And Canadians seemed to have forgotten that O’Toole won the Conservative party leadership pushing a Trumpian agenda to “Take Back Canada.”

They’re beginning to remember what we’ve just come out of and what electing a Conservative government may mean for the next existential challenge of our time – the climate crisis. 

But if the events of the last few weeks tell us anything, it’s that the race to define what Canada’s future will look like is not over – not by a long shot. Democracy is complicated that way. All Canadians need to do is look south of the border where the toxic environment left over from Trump’s reign of terror continues to poison the country’s politics.

On Monday, meanwhile, the Conservative leader offered with no apparent hint of sarcasm that the main issue for Canadians to focus on now is “trust.” Uh-huh.


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