Early balloting was underway, and one by one the shopkeepers, bakers and tourism workers of this hillside village wandered into the ski lodge to vote. Out the back windows, the radiant colors of a Quebec autumn lit up the Laurentian Mountains.
The rest of Canada goes to the polls Monday. But although the 4.7 million ballots already cast — about a fifth of the expected turnout — haven’t yet been counted, there are signs that the change of season may also bring a dramatic change in the coloration of the political environment of the country.
The term “minority government” is on the lips of political professionals and commentators from the far reaches of Newfoundland and Labrador to the coast of British Columbia — and in the Toronto suburbs, which have emerged as a vital final-weekend battleground. Across the six time zones of Canada, preliminary calculations are being made of how Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might survive his greatest political test by adding support from one of the minor political parties conducting spirited campaigns across the country.
Minority governments have a substantially different role and profile in Canada than in the United States.
Presidents without a popular-vote majority — these include Abraham Lincoln (1860) and Donald Trump (2016) — can still assemble an electoral college majority and govern with the same powers, and the same four-year longevity, as presidents such as Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936) and Ronald Reagan (1984), who won landslide majorities. By contrast, in a parliamentary system such as Canada’s, minority governments are dependent upon the continued support of the smaller party on issues big and small and their longevity is not assured.
“That means that on each issue the prime minister must consult with his coalition partners,” said Geoff Norquay, a senior advisor to former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and director of communications for Stephen Harper when he was the leader of the opposition before becoming prime minister in 2006. “The opposition party that is propping up the government thus has enormous power, both to amend policies or to end the government.”
Canada has had six minority governments in the past seven decades, involving such towering figures as Prime Ministers Lester B. Pearson (twice, ranging from 1963 to 1968) and Trudeau’s father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (1972-74). In both those cases, the junior partner — the party that provided sufficient parliamentary representation to push the government past the 50% barrier — was the New Democratic Party.
This time, the New Democrats, who are to the left of Trudeau’s Liberals, also are considered the most logical partner to provide a parliamentary majority, presumably for Trudeau. Party leader Jagmeet Singh already has made it clear he would not participate in a government with Andrew Scheer, who leads the Conservatives, customarily regarded as the major-party bookend to the Liberals.
In the campaign’s last hours, Scheer is arguing that the party that wins the most seats — not the party that holds the prime minister’s office — should get the first shot to create a governing coalition. Yet while polls show the race a dead heat, Trudeau still could win a parliamentary majority on his own.
The fevered talk of minority government grows out of weaknesses of the prime minister that came into sharper relief in his reelection campaign than in the four years he occupied Rideau Cottage, his official residence. In particular, he faced a firestorm over the appearance of images of him in blackface and brownface, which prompted a national debate about whether that constituted deep-seated intolerance or merely youthful insensitivity.
All this came amid fresh questions about whether Trudeau was, as Herbert Hoover once described FDR, a chameleon upon plaid.
And by embracing a profile that emphasized LGBTQ rights, climate change and justice for Canada’s Indigenous people, Trudeau placed himself inside a political pincer of his own construction. Rural Canadians were skeptical that he chose to displace standard Liberal priorities such as healthcare, jobs and the economy as part of his new progressive agenda even as those on the left didn’t think he had done enough on the issues that appeal to more progressive voters.
In many ways, the endorsement of Trudeau by Barack Obama on Thursday underlined the prime minister’s challenges, for no earlier prime minister thought he needed, or wanted, the public approbation of an American leader. John F. Kennedy, who openly disdained Conservative Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, provided covert assistance to his Liberal rival Pearson in 1963 but stopped short of issuing an endorsement. Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton expressed strong views on issues in Canadian elections, but did not intervene on behalf of leadership candidates.
But because Obama is so popular among Canadians — 81% of the public here approved of his presidency, according to an Ipsos poll conducted at the end of his administration — the endorsement may redound to Trudeau’s advantage rather than emerge as a toxic example of American interference in Canadian affairs.
Similarly, Trudeau’s posture as an irritant to Trump may also work to the prime minister’s advantage, much as Richard Nixon’s antagonism to Trudeau’s father worked to his advantage. After the 2017 G-7 summit in the Charlevoix region of Quebec, Trump dismissed his Canadian host as “meek and mild” and “dishonest and weak.”
Another measure of Trudeau’s vulnerability is the sudden emphasis on Quebec, which has provided Canada with eight prime ministers (five, including both Trudeaus, since the middle of the 20th century) and where more than half the province’s members of the House are Liberals.
Both Trudeau and Scheer are calling for Quebeckers to reject the Bloc Québécois, self-proclaimed guardians of French language and culture. The Bloc now holds only 10 seats in Ottawa but in recent weeks has emerged as a formidable force in Canada’s second-largest province. This worries Trudeau because he needs Quebec seats to cobble together an electoral majority and troubles Scheer because he fears the Bloc could help propel Trudeau into a second term. Thus the province is regarded as an unpredictable danger zone for both parties.
The Conservatives remain a distant third in Quebec, according to a Forum Research poll that showed the Liberals and Bloc essentially tied in the province. And the potential role of the New Democratic Party — which is surging, particularly in British Columbia, where the party holds about a third of the seats in the House — plus the growing regard for its leader, Singh, have transformed the party into a strong force.
“I want to say this directly to Canadians: You do not have to choose between Mr. Delay and Mr. Deny,” Singh said, in a mocking reference to the two party leaders’ views on climate change, during the final candidate debate. “There is another option.”
As Canadians prepare to go to the polls after a compressed 41-day campaign, many options are open — and much may still be unresolved on Day 42.
Shribman is a special correspondent.