Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau loses his sheen — and his majority

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau celebrates the election results.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, celebrates the election results Monday at the Montreal Convention Center.
(Sebastien St-Jean /AFP/Getty Images)

Same prime minister, much different political reality.

Canadian voters gave Justin Trudeau a second term Monday, but his charmed political profile disappeared along with the parliamentary majority held by his Liberal Party. He will now lead a minority government.

“From coast to coast to coast, tonight Canadians rejected fear and negativity,” Trudeau said in his victory speech. “They rejected cuts and austerity and they voted in favor of a progressive agenda and strong action on climate change.”

But above all else, the results made it clear that Canada is an increasingly diverse and divided nation.


The tensions go far beyond a resurgence in Quebec nationalism that resulted in big gains in Parliament for Bloc Quebecois, a party committed to enhancing French culture and language in the province.

A split between urban and rural Canada — similar to that in the United States — was brought into sharp relief as the Liberals swept all 25 seats in the greater Toronto area.

Also on display was a stark regional division, with Liberals completely shut out in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The east-west rift has defined contemporary Canadian politics the way the Solid South — first a Democratic stronghold and then a Republican one — has defined U.S. politics since Reconstruction.

A chastened but triumphant Trudeau acknowledged those divisions and offered a verbal outstretched hand to Saskatchewan and Alberta, which along with Manitoba recoiled at his support for a carbon tax and other energy and environmental policies.

“Know that you are an essential part of this country,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau, the son of a storied prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, swept into power in 2015 on the basis of what he called a “sunny” view of Canada and its future. His party took 184 of the 338 seats in Parliament.


But the vote Monday humbled Trudeau — and significantly diminished not only his sheen but also his power.

Trudeau will control the government despite losing the popular vote to the Conservative Party. But he will do it with the Liberals holding 26 fewer seats in Parliament.

“We are seeing the big coalitions of voters that Trudeau put together crumbling,” said Max Cameron, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia. “He’ll be prime minister, but reduced in power. His wings are clipped. This represents a check on him in Parliament and in the country.”

His father faced the same situation in 1972 after losing his majority in Parliament but managing to keep his job as prime minister. A believer in the perfectibility of humankind, he vowed to “correct those areas in our administration where we had been incompetent.”

The younger Trudeau, though less introspective, less intellectual and less intuitive, is also likely to make mid-course corrections. He almost certainly will have to bow to some of the inclinations of the left-wing New Democratic Party, which campaigned in large part on more aggressive measures to combat climate change.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and his wife Gurkiran Kaur step on stage under the cheers of his supporters at the NDP Election Night Party in Burnaby BC, Canada, on October 21, 2019. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party held onto power in a nail-biter of a Canadian general election on Monday, but as a weakened minority government.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and his wife Gurkiran Kaur step on stage under the cheers of his supporters at the NDP Election Night Party in Burnaby BC, Canada, on October 21, 2019. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party held onto power in a nail-biter of a Canadian general election on Monday, but as a weakened minority government.
(Don Mackinnon/AFP via Getty Images)

Governing will not be easy. The New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois each has the power to tip a vote of confidence or a parliamentary ballot on the federal budget against the prime minister and destroy his government.

It is a difficult balancing act, and there is reason to believe that, given the divisions in the country, the government may not last the customary four-year term.

Canada is no stranger to minority governments. For seven years beginning in 2004, Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper governed with minorities.

The arrangement could also affect Canada’s standing internationally. The country is a candidate for a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2020, and some analysts worry that domestic political uncertainty substantially weakens its case.

Trudeau’s relationship with President Trump has been fraught since they clashed at the Group of 7 meeting in Quebec last year.

On Tuesday morning, Trump tweeted to salute the prime minister on a “wonderful and hard fought victory.”

The election was more than a referendum on Trudeau. It also exposed voter frustration with the two parties that have dominated the country’s politics for a century and a half.

“This vote was an effort to limit the power of those major parties,” said Stewart Prest, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

“The performance of the Bloc and NDP together provide a message that the big shift toward the Liberals in the last election has been squandered,” he said. “In this election, people voted against, rather than for, candidates.”

The Bloc Quebecois, which won 32 seats — more than triple the number it captured four years ago — indicated Tuesday that it will vote with the Liberals in the House of Commons on an “issue-by-issue” basis.

Its newfound power will increase pressure on Ottawa to provide compensation for the province’s dairy farmers, whose interests are threatened by the new trade agreement with Mexico and the United States.

The bloc’s leader, Yves-Francoise Blanchet, is not threatening a fresh referendum to separate Quebec from Canada. But the election reignites long-standing debate over the role of Quebec in Canada’s political and cultural life and energizes the drive to preserve the province’s French-language identity.

The Conservative Party also had high hopes for this election and managed to gain seats in Parliament. But its leader, Andrew Scheer, who projected a placid personality during the campaign and was unable to stoke enthusiasm beyond his base, now faces demands that he step aside.

His strategy did not go beyond pillorying Trudeau, portraying the prime minister as a cipher and promising tax relief for the middle class.

Trudeau was dogged by revelations that he appeared in blackface when he was younger. He also faced ethics questions growing out of what became known as the SNC-Lavalin affair, an episode in which he was found to have intervened inappropriately in a Justice Department matter.

The campaign took just six weeks. On Tuesday morning, there was a discernible sense of liberation — from candidate appearances, from broadcast advertisements, from television talking heads — but also an acknowledgment that important questions were not resolved.

Shribman is a special correspondent.