Distinct Societies

The election leaves the nation splintered a never before

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 9 1997

Distinct Societies

The election leaves the nation splintered a never before

Anthony Wilson-Smith June 9 1997

Distinct Societies



The election leaves the nation splintered a never before


n the last day of what may have been Jean Chrétien’s final election campaign, the Prime Minister went back to the place where his life and his political career both began. As he did in the 1993 election, Chrétien returned to Quebec’s St-Maurice riding, where he was born in 1934, and where he first won election in 1963. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, he cast his ballot early at Ecole Ste-Marie on 33rd Street in the tiny village of Ste-Flore-de-Grand-Mère. Later, he retreated to his cottage at Lac des Piles to watch the results with his family. As in 1993, Chrétien appeared buoyant and said he was “confident.” But again, there was cause for worry. In the last election, the Liberals appeared headed for a majority government—but feared that Chrétien might lose his own seat. This time, the reverse was true: Chrétien seemed likely to win his seat, but his advisers feared that the Liberals might not meet their goal of a second majority government. “It was not,” sighed a dismayed adviser on election day, “supposed to be like this.”

In the end, it was close on both counts. Chrétien won his riding—but after a surprisingly tough race. Nationally, the Liberals awaited a last-minute reprieve and got one—but only after a nail-biting election night. Shortly after the polls closed in Atlantic Canada, it looked as though their worst fears were about to be realized. In those four provinces, where the party won 31 of 32 seats last time out, the Liberals were reduced to 11 seats—and lost two cabinet ministers in the process. The losses continued across much of the country as Canadians voted in an election that has left the nation splintered as never before—even as it faces the likelihood of another Quebec referendum. A wild card in the inevitable unity battle to come will be Reform party Leader Preston Manning, whose tough stance against Quebec demands for a form of special constitutional status won strong support in the West_and equally

strong antipathy in Quebec. His new status as official Opposition leader will further highlight tensions between Canada’s regions.

For all the problems that lie ahead, Chrétien did succeed in his goal of becoming the first Liberal leader since Louis Saint-Laurent in the 1950s to win back-to-back maioritv governments. Even Chrétien’s longtime leader, Pierre Trudeau, was never able to achieve that. But given the Liberals’ close brush with minority status, Chrétien was reduced to putting the best face on a hollow victory. “I promise to do my best, and lead a government of integrity,” he said in his victory speech. “This evening, the Canadian people have renewed their confidence in our team and in our program. I accept this honor.” At

the end of the night, the results in the next 301-seat House of Commons were liberals, 155 seats; Reform, 60; Bloc Québécois, 44; New Democrats, 21: Progressive Conservatives, 20 ; Independents, 1.

On a superficial level, the new Liberal government will look and sound the same as its predecessor. But for the first time in Canada’s history, the House of Commons will have five official parties—all with more than the 12 seats needed for formal recognition. That is more than just a mathematical curiosity: it reflects the political realities of a fractured country. Once again, the Liberals won seats in all of Canada’s regions. But roughly two-thirds of their support comes from Ontario, where they won 101 seats, a fact that is certain to stir resentment about the province’s inordinate influence over the rest of the country. And an unexpected savior for the party was Quebec, where the total of 26 seats was more than even the most optimistic Liberals expected.

Reform, which dominated the final two weeks of the campaign with its tough talk about the potential consequences of Quebec separation, swept past the Bloc Québécois to gain Opposition status. Manning, in a generally gracious speech, nonetheless called the result “a warning to the Liberal party.” And, he said, Reform’s rise was proof that “the old political landscape is changing.” Still, Manning’s delight at that achievement was muted by the fact that, again, his party failed to make inroads in Central and Eastern Canada: almost all of his members will come from Alberta and British Columbia. In 1993, the party won one seat in Ontario; this time, it was shut out completely.

At Reform’s election night headquarters in downtown Calgary, there was an air of expectation as results started rolling in. While a musician played softly on a grand piano in the lobby of the Metropolitan Centre, Reformers clinked glasses as they prepared to celebrate an expected breakthrough in Ontario. Buoyed by early reports that the Liberals were being battered in Atlantic Canada, the crowd of about 500 fell silent as Ontario returns showed Liberal support holding. Reform strategist Ron Wood could not hide his disappointment with Canada’s most populous province, but also admitted he was not surprised. “You’ve got people in Ontario who have voted Liberal all their lives, including my aunt who’s 97,” said Wood. “They’d have to be struck by lightning to vote anything else.”

The lack of an Ontario breakthrough, said University of Alberta political scientist Larry Pratt, suggested that Reform is destined to remain a western-based movement, similar to the Social Credit party of the 1950s and early 1960s. “Reform might have done better in Ontario had it moderated its attacks on Quebec,” said Pratt. “But it also has to preserve its Alberta base, and that’s the problem it faces.”

Among the other three party leaders, the happiest is likely to be Alexa McDonough, who led the NDP to an unprecedented breakthrough in the Atlantic provinces— where it won eight seats. On election night, a casual observer at Halifax’s historic Lord Nelson Hotel might have thought that it was the New Democratic Party, not the deeply wounded Liberals, who were about to form the next government. Bounding to the stage in the hotel’s main ballroom as a standing-room-only crowd of supporters cheered and clapped deliriously, McDonough declared: ‘Tonight is about making history. And the next four years will be about making a difference.”

Her own race in the riding of Halifax was supposed to be a tightly fought three-way contest between McDonough, Liberal incumbent Mary Clancy and popular provincial Tory Terry Donahoe. But McDonough won easily—and her party exceeded its wildest expectations, winning seven other seats in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

Another leader who revived a party from the neardead—with only two seats in the last Parliament—was the Tories’ Jean Charest. Now, the Conservatives have a solid base in Eastern Canada, and Charest’s personal popularity in Quebec gives the party hopes for future inroads in that province—and makes him a key player in a future referendum. But the party faces some formidable difficulties. Its brightest hope after Charest—retired Maj.-Gen. Lewis MacKenzie—was defeated in his first bid for elected office in the Ontario riding of Parry Sound/Muskoka. And the Tories have virtually ceased to exist west of Manitoba, failing to win any seats in their onetime strongholds of British Columbia and Alberta. In fact, despite the upbeat tone that Charest adopted in his election night speech, some Tories privately fear that he may not wish to stay on and face the disconcerting prospect of spending another four years rebuilding the party.

The Tories’ most serious problems concern fund-raising—and some party strategists suggest that their showing could mean financial ruin. Insiders told Maclean’s that the Conservatives were already about $2 million to $3 million dollars in debt when the election was called. But that debt was bal-

anced, and secured, by a trust fund that would have comfortably settled it. Enthused by their prospects, and buoyed by Charest’s favorable ratings from focus groups, the party decided to spend the full $11 million that Elections Canada allowed. Throughout the late winter and spring, in response to pleas from party bagmen, funds poured into Tory coffers.

As well, there were numerous pledges of hefty corporate and individual support. Insiders say that Tory fund-raisers were getting almost as much money as the governing Liber-

als. But there was a catch: in many cases, the cheques were only promised. Delivery would come after the election. Insiders now fear that those cheques will never materialize. “It doesn’t really matter what we want to do after the election,” confessed one senior Tory. “We may have no choice. We may have to fold up our tent because we are bankrupt.”

Meanwhile, for Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe, the outlook is also bleak. Although the party rallied in the late stages of the campaign, he faced strong personal criticism—while the BQ campaign highlighted deep divisions in the sovereigntist movement. And the BQ lost the advantages that come with being the official Opposition—including extra funding and the right to ask the most questions during daily Question Period. That status was a major irritant to Canadians outside Quebec; in turn, when Bloc supporters saw Reform surpass their seat total on television at their Montreal election-night headquarters, they erupted into a furious chorus of boos.

For the most part, the impact of a revitalized opposition will not be felt until this fall, when the new Parliament convenes. But changes will become evident well before that. The first is the formation of Chrétien’s cabinet, which will—by both necessity and desire—be quite different. Some familiar figures are nearly certain to be back in their previous portfolios, such as Finance Minister Paul Martin, Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy. But in the previous cabinet, Chrétien’s two strongest representatives from the four Atlantic provinces were Defence Minister Doug Young from New Brunswick, and Health Minister David Dingwall from Nova Scotia: both were unexpectedly defeated.


A comparison of the campaign’s last four national opinion polls with the popular vote on election day:

Angus Reid Strategic Counsel

(May 24-27) (May 25-27)













(May 25-28)








(May 25-28)


Chrétien will likely move quickly to form his new cabinet—perhaps, some sources suggested, as early as this week. One reason is that the new government will have its work cut out for it. There is the looming likelihood of another Quebec election this fall—and if the Parti Québécois is re-elected, another referendum on sovereignty not long after that. At the same time, the debate over how to deal with Quebec, as well as several other key issues, has taken on a new edge with Reform’s rise to official Opposition status. With the BQ in that position, much of the debate in the House of Commons was devoted to Quebec’s alleged ill-treatment within Canada. And on other issues, such as health care and social programs, the Bloc usually adopted a left-of-centre stance.

Now, the tone in all of those areas is about to change dramatically. As the second-largest party in the new Parliament, Reform is about to ensure that Canadians hear much more about their wish for tougher stances on law-and-order issues, the need for further, deep reductions in government spending, and such radical proposals as privatization of the Canada Pension Plan. But the biggest change will be in the approach to Quebec. Reform revived its previously moribund campaign in the West when Manning began challenging Chrétien and Charest over their supposedly “soft” approach to Quebec sovereignty. Similarly, a controversial Reform television ad lumped the two leaders in with Duceppe and Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, and asked whether it was not time to have a prime minister from another province.

That tough approach is certain to be carried over into Parliament—and it will leave more than sovereigntists squirming. One likely example: polls show that a majority of Quebecers believe their province pays out more in tax dollars than it receives in return in services. If Chrétien tries to refute that claim by showing that Quebecers benefit from Confederation—as many studies suggest—Manning, in turn, is likely to seize on that as further proof that Quebec profits at the expense of other provinces.

That is one of the reasons why Liberal strategists were divided as to who they most wanted to see form the official Opposition. Shortly before election day, two senior Chrétien advisers discussed their opinions in an interview with Maclean’s. One favored Reform because, that adviser said, “the Tories just hate them—and that makes a merger of the right-wing parties that much more unlikely in the near future.” But the other adviser favored the Tories, citing fears that Manning will provoke many undecided Quebecers into supporting the Yes side in a future sovereignty referendum. “Every time he opened his mouth,” said the adviser, “the Bloc jumped [in the polls] another couple of points.”

But in the aftermath of a sharply divisive campaign, and with their own dramatically reduced majority, the Liberals may have little time to worry about the problems caused by other parties: they have enough of their own. For one, their razor-thin majority means they will have to enforce rigid discipline on their caucus to ensure that all MPs regularly attend votes.

Already, there are signs of strain within the party. The disappointing campaign, and the similarly dismaying result, seem likely to revive old divisions and provoke new ones. The most heated of those will be between supporters of Chrétien and Martin: although the two men’s relations are generally cordial and respectful, the same is not true of their followers. Martin’s supporters resented that, despite his high level of popularity, he was given a low-profile campaign role until the final weeks—when it became clear that all of the party’s resources were needed. They also blamed John Rae, the longtime Chrétien friend, Montreal businessman and campaign co-chairman, for a

strategy they privately considered ineffectual, out of touch with voters’ concerns and too Quebec-oriented.

On the other side, as the Liberals sank in the polls during the last 10 days of the campaign, confidantes of Chrétien began to mutter that Martin was responsible for the early election call. They said that he urged them to go to the polls because he had easily bested his deficit targets— and because interest rates might rise in the fall, slowing economic growth.

The other key factor in the equation is Quebec. Even as Chrétien takes credit for the No side’s narrow win in 1995, and relishes the prospect of another scrap with sovereigntists, many other Liberals are much less enthusiastic about the prospect. They would vastly prefer the bilingual Martin, who regularly scores well in popularity polls in the province.

As well, Chrétien’s lacklustre performance in the campaign aroused fears that, at age 63 and 34 years after he was first elected, he has simply lost his fire for competition.

But of all the criticisms of Chrétien, that is the most unfounded: his competitive spirit in the final days seemed to burn as bright as ever. In fact, even as he was accepting congratulations on election night, Chrétien noted that “the Canadian people have given us a mandate for four years, and I intend to fulfil it.” That message may have been aimed just as much at members of his own party as at those Canadians outside it. So often written off as “yesterday’s man,” Chrétien once again demonstrated that he continues, instead, to think more about where he will take the country tomorrow. His biggest challenge, in a deeply divided Canada, may be in ensuring that his party members are just as enthusiastic about that prospect.