British Columbia: Western, But With a Difference

by Richard Johnston

Richard Johnston is the Canada Research Chair in Public Opinion, Elections, and Representation at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His most recent book is The Canadian Party System: An Analytic History (UBC Press, 2017).

Setting the table

In the 21st century, British Columbia has been a major battleground, with a multiparty twist. At first glance, B.C. leans toward the western model, with the Conservatives the strongest party, the Liberals the weakest one, and the NDP usually in second place. But the Conservatives are weaker frontrunners and the Liberals stronger in third place than elsewhere in the west. Putting this together makes all three parties regularly competitive, and the number of three-way fights adds a random element.

B.C.’s internal geography is such that it has not one party system but four. Each of the three Canada-wide parties has strength in more than one region, but the relative competitive balance varies considerably across the landscape, as does the closeness of the battle. Bringing the campaign to B.C. does not mean bringing it to the entire province; most of the action is within an hour’s drive of the main airport. Figure 1 portrays these regions for 21st-century elections.

The basically self-defining region of Vancouver Island1 is the very heartland of the Canadian left and has been for more than a century. This partly reflects a history of capital-intensive primary industry and fractious labour-management relations. Increasingly important are unionized public employees, a key group in the Victoria-area ridings. As a result, the NDP is the dominant party. Not even its Canada-wide collapse in 2015 altered this fact. Its chief rival is the Conservative Party, which benefits from the island’s large retirement population. The Liberals’ 2015 surge made them competitive in the region, but barely so and probably not on a sustainable basis.2

In contrast, the Interior and North region is a Conservative stronghold.3 Most years, Conservative dominance in this enormous land mass has been as one-sided as in the prairie provinces, and with much the same political tone. The Conservatives lost considerable ground in the 2015 popular vote. The Liberals gained at the Conservatives’ expense but only enough to capture one seat. The NDP is the usual second-place party in the region, holding seats in ridings that share the labour-management history of Vancouver Island, but it is a distant second. This is the least competitive region in the province.

Together, Vancouver Island and Interior and North hold 20 of the province’s 42 seats. The other 22 are in Metro Vancouver. This area has a legacy of activism – organized labour, antipoverty action and environmentalism. More recently, it has pushed the margin on harm reduction, housing and sexual orientation. And it is Canada’s standard-setter for urban awareness of First Nations issues, and second only to Toronto for immigrant ethnic diversity. On these issues the City of Vancouver, in particular, leans left. But there is also a considerable reserve of social conservatism in the ethnic communities.

Metro Vancouver is arguably two regions, with the Fraser River dividing Metro North from Metro South. In Metro South, the Conservatives are a major presence, the dominant one for most of this century. The other two parties compete for second place, although 2015 tilted the balance decisively toward the Liberals. Metro North is the Conservatives’ weakest region. Even so, they are routinely competitive, as are the other two parties. All three parties, then, have reason for hope in the metropolitan regions. The fate of each depends not just on its own strength but on the relative balance between the other two.

Prospects for 2019

In recent polls, B.C. looks like Canada in microcosm. Even before the SNC-Lavalin affair, the Liberals seemed likely to lose ground, mostly as a result of the Conservatives narrowing the gap. The weakness of the NDP – reflecting the weakness of Jagmeet Singh – was probably good news for the Liberals, but this was offset by gains by the Greens. Then came SNC, which for B.C. has dual resonance. First, there are the old tropes about Quebec. These may carry less virulence in B.C. than elsewhere, and when it comes to pipelines the Quebec and B.C. governments are on the same side. But the central character in the affair, Jody Wilson-Raybould, embodied all that was so promising in 2015 – promise that seems betrayed. In the polls, the major parties have now reversed positions.

But B.C. may yet be one of the few places to resist a Conservative tide. Where the Conservatives have their greatest appeal there are no gains to be made. Liberal retreat on Vancouver Island may help the NDP. For control of government, it all comes down to the Metro regions. The Liberals have angered the right and disappointed the left, but there will be calls for anti-Conservative strategic coordination. Will they be heeded? And if they are, will any one party be the most credible coordination point? Or will fragmentation on the centre-left allow the Conservatives to run the table?

The Prairies: Liberals May Be an Endangered Species

by Royce Koop

Royce Koop is Head of the Department of Political Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.

For Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, harvesting support from the prairies must feel like trying to cultivate barren land. This was the case even before the SNC-Lavalin controversy rocked the government; it’s even more so now.

In the 2015 election, the Liberals scored four seats in Alberta, on the basis of 25 per cent of the vote, and one in Saskatchewan, with 24 per cent. The most recent Angus Reid poll places the Liberals at 19 per cent in Alberta and 14 per cent in Saskatchewan.4 In 2015, the Liberals won 45 per cent of the vote in Manitoba, picking up seven seats. Here the same Angus Reid poll places the Liberal Party at 24 per cent, a stunning drop. Many if not most of the party’s seats in that province are now in danger.

With only 12 MPs in the 184-strong Liberal caucus following the 2015 election, the prairies were never a force to be reckoned with in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal coalition. And while there is always the chance that Trudeau can turn the tide before the 2019 election, these polls suggest that the election may turn prairie Liberals into an endangered species.

Benefit from the Liberal Party’s prairie decline has accrued mostly to the Conservatives, who are polling above 50 per cent in all three prairie provinces. This level of support raises the possibility of a Conservative sweep, although some Liberal MPs with strong bases of local support, such as Saskatchewan’s Ralph Goodale, are likely to hold on. If Tory leader Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister after the election, it may be in part a result of near-solid support from the prairies.

The NDP may also be able to pick up a small number of seats as a result of Liberal decline, particularly in Manitoba where the party has experienced a recent slight boost in popularity. The most likely place for this to happen is Winnipeg Centre, the longtime NDP seat that switched to the Liberals while Trudeau was riding high in 2015. But a large-scale NDP breakthrough on the prairies under the leadership of Jagmeet Singh is unlikely.

Trudeau will also not be helped by the presence of three Conservative provincial governments in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. All three are relatively popular as well as hostile to varying degrees toward the federal government. Saskatchewan’s Scott Moe and Manitoba’s Brian Pallister have had their fair share of policy spats with Ottawa, and Alberta’s new Premier, Jason Kenney, recently rode to power in part on the basis of the time-honoured Alberta tradition of bashing the feds. Kenney may try to direct Albertans’ anger at the federal government into a campaign aimed at defeating the province’s remaining Liberal MPs, similar to the “Anything But Conservative” campaign promoted by Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams in the 2008 federal election campaign.

The carbon tax is likely to be a prominent issue in the coming campaign, as gas prices have swelled in the wake of its recent introduction. The government of Saskatchewan has launched a constitutional challenge to Trudeau’s carbon tax, and Kenney’s United Conservative Party has gained intervenor status in the challenge. Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister left the federal climate framework in 2017 and opposes the federal tax, but did not apply for intervenor status. Trudeau and his candidates may be able to fend off attacks effectively by pointing to rebates provided to Canadians, but with three premiers lobbying hard against the federal tax they will face an uphill battle.

The carbon tax is but one aspect of wider economic concern on the prairies about affordability and unemployment. Despite a correction to the price of oil, economic growth in Alberta has slowed to a crawl and the province has a persistent unemployment problem. Having now voiced their frustration with Rachel Notley’s provincial NDP government, Albertans may be eager to similarly use the ballot box to unleash their anger on the federal government’s economic policies.

While SNC-Lavalin will drag down Trudeau’s reelection efforts throughout the country (with the possible exception of Quebec), it will have a special resonance on the prairies. The view that Trudeau took extraordinary steps to protect jobs in Quebec while passively allowing the natural resource sector in western Canada to decline is widely held. This leads to what will likely be the most important policy issue on the prairies during the 2019 campaign: the need to build pipelines to transport oil, and the perceived failure of the federal government to do so. Kenney’s threat to use “turn off the tap” legislation to restrict B.C.’s oil supply ensures that debates over pipelines will continue throughout the summer and into the fall election.

The results of the 2015 election are increasingly looking like a high-water mark for the Liberals which they are unlikely to achieve again. Prairie voters seem likely to turn their backs on Trudeau, but in so doing they may be left out in the cold if the Liberals are reelected.

Ontario: The Ottawa–Queen’s Park Dynamic

by Paul Barber

Paul Barber is a retired former public servant and journalist. He worked for the governments of Ontario and Manitoba, mainly in intergovernmental relations and constitutional affairs, and as a TV current affairs documentary producer in Winnipeg and for the program The Journal in Toronto.

Trying to establish Ontario’s place in the federation’s politics presents a paradox. Critically important, Ontario cast 37 per cent of all votes in 2015, contributing 80 of the Liberals’ 184 constituencies. However, having elected a small-l liberal prime minister that year, the same province proceeded less than three years later to select the conservative Doug Ford as premier. Justin Trudeau introduces a carbon tax while Ford leads a charge against it, going so far as to enact legislation to require stickers on gas pumps denouncing the tax. Getting a fix on Ontario’s prevailing ideological winds is no easy task.

Things were clearer in the 1960s and 1970s, when under Premiers John Robarts and Bill Davis Ontario was governed by a progressive version of conservatism that was quite compatible with the era of Trudeau the elder. Take education as an example. The Progressive Conservatives invested prodigious resources in all levels of education, particularly postsecondary. It paid off economically, and Toronto’s current prosperity is directly connected to those investments. As a producer with CBC’s Journal in 1985, I made a short documentary profile of a small high-tech firm in Toronto that had just sold its new design system for cars to General Motors. Why in Toronto? CEO Stephen Bingham said that the staff’s advanced technical skills were attributable to investments by Bill Davis in places like the universities of Toronto and Waterloo and Sheridan College.

However, a new hard-edged conservatism took over in the Mike Harris years of the nineties, prioritizing tax cuts and enthusiastically cutting education spending, although deep cuts to postsecondary were offset to some degree by tuition increases and private-sector support, particularly for elite universities such as Toronto and Waterloo. Those years featured strong economic growth imported from a boom south of the border (dubbed by economist Joseph Stiglitz the “roaring nineties”) aided by a continuously declining Canadian dollar that fell from about 72 cents U.S. when the Harris PCs took office in 1995 to 62.5 cents in January 2002. Conservatives mistakenly liked to think the growth was about them and Harris’s Common Sense Revolution.

The Dalton McGuinty Liberal government reversed Harris’s anti-education policies, earning kudos along the way from the OECD for its reforms. But taxes did not rise much, marking a key political and ideological success for the Conservatives. The government kept spending low in part by significantly postponing outlays for public services such as chronic care. When Doug Ford became premier in 2018, succeeding the seemingly progressive Kathleen Wynne (cap-and-trade, research on guaranteed basic income, changes to the sex education curriculum), Ontario had the lowest per capita program spending of any province despite the left-of-centre image Wynne cultivated, and low overall revenues per person, a tribute to the tax-cutting fervour of the Harris years.

Nevertheless, Canada’s largely conservative print media have misleadingly portrayed Ontario as a high-spending, debt-ridden basket case. Low taxes are a key contributor to debt, itself primarily a product of the financial downturn following the last recession. Compared to other provinces, per capita debt is relatively high but not the largest in Canada.

It is not always true that, as has often been said, Ontarians choose one party for Queen’s Park and send another to power in Ottawa, but it is true that federal-provincial political dynamics matter. A deeply unpopular provincial regime can harm the prospects of its federal counterpart. This is a clear and present danger for Andrew Scheer as evidence accumulates that some of Ford’s actions – making cuts to treatment of autistic children, increasing high school class sizes, slashing public health spending, rolling back local flood fighting capacity and libraries – are taking a toll on his popularity.

As if contrasting ideologies were not enough, we find that many of the senior personnel serving Trudeau, such as Gerald Butts and Katie Telford, were imported from Queen’s Park political circles, while Ford has surrounded himself with former Harper staffers, such as Jenni Byrne who served for a time as Ford’s principal secretary.

One key to the paradox perhaps is that Ontario, with a population of almost 15 million, is too large to have a single political culture. In the centre is Toronto – Liberal stronghold, political home to key Trudeau ministers such as Finance Minister Bill Morneau and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Toronto’s suburbs, better known by their telephone area code 905, harbour considerable Conservative strength. The ambiguity of Ontario’s outlook seems rooted here: heavily Liberal in 2015 but mostly PC in the 2018 provincial election. This region is the political home of Jane Philpott of SNC-Lavalin scandal fame. However, scandals past have generated headlines but had little impact on votes.

Meanwhile, with the exception of tech centre Kitchener-Waterloo, the southwest, including London and Windsor, experienced post-recession some of the manufacturing stagnation characteristic of neighbouring American states. This bred discontent, although even here recovery has taken hold. There is longer-term stagnation in the north, also home to a large Indigenous population, politically a relative stronghold for the NDP. Eastern Ontario is a rural sea of small-c conservatism, except for Kingston and metropolitan Ottawa.

Trudeau the elder won three majorities, in the elections of 1968, 1974 and 1980. In between, however, he had a near miss in 1972, winning one more seat than the Tories (he continued to govern, propped up by the NDP), and a minority loss to Joe Clark in 1979. A key factor in the difference between the Liberal majorities and their poor results in 1972 and 1979 was fickle Ontario. The province was charmed by the Trudeau mystique in 1968 and 1974, while deep disappointment produced the minorities of 1972 and 1979. Having been weakened by scandal, Trudeau the younger may find history repeating itself in 2019. A potential key difference: Ontario’s provincial politics played no role in the elections of the seventies. That is not likely to be true this year.

Quebec: No Party Has Claimed Voters’ Hearts

By Eric Montigny

Eric Montigny is professor in the Department of Political Science at Université Laval in Quebec City.

In general, federal politics is not a priority for Quebeckers. They pay more attention to what goes on in the National Assembly in Quebec City and to specifically Quebec issues, and media coverage follows suit. Major shifts in public opinion between federal elections are rare. However, Quebecers are far from being loyal partisans, and there has been considerable volatility among voters since the 2011 election. In this context, rather than trying to predict what they will do in the next election in Quebec, I focus instead on analyzing the characteristics of the Quebec electorate and the issues that are likely to influence the vote.

A distinct party system

If only because of the existence of the Bloc Québécois since 1990, the distinct society that is Quebec expresses itself at the federal level through a party system very different from that of the rest of Canada. Quebec’s distinct media agenda also reinforces this unique party system.

From 1993, when it won enough seats to become Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, until 2011, the Bloc Québécois was the dominant federal party in Quebec. The 2011 election spawned a new period of instability, with the Bloc unable to elect even the 12 MPs needed to be recognized as an official party in the House of Commons. It was the victim at the federal level of the erosion of the Yes/No cleavage on the independence issue on the Quebec electoral scene.

With the NDP collapsing in Quebec, the Liberals expect to make gains to offset the losses they may incur elsewhere in the country. Will they be able to put forth a different message for Quebec than for the rest of the country, as they did in 2015? This time, both the NDP and the Conservatives have opted for the strategy of appointing Quebec lieutenants for leaders who are still relatively unknown in Quebec. Alexandre Boulerice plays this role for Jagmeet Singh, and Alain Rayes for Andrew Scheer. Meanwhile, after years of internal dissension, the Bloc Québécois chose a new leader, former Parti Québécois MNA Yves-François Blanchet, who hopes to restore the Bloc’s status as an official party.

Quebec is now a real battleground

With 59 seats out of 75, the 2011 election was the NDP election. With 40 seats out of 78, the 2015 election belonged more to the Liberals. As the 2019 campaign begins, no party can claim to have won the hearts of Quebeckers – even though Justin Trudeau seemed solid just a few months ago.

Early in his mandate, some pollsters were predicting a Liberal tsunami, as polls showed the party supported by one out of every two Quebec voters, a peak unmatched since 1980. However, polls conducted a few months before the election have revealed a crumbling of this dominance. In March, for the first time, a poll even showed the Conservatives and Liberals tied in Quebec.5

Justin Trudeau’s controversial trip to India represented the first breach in his image. Then, this winter, came his unsteady handling of the SNC-Lavalin crisis that shook his cabinet and led to the resignation of two of his ministers. At the same time, the Conservatives have been increasing their efforts to develop a real organization in some regions of Quebec.

The positioning of parties with respect to Quebec

In 2015, in a letter addressed to then– Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard, Justin Trudeau promised to establish “a true partnership between the federal government and the provinces.”6 He promised then to reinstate first ministers’ meetings on a cooperative footing. However, the arrival of François Legault’s new government in Quebec last fall has coincided with the emergence of several disputes between the two levels of government – on immigration, infrastructure, secularism and taxation. Only the issue of the environment seems to bring them together.

Strengthened by not having to face the voters for three years, the Legault government has adopted a strategy developed by former Premier Jean Charest: formulating a list of demands for the federal parties before a federal election.7 These include increased immigration powers and the introduction of a single tax return administered by Quebec. Only the Conservatives have been open to increasing Quebec’s autonomy on these two issues. After accepting the principle of a single tax return at its convention, the NDP then flip-flopped. For its part, the Bloc Québécois will try take up the Quebec government’s demands as its own.

After the NDP election in 2011 and the Liberal election in 2015, will 2019 mark a breakthrough for the Conservatives in Quebec? Will it allow the Bloc to regain its status as a major party? These possibilities illustrate the current volatility of Quebec voters at the federal level. If Justin Trudeau has disappointed many voters, his opponents are not drawing much enthusiasm. And yet, just as in the time of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, how Quebeckers choose could have a decisive effect on who forms the next Canadian government. But what that choice will be remains to be determined.

Atlantic Canada: Beneath the Partisan Struggles, Two Competing Visions

by Patrick Webber

Patrick Webber works as a political adviser to the New Brunswick government.

A close Canada-wide battle is shaping up between Liberals and Conservatives, raising the possibility that Atlantic Canada could reverse the steady decline of its political clout, just as a smaller party can exercise greater influence in a minority government. In 2015 Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won all of Atlantic Canada’s 32 seats and nearly 59 per cent of the vote, beating their 1993 landslide (57 per cent and 31 of 32 seats). No one expects a repeat of 2015, and a former Liberal stronghold is now clearly in play.

Liberal woes in the aftermath of the SNC-Lavalin scandal don’t stop at the Quebec–New Brunswick border. With Trudeau already polling below his 2015 showing at the start of 2019, the year’s first quarter saw the Liberals tumble to a near-tie with the Conservatives (see table 1).

While Liberal prospects in Atlantic Canada remain stronger than anywhere else except Quebec, the electorate is volatile. In an average of two March 2019 polls, Justin Trudeau is still the region’s choice as prime minister but his lead has narrowed to just four points: 27 per cent compared to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s 23 per cent. As important, 38 per cent of voters – the highest level in Canada – chose “Don’t know / None of the current leaders” when asked who would be the best prime minister.8 A series of MQO Research polls released in February found the share of undecided voters ranging between 34 and 38 per cent in each Atlantic province.9

The Conservatives will target anglophone New Brunswick, a region that was crucial in returning a minority Progressive Conservative provincial government last fall, and the rural mainland of Nova Scotia. The Conservatives lost the New Brunswick ridings of Fundy–Royal, New Brunswick Southwest and Tobique–Mactaquac by less than 10 points in 2015; Fredericton, Miramichi–Grand Lake, and Saint John–Rothesay are second-tier Tory targets. In Nova Scotia, Central Nova and Cumberland–Colchester will be top Conservative targets. Bill Casey, Cumberland–Colchester’s MP for 21 of the last 31 years, sitting as a PC, Conservative, independent and Liberal, is not seeking reelection. Scott Brison, elected as a Progressive Conservative in 1997 before defecting to the Liberals, is retiring, which may open Kings–Hants to the Tories. South Shore–St. Margaret’s and West Nova round out the opposition’s second-tier targets.

Things are looking more comfortable for the Liberals in Newfoundland and Labrador and in Prince Edward Island, although that island province shows the Liberals have to worry about their left as well as their right flank. The Green Party, which has only existed for a decade, has made provincial breakthroughs in New Brunswick, with three of the province’s 49 seats, and in PEI, where they took eight seats in the April provincial election and now form the official opposition.

Speaking to a more pastoral brand of leftism than the more industrial-minded and ideologically strident NDP, the Greens are attractive in the parts of the Maritimes where a “small is beautiful” ethic has followers. They are helped by the relatively strong appeal of federal leader Elizabeth May. In a recent poll May was the only major federal leader to register a positive approval rating, with no other leader scoring better than a negative 19 per cent.10 Watch for strong Green performances across PEI and in Fredericton (which posted the second-best Green result east of British Columbia in 2015), though those campaigns are less likely to elect Greens than to shave votes from the Liberals and NDP to the benefit of the Conservatives.

The NDP is in a desperate situation. Between 1997 and 2015, there were always at least three New Democratic MPs in Ottawa; 2015 saw the NDP shut out across the region. Things have not improved, with only one candidate nominated as of late March, and no former MPs or star candidates recruited. Outside Nova Scotia provincial NDP organizations range from moribund to shambolic; in New Brunswick the party went from its best-ever result in the 2014 provincial election to just 5 per cent in 2018, its worst showing since 1974. Federal leader Jagmeet Singh is not gaining traction, and is the first choice of just 3 per cent of Atlantic Canadians for prime minister. Barring a local contest that defies electoral gravity, we can expect a second NDP shutout.

The 2019 election in Atlantic Canada will be a battle between competing visions of the region’s place within Confederation. In their 2013 book The Big Shift, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson outlined a concept of Canada as a country divided between two visions. The Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto “Laurentian Consensus” supports robust federal programs to ease economic hardships in less fortunate regions. This means generous federal transfers and Employment Insurance programs for Atlantic Canada, ensuring support for this vision.

Juxtaposed with the Laurentian Consensus is the “New Canada” championed by western provinces and the growing and diverse suburbs of Ontario’s major cities. Less focused on offering economic life support, these centres prefer growth, aspiration and local control to complex, expensive and ineffective central government.11 Atlantic voices are starting to question the Laurentian model: debt, aging populations and sclerotic economic performance papered over by federal funds must change to a frugal, entrepreneurial and less development-averse mindset. Beneath the noise of the coming campaign, look to see this clash of visions – often within parties as much as between them – create an underlying dynamic that will influence political debate within the oldest and poorest of Canada’s regions in the years to come.


1 In the current seat map, Powell River, on the mainland, is incorporated into the North Island riding. This hardly alters the logic, however, as Powell River is ecologically and demographically of a piece with the region.

2 This region is also a bastion of the Greens. To this point, the party has been a sideshow, but recent events may change this.

3 I have taken liberties with the geography of this region. On my definition, it also includes seats in the Fraser Valley outside Metro Vancouver. Although the westernmost of these seats are being informally incorporated into the metropolitan complex, all such seats remain dominated by a very different demography from the official Metro region. Abbotsford is a partial exception to this, but that city does not share a boundary with Metro Vancouver.

4 Angus Reid Institute, Federal Politics: As Liberal Support Bleeds to Other Parties, CPC Vote Stays Solid, March 28, 2019.

5 Ibid.

6 Patrice Garant, Le fédéralisme à la Justin, Le Devoir, December 11, 2015.

7 Joan Bryden, François Legault Lists Quebec Demands Ahead of Federal Election, Global News, January 17, 2019.

8 The two polls referenced in these averages were conducted by Campaign Research and Forum Research, with links here and here.

9 MQO Research news: Tight Race Forming Between Federal Liberals and Conservatives in NB, Federal Liberals Hold Strong Lead in NSFederal Conservatives Gain Ground in NL, Liberals Maintain Sizeable Lead, and Federal Liberal Party Holds Strong Lead on PEI.

10 Forum Research News Release, March 5, 2019.

11 Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson, The Big Shift: The Seismic Change in Canadian Politics, Business, and Culture and What it Means for Our Future, (Toronto: Harper Collins, 2013).