How Justin Trudeau could have changed electoral history

Mitchel Raphael on how Justin Trudeau could have changed electoral history
Mark Blinch/Reuters; Photograph by Mitchel Raphael

Victory moustaches!

At the Toronto NDP victory celebration, which was filled with people sporting fake Jack Layton moustaches, the partiers kept the music playing over Michael Ignatieff’s concession speech as it was broadcast on giant screens. They turned the music down for all of Gilles Duceppe’s, and for half of Green Leader Elizabeth May’s. When Layton acknowledged the campaigns of the other leaders, May got the most applause. Layton was happy about the re-election of his wife, Olivia Chow. There had been a huge battle to keep her riding safe. The week before the vote, Liberals Bob Rae (who won) and Gerard Kennedy (who lost) went to Chow’s riding to support the Liberal candidate there. The NDP claimed it was an attempt to get at Layton by doing everything they could to take down his wife. Chow had her stepson, Toronto city councillor Mike Layton, helping her with door knocking, since the area he represents overlaps with hers. For his efforts, he ended up with a pile of complaints from constituents about local problems, mostly broken sidewalks and potholes.

Mulcair’s strategy

Each day during the election campaign, Thomas Mulcair would have a conference call with all the other Quebec NDP candidates. There were ridings they knew they could win, ridings in which they thought they had a chance, and ridings where the odds were against them. When candidates would report suspicious things like a large number of their signs being removed, Mulcair said that was their way of knowing the competition must be worried and they took it as a signal they should up their game in those areas.

Mulcair’s riding signs included old ones from when he won his first-term by-election in 2007. They were much brighter than his new ones, which are a more subdued orange. “We needed to shout, ‘We are here,’ ” noted one NDP staffer. Mulcair’s by-election success was key for the NDP surge. “You’re on the panel,” quipped Mulcair, referring to the fact that once the NDP got one seat in Quebec they were booked on all the political TV shows. It was a seat that could easily have been lost. Mulcair won against a lacklustre candidate picked by then-Liberal leader Stéphane Dion. At the time, Liberal Justin Trudeau had wanted to run in that by-election, a decision which could have altered this election dramatically. Outremont is where Trudeau lived at the time, so it would have made sense. But high-up Liberals wouldn’t let him run there. When asked if he regrets not running then, in that riding, Trudeau said nothing, but his face said everything. Mulcair claims he would have beat Trudeau; for his part Trudeau did say he doubts Mulcair would have run if he had known the Liberal star was in the race.

First we take Quebec, then Manitoba

The NDP surge this week in Quebec made one person in Manitoba very happy. NDP candidate Rebecca Blaikie—daughter of former MP Bill Blaikie—ran in Winnipeg North, but she was the director of the Quebec NDP from 2005 until 2008 when she lived in Montreal. The bilingual Blaikie helped rebuild the party there with a team that included a former separatist, Nicolas Domenic-Audet, as her second-in-command. They shored up long-neglected riding associations and focused on getting stronger candidates. She had many conversations with NDP Leader Jack Layton over the years and helped do the groundwork for the election of NDP MP Thomas Mulcair in Montreal. Just before election day, Blaikie said that if the Quebec surge held, then Manitoba would be next on the list for a sweeping NDP federal makeover. Her loss by a slim margin may give her time to work on that.

Oh, it’s just ‘O Canada’

A few days before the election, the Bloc Québécois held a rally in Montreal for Gilles Duceppe. Bloc MPs confessed they never would have organized such a gathering had it not been for the orange crush that had descended on La Belle Province. One man in the crowd pretended he was spraying the crowd with holy water, using a Gilles Duceppe bobblehead as a prop. The packed high school auditorium became extremely hot, causing party faithful who had been only metaphorically sweating up to that point to really start to perspire. The rally was the same night as a playoff game between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. Duceppe took a huge risk by continuing to speak once the game had started. But one former Bloc MP said it didn’t really matter, since all the crowd would miss was the singing of O Canada. As soon as Duceppe finished, the screens in the room flipped to the hockey game and, as if on cue, the Canadiens scored a goal, sending the room into a frenzy.

He just couldn’t resist the butter chicken

Every few days during the election, Margaret Trudeau would bring homemade cookies to her son Justin Trudeau’s campaign office. Mostly, volunteers descended on them, leaving none for the candidate. Which is why, at the end of the campaign, a few cookies were sealed in a bag just for Justin. Not that the candidate went hungry. Campaigning in the ethnically diverse riding of Papineau meant he was constantly being offered food. Trudeau politely declined many of the offers (except for butter chicken, which he admits he can’t resist), but courteously sampled the huge array of soft drinks brought in from all over the world to quench the thirsts of his multicultural riding.

Cotler’s last election

This election was extremely hard on Montreal MP Liberal Irwin Cotler. “This is the first time he has really had to campaign,” noted one Liberal volunteer in the Mount Royal riding. A good part of the Jewish community, which makes up a chunk of Cotler’s riding, supported the Conservatives mostly because of Harper’s strong stand on Israel. As one Jewish resident noted, “The only leader who supports Israel more than Harper is the prime minister of Israel.” Cotler, one of Ottawa’s most respected MPs, is seen as a world leader on human rights, a strong supporter of Israel and a pillar in the Jewish community. But Harper’s message on Israel and the Conservatives’ attack on the Liberals made many in the Jewish community turn their back on Cotler. Harper even made a stop there in the final week of the campaign. Aside from seeing it as a winnable riding, symbolically this was a key one for the Conservatives to win since Mount Royal was once held by Pierre Trudeau. At an event to mark the end of Passover, held at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Montreal, Conservative candidate Saulie Zajdel received the most applause when all the politicians were announced. To add salt to his wounds, Cotler’s battle was not only against the NDP surge in general: the orange candidate he was up against was Jeff Itcush, the man who taught all of Cotler’s children at Bialik High School. Though Cotler won, he says this was his last election.

The shift in the Jewish vote was something Liberal Anita Neville had to battle in Winnipeg, too. She ultimately lost her seat. Both Cotler, 70, and Neville, 68, say there is a need for young Jewish blood in the party—and for a big name in the Jewish community. One dream candidate mentioned is Winnipeg’s Gail Asper, who, Neville says, has always supported her.

Will that rocking chair have to go back?

Each election, Nicole Demers of the Bloc Québécois has bought something expensive to motivate her to campaign even harder to keep her job. This time it was an oxblood leather rocking chair that doubles as a bed. For the campaign in her Laval riding, this year Demers rented an RV. The idea was to invite people in to sit around a table in a kitchen-like atmosphere. Says Demers: “We are a nation of people who grew up in kitchens. Living rooms were closed except for when the priest visited.” The RV also had a queen-sized bed in it.

During the last week of the campaign she sported a bright orange top. “Fight fire with fire,” she joked, referring to the orange crush that hit Quebec. She said she heard people in Quebec talking about how Jack Layton was a fighter because of his battle with prostate cancer. The fact he campaigned with a cane due to hip surgery, she said, brought back memories of Lucien Bouchard after he lost part of his leg to flesh-eating disease. Demers was beaten by the NDP’s José Nunez-Melo.