How Bernard Trottier upset Michael Ignatieff

Trottier pulled off the biggest election night shocker of them all
The giant killer
Photograph by Blair Gable

The Longest Yard Restaurant & Bar on Bloor St. West in Toronto is a little unusual; you can tell because its website has a “politics” section. The pub is particularly famous for two things: its chili, and its political dinner debates. About a year ago, it hosted a discussion of Senate reform led by Liberal Sen. Art Eggleton and Conservative Sen. Hugh Segal. Part of the fun (if this is your idea of fun) was a long quiz on the rules and lore of the Senate. No one was too surprised when a familiar 46-year-old local businessman and political trivia enthusiast scored 100 per cent and walked off with the honours.

The pub is in the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and shortly before the May 2 election, the management made a surprising prediction in a press release: its pub-quiz winner would become its MP. Conservative Bernard Trottier, a business consultant for IBM Global Services, stunned the country by following through and defeating the incumbent, Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff. It is the first personal defeat for a Liberal leader in a general election since 1945, when late-arriving CCF soldier ballots in Prince Albert, Sask., added a small blot of humiliation to prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s resounding national victory.

Trottier, for all his love of parliamentary minutiae, did not originally set out to kill the giant with his own hands. As president of the Conservative riding association, he spent much of 2009 seeking prominent local citizens willing to enter a race against a glamorous Opposition leader who was having fireside chats with Barack Obama. “A lot of these people pointed the finger at me and said I should run,” says Trottier, a father of two who grew up in a French-speaking home in St. Paul, Alta., and hasn’t quite been able to abandon his beloved Edmonton Oilers. “As someone with a young family, I wasn’t that keen to do it. For a while, in my career, I’d been on a plane every week travelling to some part of the world, but I’d finally developed a base of local clients and achieved a nice work-life balance.”

Trottier, however, had a secret. He thought Etobicoke-Lakeshore was winnable. Ignatieff had already rankled Lakeshore residents by promising to move to the riding and then opting for a residence in the downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Yorkville instead. As the Liberal leader’s determination to force an election solidified, Trottier knew that perceptions of Ignatieff’s opportunism weren’t a fiction cooked up at Conservative HQ. “The Prime Minister left Rideau Hall on Saturday morning [Mar. 26], and that afternoon I was already knocking on doors,” he says with obvious pride. “Nearly everybody I spoke with that first day was angry that there was an election at all.”

Trottier, who calls himself a “centre-right libertarian,” didn’t shy from talking economic issues at the doorstep. The opposition parties tried to earn populist credibility by denouncing corporate tax cuts, but Trottier found that tactic easy to defuse. “I want Canada to be a pro-business kind of place, the kind of place people want to invest in and emigrate to, and that kind of long-term branding is where the corporate taxes come in,” he says. “It sounds like I’m parroting the party platform, but it’s what I really believe.”

The Conservatives who spurned Trottier’s pleas to run must have thought that Ignatieff’s visibility would be an insurmountable advantage. But when the time came, Trottier found “shadow-boxing” congenial—so much so that he let his campaign manager use impossible-to-obtain tickets to the Masters golf tournament in mid-race, and turned down offers of added volunteer assistance from the Tory high command after they noticed his strong performance. Trottier says Ignatieff’s TV debate performance provided him with a major boost among undecideds, and Ignatieff’s discussion of the lingering “coalition” issue with Peter Mansbridge on CBC-TV’s The National supplied another.

“With two weeks to go,” says golf-loving campaign manager Bruce Richard, “we got the results of a poll that showed us just four points behind. That gave us all heart.” A late endorsement from Toronto Mayor Rob Ford supplied a last push—but Richard would still spend election night with his eyes glued to a spreadsheet, not quite believing the numbers until late in the evening. Ignatieff was obviously caught off-guard by the result, but given a couple of days to recover from the shock, Trottier says, the defeated Liberal did phone to offer congratulations and advice on outstanding local issues. “It was a short, polite chat.”