The election clock is about to start ticking in Canada, giving Justin Trudeau six weeks to overcome a deeply damaging ethics controversy and persuade Canadian voters that he deserves a second chance to lead the country.
The charismatic Canadian prime minister and Liberal Party leader — who has seen his popularity among Canadian voters and global progressives rapidly collapse in recent months — will officially begin the fight for his political survival Wednesday when he launches the federal election campaign, several Liberal party staffers confirmed. The election call will immediately shut down Parliament and send lawmakers and challengers out to campaign for 338 seats in the House of Commons ahead of a Oct. 21 vote.
Story Continued Below
Those individual races, taken together, will determine which party gets to form Canada’s next government, but in many ways the campaign will be a referendum on Trudeau’s first term.
He took office in November 2015 and sailed through the first half of his post. He was the refugee-hugging, feminism-celebrating, magazine-gracing coverboy who looked in every way capable of taking up the mantle of a global progressive leader.
But he has stumbled in several ways since then and now faces an exceptionally close race, with polls showing his Liberals running neck-and-neck with the Conservative Party.
Trudeau has been hampered by a scandal, the SNC-Lavalin affair, in which Canada’s ethics watchdog accused the prime minister of breaking a conflict-of-interest law in trying to help a prominent Canadian business avoid corruption charges.
This son of a former prime minister also has been hobbled by a diplomatic standoff with China; heated debates over oil pipelines; and a star-crossed, weeklong trip to India, which prompted abundant mockery and one security incident.
He was even was ridiculed by U.S. comedian Hasan Minhaj during a recent interview on Netflix.
Trudeau’s main election rival provides a stark contrast in personality and philosophy. Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is a low-key, socially conservative father of five. Until recently, Scheer was rarely in the partisan spotlight. Elected to the House of Commons in 2004, he spent most of his first decade as an MP holding the apolitical job of enforcing procedural rules. Scheer flung himself into the Conservative Party leadership race with a relatively low profile in 2017 as party members’ second choice. Then in a marathon 13-ballot contest came from behind to overtake the front runner.
The prime minister and cabinet come from the party that controls the legislature. Several major national parties are running in the election, and the one that scoops up the most seats in House of Commons is almost certain to form the next government.
Trudeau’s Liberals and Scheer’s Conservatives, running atop the polls, hope to take a majority of the seats, giving them a strong hold on power. But the tight polling could be an indication that the winning party won’t hold a majority, which would force the victor to work with opposition parties to form a government.
Climate issues will be key
The country’s politics are traditionally split over energy and environmental issues. In this election, however, they could be far more divisive than usual.
Trudeau has tried straddling the contradictory demands of the Canadian electorate. Canadians have told pollsters they want both more oil development and more action to address climate change — and the prime minister has tried to promise both. That balancing act has been awkward at times and led to attacks from opponents.
There’s such fury over Trudeau’s climate actions that there’s a growing separatist movement in Alberta, the country’s leading oil-producing province. Threats against the Liberal environment minister who introduced the carbon tax have become so frequent she’s beefed up her personal security.
But Trudeau faces challengers on the left, too. The New Democratic and Green parties dismiss as insufficient the prime minister’s response to climate change. They also charge that he’s been too pipeline-friendly. While Trudeau has opposed some energy projects, he’s also supported two major pipelines — one in Canada, the Trans Mountain expansion, and one through the U.S., Keystone XL, both of which have been stalled.
What it takes to win
Two regions will be especially critical to the outcome: the suburbs of Toronto, the largest city in Canada’s most populous province of Ontario; and French-speaking Quebec, Canada’s second-largest province by population and Trudeau’s home turf.
To win, Trudeau’s Liberals must perform well in Toronto’s suburbs and in Quebec, and the prime minister must also keep left-leaning voters united behind his party. In Canada’s multi-party system, losing votes on the left could cost his Liberals numerous seats — and the election.
Trudeau has attempted to shore up support on the left by promising big-ticket items. He’s hinted that an announcement is coming on a national plan to cover prescription drugs, despite preemptive attacks from Conservatives who charge that such an initiative will be too expensive.
Trudeau also has tried to paint Scheer as a social conservative out of step with Canadian values.
Liberals have begun dropping opposition research showing old comments from Scheer, including his opposition to same-sex marriage. Scheer, in a bid to put hot-button social issues to rest before the election, recently promised not to overturn Canada’s long-held rights to abortion and same-sex marriage.
The Conservative leader enters the campaign season with one major disadvantage against Trudeau. While the Conservatives have held small leads in the polls overall, they’re actually trailing in the provinces with the most seats — where the election will be decided.
But Scheer holds a cash advantage against Trudeau. Canadian elections are low-budget affairs by American standards. Still, the Conservatives reported C$10.6 million in assets at the end of 2018, compared with C$4.7 million for Trudeau’s Liberals.
Trudeau carries a mixed record of policy achievement into the campaign. He can tout the country’s economic performance: Canada has historically low unemployment, and Liberals got a pre-campaign boost last week with some of the best monthly jobs numbers in years.
One of Trudeau’s signature promises, a cash benefit for poor families, has helped drive down poverty. And a new study says Trudeau has mostly kept his promises: legalizing marijuana, allowing assisted suicide, and cutting taxes for people and businesses.
Trudeau has also gotten high marks on trade. He’s secured new agreements with Europe, Pacific Rim nations, and the United States. He got U.S. President Donald Trump to lift steel and aluminum tariffs. And polls have shown most Canadians support his handling of trade tensions with the U.S., and of relations with the unpredictable Trump.
But he’s broken some big promises, such as failing to meet a pledge to change the electoral system. Trudeau repeatedly promised to reform Canada’s elections — but it hasn’t happened.
And in the biggest blemish on his record, the SNC-Lavalin scandal, Trudeau was found to have broken a conflict-of-interest law in pressuring his former attorney general to reach an out-of-court settlement with an engineering company facing corruption charges.
Trudeau repeatedly has denied wrongdoing and refused to apologize. He’s said he was justified in trying to use a legal tool to help a major Canadian company that’s involved in important infrastructure projects, and whose largest shareholder is a public pension fund. Scheer has called for a criminal probe.
That scandal sent Trudeau’s poll numbers tumbling this year and turned what might have been an easy reelection campaign into a true horse race.