"An election is like a horse race, in that you can tell more about it the next day," John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, once said.

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This article was published 31/8/2015 (2114 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


"An election is like a horse race, in that you can tell more about it the next day," John A. Macdonald, Canada's first prime minister, once said.

We are in the midst of the 42nd federal election since Confederation. Most of them were largely forgettable contests, but a handful altered the political landscape taking the country in a different direction.

Elections that are remembered for their historical significance fall into several categories.

The defeat of a party that has been in power for many years, as in the elections of 1896, 1911, 1921, 1930, 1957, 1979, 1984, 1993 and 2006, are moments when political leadership emerges and new policies are implemented. The country as a whole acquires a different personality. There is no question we are now living (at least for the time being) in the "Harper era." The same went for such dominant prime ministers as Macdonald, Wilfrid Laurier, Mackenzie King and Pierre Trudeau.

Historic elections, too, are defined by key issues that often polarize voters. Contests in 1891, 1911 and 1988 all focused on Canada's tricky relationship with the United States and the fear that closer trade ties would ultimately lead to annexation. The election in 1917 during the First World War tore the country apart on the issue of conscription (the draft) with English Canadians on one side in favour of it and most French Canadians on the other opposing it.

Any election in which a poor economy is a key issue can convince voters a change in government has to be made. That was the case in the elections of 1930 and 1935 during the Great Depression, when neither Mackenzie King and the Liberals nor R.B. Bennett and the Conservatives could deal effectively with the economic upheaval. Similarly in 1979, after 11 years of the Trudeau Liberals, Canadians had had enough of high inflation and out of control budget deficits and opted, at least temporarily, for Joe Clark and the Progressive Conservatives.

Three federal elections that had a great effect on Canadian history were the following:

June 23, 1896: Wilfrid Laurier became the first French-speaking prime minister and vanquished the Conservatives, who had dominated Canadian politics mainly under Macdonald (who died in 1891) since 1867. In this election, Manitoba, or rather the Manitoba Schools Question, dealing with the abolition of the province's publicly financed Catholic (French) Schools, was an issue. The affable Laurier took what he called a "sunny ways" approach and reached a compromise with Manitoba premier Thomas Greenway. This, plus his abandonment of reciprocity (or free trade) with the U.S., propelled him to power for the next 15 years.

June 10, 1957: Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker was a man on a mission in the spring of 1957. After more than two decades of Liberal rule that went back to Mackenzie King's victory in 1935, it was time for a change. His Liberal opponent, Louis St. Laurent, was genial but at age 75 was out of step with the times. So too were the Liberals who had become arrogant as the so-called natural governing party. The 1957 election was the first one that television played a role and Dief's outgoing personality (he was 61) was more appealing. Nevertheless, most newspapers and media pundits believed the Liberals would win again. Instead, Diefenbaker and the Tories won a minority government. And within a year, goaded by the new Liberal leader, Lester Pearson, into calling another election won a huge majority in the 1958 election. For a while, at least, Diefenbaker, was the most popular politician in Canada.

October 25, 1993: After nearly 10 years of the Conservatives led by Brian Mulroney, Canadian voters were angry. They took out their frustration on Kim Campbell, Mulroney's unlucky successor and the country's first and only female prime minister. She really never had a chance. In Quebec, many former Conservatives had coalesced around Mulroney's former pal, Lucien Bouchard and the new Bloc Québécois. In the West, disgruntled Tories looked to Preston Manning and the Reform Party. On election day, the Liberals under Jean Chrétien were back in power. But the Bloc won 54 seats, all in Quebec, came in second place and bizarrely formed the official Opposition. It would take the Conservatives more than a decade to get back on track under Harper.

The coming election has some historic possibilities as well. Should Harper and the Conservatives manage to win, he will be the first leader since Laurier to win four consecutive elections.

A Liberal and Justin Trudeau victory would mean for the first time the son of a former prime minister would also hold that office. And, most momentous of all would be a victory for Tom Mulcair and the NDP, a shift in power that would indeed relegate the 2015 contest to the top of Canada's most significant elections.

As John A. said, the situation will be clearer the day after the vote on Oct. 20.


Now & Then is a column in which historian Allan Levine puts the events of today in a historical context.