The Pre-campaign Lay of the Land

L. Ian MacDonald

August 29, 2019

Election nights remind us that Canada is a federation of regions, and that government can’t be won without playing the regional game. That’s determined, as often as not, by the voting history and patterns in Canada’s five regions.

Where a majority rules in the House of Commons, 170 is the number to bear in mind, and has been since the number of seats was increased from 308 to 338 before the last election in 2015.But if no party reaches the requisite 170 seats on election night, then welcome to an interesting evening with a minority House.

As Dalhousie University’s Lori Turnbull points out in our Campaign 2019 issue of Policy Magazine, because of Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system, the determination of how those 170 seats are allotted is based not the national vote but on which party wins a plurality in 170 separate elections.

Consider—the Atlantic region consists of 32 seats in four provinces. In 2015, the Liberals swept all 32 seats in the region, beginning their march to a majority. That is not likely to happen in 2019—the Liberals are likely to lose seats to the Conservatives they’ll have to regain elsewhere in the country, most likely Ontario and Quebec.

Which is now how most campaign professionals regard the electoral map, looking at how the West is likely to divide before focusing on Ontario and Quebec, which respectively have 121 and 78 seats in the House.

The prairie provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan each hold 14 seats and the three northern territories each count a single district. The numbers and the regional narrative in the West are largely in Conservative-dominated Alberta with 34 seats and Battleground British Columbia with 42.

If British Columbia were to return the kind of numbers it did four years ago, a minority government would be well within the making, perhaps even one with Elizabeth May’s Green Party holding a precarious balance of power in Ottawa.

In 2015, B.C. returned 17 Liberals, 14 NDPers, 10 Conservatives and a single Green—May, from progressive Vancouver Island. This time, national issues could come into play, from the B.C. Interior down across the Lower Mainland, to the 604 heartland in Vancouver. From pipelines to Indigenous ownership, from climate change to the price of gas. Everyone in B.C. has a view on these issues, which could be critical to the outcome on Oct. 21.

In Alberta, there’s only one view of pipelines and moving petroleum forward to tidewater—if you build it, they will come. If the Liberals spent $4.5 billion to build the Trans Mountain expansion, there must have been a reason for it, and there is; it increases the capacity of the pipeline by a factor of three and creates a real export market to diversify out of the price-gouging fact that 99 per cent of Canada’s exports are to the U.S.

Even so, the Liberals may not be the electoral beneficiaries of the TMX saga. They won a handful of urban seats in Edmonton and Calgary last time around, but Jason Kenney, the new Conservative premier of Alberta, is not exactly a champion of a Liberal vote.

Which brings us to Ontario and Quebec, and their combined 199 seats in the House. The Liberals won 80 of the 121 Ontario seats in 2015, while regaining their former stature in Quebec with 40 out 78 seats. In Ontario, Justin Trudeau was not Stephen Harper. In Quebec, Trudeau rose to claim the standing of a favourite son, previously held by his father Pierre and Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

Looking ahead two months, it’s difficult to see the Liberals sweeping Ontario as they did four years ago. They have enough standing with the voters to continue their dominance of the 416 ridings — essentially downtown Toronto. Suburban 905 could be a different story, with Tory hopes of recapturing their 905 sweep of 2011 tempered by the albatross effect of Conservative Premier Doug Ford’s unpopularity at the provincial level.

In Quebec, the Liberals are poised to grow their deputation, perhaps to 60 seats or more as in the days of the first Trudeau and Mulroney, who both owned the provincial map. The Conservatives would do well to win about 15 seats outside the Liberal-dominated greater Montreal region. As for the NDP, once dominant in the brief shining moment of Jack Layton, and still 16 Quebec MPs under Tom Mulclair, they could take a serious hit under Jagmeet Singh, unless he finds a way to light the place up.

Maxime Bernier and the People’s Party? His base is the supply management sector of the dairy sector and however many Trumpian populists he can draw by not vetoing third party, anti-immigrant billboards. There’s only a couple of seats in that. The Bloc Québécois could put up some regional numbers, winning the 12 seats it needs for recognized standing in the House, which might be enough to deprive either Trudeau or Andrew Scheer of a majority.

This is going to be fun. And on October 21, it could also be important, as between a majority and a minority government.

L. Ian MacDonald is editor and publisher of Policy Magazine.