Election Primer: Understanding Monday’s elections in Canada

A photo of the Canadian flag flying in the wind in Ottawa with a clock tower behind it.
Canadian flag waving in front of the Parliament Building on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Photo by Jason Hafso.

By Luciano Cesta and Meera Raman
Boston University News Service

Going into Monday’s election, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is defending his record and seeking a majority in Parliament, after calling a snap election during a fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Monday’s election was first called on Aug. 15, and features Trudeau facing Erin O’Toole, the leader of Canada’s Conservative Party, who is seen to be his main opponent, and Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s social democratic New Democratic Party. 

Among other criticisms hurled his way, Trudeau’s opponents have been calling him out  for holding the election during a time when COVID-19 continues to spread across the country.

Trudeau, who was originally elected prime minister in 2015, is framing this election as a referendum on his government’s pandemic leadership. As of 2019, his Liberal Party oversees a minority government that needs to rely on support outside of his party to get legislation passed.

“We’ve had your back and now it’s time to hear your voice,” Trudeau said, as he announced his government’s decision to hold a snap election. 

But Trudeau may not be so happy with what Canadians are saying back. While Trudeau is currently maintaining a small lead in the polls, according to the CBC’s Poll Tracker and 338Canada.com, both their analyses predict it is more likely the Liberals will keep their minority government. With a majority, they would be able to legislate more freely.

Some of the big issues

The government’s COVID-19 response has been a wedge issue during this election. Trudeau is in full support of mandatory vaccinations of travellers on planes and trains, and backs the need for a federal vaccine mandate. O’Toole encourages vaccines, but has made it clear that he won’t mandate them.  

Climate change and justice has also been a large issue in the campaign, specifically the consideration of Indigenous communities that are disproportionately affected by the climate change crisis. For its part, the current government has aimed to curb and ban certain single-use plastics, while also having passed a climate plan, setting binding emissions targets to reach net-zero emissions in 2050. The Conservatives have previously opposed the Liberals’ net-zero emissions plans, and would replace their carbon pricing system with one that includes a price on carbon for consumers that will rise to a maximum of $50 per tonne. 

As election day approaches, the major parties have also focused on the cost of living in Canada, an issue that affects voters in city centers and small towns. According to the Canadian Real Estate Association, home prices have jumped more than 30 percent, year-over-year, affecting communities across the country.

While this election seems typical, there have been some notable changes to campaigning methods, at least partially due to COVID-19. The Conservatives have held virtual town halls with prospective voters and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has a presence on TikTok. 

There has been a notable amount of violence and harassment toward politicians during the campaign, spurred on by opposition to COVID-19 safety measures. Animosity boiled over a few weeks ago, when the prime minister found himself being hit by gravel in London, Ontario.

A quick refresher on Canadian elections

Canadians don’t vote directly for who they want as prime minister. Voters in each of the 338 electoral districts, called “ridings,” elect a member of parliament to represent them in the House of Commons – the lower chamber of Parliament.

The prime minister is the leader of the party with the most seats in the house. If a party wins a majority of the seats, which is 170 or more, it forms a majority government and its leader becomes prime minister. This clean-cut victory allows the majority government to have control over the executive branch, the cabinet and the federal departments. 

If the winning party wins the most seats, but not more than half, a minority government will form – which is what happened in 2019 to Trudeau’s Liberals. The ruling party must work with other parties on a case-by-case basis to get support for bills they are trying to pass. They may also form a coalition government. However, this has never happened in Canadian history. 

Minority governments tend to be precarious and unstable; snap elections are often called in an attempt to form a more stable majority government.

The last step is the throne speech. Once a government is formed, its control faces a test. The speech, which outlines priorities and plans for the new government, is presented. Members of Parliament then vote on the speech – and if the new government loses the vote, it will collapse. The opposition parties would then join together to form a new government or it’s election time again.

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