This month’s federal election results seemed to herald many dramatic changes in Canadian politics. Some of the obvious ones: Canadians elected a majority Conservative government for the first time in a generation; The NDP became the Official Opposition for the first time ever; The Bloc Quebecois was reduced to four seats; and voters handed the Liberal Party its worst drubbing in history, and an existential crisis to Liberal loyalists.
As is often the case, the full extent of the change did not become apparent until the votes were actually counted. Opinion polls certainly picked up on the NDP surge in Quebec, but few predicted that the party – which had only ever elected two Quebec MPs in its 50-year history – would win all but a small handful of seats in that province.
Even more surprising was the so-called “Blue Wave” that hit both the suburbs and the city of Toronto. There was a strong expectation the Conservative Party would make gains in a number of previously Liberal-held ridings in the Greater Toronto Area: In places such as Mississauga, Brampton, and Pickering. In the end, the Conservatives won almost all of those suburban seats, plus a number of urban Toronto seats that had not elected federal Conservative MPs since the days of Brian Mulroney.
Toronto-area voters gave the Conservative Party its majority, and crushed the Liberal Party. There was no other region of the country where Conservatives made such dramatic inroads in comparison to the 2008 election.
As dramatic and relatively unexpected as it was, the Conservative breakthrough in the Greater Toronto Area was a long time coming, and characterized by slow-and-steady growth from election to election since conservative factions reunited into one party in 2003.
Much has been written – including by me – about the Conservatives’ successful courting over time of the votes of ethnic minority groups that traditionally voted Liberal, including the votes of the Jewish community. With so many of those groups concentrated in the GTA, this was an obvious factor in the party’s majority win.
Of course, voting is anonymous, so it’s impossible to know with any great degree of certainty how much of the “ethnic” vote – Jewish or otherwise – swung to the Conservatives this time around. But matching demographic statistics with vote counts paints a compelling picture.
There are nine ridings in Toronto that have Jewish populations greater than the Ontario average (although we shouldn’t exaggerate the Jewish vote: Thornhill, the riding with the most Jews, is only 36 per cent Jewish. Toronto Centre, which has the ninth-largest Jewish community, is only about 3 per cent Jewish. Ontario as a whole is about 1.7 per cent Jewish).
All those ridings were represented by Liberal MPs a decade ago, when the party held a near-electoral monopoly in Ontario. Even in 2004, when the Liberals were reduced to a minority, they easily held onto all those seats. In 2006, the Liberal Party lost Trinity-Spadina riding to the NDP and in 2008, it lost Thornhill to the Conservatives, but still held seven out of nine of the seats going into this month’s election.
Today, the Liberals only hold two of those nine seats. The Conservatives have six and the NDP still holds Trinity-Spadina. If you include three Ottawa-area ridings and one Hamilton-area riding, the Conservatives now represent nine of the 13 Ontario ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations. The NDP and the Liberals represent two ridings each in that category.
If you look at the vote in individual ridings over time, the pattern becomes even clearer. The Toronto riding of York Centre, which is about 24 per cent Jewish, used to be one of the safest Liberal seats in Canada. Former Liberal MP Art Eggleton won it with 71.1 per cent of the vote in the 2000 election. In the following election, Liberal Ken Dryden won it easily with almost 55 per cent of the vote, but his vote dropped over each subsequent election. In 2008, he hung onto the seat with only 43.46 per cent of the vote.
In 2011, Dryden didn’t even come close, losing the seat to Conservative Mark Adler, who won with 48.5 per cent of the vote compared to Dryden’s 33.3 per cent. The story of election-to-election decline is the same in all of the ridings with higher-than-average Jewish populations, even the few in which the Liberals salvaged wins. It’s also the same in other “ethnic” ridings.
If this voting pattern continues, the country could have a Conservative majority government for many more years to come.