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(Re-)Living History on Grosse Ile

28 Aug

When we got off of the boat at Grosse Ile, attendants quickly led us into the disinfection building right by the docks on the western end of the island.

Soon enough, we were undergoing physical inspections – of our tongues, our fingernails, our skin. Looming over us and dominating the room was the giant steam-powered disinfection machine, state-of-the-art when first installed, into which all visitors to the island were required to place their worldly possessions. For most, that meant a beat-up old bag or two.

Before too long, we were led upstairs to the shower room, also state-of-the-art at some point in its history, where each metallic stall was equipped with rows of curved horizontal pipes that would surround its occupants and spray water from all directions to ensure a thorough cleaning. For many visitors to the island, this mandatory disinfecting wash would have been the first shower of their lives.

The disinfecting steam machines and horizontal showers aren’t operational anymore, and the tongue inspections were just a bit of theatre. These days, visitors to Grosse Ile arrive with cameras and boxed lunches and stay for only a few hours. Past visitors would often arrive with cholera, typhus or smallpox and would stay for months at a time, if they ever left the island at all.

In fact, any sign of disease would get visitors shipped to the east sector of the island – the “sick side”. Many of them would die there. Those lucky enough to recover would get the coveted official papers they required to set foot anywhere else in Canada.

When it was in operation as a quarantine station for more than one hundred years until just before the Second World War, this small island in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River north of Quebec City served as the first point of landing for most immigrants to our country. Possibly some of your own ancestors spent time on Grosse Ile before sailing on to new lives in places south and west of there.

Of course, in all its years operating as a quarantine station, no year brought as much tragedy to Grosse Ile as 1847, when thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Potato Famine fell victim to a typhus epidemic that swept through the island. This was a number of decades before technological and medical advances led to the disinfection and quarantine processes described above.

A mass grave not too far from the landing docks hosts the remains of the 5,424 victims who died that long-ago summer, the wavy appearance of the ground bearing evidence of piles of stacked coffins underneath.

More than two-thirds of all the visitors to Grosse Ile who ever died there over the course of a century perished that summer. When you approach the island by boat, the first thing you see is a stark, giant monument in the shape of a celtic cross – the largest in North America – that pays tribute to their memory.

A smaller monument – a plaque inside an old Anglican church on the island – is similarly moving. It reads:

“In memoriam of the thousands of persons of many races and creeds who, victims of pestilence, lie buried in nameless graves on this Island”.

I knew a little bit about Grosse Ile and its history before I visited there in person this past summer. But nothing teaches the history of a place as effectively as stepping foot in that place and walking in the footsteps of those who were there before.

Especially a place with as much historical resonance as Grosse Ile to a country made up of so many descendants of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

The Grosse Ile site is now operated by Parks Canada, and in my experience, there is no better guardian of its legacy than that agency. Last year, my family bought an annual pass that allowed unlimited access to all of the national parks and historic sites operated by Parks Canada. We visited as many as we could on trips in Quebec, Ontario and Atlantic Canada.

Every experience was worthwhile, and the history and natural wonders of each place we visited – from battlesites to unique geological phenomena – were presented in fascinating and memorable ways.

Parks Canada’s mandate is to “… protect and present nationally significant examples of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, and foster public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment … for present and future generations.”

It’s been doing so for 100 years. I hope it continues to do so for centuries to come.


Conflicting Histories

25 Feb

The taxi pulled to a stop on the side of the road, just across the street from what we’d come to see. Without looking toward where he was pointing, the driver gestured disdainfully to the left with his thumb.

“There it is,” he said with resignation. “That’s the site of the slaughter.”

Site of a slaughter? Didn’t much look like one. When we glanced through the window to our left, we saw lush, green, pleasant-looking parklands stretching off into the distance.

The driver’s resigned tone? Well, there was little chance we were the first tourists to hop in his taxi and ask to be taken to this place. Given his job, it was somewhere he likely visited several times a week.

His disdain? Simple. We had indeed stopped right across the street from the site of a slaughter.

The slaughter, though, had taken place more than three centuries before a couple of Canadian tourists pulled up for a look.

We were just outside Drogheda, on the east coast of the Republic of Ireland, about 50 kilometres north of Dublin. And we were looking out at the place where William of Orange defeated James II – the last Catholic king to reign over England, Scotland and Ireland – in the Battle of the Boyne in July 1690.

More than three hundred years later, of course, the reverberations of that one-day battle are still felt throughout the Emerald Isle.

For many Irish Catholics such as our taxi driver, the Boyne battlefield is a place of tragic defeat representing the conquest of a culture.

Of course, one man’s slaughter is another man’s glorious victory. For many Irish Protestants, especially those in Northern Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne is the definitive triumphal moment in their cultural history, It is commemorated every July during the so-called “marching season”, when for many years celebratory Orangemen parades often led to sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants.

In fact, our visit to the Battle of the Boyne site happened to take place during one such July back in the early 1990s, before a measure of peace came to Northern Ireland.

Everywhere we went in the Republic of Ireland, we’d run into Catholic visitors from the North, who’d timed summer trips south to avoid being unsafe at home during the marching season.

They say military history is written by the victors, but the truth is more complicated than that. What usually happens is that both the victors and the vanquished write conflicting histories, with neither side countenancing the other’s version of the historical truth.

So in Ireland, you have the centuries-old competing views of the Battle of the Boyne. In the Middle East, Israelis call the celebration of their country’s formative military triumph “Yom Haatzmaut” – Independence Day – while Palestinians call the exact same event “El-Nakba”: the Catastrophe.

Closer to home, historical narratives continue to collide over one of our own country’s formative battles – the one that took place on the Plains of Abraham in September, 1759, when the British conquered Quebec City on their way to defeating the French in North America.

Many of the cultural and linguistic divisions that define Canada to this day lie in the outcome and effects of that short battle.

It’s big-time important history.

But plans to re-enact the Plains of Abraham battle – in commemoration of its 250th anniversary this year – were cancelled after some marginal Quebec secessionist groups threatened violent disruptions.

Many English Canadians could not understand the fuss. One editorialist in the Montreal Gazette wrote that in canceling the re-enactment, the National Battlefields Commission had “cravenly surrendered the field”.

But the re-enactment plans were widely reviled among francophone Quebeckers of all political stripes.

As columnist Lysiane Gagnon wrote in the Globe and Mail:

“ … there is absolutely no reason why the inhabitants of the only predominantly French-speaking society left in North America should celebrate the battle that their ancestors lost and that marked the end of French expansion on the continent… The Battle of the Plains of Abraham still has a strong emotional echo in Quebec. It is the day of la Conquête (the Conquest), which resonates through many interpretations of history and is at the root of Quebec nationalism.”

A famous saying: Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

True enough. But if you want to learn from the past, and use that knowledge to best progress into the future, it’s also important to recognize there are two – or more – sides to every history.

Anything can happen in Canadian politics… who’da thunk it?

3 Dec

So how’s it going to end?

Will the Conservative government fall and be replaced by a Liberal/NDP coalition propped up by the Bloc Québecois?

Will Stephen Harper manage to prorogue Parliament and live to be Prime Minister for a little while longer?

Will we end up with our fourth election in 4.5 years and our second in three months? Or will a best-of-five coin flip decide on who gets to govern?

Or maybe Governor-General Michaëlle Jean will declare “off with their heads” and end up ruling by decree…

Here’s something to contemplate:

Anything can happen in Canadian politics.

That’s not a sentiment you hear too often from too many quarters. But after five days of things happening in Canadian politics that no one would have ever predicted, and with the prospect of another five days or five weeks or five months or so of unpredictable things happening in Canadian politics… well… that’s something to contemplate…

Here’s another interesting thing. Yesterday was exactly two years to the day that Stéphane Dion became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. 

And those two years may go down in history as some of the worst two years ever experienced by a leader of a major federal party in Canada.

They seemed to have culminated in a disastrous campaign and election loss this past October, which seemed to have sealed Dion’s fate as leader.

Here’s how I described it last month:

“Sadly for Dion, he will not get a second chance. The political promise that won the hearts of Liberal delegates on Dec. 2, 2006 got trumped by a deficit of political skills…”

Shows how much I know.

Well, I was probably right on the political skills part. But I may have been wrong on the second chance.

My crystal ball is as bad as anyone’s who claims to have one, but it looks as if Dion has about a 50-50 chance of shedding his likely epitaph of “Only the second Liberal leader in history never to become Prime Minister” and gaining one that reads “23rd Prime Minister of Canada”.

With an asterisk, of course, because he will be gone as Liberal leader next May whether or not he is also PM.

And then there is the matter of the 22nd Prime Minister of Canada.

As I write, Stephen Harper remains Prime Minister, and is using “every legal means at his disposal” to keep from losing the job. Will he succeed? People have lost money underestimating the man.

But no matter what happens to Harper going forward, this entire incident may have critically wounded his political career, the success of which depended on a reputation for competent management and serious purpose.

The wound was self-inflicted.

When Harper won a second minority mandate following an election this fall that many thought was unnecessary, his marching orders seemed clear:

Drop the extreme partisan shtick and get down to the serious work of governing this country through a looming economic crisis.

That’s what he said he was prepared to do on election night. And his statesmanlike tone continued into the opening of Parliament.

But on the major challenge of the day, the international economic crisis, he dropped the ball in what could be a history-changing way.

An economic update to set the agenda for dealing with the crisis instead became an opportunity for partisan political gamesmanship, which only succeeded in uniting opposition parties against the government.

And so an economic crisis begat a political crisis, which begat a constitutional crisis, which may have begat a national unity crisis in both Quebec and the West.

Harper may survive in the short term. But he will come out of this one way or another as a weakened leader, his political future uncertain in a way that was unimaginable just a few days ago.


Programming note: If you are looking for a more in-depth look at all of the twists and turns of the ongoing Canadian political crisis, you could do worse that have a look or listen to an hour-long televised discussion I co-produced on Monday night. But you should tune in soon. At the pace that developments are developing, what gets discussed one night may be out of date by the next morning.



Picking through election entrails

15 Oct

Suppose they held an election and nothing happened?

Not too much, anyway.

In September, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared the 2.5-year-old minority Parliament to be unworkable.

In search of a more workable mandate, he violated his own fixed-election-date legislation to dissolve that Parliament and send Canadians to the polls for the third time in four years.

Five weeks, 300-million-dollars, one pooping puffin controversy, two roundtable debates, dozens of negative ads, and one international economic crisis later, did he get that mandate?

Well… kinda.


In his third kick at the can as party leader, Harper’s Conservatives gained a few seats, but still fell short of a majority government. And thanks to some ill-received policies and poorly executed strategies, the party failed to build upon its big Quebec breakthrough in the last election, once again winning ten seats in that province.

The NDP, under Jack Layton, also picked up a few more seats, but fell far short of the goal Layton publicly and repeatedly set. He said he was running for Prime Minister, but ended up once again as the leader of the fourth party in the House of Commons.

With the help of some Conservative self-inflicted wounds, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois won by holding steady. Once again, the Bloc showed that rumors of its death were greatly exaggerated, as it won the lion’s share of Quebec seats for the sixth straight election. More than any other factor, it is the Bloc’s enduring ability to hold onto dozens of Quebec seats that accounts for the fact that Canadians have elected minority governments in three elections running.

The Green Party won a plethora of publicity and media attention, a seat at the table of the televised leaders’ debates for leader Elizabeth May, and in the end, exactly zero seats in the House of Commons for all its efforts.

And then there is the Liberal Party…

Oh, the Liberals…

It was one of the worst election results ever for the Grits, once known as Canada’s Natural Governing Party. The Liberals won only eight seats west of Ontario, suffered a net loss of seats in their Atlantic Canada stronghold, and made some marginal gains in Quebec, where they continued to be almost exclusively limited to the island of Montreal.

But the most telling results for the Liberal Party came in Ontario. A decade ago, the party regularly won almost all of the available seats in this province. This time around, it didn’t even take most of those 106 seats.

Conservative candidates won almost half of all Ontario ridings, the NDP increased its seat count in the province by almost 50 per cent by taking away Liberal seats in Northern Ontario, and the Liberal Party was in retreat everywhere save its electoral fortress of Toronto.

Even in the country’s largest city, the Conservatives began showing signs of breaching the Liberal castle walls. They took several seats in the suburban 905 region just outside of Toronto.

And Conservative star candidate Peter Kent won the riding of Thornhill, which borders the city of Toronto.

Thornhill happens to be the riding with the largest per-capita Jewish population in the province. It also happens to be the one riding the provincial Progressive Conservative party picked up in their wretched campaign during last year’s Ontario election.

Picking through the entrails of this year’s federal vote, there were several other signs the Conservative Party has made some headway in their attempts to win over the support of the traditionally big-L-Liberal so-called ethnic vote.

The Conservatives took several ridings with diverse multicultural populations from the Liberals in Ontario and British Columbia. And in Toronto proper, ridings such as Eglinton-Lawrence, York Centre, and Willowdale – ridings with significant minority-group populations that are usually among the safest Liberal seats in the country – featured much tighter races.

In 2006, Liberal Joe Volpe won Eglinton-Lawrence by defeating his Conservative rival by more than 11,000 votes. This time around, Volpe’s margin of victory was reduced to 2,200.

Within hours – minutes even – of the final vote count, quotes from anonymous Liberals began appearing in the media calling for the head of leader Stéphane Dion.

Fighting his first election as leader, Dion failed miserably to reverse his party’s slide of the past few years.

But the nearly bankrupt and disunited Liberals can ill-afford another lengthy, expensive and divisive leadership race.

After all, we’ve ended up with another minority Parliament, and Canadians may be going to the polls yet again before too long.

Election night cheat sheet for political junkies

14 Oct

UPDATE: Election post-mortem here

Will tonight’s federal election result in more of the same or are we in for a surprise or two? Here’s a cheat sheet on the tightest local races, which are likely to decide the election. Clip, save, place next to your chips, beer and TV remote, and consult as results pour in from east to west:

Atlantic Canada

Newfoundland and Labrador: The big question here is how effective Premier Danny Williams‘ Anyone But Conservative campaign has been. The Conservatives went into this election holding three of the province’s seven seats — St. John’s East, St. John’s South – Mt. Pearl, and Avalon — and are in danger of losing all three: Two to the Liberals and St. John’s East to the NDP’s star candidate, Jack Harris, the party’s former provincial leader.

Prince Edward Island: The Island’s four ridings have not gone anything but Liberal for 20 years. The Conservatives seem to think they have enough of a shot in the riding of Egmont, which takes in the city of Summerside and the western part of PEI, that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made PEI the first stop in his big final-day cross-country push yesterday. The Liberals are running former PEI Premier Keith Milligan there against the Tory candidate Gail Shea, a former provincial cabinet minister.

Nova Scotia: No riding here has garnered more interest than Central Nova, where Green Party leader Elizabeth May is trying to topple Defence Minister Peter MacKay. If she succeeds, it will be one of the top stories of the election. Elsewhere, former Conservative MP Bill Casey will try to hold onto Cumberland – Colchester – Musquodoboit Valley as an independent candidate, and the NDP hopes to add to its two N.S. seats (Halifax and Sackville-Eastern Shore) by poaching Dartmouth-Cole Harbour from the Libs and South Shore – St. Margaret’s from the Tories.

New Brunswick: The Liberals tend to dominate in the northern half of this province (with the exception of the NDP stronghold of Acadie-Bathurst). and the Tories tend to dominate in the southern half, leaving a trio of adjoining swing ridings in central and western New Brunswick worth watching: Fredericton, Tobique – Mactaquaq and Madawaska – Restigouche.


Montreal / Laval : The Conservatives are not a factor anywhere in the metropolis, where the Liberals still hold on to their core Quebec vote. There are four races to watch here, all in traditional Liberal ridings the Grits hope to retake from opponents. In Papineau, Ahuntsic and Jeanne-Le-Ber, those opponents are Bloc MPs. Papineau Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau hopes to become the third son-of-a-Prime-Minister in Canadian history to sit as an MP (trivia points to anyone who can name the other two). In Outremont, the Liberals hope to unseat NDP incumbent Thomas Mulcair, who won the seat in a byelection. If Mulcair holds on, it will be the first time in history that an NDP candidate won a Quebec seat in a general election.

Quebec City / Northeastern Quebec: These are the areas where the Conservatives made their great breakthroughs in the last election – breakthroughs they hoped to build on this time around. Instead, an erratic campaign has them hoping to preserve what they already had. Their seats on the south shore of the Saint-Laurent, across from Quebec City, seem safe, but several in the provincial capital and in Saguenay-Lac Saint Jean are in danger of swinging back to the Bloc. These ridings include Beauport-Limoilou, Charlesbourg-Haute-Saint-Charles, Louis-Hébert, Roberval-Lac-Saint-Jean, and the Jonquière-Alma riding of cabinet minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn. The only safe Conservative seat north of the river seems to be Louis-Saint-Laurent, held by Heritage Minister Josée Verner.

Elsewhere: It’s all safe Bloc seats, including Vaudreuil-Soulanges, where previously unelected cabinet minister Michael Fortier is expected to remain unelected. The only exceptions are the three Outaouais ridings, across the river from Ottawa. Hull-Aylmer is the only remaining safe-ish Liberal seat outside of Montreal. Pontiac will continue to be held by Transport Minister Lawrence Cannon if the other three major parties continue to split the vote. And in Gatineau, NDP candidate Francoise Boivin hopes to win back the seat she lost to the Bloc as a Liberal incumbent last time around.


Toronto: The biggest Liberal bastion in the country. A couple of tight NDP-Liberal races worth watching are in Parkdale – High Park, where former Liberal leadership candidate Gerard Kennedy hopes to win back his old provincial riding from incumbent New Democrat Peggy Nash, and Beaches-East York, which former NDP MPP Marilyn Churley will once again try to win away from longtime Liberal MP Maria Minna.

The 905: The region surrounding Toronto where many elections get decided. Many interesting races to watch here. In the eastern part of the 905 semi-circle, Oshawa always hosts tight three-way races. Farther west, the Conservatives hope to retake Newmarket-Aurora now that Belinda Stronach has left politics and Halton, now that incumbent Garth Turner has left their party and become a Liberal. Similarly, the Liberals hope to retake Mississauga-Streetsville from Grit-turned-Tory Wajid Khan. Conservatives also have a chance in several other ridings that have gone Liberal for years: Mississauga-Erindale, Mississauga South, and Oakville. In the Hamilton-Niagara region, the Liberals hope to retake Hamilton East – Stoney Creek from the NDP and St. Catherines from the Tories. And look for a close three-way race in Welland.

Southwestern Ontario: The two closest races in this region are likely to be in Brant and London West, where Liberal incumbents defend their seats against Conservative challengers.

Eastern and Northern Ontario: Incumbents seem pretty safe in Eastern Ontario. The closest race in this region is likely to be Glengarry-Prescott-Russell, where Dan Boudria attempts to win back his father Don‘s old riding, won by the Conservatives in 2008. The NDP has high hopes in the north, where New Democratic candidates have their eyes on a number of seats the Liberals won last time around, including Algoma – Manitoulin – Kapuskasing, Kenora, Nickel Belt, Thunder Bay – Rainy River and Thunder Bay – Superior North. Also worth watching is Parry Sound – Muskoka, which cabinet minister Tony Clement won last time in the closest race in the country.

Prairie Provinces

Manitoba: The Liberal’s three incumbent MPs in the province were all fighting tough battles in this election. The NDP hopes to grab Churchill, the Tories hope to win Saint-Boniface and Winnipeg South-Centre. If the Libs have any chance to regain an old seat, it will be in Winnipeg South, won by the Tories last time.

Saskatchewan: Ralph Goodale‘s one Liberal seat in this province is probably safe, as are most of the other Conservative seats in the province, with the exception of Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar and Palliser, former NDP seats that party hopes to win back, and Desenthé-Missinippi-Churchill RIver, which Progressive-Conservative-turned-Liberal David Orchard hopes to win after being denied the nomination by Stéphane Dion in a recent byelection.

Alberta: The easiest province to pick should go all-Tory all-the-time. The two ridings where there could be longshot upsets are Edmonton-Strathcona, which the NDP often wins provincially and where it has the best (longshot) chance in he province, and Calgary Northeast, where a divisive nomination race resulted in one Conservative running as an independent against the official party candidate, with a (longshot) chance at splitting the vote.

British Columbia and the North

Vancouver Island: Three races to watch here: Esquimault-Juan de Fuca, where Liberal incumbent Keith Martin is in a three-way race, Vancouver Island North, which the Tories hope to take back from the NDP, and Saanich – Gulf Islands, where cabinet minister Gary Lunn faces an unexpectedly strong challenge from the Liberals, after the NDP candidate was forced to withdraw from the race.

Greater Vancouver: Many interesting races here. Liberal incumbents face strong Tory challenges in Richmond, Newton-North Delta, North Vancouver and Vancouver-Quadra, and the Liberals and NDP are in a tough race in Vancouver Kingsway, most recently held by Liberal-turned-Tory-turned-retired-cabinet-minister David Emerson. Two other ridings worth watching are West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country, which the Conservatives hope to win back from Liberal-turned-Green Blair Wilson, and Surrey North, once held by the late Chuck Cadman. Cadman’s widow Dona is running for the Tories in a riding won in 2006 by the NDP.

Elsewhere in B.C.: Many safe Tory and NDP seats all over rural British Columbia. The one exception may be Kamloops-Thompson-Cariboo, which the NDP hopes to poach from the Conservatives.

The Arctic Territories: Yukon is a safe Liberal seat, Western Arctic is a safe NDP seat, but Nunavut may be tossup, which explains why so many leaders have visited Iqaluit lately.

Tune in tonight, and keep this guide handy…

A politically expedient payoff?

13 Oct

Over the summer, Prime Minister Stephen Harper decided his party needed to go to the electorate as soon as possible to give the Conservatives their best possible shot at a majority government. Political expedience trumped the PM’s own fixed election date legislation.

The public opinion polls hadn’t really changed much in the 2.5 years he had been in office. The Liberals were poised to win at least three by-elections in September. The economic outlook was less than rosy, and economic downturns tend to hurt incumbent governments in election campaigns.

Also, the prospect of steering an already overextended minority government through another year of a divided parliament offered little political upside.

So, the decision was made. Then somebody looked at a calendar.

They couldn’t begin an election campaign before Labour Day. And they couldn’t schedule a campaign that coincided with this year’s Francophonie Summit in Quebec City, which begins this coming weekend.

That left very little wiggle room on fixing a date to replace the fixed date.

So after one election campaign and one holiday weekend, Canadians are going to the polls tomorrow, even though tomorrow also happens to be a day that some Canadians are celebrating a religious holiday.

(When asked about the decision to go to the polls on Sukkot, one government official said “you have to be practical about these things,” suggested that any date they picked was bound to conflict with someone’s holiday and advised Jewish voters they could “always vote in advance polls” – not exactly a stellar campaign strategy to win over the big-L-Liberal-leaning Jewish vote).

So… did the PM’s politically expedient gamble pay off? We won’t know until tomorrow, of course. But none of the final public opinion polls released today put the Conservatives in majority territory (although a substantial number of undecided voters late in the campaign and the unknown variable of a vote the day after a long weekend could result in some undetected last-minute shifts in voting intentions).

This site, usually good at predicting seat counts in various Canadian elections, shows a result very similar to the last election in 2006.

At the beginning of this campaign, I wrote that Central Canada would determine the outcome of the vote. The Tories pinned their majority hopes on picking up a number of Quebec seats from a collapsing Bloc Québecois. A few self-inflicted wounds into the campaign, those hopes seemed dashed.

In the absence of a breakthrough in the Conservative-less fortress of Toronto, Ontario never held as much promise as Quebec as a source of new government MPs. Also, Ontario tends to follow Quebec’s lead in federal elections. Traditionally, Ontarians don’t get too comfy with any electoral change until they sense that Quebec is okay with it. In that sense, Harper’s political ball-dropping in La Belle Province may have set his party back even more than originally thought.

Again, we’ll see what happens tomorrow night. But if the predictions hold true, the status quo holds, and the PM’s politically expedient gamble didn’t pay off … in the short term, at least. In fact, many of the seat projections suggest a more regionally divided country and a more pizza-like parliament than before.

Which also suggests that we’ll be going to the polls yet again before the next fixed election date kicks in.

UPDATE: Election night cheat sheet here.

UPDATE 2: Election post-mortem here

The Federal Election: Central Canada decides again?

7 Sep

On Day One of the Canadian federal election, it was interesting to note the leaders of all four major parties spent at least part of their day in Quebec:

• Stephen Harper made scenic Quebec City his first stop after triggering the election this morning at Rideau Hall:

• Jack Layton launched his campaign in Gatineau, but mostly for the Ontario-based backdrop:

• Stéphane Dion addressed a rally in Ottawa, and then headed to Montreal in the campaign bus that will serve as his main transportation until that Air Inuit plane is ready (echenblog exclusive photos below):

Stéphane Dion at Liberal rally, Ottawa, Sept. 7, 2008

Stéphane Dion, Liberal rally, Ottawa, Sept. 7, 2008

Dion bus, Montreal-bound, Ottawa, Sept. 7, 2008

• and Gilles Duceppe… well… he only campaigns in Quebec, doesn’t he?

But Quebec is where the action is this election. It’s where polls are showing the best prospects for Conservative Party growth in that party’s search for an elusive majority,  where the Bloc Québecois is polling some of the worst numbers in its history, where the Liberals were reduced to a core rump of seats – mostly in English-speaking Montreal – last time ’round, and where the NDP made a historic breakthrough by capturing Outremont in a recent byelection.

The main question is… how many seats can the Conservatives take from the Bloc?

At the end of the recently deceased Parliament, the Bloc had 48 seats, all but seven of them off of the Island of Montreal. In addition, there were three other non-Montreal Quebec seats that were vacant or held by independent MPs.

Taking Montreal – where Bloc losses do not necessarily mean Tory gains (as opposed to outside Montreal, where they most likely do) – off the table, that’s a pool of 44 Quebec seats the Tories have a shot at picking up from a collapsing Bloc. There’s yer majority. There’s nowhere else in the country with as many concentrated ridings that are potential Conservative gains. It will likely be the Bloc’s performance in those ridings that determines whether or not minority government continues in this country.

No wonder Gilles Duceppe is already playing this card.

Ontario also has some possibilities for the Conservatives, none as promising as suburban and rural Quebec.

Here’s a top-of-head take on Conservative prospects for growth in Ontario:

Eastern Ontario
: Little room for growth. Most of the ridings in this region are already held by the Conservatives, except for several ridings in central and east-end Ottawa and in Kingston, where they aren’t usually competitive. The Liberals also have a couple of notable candidates who may have shots of winning back ridings they lost to the Tories last time around – former cabinet minister David Pratt, who is taking on current cabinet minister John Baird in Ottawa West – Nepean, and Dan Boudria, who is trying to win back the Glengarry-Prescott-Russell riding that his father Don held for many years.

Central Ontario: Also little room for growth. Last time around, the region was painted Tory blue from Haliburton to Parry Sound down to all of Durham and York regions. They’d like to take back Belinda Stronach’s seat, but they could also lose a couple that were tight races last time around (for example, Landslide Tony Clement’s and Oshawa)

Northern Ontario: Few prospects. This is traditionally a region where the Liberals battle the NDP, while the Tories sit on the sidelines.

Toronto: If the Tories breach the Liberal fortress of Toronto in any significant way, then we can be pretty sure it is a sign of a massive nationwide Liberal collapse, and the question is not whether or not the Tories can win a majority, but rather how big that majority will be.

905 West: This is the only region where the governing party may have some potential to pick up a “concentrated” handful of seats – but barring a massive Liberal collapse (see above) it’s probably only a handful – maybe four or five – in the Brampton-Mississauga area. They may take back Garth Turner’s riding. But the Liberals could take back Wajid Khan’s and St. Catherines. A Conservative breakthrough in this multicultural area may be a sign that the party’s efforts to woo the so-called “ethnic vote” has been a success,  but… we’ll see. There probably aren’t enough potential pickups here to put them into majority territory.

Southwestern Ontario: After being shut-out in this region throughout the divided-Right Chrétien years, the Conservatives regained all of their traditional strongholds here in the last two elections. The ridings that didn’t go Tory are some urban ones in Kitchener-Waterloo, London, and Windsor. Notably, Green Party leader Elizabeth May launched her campaign in Guelph. Could the Green vote split the left in some of these ridings? Maybe, but again, there aren’t a lot of seats left here that the Tories could reasonably pick up.

All that being said, recent polls have picked up on a growing Tory popularity in Ontario, but those polls aren’t specific enough to know whether Harper has gained support in Ontario by firing up his base –  which wouldn’t gain him too many seats – or by reaching out successfully to traditional Liberal constituencies – which would.

As for the rest of the country? To be continued…