Canadian election defies stereotypes

Conservative leader Stephen Harper attends a campaign event in Quebec. Picture: Getty

Conservative leader Stephen Harper attends a campaign event in Quebec. Picture: Getty

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WITHIN an hour of landing in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after driving into the city from the airport, a pick-up truck appears to the right with a leg pointing high in the air. Is it part of a mannequin? No, it’s a moose leg.

Even for Canadians, it’s easy to find daily examples of the stereotypes for which the country is known beyond its borders.

A girl pores over a Conservative election poster. Picture: AP

A girl pores over a Conservative election poster. Picture: AP

But as the country votes for a new parliament tomorrow, will the result be as straightforward as identifying a national stereotype?

It is normally a six-week battle for votes, but prime minister Stephen Harper used the first fixed federal election date to begin campaigning in the first week of August, making one of the longest election battles in Canadian history.

After winning two minority governments and then a majority four years ago, Harper has guided the Conservative Party in power for nine years, and has been widely despised by those on the political left.

Early in the election, the official opposition, the New Democratic Party (NDP), climbed high in the polls and looked set to become the rallying point for a “stop Harper” movement.

But the third-placed Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau, son of the former PM Pierre Elliot Trudeau, have leapfrogged forward and could win tomorrow night. Almost nobody expects a majority government and voters could be back at the polls within 18 months.

Some seat projections have even suggested a possible three-way tie.

Although Harper won a majority in 2011 with 39 per cent of the vote, the opposition is split and heavily regionalised, particularly in Quebec. But even dogged by scandals and facing exasperated voters, Harper has managed to climb back into a potential winning position thanks to his anti-Muslim stance.

A court case about whether a woman could wear a niqab during a citizenship ceremony offered the Conservatives the chance to oppose it. Later they also proposed setting up a phoneline so Canadians could report neighbours for suspected “barbaric cultural practices”. Although mocked on Twitter, there was a corresponding bump in the polls for the Conservatives, especially in Quebec.

Overwhelmingly represented by the separatist Bloc Quebecois for 20 years, the party was nearly wiped out in 2011 by the NDP in what was dubbed the “orange wave”. Polls suggest a chunk of NDP support moved directly to the Conservatives after the anti-Muslim moves, though there is no proof of the cause, merely the timing.

Officially the Conservatives are running as the only guardians of the economy, though Canada slipped back in technical terms into recession at the start of the year, the second time during Conservative rule. But their campaign has also been advised by Lynton Crosby, who was central in David Cameron’s general election win in May and is known for using wedge issues such as immigration. There are reports in recent days that he has now left the campaign.

Opposition to Harper and the Conservatives is not united and both Liberals and the NDP have argued against merging or any post-election coalition. But they will also oppose any “Harper government”, either forcing another election or an attempt at ruling from a minority position.

Phil Savage, a farmer and artist in the province of New Brunswick, said the election this year perhaps matters more than previous ones.

“It seems like there is more urgency in this election – and more division perhaps,” he said. “In my left-leaning bubble there seems to be a great deal of urgency to remove the Conservative government from power, as if another term with them will lead to irreparable damage.

“And I think non-Canadians should be concerned about the outcome, particularly on the issue of climate change. Three of the top four parties have little to no strategy for carbon reduction or mitigation and what they do propose is weak in relation to what is exhorted by current climate science. To me, this is the real issue we should be concerned about, more so than the economy.”

There have been significant problems with polling station figures from Elections Canada and widespread confusion about new requirements for having a photo ID to be allowed to vote. Despite that, a record 3.6 million people voted in four days of advance polling on the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.

But for one group of voters, the decision on whether to use the franchise is complicated by centuries of history and abuse. Indigenous peoples live within Canada but most do not vote in Canadian elections, arguing instead for the original nation-to-nation status of treaties at the time of British invasion. Even the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde, said he would vote for the first time ever this year.

Patricia Saulis, a member of the Maliseet nation in New Brunswick, explained that just because indigenous people can vote in Canada does not diminish that nation-to-nation position.

She said: “The issue of enfranchisement is still a very emotional, spiritual, social, intense experience because for some of our people, our veterans, in order to become part of the military in the First and Second World War, they had to lose their status and take on the Canadian identity, and when they returned they were not treated the same as other veterans.

“So how do we deal with voting now? I think a lot of our people are trying to make sense of where they fit in that realm. Am I losing something or am I helping something?

“We are people from this land. We are always concerned about what’s happening in this world around us. How do we affect that?”

One indigenous reserve, Shoal Lake 40 in Manitoba, has had a boil-water advisory for 17 years. It is unclear whether issues such as this are more or less likely to get tackled with a majority or minority or even coalition government.

So hold on to the image of moose legs for a Canadian stereotype, because come Tuesday the election consequences are anything but certain.

THE CONTENDERS

Stephen Harper

The incumbent prime minister was once a Liberal Party supporter before drifting to the Progressive Conservatives, then the breakaway right-wing Reform Party, then the rebranded Canadian Alliance and finally leading the Conservative Party, the re-united right. Hoping for a historic fourth election victory, much of the campaign has been dominated by attempts to “stop Harper” in any way possible.

Tom Mulcair

Once a provincial Liberal Party minister in Quebec, he became leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) after the cancer death of former leader Jack Layton, who led the “orange wave” of record MPs in the province in 2011. Sometimes dubbed “angry Tom” by the media and Conservatives, he has guided the official opposition to a more centrist position from their historic socialist traditions.

Justin Trudeau

The son of former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau is the fourth Liberal Party leader – and the youngest at 44 – to try to defeat Harper in the past decade. Though the Conservatives launched ads the night he was confirmed party leader of “he’s just not ready”, which have run for more than two years since, he has risen steadily in the polls.

Elizabeth May

Became the first Green MP in 2011 and is widely expected to be returned by British Columbia constituents. The Green Party leader has been consistently praised as the hardest-working MP but the party has struggled to break through the first-past-the-post system. Another two seats are considered their absolute peak tomorrow.

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