Montreal Gazette

`There is lots of work still to do,' Trudeau says

Liberal leader put election hopes into platform of pandemic management

- JESSE FEITH jfeith@postmedia.com

When Justin Trudeau called an early election in mid-august, he argued it was necessary because the country was facing a pivotal decision: after living through an unpreceden­ted pandemic, how did Canadians want to move forward?

But from the outset, his political opponents positioned the election call as something entirely different. Not only was it ill-advised during a pandemic, they argued, but also a poorly hidden attempt by Trudeau to regain the majority government he lost in 2019.

How Canadians ultimately reacted to the election and who they voted for was still up in the air by late Monday night — an uncertaint­y that loomed over the downtown Montreal ballroom where Liberal faithful and candidates had gathered.

Speaking from the pared-down event at the Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Liberal candidate Pablo Rodriguez reiterated his confidence in Trudeau as a leader and insisted a minority government would still be considered a victory.

“It's never a loss when Canadians trust you to lead them,” Rodriguez, the candidate for Montreal's Honoré-mercier riding, told reporters.

“And at least there will be a clear mandate given,” he added. “Because there was a debate and an election on how to get through the pandemic and how to rebuild afterward.”

Thirty-six days earlier, Trudeau had started his campaign with the message of moving the country forward while positionin­g himself as the right person to navigate the rest of the COVID -19 crisis.

But after an up-and-down campaign, in which he was continuous­ly challenged about why he called the election, Trudeau entered election night neck-and-neck in the polls with Conservati­ve Leader Erin O'toole.

His image admittedly bruised after six years in government, Trudeau's campaign had little resemblanc­e to the message of “positive politics” that led the Liberals to a majority government in 2015. Nor was it marked by the steady stream of scandals that followed him throughout the 2019 election and threatened to derail his chances at re-election.

This year's campaign instead found him forced to defend his decision to call an election amid a pandemic and fighting off charges, mainly from O'toole, that in doing so he put his own political interests above the country's.

While he was jeered by protesters throughout the 2019 campaign for his record on climate change, Trudeau was met by more vitriolic crowds this time around. What he described as fringe “anti-vaxxer mobs” flocked to his campaign stops, decrying public health measures and vaccine mandates.

At least one of his Ontario events was shut down over safety concerns. At another, he was pelted with gravel while boarding his campaign bus.

Throughout the campaign, Trudeau ran on a message that Canadians want to “move forward.”

He pledged to bolster the country's health care system, make life more affordable for families and to better tackle the climate crisis. He addressed questions of reconcilia­tion, systemic racism and gun control, but none of these themes ever truly came into focus.

As polls showed support shifting toward the Conservati­ves, and COVID-19 cases started rising once more across the country, Trudeau leaned into pandemic management as the campaign's top issue instead.

Putting himself on the side of the nearly 79 per cent of eligible Canadians who have been vaccinated, he attacked O'toole on his approach to ending the pandemic — which would rely more on rapid testing than vaccine mandates — and tried to link him to protests.

“We do not need a Conservati­ve government that won't be able to show the leadership on vaccinatio­ns and on science that we need to end this,” Trudeau said at a late campaign stop in Montreal.

Heading into Monday, the latest polls showed the Liberals and Conservati­ves in a dead heat, with the New Democratic Party (NDP) in a distant third. They suggested the Liberals were slightly favoured to win the most seats, but not the 170 needed for a majority.

Sensing how tight the race became during the last stretch of the campaign, Trudeau turned to warning voters of splitting the vote by defecting to the NDP, insisting a Liberal vote was the only way to fend off the Conservati­ves.

“Despite what the NDP likes to say, the choice is between a Conservati­ve or a Liberal government right now,” Trudeau said during a campaign stop in Ontario. “And it does make a difference to Canadians whether we have or not a progressiv­e government.”

Whatever the result, in the days leading to election night, Trudeau avoided directly answering questions about his political future.

Asked during one of his last campaign stops whether he thought this could be his last election, Trudeau told reporters: “There is lots of work still to do, and I'm nowhere near done yet.”

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