The making of a prime minister:

Inside Trudeau’s epic victory

By Paul Wells

Sunny, sunny ways

How Justin Trudeau’s campaign of hard work and hope landed him a whopping majority

Let us begin, against the mood sweeping much of the land, with a downer. The speech Justin Trudeau delivered on Monday night was long, 24 minutes long, three times as long as the concession his predecessor had just delivered four provinces to the west. It was full of greeting-card generalities and light on hints of first steps for a government that will be drawn from a caucus chock full of rookies who will need a little direction.

The man who will be Canada’s 23rd prime minister delivered his remarks in the exaggerated, portentous cadence his own campaign staff had worked for months to eradicate. As he spoke to a gleeful crowd in Montreal’s Fairmont Le Reine Élizabeth hotel, television screens flashed the names and earnest, smiling faces of squadrons of new Liberal MPs, almost every one a varsity jock, club president or McKinsey consultant, none of them much used to waiting in line for a promotion. Tonight was time for celebration, but tomorrow, the weight of their expectations, their egos, and the pent-up, uncorked yearning of every constituency and interest in the land would start to crowd in on this young man and his untested team.

These are the problems you get to worry about when you win big.

“More than 100 years ago, a great prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, spoke about the sunny ways,” Trudeau told the crowd, pursuing a theme he has woven into his remarks for as long as he has been in politics. “He knew politics can be a positive force. And that’s the message Canadians have sent today. Canadians chose real change.”

He thanked his wife, Sophie, who beamed back and put her hand on her heart. He told his children, Xavier, Ella-Grace and the toddler, Hadrien, that he would “always be there for them” in the weird life that lies ahead. He thanked his campaign managers, Katie Telford and Gerald Butts, in greater detail than you usually hear on a night like this. (Jean Chrétien never used to go on about how great John Rae was.) He offered the hope that his victory would be “an inspiration to like-minded people to step up and pitch in—to get involved in the public life of this country and to know that a positive, optimistic, hopeful vision of public life isn’t a naive dream: It can be a powerful force for change.”

He talked about how much he’d learned from ordinary Canadians “in coffee shops and in town halls, in church basements and in gurdwaras,” from people who “know in our bones that Canada was built by people from all corners of the world, who worship every faith, who belong to every culture, who speak every language.”

Perhaps they’d been told it’s impossible to do better, he said, before delivering a line so familiar to his admirers, they recited it along with him: “Well, my friends, this is Canada. And in Canada, better is always possible.”

At the very least, he had shown it was possible to do better than polls only days earlier would have indicated. This was a sweeping victory, equal to Harper’s 2011 election in popular vote, more bounteous in its harvest of parliamentary seats than any he or Chrétien had seen. Every seat in Atlantic Canada. Every seat in the North. Seats in every province, including a majority of the seats in Quebec and Ontario. Four MPs from Alberta. Not since Arthur Meighen in 1925 had the leader of a third-place party won power. And Meighen’s minority government would not last a year. Trudeau’s, barring unimaginable political catastrophe, is here for four.

To Conservative supporters, now reduced in number to fewer than one voter in three, it must be galling. To be brought low by this pretty boy, to the manor quite literally born, the schoolteacher and snowboarder who smoked pot, took off his shirt at charity functions, kissed brides, watched a national campaign co-chairman resign in disgrace for counselling clients on how to reap the spoils of power before the race was even won. It’s all so familiar, it matches some of Canadian conservatism’s creation myths: that the head of the cheerleading squad gets everything on a silver platter while ordinary people work without reward. The temptation of fatalism will be strong.

Trudeau won through hope and hard work, but he also won the battle of ideas (Kevin Van Paassen/Bloomberg/Getty Images)

That would be a mistake. To chalk Justin Trudeau’s victory up to luck or nice hair sells him short, though it really is nice hair. In earlier elections, plenty of gentry-class Laurentian valedictorians managed to lose. Stephen Harper beat two of them in his day. Paul Martin, shipping magnate, popular guy, silver-tongued, finance-minister son of a foreign minister, connected up the wazoo. Michael Ignatieff, of the Russian Ignatieffs, star of screen and seminar room, who was crestfallen as a child when his father was not appointed governor general. Their gilded Rolodexes and legion of admirers in all the right faculty clubs did not save them from Harper’s methodical labour, his calm reasoning, or the devastating critiques of his attack-ad machines.

That Trudeau met a better fate came as a genuine surprise to his many detractors and not a few of his supporters. He entered this campaign in third place and trending down. In the spring, he was spitting out policy documents compulsively, a new one every week like some wonky Stephen King, to counter the widespread perception that he was “in over his head” and “just not ready.” The nation had fallen into the habit, once again, of parroting Conservative ad copy as though they were original insights. Normally when this happens, it’s over for a Liberal leader. His tormenters in other parties, NDP and Conservative alike, sought to drag him over the hot coals of his own shaky rhetoric by making him debate two older men, Harper and Tom Mulcair, again and again. It was not only possible he would be squeezed again between Conservatives and New Democrats, as Ignatieff had been: It seemed his likeliest fate.

He won through hope and hard work, to paraphrase another of his favourite slogans. But who doesn’t hope? Who doesn’t work hard? That can’t be all of it. Perhaps it is not too audacious to declare, at the risk of being laughed out of the pundit guild, that Trudeau also won the battle of ideas.

The Harper decade was an argument for modest and shrinking government, at ever-smaller cost, with the savings passed on to the voter-as-consumer, whether through two sales-tax cents on the shopping dollar or through a constellation of targeted tax benefits. And it was an argument for protecting families and communities against assorted strangers and marauders, with tough penalties for wrongdoing and suspicious inspection of any newcomer’s credentials. These are, it must be said, good ideas. They carried three successive elections. They are handy proof against the empire-building excess of too many who confuse their interests with the public good.

Both Trudeau and Mulcair argued that something is lost when the national government throws off too many of its longstanding functions. Both sought to rehabilitate a belief that taxes are often worth paying, because government can be an agent for positive change. But Mulcair wanted to win the top job by soothing the skittish next voter who had never supported his party. It made him cautious, and made his ideas cautious. Trudeau wanted to move more quickly, to put activist government higher on his list of priorities than balanced budgets. Harper told him he couldn’t do it. He said he’d do it anyway. Voters got to decide. This is what a battle of ideas actually looks like.

There was, of course—spectacularly—also a battle of values. This is where Harper’s admirers make a second mistake when they chalk Trudeau’s success up to charm. It sells Trudeau short, but it also lets Harper off the hook. The most intellectually influential conservative leader of the last 40 years ran the stupidest Conservative campaign since Stockwell Day’s in 2000. It was a vindictive, short-sighted, flighty succession of slights, punishments and baffling sentimental indulgences, culminating in the leader’s astonishing decision to return, twice in the crucial final week, to the side of Rob Ford, a former mayor whose excesses had repeatedly disgraced him.

Harper’s decline began with his 2011 majority victory (Photograph by Chris Bolin)

The decline of Stephen Harper is a complicated matter, but it begins with his greatest electoral triumph, the majority victory of 2011. He seemed unsure what to do with his sweeping new mandate. Eventually, he lashed out against the Obama administration, pivoted his export priorities to China, then pivoted right back upon hitting the first obstacle, and used the Mike Duffy scandal as an excuse to indulge his worst habits of suspicion, secrecy and sullenness. At the end of 2013, he let it be known that he had personally reached out to Dimitri Soudas, a third-rate schemer, to manage the Conservative party as it went into an election. Soudas meddled in his fiancée Eve Adams’s nomination battle and lost his job. Harper’s longstanding reputation for having a keen eye for talent was shattered. It never recovered. Who were the interesting new Conservative candidates in this election? Did he know any of their names? His imposing legacy—on limited government, on federal-provincial relations, on international trade—became harder to defend after he turned his palace guard into cheap soap opera.

And his decision to campaign in Quebec as a pale replica of Pauline Marois’s xenophobic Parti Québécois, and in Ontario as the latest of many to underestimate Kathleen Wynne, makes it harder to defend his political judgment. His defeat is “my fault and mine alone,” he said. Indeed.

This is the story of that campaign. It was long and went through many reversals of fortune, but it comes down to two men: one who turned out to be something more than simply charming, one whose refusal to charm poisoned his judgment. The others—Mulcair, Elizabeth May, Gilles Duceppe—found themselves elbowed aside in the final confrontation.

A fixed election date meant the campaign had unofficially started in the summer
(Mark Blinch/Reuters)

A journey of 1,000 miles

The longest campaign in modern history began on a lovely August day, back when everything was different

Men who want to change the world eventually learn to accept all the many things they cannot change. A few keen observers of federal politics began speculating in the spring that Stephen Harper might call an election earlier than most people had expected. But why? What advantage did he want to maximize with a long campaign? What disaster did he want to avoid? The truth was prosaic: as far as he could see, he had no choice.

Count back from Oct. 19. That was the election date set according to a formula the Harper Conservatives fixed in a law they had passed in 2007, purportedly to deprive incumbent governments of the advantage of choosing the moment for a vote. The wording of the law was big enough to drive a campaign bus through. That’s what Harper did in 2008, calling an election as soon as it became clear the opposition parties would try to force him into one. In 2011, the opposition forced the defeat of Harper’s minority government, so that one didn’t happen on a fixed date either.

But Harper had decided early that this time, the election would happen on an October Monday in 2015, just as the law prescribed. So count back. When should the campaign start? Since the 1990s, most campaigns have lasted five weeks. Five weeks before Oct. 19 was mid-September. There would be no time after Labour Day for the House of Commons to come back from summer break and do any useful work. So the House would never reconvene. Which meant that once MPs left Ottawa in June for the rest of the summer, everyone would be campaigning anyway.

Might as well make it official. A long campaign gave Harper both opportunity and shelter. In 2014, Pierre Poilievre, one of Harper’s most trusted young cabinet ministers, introduced the “Fair Elections Act,” a sweeping set of election reforms that looked suspiciously designed to give the Conservatives advantages in countless small ways. One of its provisions allows limits on campaign spending to rise as campaigns grow longer. Double the length of a campaign and you could double the spending limit to $50 million. No party had access to that kind of money—except the Conservatives. With a long campaign, Harper could run the others into the ground and still have money left over for an advertising blitz in the campaign’s final days.

But Harper was at least as preoccupied with the need to play defence as the chance to hone his offence. A group of veteran Liberal and NDP staffers had banded together, under the name Engage Canada, to spend big union money on anti-Harper ads. The first appeared in June, accusing the Conservatives of increasing income inequality. The second, a week later, accused Harper of cutting health care spending.

Harper believed, strongly, that if Ontario was still governed by Kathleen Wynne and the provincial Liberal party, it was because the union-funded Working Families Coalition had pounded the provincial Progressive Conservative party into the ground with fierce anti-Conservative advertising. Those ads didn’t come cheap. Ontario election law puts few limits on spending by organizations that weren’t political parties. Federal law was stricter, but it applied only during the formal writ period of an election campaign. Calling an early election would shut down Engage Canada. Waiting would amount to an invitation to keep pounding Harper.

And so on Sunday, Aug. 2, television camera crews converged on Rideau Hall to wait while Stephen Harper asked David Johnston, the Governor General, to dissolve Parliament. Election day would still be on Oct. 19 as the law prescribed, but the resulting 11-week campaign would be longer than the campaigns of 2008 and 2011 combined.

Campaign workers always devote more time and care to the preparation of the remarks their leader will pronounce at the campaign launch than they probably should. It’s not as though a lot of people decide how to vote based on such boilerplate. But it’s a handy exercise for clarifying a party’s thinking and, ideally, the message they’ll put out through advertising, campaign events, social media and every other conduit for the duration of the campaign. As the incumbent party of government, the Conservatives would have the first chance to make their case.

Harper began with a perfunctory rationalization for the early election call—everyone was campaigning anyway, so they might as well put some rules around it. Then he moved to the meat of his argument. “It is also appropriate that Canadians have the time to consider the alternatives before them, because this is an election about leadership on the big issues that affect us all: our economy and our nation’s security.”

Surely leadership was Harper’s strongest brand advantage. He had been Prime Minister for nearly a decade, after all. This election would not be “a popularity contest,” he said. It would be about which leader would “protect our economy,” and about who could make “the tough calls to keep our country safe.”

Harper’s rhetoric was straight out of the Incumbent Campaigner’s Big Book of Opening Gambits, and it was a nearly verbatim reprise of his remarks at Rideau Hall when he kicked off the 2008 campaign. Back then, he promised Canadians a choice between “a clear direction or uncertainty, between common sense or risky experiments, between steadiness or recklessness.” You depict yourself as a haven and your opponent as a greased slide to chaos. Now, Harper added that a “serious choice” was at hand. Getting it wrong on the economy would be picking “a dangerous approach that has failed before and is failing in other countries.” Choosing wrong on national security would pave the way for “political correctness, inexperienced governance or an ideological unwillingness to act.”

Not long after Harper’s launch event wrapped up, Tom Mulcair strode up a short staircase to a riser on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. The Parliament buildings loomed through the summer haze over his shoulder. “Canadians have a clear choice,” he said. “Four more years of Mr. Harper and the Conservatives, or my plan for change.”

Mulcair has sought to position himself as the candidate of undramatic change (PATRICK DOYLE/CP)

Mulcair’s advisers were led by two veterans, Anne McGrath and Brad Lavigne. They were adamant that it was more important for Mulcair to calm voters than to excite them. He hoped millions of them would vote NDP for the first time; that would be plenty exciting, thank you very much. So Mulcair would seek, at every turn, to make that step as undramatic as possible. “I want to speak to every Canadian who thinks Mr. Harper’s government is on the wrong track,” he said, leaning on “every” in his delivery. “To every Canadian who is looking for change in Ottawa. Our plan is built on enduring Canadian values: hard work, living within your means, accountability and an unwavering commitment to focusing its priorities on helping you get ahead.”

Stephen Harper could have used the same language. That was the point. Of course, later on, Mulcair would frequently say things Harper would never say, but to the extent he could sound like he’d already been prime minister for a while, he would be hitting his strategic strike zone. “I have learned to be a prudent manager, working in the public interest, and I have acquired the necessary experience to defeat and replace Stephen Harper,” Mulcair-as-replacement-Harper said.

Justin Trudeau, the leader of the third-place and struggling Liberals, did not immediately reply to his adversaries: he was in the air over Western Canada when the fun began. It was the weekend of Vancouver Pride, and both Trudeau and Mulcair had agreed to attend the annual gay-rights celebration. Mulcair had cancelled when it became clear the campaign was beginning. Trudeau kept his appointment. “I made a promise to the half-a-million British Columbians who will be celebrating Pride this afternoon, celebrating Canada’s diversity,” Trudeau told reporters when he finally landed. “No one’s going to get me to break my word, particularly not Stephen Harper.”

Trudeau needed to draw sharper distinctions with Harper than Mulcair did, because his Liberals had been sinking in the polls for months. “It’s time to choose a person and a team with an economic plan based on this fundamental truth about Canada,” Trudeau said. “If you want to create jobs and grow the Canadian economy, you have to give the middle class a real and fair chance to succeed.”

Trudeau had a tough needle to thread with this campaign. Internal Liberal polls showed that the number of people agreeing it was “time for a change” was more than 20 points higher than it had been in 2011. But the obvious path to change in Canada has always been to support the official Opposition party, which, unfortunately for Liberals, was the NDP. “What’s a bigger change than the NDP?” one Liberal strategist said later. “There was a lot of that to overcome.”

The other challenge was that it was easy to be fed up with Stephen Harper in the abstract but to admire him in the concrete. “Say what you will about Stephen Harper, he’s got a brand,” the strategist said. In focus groups, ordinary voters kept endorsing the things the Conservatives liked to say about Harper. Steady hand on the economy, strongest recovery in the G7, that sort of thing. “It’s so hard to push people off that, even if we put out numbers and facts.”

This left Trudeau a limited number of ways he could look like the kind of change people wanted. Claim to be a more competent manager than Harper? Nobody would buy it, and if anyone was buying, that was the line Mulcair was peddling. So Trudeau had decided, as early as 2012, to argue that there was no room in Harper’s economy for middle-class aspirations.

Trudeau couldn’t make that case effectively by speaking third on writ-drop day. He would get a better chance only four days later, at the first national televised debate.

To the extent that Mulcair could sound like he's already been prime minister for a while, he would be hitting the strike zone

The debate was organized by Maclean’s, with the help of City, very nearly over Trudeau’s dead body. There was nothing about this debate that the Liberals liked: that it was coming so long before Canadians would actually vote, that it would take place without a studio audience, that it was organized by a magazine that has sometimes been weirdly respectful of Harper. Trudeau aides grumbled around Ottawa that the event’s moderator had even written two books about Harper. But finally, they decided that skipping the event would be even worse than attending.

And they had one advantage. Trudeau had been preparing to debate his opponents for nine months. Liberal researchers and speechwriters had begun gathering material in November 2014. Reams of briefing material had been winnowed down, progressively, in hundreds of drafts, until they were only lists of keywords that triggered prepared speeches in the Liberal leader’s mind. Each session was videotaped. Staffers huddled to decide how to critique the leader’s performance. Eventually, somebody gentle—often Gerry Butts, his oldest friend and closest adviser, or Cyrus Reporter, his chief of staff—would be sent, alone, to deliver the constructive criticism to Trudeau.

He needed it. “He was not very good,” one Liberal campaign staffer said.

“He was bad,” another said. “He was overly theatrical. You’ve seen him in those early scrums a few years ago. He’d just go off on this ‘I am Justin, hear me roar’ thing. And it was especially bad because when we began this process, we didn’t have much policy ready. What did the Liberal party have to talk about in November? Marijuana?”

But the thing about Trudeau was, he could take a briefing. He was always open to guidance about how to present himself. He’d nod, silently, when his excesses were pointed out on the video replays. He’d adjust. And he had given himself many months.

On Aug. 6, at the City studio off Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, the leaders of four national parties—Harper, Mulcair, Trudeau and the Green party’s Elizabeth May—began the Maclean’s debate. By the luck of the draw, the first question, on the measures government could take immediately to boost the economy, went to Trudeau.

In the first leaders’ debate, Harper and May talked with their children during the breaks; Trudeau (left) confided in adviser Gerald Butts (Photograph by Liz Sullivan)

“One of the things we’ve seen, Paul, is that for 10 years, the approach that Mr. Harper has taken has simply not worked for Canadians,” Trudeau said. “He has consistently chosen to give opportunities and tax breaks and benefits to the wealthiest Canadians in the hopes that that would create growth. But that’s not happening. And that actually goes to the heart of the question that’s being posed in this election campaign: is Stephen Harper’s plan working for you?”

It was the Liberal message: not that Harper had no qualities, but that he had a blind spot where most Canadians live. “That’s why the Liberal party has put forward a plan to invest in the middle class.”

It wasn’t Shakespeare. Economists, as the Maclean’s moderator reminded Trudeau, are not at all persuaded the middle class has fared poorly in recent years. But it was an argument. “When he stuck the landing on that first answer, there was a collective sigh of relief,” one of the Liberal strategists said.

Each of the leaders would get a chance to score points during the two hours that followed. Harper was comfortable, even relaxed, parrying his opponents with little difficulty.

At last, the moment came for closing statements from the leaders. At the request of the Green party, which had worried that Elizabeth May might not get a chance to make a proper pitch, these would be relatively long by television standards, at two minutes.

Trudeau spoke last. He stared into the camera, and a little of the theatrical Trudeau returned. He had a robust speechwriting staff, but the final text of the remarks he would now deliver had been written in close collaboration with Butts, his former McGill University roommate.

“Mr. Harper has spent millions of dollars on attack ads trying to convince you that I’m not ready for this job,” he said. “As silly as they are, they do pose an important question. How can you decide whether someone is ready to be your prime minister?”

This was dangerous stuff, maybe foolish. It is a central tenet of political campaigning that you must never repeat the line your opponents use against you. “Here’s what I think,” Trudeau said. “In order to know if someone is ready for this job, ask them what they want to do with this job, and why they want it in the first place. I’m a 43-year-old father of three kids, and I love them deeply, and I want them to grow up in the best country in the world, one that we can all be proud of. What I learned from my father is that to lead this country, you need to love this country, love it more than you crave power. It needs to run through your veins. You need to feel it in your bones.” His voice had slowed to a crawl. It was not hard to imagine violins swelling in the background.

“Mr. Harper and I part ways on many issues, but our differences go deeper than just policy. Mr. Harper is dead wrong about one thing. He wants you to believe that better just isn’t possible. Well, I think that’s wrong. We are who we are, and Canada is what it is, because in our hearts, we’ve always known that better is always possible.”

The Liberal leader kept talking until it was possible to wonder whether he’d ever stop. Off-site, the Liberal campaign was running a “dial group.” They had invited a group of undecided voters to watch the debate and twist dials on electronic handsets to indicate whether they liked what they heard or not. After the debate finished, the dial group participants were invited to say whether one moment from the debate stood out, good or bad.

About a dozen of the participants said they had found Trudeau’s closing statement about the country you feel in your bones inspiring. Four or five said they found it fake and ridiculous. No other part of the debate, nothing else that Trudeau or anyone else had said, was mentioned by more than two people. Trudeau’s bit about his kids and the land where better was possible was highly polarizing, but it was also the only thing a lot of people could even remember seeing. In the days after, the Liberals would begin an achingly slow but relentless climb in the public opinion polls.

Suspended Senator Mike Duffy leaves the Ontario Court of Justice, in Ottawa, April 8, 2015. (Blair Gable/Reuters)

The Duffy trial eats campaigns, all of them

While scandal engulfed Harper, for other leaders the trial was ‘like a vacation’

And then the Mike Duffy trial rose up and swallowed the campaign for a couple of weeks. In cell biology, the process is known as phagocytosis: a cell engulfs some foreign particle, ingests it, tucks it away in an internal sac. Bye-bye foreign particle. A multi-party national election campaign spanning half a continent is a pretty big particle, but by midday on Aug. 12, very little of it was visible, so all-encompassing was the news coverage of the goings-on in courtroom 33 of the dour and low-slung courthouse on Elgin Avenue in Ottawa.

All it took was the arrival of Nigel Wright, the slim and cordial Bay Street dealmaker who had tried to staunch the flow of lousy headlines gushing out of Mike Duffy in 2013 by applying a personal cheque to the senator. “I couldn’t think of another way of doing it,” Wright said on Aug. 12. “I was happy to have people believe [Duffy] had repaid,” he said under cross-examination on Aug. 13.

Wright insisted only he and the Prime Minister’s then legal adviser, Benjamin Perrin, had known about the payment to Duffy. But on Aug. 18, he admitted that Ray Novak “may have dropped into the office” while the payment was being discussed. This was a critical point. At the moment in 2013 when Wright was making out a cheque to Duffy, Novak was Harper’s principal secretary, the man who controlled access to the Prime Minister. And at the moment in 2015 when Wright was being required to reminisce under oath about that difficult time, Novak was Harper’s chief of staff and a member of his campaign entourage.

Nobody had ever named Novak among the small group of people who knew about Wright’s cheque to Duffy. But suddenly Novak and that cheque were getting uncomfortably close in retrospect.

It was at this point that Donald Bayne, Duffy’s lawyer, rose to cross-examine Wright. He pointed out that Novak was one of the people to whom Wright had addressed an email announcing that “I will send my cheque on Monday.” And then he started reading the transcript of an interview Perrin gave to the RCMP in 2014. In that email, Perrin drew Novak even further into the circle of the elect, placing him at a meeting in the Prime Minister’s Office where Wright had discussed his cheque scheme. “Ray was in that meeting and Ray heard this, and I remember looking at Ray to see his reaction,” Perrin had told the RCMP.

And then two days later, there was Perrin himself, testifying that when he looked for Novak’s reaction, Novak “didn’t have any reaction.” Which was dramatically unsatisfying, to be sure, but at least confirmed that Novak had been present to have his reaction parsed, at a meeting where Wright announced he would pay Duffy’s bills with a personal cheque.

This was news. Harper had always insisted that the only two culpable parties in this mess were Duffy, who had run up dubious expenses and accepted a cheque to pay them down, and Wright, who had written the cheque. Wright had left the PMO, Harper had always said. Duffy had been suspended from the Senate. The wrongs had been righted. There was nothing more to see.

The trial for Mike Duffy was going to be an issue, but testimony from Nigel Wright swallowed the campaign in August (Justin Tang/CP)

The immediate, public result of these revelations was that reporters travelling with Harper stopped asking him about any other issue except Duffy, Wright and Novak. Harper endured their questions with an expression of bland detachment and offered minimal answers. “When I found out that Mr. Duffy had not paid those expenses and that Mr. Wright had paid them instead, I held those two individuals responsible for their actions and we are holding them accountable,” he said on Aug. 16 in Ottawa. “I am not going to cherry-pick facts that are in dispute before a court,” he said three days later in London, Ont.

For the leaders of the other parties, the Duffy trial firehose was “like a vacation,” a senior adviser to Mulcair said. Sure, they had to keep showing up for campaign events. Sure, they had to announce new policies. It would have been unseemly if Mulcair had retired to a hotel room, kicked up his heels and watched the Duffy trial as everyone in Ottawa was doing for a few weeks. But the effect was the same, the NDP leader’s adviser said later: very little that Mulcair said would get into the news. No answer from Mulcair to any reporter’s question, however awkward, would be picked apart by panels of pundits.

It was just as well. Mulcair’s brain trust had assumed the campaign would start after Labour Day. They had been wrong, but now the Nigel Wright phagocyte was engulfing the second half of August. The opposition leaders dutifully played their parts. In Surrey, B.C., on Aug. 19, Mulcair said Harper “has not been frank; he hasn’t told the truth.”

In Winnipeg on the same day, Trudeau chimed in. “This comes down to whether Canadians can trust the Prime Minister and his office. Canadians are not fools.”

But some of them were getting angry. In Toronto the day before, a white-haired man got into a shouting match with two reporters who’d asked Harper about Duffy at the morning’s campaign event. “Harper doesn’t read income-tax forms, you idiot,” the man, later identified as Earl Cowan, said to one of the reporters. “It’s done by the people in the tax department.”

The reporter began to ask a question. “I believe that you cheat more on your taxes than Duffy ever did,” Cowan cut in. The reporter was taken aback. Why had he levelled such an accusation? “Because you’re a lying piece of shit.”

The conversation deteriorated after that. “He’s nothing,” Cowan said at one point, referring to Duffy’s place in the grand scheme of things. “It’s nothing. It’s zero. Nothing. Zero.”

Cowan’s language was inelegant, but to a lot of Conservative supporters, he had a point. Wright’s cheque to Duffy got the taxpayer off the hook for $90,000 in questionable housing expenses. If this was some kind of crime, who was the victim?

Meanwhile, Harper was one of the longest-serving Prime Ministers of modern times, with a record of accomplishment, and he was making promises every morning. A ban on most travel to designated “terror zones” overseas. A crackdown on marijuana grow ops. An increase on the amount first-time homebuyers could withdraw from their RRSPs to buy a house. A tax break on Kiwanis club memberships. Good conservative stuff. Nary a question from the ingrates in the press gallery.

So the press was not asking about the announcements, and Harper was not engaging, in any substantive way, with the questions the reporters were asking. All of this was happening in front of a daily backdrop of Conservative supporters who had been invited to these events precisely because they were Conservative supporters. They really, really wanted Stephen Harper to keep being prime minister of Canada. They could read the polls as well as anyone, and as August wore on, the NDP was rising as if lifted by helium. Harper wasn’t. It was only a matter of time before a few Earl Cowans started to complain about this.

Later, after the Duffy trial suspended on Aug. 25 until November, a senior adviser to Harper shrugged his shoulders when asked about the tense and extended standoff. “I’m not sure you can make a shit sandwich into something delicious.” The only thing to do about the Duffy trial was to get through it. But that was a little glib. A lot about this awful situation was bound up in the character of Stephen Harper, his choices and the people he had chosen to surround him.

“Apart from the debates, Harper shied away from exposing himself in a way that was harmful to his electoral prospects,” one veteran Conservative who worked at senior levels in the campaign said in an interview near the end of the campaign. “His fundamental introversion is his limitation. A lot of politicians are introverted. Pierre Trudeau was introverted. But with Harper, it’s parlayed itself into this horrible relationship with the media that’s gotten into all sorts of things.”

Go back to those tense daily confrontations with reporters. By a convention of long standing in the Harper camp, reporters travelling with the Conservatives for national news organizations would divide four questions among them. A fifth would go to a reporter from a local news organization who’d showed up in Abbotsford, B.C., or Quebec City for the morning’s event. There would not be a sixth question. Nobody would get a follow-up, because reporters almost always use follow-ups to test a weakness in the leader’s argument.


Let Mulcair and Trudeau run off at the mouth. It would only get them into trouble. Every now and then, one of them would say something that would confirm Harper’s belief that too much talking was merely asking for problems. At the Regina Farmers’ Market on Aug. 13, Trudeau took questions for half an hour on thorny issues like exports to China and missing and murdered Aboriginal women. Near the end, he said, “We’re proposing a strong and real plan—one that invests in the middle class, so we can grow the economy, not from the top down, the way Mr. Harper wants to, but from the heart outwards.” Maybe he was referring to the middle class as the heart of the Canadian economy. No matter: the next morning’s Toronto Sun had a cartoon on the front page depicting Trudeau as a Care Bear. “He’s not a stupid person,” a Trudeau campaign staffer said later. “He just says stupid things sometimes.”

The lesson, Harper and some of his advisers would say, was: don’t talk so much. Except that was always the lesson a certain knot of Harper advisers drew from any confrontation. Increasingly, the five-question formula in front of the edgy partisan crowd started to look like a trap. It wasn’t keeping pesky journalists out. It was holding Harper in. “You take smart people, including the Prime Minister, and bottle them up with dull, repetitive talking points that end up sounding like, ‘So’s your mother,’” the veteran Conservative said.

Harper focused on daily promises; ‘he shied away from exposing himself’ (Paul Chiasson/CP)

One person at the top of Harper’s campaign kept urging him to speak at greater length, in longer interviews with serious journalists. This was Kory Teneycke, 40, who had served as Harper’s communications director in 2008 and 2009 before leaving to create the right-wing Sun News television network. Sun News folded in February of this year, unable to attract large audiences but mourned by a cadre of loyal viewers who would have cheered Earl Cowan on as he berated reporters from the culpably Liberal “mainstream media.” After sitting out the 2011 campaign to launch his network, Teneycke was back as Harper’s chief spokesman, debate negotiator and interface with reporters.

Teneycke believed deeply in Harper, but he also urged the Conservative leader to make himself more available to reporters. “Kory went to the mat, over and over and over,” the senior Conservative said. “Ray [Novak], in his quiet way, too.” But Teneycke and Novak were not Harper’s only advisers. The Prime Minister was also hearing from his campaign director, Jenni Byrne, and another senior figure, Guy Giorno.

Byrne rose in the Reform Party as a dedicated, tough and almost unbelievably hardworking youth volunteer in the late 1990s. She became a key player in the PMO after the 2006 election made Harper Prime Minister with a serious shortage of competent and experienced staff. By 2008, she was a lieutenant to Doug Finley, the dour Scot who ran Harper’s campaign that year as he had done in 2004 and 2008. Finley’s health deteriorated—he would die in 2013—so in 2011, Byrne succeeded him as campaign director. Giorno, a fastidious lawyer with a strong background in Ontario provincial politics, was matched with her that year as campaign chair.

Both Byrne and Giorno come with formidable and demonstrated strengths. Giorno was Harper’s chief of staff for most of the period between the 2008 and 2011 elections, when the Conservatives grew to the point where they could win a majority. Byrne has Harper’s complete trust. The daughter of a carpenter and a schoolteacher in Fenelon Falls, Ont., she has bolstered the Conservatives’ fundraising and ground organization while constantly reminding party activists that the Conservatives are most effective as advocates for the working class, not the rich, and certainly not the academic elites who are prevalent among the Conservatives’ critics.

But they also have weaknesses, which their colleagues on the Conservative campaign discussed more and more openly—though always under cover of anonymity—as Oct. 19 approached. Giorno can focus on details so obsessively he loses sight of the bigger picture. “He will dwell on how many commas there are, you know, and it won’t just take up a little bit of his time,” one campaign worker said. “It’ll take up hours. He will go into micro, micro, micro, micro, micro detail on things. And it just burns hours.”

Byrne is a great organizer, tough as nails, but her interest in the philosophy of government, and—here she and Giorno saw eye to eye—her eagerness to see Harper spend a lot of time discussing the philosophy of government with a bunch of liberal reporters from big-city news organizations were pretty close to zero. Every time the Harper government got into trouble, which seemed to happen increasingly often after the big 2011 majority victory should have marked an end to the Conservatives’ growing pains, Giorno and Byrne would view it as proof that you can’t win with the press anyway. So why bother?

“They just needed to engage,” the senior Conservative said. “It’s just media relations. It’s not nuclear war. But in the Harper world, they just shut down, faced with media adversity.”

It’s not entirely fair to describe these weaknesses in the context of a barrage of bad headlines that would have tested any campaign. But even after the Duffy trial suspended and reporters’ fickle attention turned elsewhere, Harper would suffer from a lack of coherent messaging. “What bothers me most about this campaign,” one Conservative staffer said near the end of the 11-week marathon, “is that in 2006, we had the Five Priorities”—five simple promises Harper used to contrast his clarity of purpose with Paul Martin’s dithering. “In 2011, we had the spectre of an opposition coalition. There was some kind of unifying cry. But this time, nobody could give you any bold points about what we’ve done or what we’ve said. I don’t think normal people at the door could name any of them.”

But at least, in that second half of August, Harper had journalists’ attention. Tom Mulcair did too, and of a sunnier kind: the NDP was on top of the polls and rising as the headlines looked more and more troublesome for Harper. Justin Trudeau was scrambling.

“I think it’s important context to remember that we didn’t just come into this campaign in third place in the polls, we came in with negative momentum,” David Herle, one of Trudeau’s top advisers, said just before the election in an interview with Maclean’s. “We weren’t at a stable place in the polls. We were dropping.”

A surprisingly strong performance in the Maclean’s debate helped, Herle said. But then something else kicked in. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s premier, announced that she wanted Harper gone, and she wanted Justin Trudeau to replace him.

“Early on in the campaign, it was bigger news that she was campaigning against Harper than Justin campaigning against Harper,” Herle said. “And she kept the party in the fight and in the story until the campaign found its sea legs.”

Wynne (right) said she wanted Harper gone

The fight between Harper and Wynne was deeply ideological and long-standing. Harper could hardly bear to think that the province he was born in, Canada’s largest, was run by Liberals despite his repeated efforts to boost the fortunes of provincial Conservatives. Wynne had run for re-election, in part, on a plan to create a mandatory provincial pension to supplement the Canada Pension Plan. Senior Harper cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Joe Oliver and Ottawa-region political kingpin Pierre Poilievre, couldn’t stop talking about how bad an idea that was. Poilievre called it the “Trudeau-Wynne pension tax.” A lot of analysts wondered whether Wynne was any kind of help to Trudeau.

To some extent, as federal Liberals admitted, there wasn’t much strategy in Wynne’s sorties in favour of Trudeau. “To be perfectly honest, she just wanted to get out there against Stephen Harper herself,” one federal Liberal said. “I don’t think there’s much we could have done to stop her.”

But more broadly, asking whether the premier of Ontario could help a federal politician campaigning in Ontario was a stupid question. Nearly a million Ontarians had voted for Wynne’s provincial Liberals in 2014 but hadn’t voted for the federal Liberals in 2011. Many of them had voted for Harper’s Conservatives. She could call them home. She was not shy about doing it.

Talking to (left to right) Cyrus Reporter, Suzanne Cowan, Gerald Butts (Adam Scotti/Liberal Party)

The deficit giveth and the deficit taketh away

While the Liberals agonized over their deficit options, the NDP had one lonely choice

Back in the second week of April, the Liberal campaign team convened at the party’s offices on Metcalfe Street in Ottawa for a two-day meeting. “It was a brain download for the whole campaign,” somebody who was there recalled later. “Tour; digital; platform.” Trudeau attended, listening more than he spoke, as he often did at meetings of advisory groups on the economy or foreign policy.

The leader’s palace guard was there: Gerald Butts, his McGill University roommate and all-purpose muse and confidant; Katie Telford, a government-relations consultant who had followed Gerard Kennedy from Ontario provincial politics to manage his federal Liberal leadership run in 2006, then worked for Stéphane Dion and, finally, Trudeau; Dan Gagnier, older than most of the rest, a former chief of staff to premiers in two provinces, Ontario and Quebec. Jean Charest in Quebec listened to Gagnier more closely than David Peterson had in Ontario, and lasted longer. Telford and Gagnier were the national campaign co-chairs.

Cyrus Reporter, Trudeau’s chief of staff, but not an old friend, was there, too: a lawyer, former chief of staff to Allan Rock when Rock had been Jean Chrétien’s minister at Justice, then at Industry—and still smarting from standing too close when Paul Martin put a thumping on Rock in 2000 and 2001, in the preliminary rounds of the Chrétien succession battle. Reporter was distant from the rest of the Trudeau board—calmer, not always persuaded that the others were heading in the right direction. Some called him “the disapproving uncle.” “He’s always the last one to chime in with, ‘I don’t like this . . .’ ” a colleague said. If we went around the rest of the table, we’d be here forever, but it’s worth noting Tommy Desfossés, Trudeau’s assistant, curly-haired and compact, still in his 20s, who carries out any errand the leader needs doing on the road. He started as an intern in Trudeau’s office. Now he does whatever needs doing to help the leader through his day. Ray Novak had the job for Harper for years, before moving up the food chain. The term of art in politics is “body man.” In Desfossés’s case, it’s even more appropriate, as he is sometimes Trudeau’s sparring partner in boxing rings.

By April, Trudeau was sinking in the polls, though still gently. Rachel Notley’s miracle win in Alberta, which would goose the popularity of the national NDP, was still a month in the future. There was no panic, but everyone was beginning to realize that Trudeau’s longstanding “Hope and Hard Work” slogan would have to be tilted a little harder in favour of hard work than they had, well, hoped.

The Conservatives were calling Trudeau an airhead. The Conservatives were hardly alone. Soon Trudeau would begin putting out quite a bit of policy material, to answer the assertion he had nothing of substance to offer. On May 4, at a family restaurant in Gatineau, Que., called Dinty’s, he’d propose a middle-class tax cut, an upper-income tax increase, and a simpler, bigger child benefit. At the Château Laurier on a rainy day in June, he’d propose sweeping democratic reforms, including an end to first-past-the-post elections. A week later, he would propose better relations with the United States government and, just before Canada Day in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano, he would put a little more meat on the bones of his plan for fighting climate change.

'We discussed the deficit thing, I'd be mistaken to say we reached a definitive decision.'

A Liberal insider

Plans for all these announcements were discussed at the April retreat, but one question loomed over all of it: How could the Liberals pay for their agenda? More precisely, the question was whether a Liberal government would balance its budget or run deficits. “We discussed the deficit thing,” the participant at the April meeting who spoke to Maclean’s said. “I’d be mistaken to say we reached a definitive decision.”

There was no rush. It was a big call. The battle against chronic budget deficits had consumed the efforts of Brian Mulroney, who got little credit for his modest progress, and Chrétien, who got a lot for finishing the job. Harper had pushed the books back into the red in 2009, under duress and only to sap the legitimacy of the Liberal-NDP coalition that had tried to supplant him. His reward was six more years in power, but the opposition parties had never stopped mocking him for running deficits.

In Canada, as in few other countries, running a balanced budget had become a totem for economic credibility. Knowing this, Harper had worked to push his opponents into a corner by delivering a 2015 budget that projected sliver-thin surpluses throughout the likely term of the next government, whatever its stripe. The Conservatives called it their “balanced-budget, low-tax plan.” Harper’s argument was that any other party would have a high-tax plan for deficits. To credibly deny that charge, the Liberals and New Democrats would need to be parsimonious, ramping up federal spending only very slowly.

A few people around Trudeau began considering another option: walking over Harper’s paint by promising to spend more now, whatever the consequences for fiscal balance. They had highbrow cover from David Dodge, a former Bank of Canada governor who was deputy minister of finance when Chrétien and Martin were slaying deficit dragons in the ’90s. In the summer of 2014, Dodge wrote a paper for his law firm, Bennett Jones, arguing that low interest rates made it possible for governments to borrow money they could spend on infrastructure. If the deficits were modest enough, a government could still keep its debt-to-GDP ratio on a downward track.

But what the Liberals liked best about Dodge’s proposal was that it gave them more money. Trudeau was in third place. He couldn’t run on experience: Harper and Mulcair had more. He couldn’t ask for the strategic vote: The smart thing to do with your anti-Harper vote, in a world where the NDP already had almost three seats for every Liberal, was to vote NDP. He had to go big, or the Canadian voter would send him home.

The Liberals began testing deficits in focus groups in January and February. “There was never enthusiasm in the public for deficits,” a Liberal familiar with this market research said. “But there were more in favour than against it, when you framed it the right way”—as an affordable increase against the GDP, in return for infrastructure investment. “We finally came to ground on deficits in June,” this Liberal said.

And so, on Aug. 27 in Oakville, Ont., Trudeau announced a Liberal government would run $10-billion deficits for three years, on the way to a balanced budget near the end of his term in office, in the still unfathomably unlikely chance he managed not only to get elected, but to stay in office for four years.

“Our plan features three years of historic investment in the Canadian economy. That growth will eliminate the Harper deficit and we will balance the budget in 2019,” he said.

Harper could hardly believe his good luck. Campaigning in Hamilton, a half-hour drive around the edge of Lake Ontario from Trudeau’s event, the Conservative leader seemed nearly giddy. “He says a modest deficit, a tiny deficit, so small, you can barely see the deficit,” Harper said, his voice rising up in pitch to helium frequency while he pinched his thumb and index finger ever so closely together. He was turning into the host of the Children’s Deficit Cartoon Hour. “Three modest little deficits.” His voice dropped an octave to his normal baritone. “We’ve gone through this before. Look at the mess in Ontario with the modest deficits of the Liberal government.”

Nobody would have expected any other response from Harper. Now that the deficits he’d run since 2009, but which he had worked diligently to eliminate, were behind him, he would use the spectre of future red ink as a warning against the big-government schemes of his opponents. He was playing to type.

But what of Mulcair? Chance found him that morning at the campaign office of Andrew Thomson, the NDP candidate in Toronto’s uptown Eglinton–Lawrence riding. Thomson was a former Saskatchewan finance minister who claimed a record of sober and moderate economic management. He had slim hopes in the riding. The incumbent was Joe Oliver, Harper’s elderly but rock-solid finance minister. Trudeau had tried to get local Liberals to accept Eve Adams, the former Conservative back-bencher who had jumped ship to the Liberals, as their candidate. Most of the experienced Liberals in the riding spat the dummy at that notion, to coin a phrase, and rallied around Marco Mendicino, a local lawyer, to defeat Adams for the nomination.

If the Conservatives did very well, Oliver might hang onto his seat. If they did less well, Mendicino was far better placed than Thomson to take back the traditionally Liberal riding. Thomson and Mulcair, both former provincial cabinet ministers, worked well together. “Andrew is different from our other candidates,” a Mulcair adviser said. “Not flustered. Sure-footed.” And his role was to bolster Mulcair’s credentials as the kind of “comfortable change” voters who’d never backed the NDP could contemplate without worrying.

So, with Thomson at his side as an emblem of reassuring orthodoxy, Mulcair took a question about the Trudeau deficit plan. “Governing is about priorities, and we’ve watched the Conservatives run up eight deficits in a row,” he said. “Now the Liberals are telling us that they want to run several years of deficits.”

And? And? “I’m tired of watching governments put that debt on the backs of future generations,” Mulcair went on. “Stephen Harper’s approach has always been, ‘Live for today, let tomorrow take care of itself.’ At some point, you have to start having different priorities.”

It was clever stuff. Use Harper’s record of deficits and Trudeau’s promise of deficits to paint them with the same brush. Promise “different priorities” from a competent, reassuring NDP alternative. They were reckless, as he told it. He was wise.

To boost the NDP’s economic credibility, Mulcair promised to balance the budget (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

When they heard Mulcair’s answer, Liberal campaign staffers were jubilant.

“It was a huge blessing when Mulcair went on the other side,” the Liberal who had followed public opinion on the deficit question said later. Not even a competent salesman like Mulcair could sell the notion that Liberals and Conservatives were peas in a pod. Not when he was joining Harper in insisting that budgets must be balanced henceforth. “Now we had the change lane all to ourselves,” the Liberal said.

New Democrats protested later that there was no way Mulcair could have argued for deficit spending. If New Democrats had never formed a government at the national level, it was largely because a critical mass of voters had never taken them seriously as economic managers. Mulcair was way more vulnerable to attacks to his economic credibility than Trudeau was. It may not be fair, but it was the way the world worked for New Democrats.

Trudeau’s announcement was a risk, one compounded by the fact that he had not taken care to leave his options open regarding deficits before now. On the contrary, he had been categorical. The wrong way. On July 19, in Markham, Ont., appearing only two weeks before the campaign began with the Liberals’ ranking economic candidate, John McCallum, Trudeau had promised orthodox fiscal rectitude. “I’ve committed to continuing to run balanced budgets,” he said. “In fact, it is Conservatives who run deficits. Liberals balance budgets. That’s what history has shown.”

Trudeau made those comments weeks after his campaign had apparently “landed on” a decision to do the opposite. He would be mocked for weeks for his inconsistency. But he has been mocked for that, and more, since he entered politics. Meanwhile, he had laid out starkly different economic ground. Later, the Liberals’ David Herle professed himself baffled by Mulcair’s reaction.

“To judge from the NDP campaign and the NDP platform, it’s like they didn’t watch the Ontario election,” said Herle, who had been a key strategist in Kathleen Wynne’s surprise re-election in 2014. “The fact that one would run modest deficits in order to invest in the economy right now is not left-wing thinking; it’s centrist thinking. That’s the platform that Kathleen won on. That’s the ballot question she drove against [provincial Conservative leader Tim] Hudak.”

In that Ontario election, the provincial NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, had run as a moderate. “Horwath took herself out of the debate, just as Mulcair took himself out of the economic debate with his platform. And I don’t understand how they made that same mistake twice in a row. It was a fatal error.”

Fatima Kurdi (seated), Alan’s aunt, speaks to reporters after the boy’s death (Photograph by Brian Howell)

Discovering compassion

How the tragic picture of little Alan Kurdi shook the leaders, as well as their campaigns

In the seaside resort of Bodrum, Turkey, there is a strip of pristine sand called Golden Beach. On Sept. 2, the Aegean Sea dumped a ghastly bounty on the sand: corpses from boats that had foundered in the treacherous water, their passengers fleeing Syria. One of those bodies, tiny, lay face down in a pose parents everywhere have seen a hundred times at home. Soon it attracted the grim attention of news photographers. This is how the world met Alan Kurdi. Too late to help.

Often there isn’t much about the news that’s new. People had been streaming out of Syria for years. The country’s president, Bashar al-Assad, is a monster, slaughtering internal opponents in industrial quantities. Weakened and chaotic, the country has been prey for the so-called Islamic State terrorist group, whose attempt to take and hold Alan Kurdi’s hometown of Kobani razed that city to rubble. The rush of migrants from the region had grown steadily more acute for two years. All through 2015, waves of refugees from Syria and the surrounding regions began to overwhelm European countries’ capacity to process and settle them. The onslaught of bedraggled humanity became a political crisis for the European Union, which depends on the free movement of people across barely perceptible borders. The rest of the world looked on, concerned but unsure how to respond, until photos of Alan’s body showed up on every newscast and front page in the world.

On the CBC’s dinnertime show Power and Politics, host Rosemary Barton convened a panel of party candidates to discuss the crisis. The Conservatives were represented by Chris Alexander, the immigration minister. Superbly educated, politically inept, Alexander was prone to lashing out, with limited regard for factual accuracy, when pressed on a hard subject.

Barton pressed him on the pace and adequacy of Canada’s efforts to resettle refugees. Alexander asserted a few times that Canada was at the vanguard of refugee settlement, then got tired of Barton’s questions. “I’m actually interested in why this is the first Power and Politics panel we’ve ever had of this,” he said. It wasn’t, as Barton reminded him.

“I don’t want to avoid the question, Rosemary,” Alexander said. “You want to avoid the fact that the biggest conflict, and the biggest humanitarian crisis of our times, has been there for two years. And you and others have not put it in the headlines, where it deserves to be.”

So that panel didn’t go great for the Conservatives, but much worse lay ahead. Hours after the CBC panel debate, the Ottawa Citizen published a report from the veteran journalist Terry Glavin that said the Kurdis had been trying to move to Canada. Their application hadn’t been accepted. Glavin’s sources were muddled about which members of the family had applied for citizenship. But suddenly, there was a Canadian angle to the world’s biggest story.

Alan Kurdi's lifeless body made the Syrian refugee crisis an election issue (Nilufer Demir/ Getty Images)

On the campaign trail, all hell broke loose. The Citizen article, coupled with Alexander’s shaky and disingenuous TV performance, had the Conservatives on the defensive. The pressure increased when the campaign day got under way on Sept. 3. Alexander announced he was suspending his campaign to deal with the refugee crisis.

“You know, there are media images that really define a whole period of history,” Mulcair said in Toronto. “I remember the image of a young girl, her body burnt by napalm in the Vietnam War, running down the road toward the camera that took the shot that became the symbol of the war. Today’s media images of a young boy whose body is being taken off the beach will remain engraved in our minds.” His voice coarsened with emotion. “As a dad and a grandfather, it’s just unbearable that we’re doing nothing.”

At his own morning campaign event, Trudeau was scathing. “You don’t get to suddenly discover compassion in the middle of an election campaign,” he said. “You either have it, or you don’t. And this government has ignored the pleas of Canadian NGOs, of opposition parties and of the international community.”

Harper was in Surrey, B.C. Reporters travelling with the Conservative leader loitered outside their hotel while Kory Teneycke, Harper’s spokesman, paced the sidewalk, listening in on a conference call for more than an hour. Finally, word went out: Harper’s morning campaign event, at a Fruiticana grocery warehouse, would proceed. The crowd of hand-picked Conservative supporters would be on hand and form the diverse and reasonably authentic human backdrop every party’s campaign had come to favour for their televised events. But Harper would offer no campaign promise. He would speak about the matter at hand.

“Obviously, today, there’s a little bit of different circumstances,” he said when the event finally got under way. “It really is on the big story that I know we’ve all seen.” He and Laureen had seen the photo of the boy on the beach. “The first thing that crossed our mind was remembering our own son, Ben, at that age, running around like that.” There was a catch in his voice. “It brings tears to your eye. I think that is the reaction of every parent . . . It truly is a heartbreaking situation.”

But then his remarks took a turn. “What I want to say, though, is this: I don’t need to tell you what we saw yesterday was a tragedy. What I need to tell you is that it is far, far worse than that. Far worse.”

Harper said he had been to refugee camps in Jordan and Iraq, where “I have seen tens of thousands of people in these desperate circumstances. And there are millions more in exactly the same situation. There are, in fact, tens of millions of people—not in the refugee camps—but tens of millions of people whose lives have been affected by what is going on in that part of the world.”

Harper advocated tough action in Iraq and Syria, and caution at home. The line was not improvised.

The question was what a government could do. “Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world. We admit, per capita, more people than any other.” That claim would be challenged repeatedly by experts in the days ahead; indeed, it soon became impossible to tell what basis Harper had for making such a claim. It was very far from the truth. But compassion was not his main point, anyway.

“We are also doing what we have to do to try and fight the root cause of this problem. And that is the violent campaign being fought against millions of people by ISIS. That is why we are part of the international military coalition.”

So a Harper government had not, and would not, simply wait for refugees. It would continue to inflict lethal violence on Islamic State, whose actions were pushing refugees out in waves. Taking questions from the carefully regulated daily quantity of reporters, Harper pressed the point. “I do not know how, for the life of me, you look at that picture and you say, ‘Yeah, we want to help that family, but we want to walk away from the military mission that is trying to prevent ISIS from killing tens of millions of people.’ I don’t know how, for the life of me, you reach that kind of conclusion.” The partisan crowd gave his remarks hearty applause.

Harper was drawing a very sharp distinction between himself and the other major parties. They called for compassion and action in Canada. He advocated tough action in Iraq and Syria, and caution at home. The line was not improvised. Alexander had rehearsed it the night before on the CBC: “There are millions more caught in the crossfire in these countries, and they are victims of jihadist terrorism that needs to be stopped in Syria and in Iraq.”

Harper’s opponents were not surprised. “The Conservatives came into this campaign on two files: security and the economy,” a Mulcair adviser said. “Turning the refugee issue into a security issue is part of their playbook.” Before the New Democrats could spend much time figuring out how Harper’s bellicose stance was playing politically, they had to put out a brush fire of their own making.

Fin Donnelly was the incumbent NDP MP in Port Moody–Coquitlam. He had been the one who handled the Kurdi family’s refugee claim and, as the story evolved, it became clear he had made a perfect hash of his version of events.

“I delivered the letter to the minister,” he had said in front of TV cameras, referring to Alexander, “and—nothing. We waited and waited. You know, we didn’t have any action. And now, unfortunately, we see the news and this is just horrific.”

But it was not a letter requesting refugee status for Alan Kurdi’s father. It was, Citizenship and Immigration revealed on the morning of Sept. 3, a letter regarding Alan’s uncle. That application had been rejected as incomplete. There had never been an application for the father. Emotions were already running so high about the story that Donnelly risked pulling the entire NDP campaign into the perception that it had used a dead boy to pursue a vendetta against Alexander.

It fell to Michael Gardiner, the NDP’s war-room director, to handle the mess. Donnelly stopped doing interviews for a few days while correct details of the story emerged. Then he was sent onto the same show that had crushed Alexander, CBC’s Power and Politics, with a coherent story to tell. “Put him in front of Rosie [Barton], make sure he gets a clear story out, and then go away,” was how one New Democrat described the plan. By the time the CBC appearance happened, the NDP had already lost four days to confusion over their MP’s role in the refugee dispute.

Meanwhile, something was happening. After weeks of ominous decline in polls, the Conservatives started to show some life. In their daily tracking poll, Nanos showed the Conservatives surging up by five percentage points in two days, based on rises of 14 points over the same short period in the Prairies, and 11 in British Columbia.

This was not a coincidence. Harper’s belief that the refugee crisis must be addressed with jets in Syria, not only with open arms in Canada, resonated strongly with much of the voting public. Another polling firm, Ekos, found that when forced to choose between military intervention and humanitarian aid, 37 per cent of Canadians would pick the military mission, while 55 per cent would pick aid. For a Conservative party whose support had fallen into the 20s, 37 per cent looked really good. All the more so, because, in reality, Harper supported both aid and attack, whereas Trudeau and Mulcair were splitting one side of that equation.

“Kurdi was the turning point that wasn’t,” Ken Boessenkool, who had worked on every Conservative campaign since 2004, said later. “I think Harper actually captured the public mood, and came out of Kurdi—not in the first few days, but in the week that story ran—Harper captured the public mood exactly. The other leaders misread it.”

The Pakistani immigrant wanted to wear her niqab while taking her citizenship oath (Patrick Doyle/CP)

A single niqab eclipses all

A momentous appeal court decision — and the beginning of the end of the NDP in Quebec

All Zunera Ishaq wanted to do was become Canadian. Born in Pakistan, she’d lived in Canada since 2008. Her understanding of her Sunni Muslim faith made the niqab that covered her face in public important to her. A citizenship judge approved her application in the last days of 2013. All she needed now was to take the oath.

Her problem was that shortly after the 2011 election, Jason Kenney, the minister of citizenship and immigration at the time, had introduced Operation Bulletin 359, which states that candidates for citizenship “will need to remove their face covering during the taking of the Oath. Failure to do so will result in the candidates not receiving their Canadian citizenship on that day.” Ishaq’s reaction, on learning of the new rule, was to sue for an injunction against the requirement that she show her face during the oath. She would show her face to female Immigration staff, and already had, but not in public.

The new regulation was leaked to a reporter from the Sun newspaper chain before it became official. But it was not discussed by the federal cabinet. That oversight would become germane. In February of this year, Justice Keith Boswell threw Kenney’s directive out of Federal Court, because it directly contradicted regulations calling for “the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization” of citizenship. Whether Ishaq’s Charter rights had been violated was a moot question, Boswell said. Sloppy draftsmanship was enough of a reason to rebut the minister.

The government appealed the ruling. Preparation for hearings on the appeal would take months. Then, on June 19, days before Parliament ended its spring sitting, with the certain knowledge that it would be dissolved soon after for the election, the Conservatives introduced a bill modifying the regulations around citizenship oaths. Once passed by Parliament, the new bill would give Kenney’s directive force of law. It could, at that point, go on to the next step, a Charter challenge. But the bill wasn’t passed by Parliament, because there was no Parliament as of Aug. 2.

On Sept. 15, in the middle of the election campaign, an appeal court panel dismissed the federal appeal. The judges ruled from the bench immediately after hearing testimony. It’s the sort of thing judges do when they believe the arguments they’ve heard aren’t even worth sleeping on. Their goal, they said, was to make Ishaq a citizen in time for her to vote.

“Now I am going to be the Canadian citizen, and I will be enjoying the full rights in Canada as well,” Ishaq said outside court. “So very lucky for me.”

Less lucky for the NDP. Anne McGrath, the party’s campaign director, started hearing about the appeal court decision within minutes of the judges’ decision, in the form of frantic messages from candidates and riding organizations in Quebec. “This is a big deal. We’re going to lose the election over this,” the messages said in substance. Well then, McGrath replied, tell me what we should do. There were not a lot of bright ideas in return.

The NDP has survived pretty well since 2011, considering the potential for ideological whipsawing that historic breakthrough created. Most of the party’s MPs were in Quebec. But most of its popular vote was outside the province. It made national-unity issues ungainly for Mulcair, something Trudeau had sought to exploit by teasing Mulcair about his support for a 50-per-cent-plus-one threshold in secession referendums.


But cultural diversity was also a huge danger for the NDP. In English Canada, the left demonstrates its tolerance by displaying a libertarian attitude toward cultural difference. Quebec, France and other societies with a strong Roman Catholic heritage view religious accommodation differently. The establishment of a secular state that forgoes the temptation to play theological and ethnic favourites was a hard-won prize in such places, and it often meant liberation from religious strictures that limited women’s role. In Quebec, it is as common on the social-activist left as it is on the nativist right to want rules forbidding ostentatious displays of religion. So instinctive reaction to the Ishaq decision would be diametrically opposed among Mulcair’s supporters inside Quebec and out. (A Léger poll commissioned for the Privy Council Office found support for a ban on face coverings during citizenship ceremonies to be 82 per cent across Canada—93 per cent in Quebec specifically.)

The Conservatives moved to drag out their opponents’ discomfort. The day after the decision, the government served notice that it would appeal to the Supreme Court. Two days later it called for a stay of application, inviting the appeal court to refrain from implementing its ruling. “As the Prime Minister has said, most Canadians find it offensive that someone would hide their identity at the very moment where they are committing to join the Canadian family,” Denis Lebel, Harper’s Quebec lieutenant, said. If re-elected, he said, the Conservatives would reintroduce a bill on veiled citizenship oaths, within 100 days. The same day, the Bloc Québécois started running surreal animated television ads in Quebec, showing oil from a pipeline turning into the veiled head of a woman.

The backlash against NDP candidates was immediate. A few started openly contradicting Mulcair on the niqab issue. On Sept. 20, NDP candidates’ signs across Montreal were defaced. On some, vandals scrawled the word “Islam.” Female candidates had niqabs painted over the photos of their faces. When Maclean’s tried to contact some of these candidates for comment, the calls were not returned. “Nothing about the niqab helps us,” a senior Mulcair official said later.

Mulcair’s position on the niqab hurt his Quebec numbers (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

Still, hoping the issue would go away was not an option for Mulcair. On Sept. 23, at the Université de Montréal—a day before the first French-language televised leaders’ debate—he made his stand. “I understand that many view the niqab as a symbol of the oppression of women,” he said. “And on that, let me be clear: No one has the right to tell a woman what she must—or must not—wear.” Some people might see a woman in a veil as being deprived of her rights, he said. “It is not by depriving them of their Canadian citizenship and their rights that we can help them.”

In the next night’s debate, organized by Radio-Canada, Télé-Québec and La Presse, Mulcair tried to frame his position in populist terms. “Mr. Harper is trying to hide his record behind a niqab. Four hundred thousand lost manufacturing jobs, he doesn’t want to talk about that. Three hundred thousand more unemployed today than when the crisis struck in 2008, he doesn’t want to talk about that either.”

For three weeks, the three main parties had been locked in a three-way tie in most polls. Now Mulcair had the reward for his honesty: The NDP started to drop in the polls, first in Quebec, then elsewhere. The loss in Quebec was not a big problem at first, because almost all the incumbents had begun with such hefty leads. They could afford to lose a lot of votes before they finally saw the second-place candidate rushing up at them. But the lower the Quebec number, the lower the national number. And people outside Quebec were looking at the national number for hints about how to vote—if their main goal was to kick out Stephen Harper.


Over the heads of some Harper advisers, meanwhile, light bulbs started to blink. Hey: If a wary stance toward Syrian refugees was a good idea, and a strong stand against veiled citizenship oaths had impaled the NDP on the horns of a dilemma, then maybe a lot more of this stuff would be even better!

On Friday, Sept. 25, Trudeau visited a sheet-metal factory in Brampton, Ont., to promise easier family reunification for immigrants. The overwhelmingly South Asian crowd at the factory liked his idea a lot. Near the end of his prepared remarks, Trudeau mentioned another element of his multicultural charm offensive. A Liberal government would “repeal the unfair elements of Bill C-24 that creates second-class citizens.” C-24 was a new Harper law that permitted the government to revoke the Canadian citizenship of dual citizens who were convicted of terrorism, treason or other serious offences.

“No elected official should ever have the exclusive power to revoke Canadian citizenship,” Trudeau said. “Under a Liberal government, there will be no two-tiered citizenship; a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

Wait a minute. Citizenship would be revoked for only the gravest criminal offences, a reporter reminded Trudeau. What was wrong with that? “There are consequences for anyone convicted of a heinous crime against Canada,” Trudeau answered. “Severe consequences. And there should be. But we should not be creating two classes of citizenship. That goes against everything that Canada has ever succeeded in creating—as a country that is strong, not in spite of our differences, but because of our differences.”

Support moved to Trudeau, even though he shared Mulcair’s message (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Hours after Trudeau spoke, the government of Canada revoked the citizenship of Zakaria Amara, under the auspices of Bill C-24. Amara, born in Jordan, was one of the ringleaders of the so-called Toronto 18 plot. He was arrested in 2006 for planning to detonate truck bombs laden with fertilizer in downtown Toronto. If he and his fellow plotters had succeeded, hundreds of people could have died.

Revoking his citizenship now, however, was an extraordinary decision. By convention, governments of Canada go into caretaker mode during election campaigns. They still exist. Members of the incumbent party continue to hold cabinet roles. But important decisions are withheld because the government’s legitimacy is on probation, pending the judgment of the people. This is the kind of by-the-book argument that amused the Harper palace guard no end. Trudeau and Mulcair didn’t like C-24; C-24 was kind of like these other issues that had turned into banana peels for the Liberals and, especially, the NDP. Amara was handy; so, no citizenship for him.

It was somewhere around this point that a few Conservatives started to worry they were over-egging the xenophobia custard a tad. The proper proportion of ingredients is tricky in any recipe. Polls suggested a large majority of Canadians agreed, for instance, that everyone should show their face at a citizenship ceremony. The issue, taken by itself, was probably a net plus for the Conservatives. And a lot of voters, including a high proportion of women in Conservative focus groups, found ISIS so loathsome that they were happy to see a government attack it directly in Iraq and Syria rather than just waiting for refugees to show up. And again, a lot of people were willing to believe that concocting fertilizer bombs in Toronto should be taken as a strong indication that one held one’s Canadian citizenship too cheaply.

It was all getting to be a bit much. Some Conservatives were starting to seem weirdly compulsive on these issues. Canada remained, after all, a country with an economy, roads, universities, weekend hockey tournaments, what have you. These were interesting things to talk about, in the context of a federal election campaign. Or should have been.

So it was hard to explain why, when Chris Alexander finally announced measures to welcome more Syrian refugees, he couldn’t stop insisting that they’d be checked for security risks, as though anyone in creation had suggested they shouldn’t. Or why, when Pierre Poilievre was asked whether a niqab ban in the public service was a good idea—it had, in fact, been roundly mocked by Conservative cabinet ministers Jason Kenney and Tony Clement—he couldn’t think of the right answer. And why, when Harper went on Rosemary Barton’s Power and Politics show on the CBC himself, he repeated that a niqab ban in the public service was being considered.


This thing was starting to tumble out of control a bit. Conservative candidate Joe Daniel was shown on video telling his Don Valley North constituents, with an oddly cheerful smile, that he sensed an “agenda . . .  to move as many Muslims into some of these European countries to change these countries in a major way.” In Brampton Centre, Bal Gosal said his supporters “don’t want them,” meaning Syrian refugees. “The majority of people don’t want them.”

Hey! Over here! A functioning modern economy facing serious foreign-policy challenges in a real world!

Some MPs, candidates, and campaign staffers started to send urgent messages up the line: Enough of this, already. For the love of Pete, let’s get off the scary-foreigners thing. The messages they got from the top of the campaign were contradictory, said a Conservative campaign official. From Guy Giorno, “more eagerness to pivot back” to “economy, macro, high-level issues.” From Jenni Byrne, “much more eagerness to use risks, contrast, warnings of catastrophe.”

There was also, somewhere in or near or orbiting distantly or far removed from it all, Lynton Crosby, an Australian-born campaign guru who had been trading advice and lore—for nearly a decade—with senior Canadian Conservatives, including Jason Kenney. Crosby was said to play some role in the campaign. “Did he physically appear?” one senior Conservative campaign staffer said. “No. Did he have a role? Yes. He gave advice on messaging and strategy.”

Conservative parties from across the English-speaking Commonwealth had been trading notes, best practices and sometimes personnel for years. Australians, Brits, New Zealanders, Canadians. Junior staffers would pop up in Canadian cabinet ministers’ offices with plummy Oxbridge accents. Campaign ads would strikingly resemble one another in New Zealand and Canada. U.S. Republicans rarely moved in these circles: Washington’s culture was too foreign, and besides they probably would have regarded their counterparts in Ottawa, London, Canberra and Auckland as amusingly quaint.


Crosby, in this context, was “one of us, while being an outsider,” the senior campaign staffer said—familiar with Canadian electoral context, but not up to his neck in Ottawa bathwater. But precisely because he was so distant—barely more than a rumour—he couldn’t exactly provide the adult supervision any campaign craves. Especially this one. The Conservative campaign was starting to resemble Tom Cruise’s house in Risky Business on day two of the long weekend. Yet the Conservatives were in a sweet spot in the polls: The NDP had lost their advantage, the niqab business had given Harper’s party a sugar high in Quebec polling, and Trudeau’s long slow climb seemed too long. Too slow. It was at least possible to imagine Harper could win this election.

Finally, senior campaign staffers started to believe the message had gotten through to the Harper brain trust that enough was enough with the identity politics. So they were surprised to learn that on Friday, Oct. 2, while Harper was in Montreal preparing for the last of five leaders debates on TVA, the day’s policy announcement had taken a maddeningly familiar turn.

In Harper’s absence, but at the behest of someone at CPC HQ—who knew who? The damned campaign had taken on a life of its own—Chris Alexander and Kellie Leitch showed up in Ajax, Ont., where Alexander faced a close re-election battle. They announced they would step up enforcement of the Zero Tolerance For Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, which enforced restrictions on forced marriage, female genital mutilation, and so-called honour killing. High on the list of new measures was an RCMP tip line people could call if they thought the neighbours might be doing a little barbaric cultural practising.

“The Conservative government is not afraid to defend Canadian values,” Leitch said.

“We need to stand up for our values,” Alexander said.

“Terrible day on the campaign trail,” the veteran Conservative on Harper’s campaign staff said later. “Terrible. Jumped the shark.” On Twitter, #BarbaricCulturalPractices became a hashtag for jokes.

Leitch (left) and Alexander announced an RCMP tip line where anyone could report their neighbours for ‘barbaric cultural practices’ (Dominic Chan/Government of Canada)

Amid all the excitement, a subtler change took place on the Conservative campaign. A tiny change. A heartbreaking change, perhaps. Harper had grown used to appearing with a plate in front of the lectern he used at every campaign stop. In 2011, the plate said CANADA. Which was odd, perhaps, given that you probably already knew where he was. But the point of the CANADA plate, positioned at chest level where no television camera could capture Harper’s face without the name of the country, was of course to emphasize a contrast. Once upon a time, in opposition, the Harper Conservatives had been seen as a bunch of sourpusses who didn’t really like Canada. By 2011, five years in power and countless God-bless-Canadas at the end of speeches had made the Conservatives strong on perceptions of patriotism. Michael Ignatieff of the BBC and Harvard, on the other hand, wasn’t. So CANADA was shorthand for NOT MICHAEL IGNATIEFF.

By 2013, at the Conservative policy convention in Calgary, the CANADA on Harper’s lectern had grown, until the letters were so tall they resembled the Hollywood sign on a hillside in California. But at the beginning of the 2015 campaign, Harper’s lectern had a new plate. It said LEADERSHIP. On the side of the Conservative campaign buses, Harper’s face appeared beside a similar message: “Strong Leadership.”

‘Leadership’ disappeared from messaging as Harper’s campaign spun out of control (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

That is, this was the iconography at the beginning of the campaign. On Sept. 14 in Kamloops, B.C., Harper spoke behind a lectern that said “PROVEN LEADERSHIP,” a variation of the original message. The next day, Sept. 15 in Calgary, the plate had been replaced. Now it said, “PROTECT OUR ECONOMY.”

The plate on front of the Conservative Prime Minister’s lectern would not mention leadership again.

A member of Harper’s cabinet said later that when he went doorknocking in other ridings, across the country, to help other candidates in close races, he would hear a constant refrain from voters. Not from strangers or hostile partisans, but from people who had already been identified as Conservative supporters. “Members of our core.”

“When’s the leader leaving?” they would ask.

Rob Ford and his wife, Renata, leave a rally for Stephen Harper in Toronto (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Bells, props and a weird family

As the campaign roared to a close, Stephen Harper took to game show tactics—and mingling with Fords

Perhaps it is not necessary to go into too much detail about the campaign’s home stretch. By now the trends were baked in, and all that remained was flailing. There was a lot of flailing.

Trudeau lost Dan Gagnier, the most experienced man on his campaign, after Gagnier inexplicably wrote a memo advising a private business client on how to advance their interests with a new government. The client was TransCanada Corp., the proponent of the Energy East pipeline, which was so controversial in Quebec that it appeared in a Bloc Québécois ad as a woman in a niqab. That may be the strangest sentence anyone has ever written about a Canadian political campaign.

Harper experienced a moment of blessed peace when he was able to announce the signing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a titanic multilateral trade deal that would cement Canada in an emerging Pacific Rim trade bloc. Since Canada is, for the moment, the only TPP signatory in the Americas to have signed a similar deal with the European Union, Harper’s legacy as a free-trading Prime Minister seems secure.

At the Pearson building on Sussex Drive in Ottawa, home to Canada’s Foreign Affairs Department, Harper stood behind a lectern decorated with nothing flashier than Canada’s coat of arms. He took questions from every English-speaking reporter in the room who had a question to ask. Weirdly, his staff did not extend the same opportunity to every French-speaking reporter. Harper could have gone on for days, explaining the deal’s intricacies. Farmers might gripe, but they would get $4.3 billion in adjustment funding. Auto workers might worry, but they would get $1 billion too.

When a reporter for CTV invited the Prime Minister to take a shot at the Liberals and NDP for opposing the deal, he didn’t take the bait. Future generations would be glad we were in, he said. At the back of the room, Kory Teneycke assessed the boss’s statesmanlike performance, such a break from all the sniping in every direction. “That’s good,” he said to Stephen Lecce, another of Harper’s press spokesmen.

So much for statesmanship. For the rest of the campaign, Harper did his best imitation of Richard Dawson on the old TV game show Family Feud, complete with bells, props and a weird suburban family. He introduced a segment at every campaign stop in which he would call somebody (pre-selected, natch) out of the crowd to slap down phony dollar bills to demonstrate the cost of a Liberal government. There were sound effects. There was audience applause.

Then Harper returned, twice in a week, to the Toronto suburb Etobicoke, where he appeared with Rob and Doug Ford. Rob Ford, as you may have heard, smoked an awful lot of crack cocaine while he was mayor of Toronto. He is not the mayor of Toronto any more. Many who wish him well hope that a stint in rehab has allowed him to resist the allure of cocaine. None of this explains what Harper was doing campaigning with him.


“Do you know Ninder Thind?” a member of Harper’s cabinet said, a few hours before the election returns came in. The reporter at the other end of the line did not. “She’s our candidate in Brampton West. She’s a schoolteacher, early childhood educator, involved in her community, she’s fantastic. She should be the face of the future of the Conservative party. It’s not Rob f--king Ford.” (Thind wound up losing to Kamal Khera, her Liberal opponent, in a landslide.)

A few days before the vote, Ken Boessenkool discussed the campaign with Maclean’s. Boessenkool has known Harper for more than 20 years. They were co-authors of the so-called “firewall letter” in 2001, which called for reinforced protection of Alberta provincial jurisdictions against the supposedly predatory Liberal federal government of the day. Boessenkool has worked on every election campaign Harper led, and though he was not at the highest rank of this campaign, he spoke on the record, so we like him.

“We went into the campaign knowing we had an enormous, historically difficult challenge ahead of us,” Boessenkool said. “We knew, and this is reflected in the polls . . . that Canadians believed the Prime Minister had not only brought the right policy, but they supported his policy: low taxes, balancing budgets, getting us through the global recession.

“But it’s the classic thing: vote with your heart, or vote with your brain. We had all the brain messages. We had difficulty with the heart messages. In fact, we had negatives on the heart messages. We had a Prime Minister running his fifth election campaign, asking for his fourth victory. That was just an enormous challenge. And we were up against someone [Trudeau] who people desperately wanted to like. We had tried all kinds of different ways to knock that down. At the end of the day we decided we had to allow people to like him, but we had to allow people to like him while thinking he was not ready to lead the country. That was a very delicate balance.”


One of the most astonishing things Trudeau did was in the week before the election began in August. The Conservatives had run their most widely noticed ad, in which a committee looks over Justin Trudeau’s CV and mournfully decide that, while he seems nice enough, he’s “not ready.” Maybe another time. Nice hair, though.

The Liberals replied with television and online ads in which Trudeau strides toward the camera, announces that “Stephen Harper says I’m not ready,” then cheerfully agrees that he’s not ready to put up with any more of Stephen Harper’s lousy government. The one thing you are never supposed to do in advertising is to acknowledge your opponent’s attack, because it validates the attack.

“For the first time, ever—and we laughed, honestly when they did this—the leader has taken an attack against him, took it on directly. When we first saw the ‘I’m ready’ ads, we thought: don’t repeat the charge. We thought we had won.

“But it turns out that if you say ‘I’m ready’ every single time you open your mouth, every single ad, every single opportunity you have to communicate, and you demonstrate an incredibly competent, well-run, well-oiled campaign, you can turn a narrative around. I think the reason we lost had to do with the historical difficulty of winning a fourth campaign; of having voters looking at policies, not with their head but their heart; and a Liberal campaign that jiu-jitsued our primary attack on him by repeating it. By proving [he was ready] by running a very competent campaign. I give Katie Telford and Gerry Butts full marks.”

Margaret Trudeau (far left) joined Justin and family to watch the results (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

In the end, there was still the legendary Conservative ground game to reckon with. The Liberals had changed leaders four times since Chrétien, five if you counted interim leader Bob Rae. Their organization was supposed to be in a shambles. If it failed in the stretch, all the hope and hard work would come to naught.

But precisely as Trudeau had rehearsed the debates until he could repeat his arguments in his sleep, the entire Liberal campaign had rehearsed its own election-day moves. Relentlessly. For more than a year.

The Liberal ground game began in earnest in spring 2014, with the hiring of Hilary Leftick, the party’s director of volunteer mobilization. Until Leftick’s arrival, the traditional pre-election cycle would begin with a flurry of wine and cheese fundraisers, with the door-knocking starting only once the writ dropped. Liberal candidates would, in this old world, spend five weeks standing on the front porches of a few hundred strangers. Then they would lose.


Leftick and the Liberal team began a massive door-knocking campaign almost immediately upon her arrival. Starting on Oct. 19, 2014, a year to the day before the election, Liberal organizers held “Days of Action”—usually a Saturday or Sunday on which certain designated ridings would be blitzed by volunteers and the local candidate. At first it was 12 ridings. Then 50. Then 100. By June 2015, every riding in the country was being criss-crossed on a weekend by Liberal volunteers. The party was performing 100,000 knocks and calls on that given day. The standout Liberal candidate was Scarborough Centre’s Salma Zahid, who had knocked on every door in her riding by June. In the end she captured 51 per cent of the vote, almost 20 percentage points more than Conservative incumbent Roxanne James.

“The CPC spent a lot of money, and that was reflected in the conversations on social media,” said Tom Pitfield, the Liberals’ chief digital strategist. (Pitfield’s father is the retired senator Michael Pitfield, who led the federal public service when Pierre Trudeau was prime minister. There are more than a few layers of complexity to this Trudeau dynasty.) “The problem is that the CPC spent money over going out to knock. You’ve got to pull your vote. You get a 14 per cent lift in response if you get someone at the door,” Pitfield said.

Harper kisses his wife, Laureen, before giving his concession speech (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

The party’s in-house pollsters were interviewing 400 people a night at the beginning of the campaign. The number grew to 800 by September and 1,200 post-Thanksgiving. Party volunteers had made just over 12 million connections with voters, either through phone calls or door knocks. They’d had 3.8 million conversations with voters, and had talked to 1.1 million voters who said they would vote Liberal. All told, according to another Liberal source, the party saved upwards of $3 million by using its own dedicated volunteers, rather than relying on outside firms.

“The NDP is supposed to have a big ground game, but it’s based around organized labour, which can be fickle,” Pitfield said. “Just because you work for a union doesn’t mean you want to knock on doors for more than a day. You’ve got to be committed to the cause.”

Liberal organizers knew they were venturing into majority territory a week before election night. The party’s last poll on Sunday night, 24 hours before the election, had the party at 177 seats. It perhaps explains why Trudeau didn’t look particularly surprised when, at a private election-night function at Montreal’s Fairmont Le Reine Élizabeth hotel, the networks called a Liberal government early on in the night.

Now the real work would begin.

En route to a press conference in Ottawa, Justin Trudeau makes time for a selfie (Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

Secretly ready

Justin Trudeau prepared intensively for each step of his campaign. And — genius — he was believably himself.

Joe Daniel, the Don Valley North Conservative candidate who warned his constituents against a Muslim agenda, lost big to a Liberal. Bal Gosal, who said, when discussing Syrian refugees, that his supporters “don’t want them,” could perhaps have used more supporters: He lost big to a Liberal. Chris Alexander lost big to a Liberal. Kellie Leitch, who stood next to Alexander for the snitch-line announcement, won re-election. The verdict of politics is never uniform in its application.

In his little-known 1998 book Game Theory and Canadian Politics, the political scientist Tom Flanagan discusses the ways actors in politics employ conflict and co-operation to achieve their ends. It’s gloriously wonky stuff, but somebody on Justin Trudeau’s staff should read it.

Flanagan, a longtime Harper adviser who has now been on the outs with his former boss for years, discusses the notion of the “minimal winning coalition.” This is the idea that you don’t want to share any prize, including political power, too widely: The benefit to each participant in the winning group goes down, and the likelihood of conflict goes up. This is not only true in theory. Flanagan notes that the largest majority governments in Canadian history were often politically unstable; that they often arise only in moments of crisis; and that they don’t long outlast the crisis.

Obvious examples include: Sir Robert Borden’s wartime coalition government in the First World War; John Diefenbaker’s immense 1958 Progressive Conservative majority; and Brian Mulroney’s 1984 sweep, the largest since Diefenbaker’s. Each found every Canadian contradiction—French-English, rural-urban, resource-based and industrial—replicated within it. Each was rocked by those divisions. Within a few years after Mulroney’s triumph, the Reform party and the Bloc Québécois had been born. Silly protest movements at first, or so it seemed from the height of Mulroney’s perch, they would eventually wreck his party.

There are several lessons to draw from this. The first is that it helps to explain an apparent paradox: Stephen Harper was a far more successful Prime Minister as leader of minority governments than as leader of a majority. He could be more agile. He could be tougher. Winning more support finally meant he had more people to alienate.

Second, the notion that a coalition can grow too big helps to explain why Mulcair eventually ran into trouble. It seems unfair that the niqab should have contributed so mightily to tripping him up: Trudeau’s position on the issue was essentially identical, and he won Quebec and much of the rest of the country.

David Herle, the veteran Liberal adviser, thinks he can explain the difference. “Trudeau had been more aggressive on most of these issues over the last couple of years than Mulcair: whether you can wear a hijab or a turban when you’re playing soccer, or the [Quebec] values charter,” Herle said. “The difference is who votes for us, and what they expect. The fact that we would take those positions is baked into people’s expectations of the Liberal party. But in Quebec, it wasn’t baked into people’s expectations of the NDP.”

When Trudeau took a position against requiring bare faces at citizenship ceremonies, it might have struck some voters in Quebec as wrong-headed, but it was, at least, the sort of thing Justin Trudeau would do. When Mulcair did it, it was hard to explain or understand, because nobody really knew who Tom Mulcair was. Jack Layton, Mulcair’s predecessor, “had put together for him a personality-based coalition that was too unwieldy to ever survive wedge politics. It was half-separatist, half-federalist. Rural and urban. Small-c conservatives and big-P progressive. It was sitting there, just waiting to be blown up. It could have been the Clarity Act that blew it up, or it could have been the niqab that blew it up. It was an unsustainable coalition from the get-go.”

The corollary of all this is that Trudeau has been clear enough in projecting an identity and an agenda that he will not be rocked by divisions in his sizable winning coalition. And it’s this true, at least: The Trudeau machine lasted long enough to win an election that looked unwinnable for him 11 weeks ago. Maybe it will cheat fate forever. Better really is always possible.

But never doubt that this young prime minister will face tests. Everyone who ever held the job Canadians gave him on Monday was tested, many times, to the limit of his or her capacity. A stable majority means he needn’t worry about day-to-day political survival, but that is not the only danger in politics. Just ask Stephen Harper.

All we can say for now is this: Justin Trudeau has been written off before—too soon each time. He has a magical name, but all a name does is get you noticed. What happens next is up to you. Trudeau put in more hard work than anyone realized, fielding a ground organization, preparing for his major confrontations with his opponents, learning from criticism. That’s the hard-work part. As for the hope, it turns out that many Canadians had been waiting for some of that.

His arrival ends a fascinating and tumultuous era in Canadian politics. And opens another.

—with Martin Patriquin and Jason Markusoff

Political Editor: Paul Wells Editor: Alison Uncles Photo editors: Natalie Castellino and Liz Sullivan Art director: Stephen Gregory Digital production editor: Amanda Shendruk Developer: Terra Ciolfe Video producer: Kayla Chobotiuk and Liz Sullivan Photographers: Kevin Van Paassen, Patrick Doyle, Mark Blinch, Justin Tang, Paul Chiasson, Peter Bregg, Brian Howell, Ryan Remiorz, Nilufer Demir, Dominic Chan, Chris Wattie, Sean Kilpatrick, Fred Chartrand, Mario Beauregard Videographer: Amber Bracken, Chris Bolin, Blair Gable, Will Lew and David Zelikovitz Video editor: David Zelikovitz
Published: October 21, 2015