It was only a few years ago that elections in Canada were mostly predictable. For a few solid years, we could bet on Liberals, and some NDP candidates, sweeping the country’s biggest cities. We knew the Conservatives would sweep Alberta, take most of Saskatchewan and dominate much of British Columbia. In Quebec, the Bloc Québécois seemed destined to win the lion’s share of ridings, including a healthy mix of urban and rural areas.
Elections were, for those few years, decided based on pockets of ridings across the country that swung back and forth between, for the most part, Liberals and Conservatives. So when the Liberals had a stranglehold on Ontario during the ‘90s, and benefited from that now defunct divided right, that meant they won government.
But then, slowly, the Conservatives screwed it all up for their rivals. They made those mystical “inroads” into various suburban communities, mid-sized cities and even parts of Quebec. All of a sudden, most of Ontario was voting Conservative, and the Liberals found themselves scrambling to maintain their big city leads. Stephen Harper’s team stopped growing in Quebec, but they managed to win more of the Atlantic, save for Newfoundland and Labrador, and even picked up a few more seats in B.C.
Then the writ dropped in late April of this year. That’s when all the traditional dichotomies fell apart. Suddenly, cities weren’t voting Liberal at all, with a very few exceptions. And Quebec wasn’t voting for the Bloc. High-profile MPs from across party lines—foreign affairs minister Lawrence Cannon, prominent Liberals Martha Hall-Findlay and Glen Pearson, and virtually every Bloc MP—fell by the wayside. Oh, as did Michael Ignatieff and Gilles Duceppe, both of whom were supposed to at least save their own bacon.
Indeed, the 41st parliament’s electoral map looks a little strange. The NDP’s roots were in rural Saskatchewan, and decades of elections helped carve out an urban base, but all of a sudden the party has an enormous, if unstable, Quebec wing. The Conservatives don’t remember what it’s like to have an MP in Toronto, but now they have several in the biggest city going. And the Liberals, who might have at least counted on popular MPs winning based on reputation, are now much lonelier in parliament.
What does all this mean? The next time the country heads to the federal polls, it means parties will have to fight campaigns in some hugely unfamiliar territory. Save for the Conservatives out west, parties can’t rely on many traditional strongholds. The urban vote is split, as is the rural vote. Barring an unprecedented resurrection, Quebec voters will have only federalists to elect.
And further, many popular incumbents aren’t safe. On May 2, 47 percent of MPs won a majority of votes in their riding. Traditionally, those might be considered safe seats. But as Alice Funke of punditsguide.ca points out, a large margin of victory in one election doesn’t guarantee any victory at all in the next election. Her stats suggest that 35 seats that weren’t very close in 2008—that is, where the winner had at least 20 percent on the second-place candidate—changed hands this time around.
As exciting and, eventually, unpredictable as this year’s election turned out to be, it really just laid the groundwork for the next trip to the polls. Whenever that happens, we’ll find out whether or not this redrawn electoral map is for real—or a historical footnote. The only thing that’s certain is that it would be silly to guess what will happen next.