Canada Election Guide, 2019

October 13, 2019

Updated to reflect latest polling, and to add a Vancouver Granville section, through Oct 19.

On Monday, Canada votes.

Last election, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals swept into power. A wave of optimism and enthusiasm won the Liberals the largest gain in seats ever in a Federal election. Trudeau was seen as a champion of the center and the left, and drove the highest voter turnout in over 20 years. The result: a total rout. The leaders of all three other major parties left or were pushed out.

Four years later, things have changed. By most measures Canada is doing fine, but the Prime Minister’s shine has worn off. On one hand, Trudeau kept many of his promises – he appointed Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet, cancelled the Northern Gateway pipeline, and legalized cannabis.

On the other hand, people distinctly remember the promises he did not keep – cough, electoral reform – and the ones they feel like he made, but hasn’t lived up to. Like, he didn’t say he wouldn’t nationalize an oil pipeline, or eject a prominent indigenous woman trying to uphold the rule of law from his party. He didn’t explicitly say he had no history of repeatedly dressing up in racist face paint. Voters just kind of assumed.

And even if those controversies haven’t changed the party allegiance of many traditional Liberal voters, they’ve certainly dampened enthusiasm for Trudeau among progressives generally.

Of course, thanks to our parliamentary system, voters have a variety of alternative parties to consider. Unfortunately, none of the alternatives seem to be inspiring a ton of enthusiasm either. Despite rigorous campaigning by some fresh faces, the CBC poll tracker changed little for most of the campaign, mostly projecting a minority government by the Liberals or the Conservatives.

While predicting election odds is hard enough in the best of times, we may see particularly inaccurate polling this year since higher apathy and uncertainty about what party to vote for will likely drive down turnout.

Hopefully, this guide will motivate you to use your vote on Monday. It’s in you to give.

The Issues, or Lack Thereof

Unlike many elections, and certainly unlike those south of the border, there are not a lot of big, emotional issues driving this Canadian election. Still, in an election year where none of the leaders are inspiring a ton of enthusiasm, the issues are going to drive the vote for many people.

As a quick refresher for what the federal issues are, it’s worth checking in on what the federal government actually does in Canada. You may be losing sleep over the sorry state of our road signage, but those aren’t the kind of signs Ottawa is looking at.

At a high level, the question is: who do you want making decisions about the environment, federal taxes, seniors’ benefits, immigration, personal rights, foreign affairs and trade, national defense, large infrastructure funding like public transit or social housing, and some aspects of indigenous affairs and healthcare? You know, the big stuff?

When it comes to platform details, the CBC has a reasonable platforms breakdown of what the parties have to say on some of these key items. For many issues, though, often the question isn’t “who promises to reduce greenhouse gases by what I’ve personally determined is the correct amount”, but rather “who do I expect will in practice make the biggest impact on climate?” And for many issues, the party platforms haven’t laid out a lot of concrete action.

Perhaps that’s unsurprising. In this political moment, there isn’t one critical social debate or national referendum driving parties’ platforms. While that’s maybe for the best, it makes for a bit of a boring election.

To some degree, the boringness is exaggerated because Canada’s political parties currently break down on fairly traditional left-right axes. There is no distinctly libertarian party with a socially progressive but fiscally conservative agenda, for example. Given that, it’s pretty tough for 5 or 6 parties to carve out distinct compelling takes on the issues. As a result, we mostly have different leaders arguing not about what to do, but how much to do it – plus one drunk guy in the corner claiming that climate change is not caused by humans and that rapidly increasing carbon dioxide just means more “food for plants”.

Given that, rather than digging into any issue in detail, I’m going to recap the national parties in rough progressive to conservative order, and consider where they’re at and why you may want to vote for them.

Please don’t hate me.

The NDP

Bringing up the left side of the House, we have longtime social-democrats, the New Democratic Party. As with many left-wing organizations, over the years the party has struggled to find balance between its more radically progressive elements and the more electable ones, and has spent most of its history in 3rd place or worse. That said, if your politics are progressive, and wealth inequality in Canada is a serious concern for you, then the NDP should be on your radar already.

As is their style, the NDP promises to spend more money on social programs than the more moderate parties, and have predictably progressive perspectives on social and climate issues. For example, the NDP is pledging to build 50,000 new affordable homes per year, whereas the Greens promise to build 25,000 and the Liberals are pledging 10,000. Of course it’s easy for the 3rd place party to make pledges, and the bigger question is about which party might actually achieve their targets, and how they’ll pay for it all – a tale as old as time.

When he was elected leader of the NDP in 2017, Jagmeet Singh didn’t exactly light a fire under the party’s base. Most press coverage of Singh has focused on either his early struggles to build a national campaign, or commentary on his deft and moving responses to questions about race. That said, Singh has more recently received positive press for his debate performances, and in the final days of the campaign has seen his polling numbers pick up – both in terms of leader favourability and in party support.

You should consider voting NDP if you’re firmly on the progressive end of the spectrum, especially if they’re likely the strongest progressive party in your riding. For many voters on the left, though, the question of whether to vote NDP in a given election or riding comes down to strategic voting.

Strategic voting

A big question for supporters of 3rd and 4th place parties is always strategic voting. For example, a number of voters who leaned NDP last year voted instead for Justin Trudeau. For those who voted for Trudeau as a “this will be the last federal election using first-past-the-post” candidate, that bridge is now likely burned. On the other hand, those who voted Liberal as a “Stop Harper” vote might consider doing so again, depending on their riding.

Since strategic voting is so riding-dependent, if you’re an “Not Conservative” voter, you’ll need to look up your riding. Although you can just reference Wikipedia, or Justin McElroy’s excellent countdown of every BC riding from least to most interesting, the change in fortunes and polls across parties can make it really hard to project who actually has a chance in a given riding. That’s why I was pleased to find 338Canada, a low-budget but surprisingly in-depth data source for every riding in this year’s election. Don’t miss their projections plotted on the electoral history chart for your riding, which should be helpful in any attempt at voting strategically.

Once you have a sense of what candidates might win in your riding, “anything but Conservative” voters can take an approach like this:

  1. If a Liberal, NDP, Bloc, or Green candidate seems to clearly have the best chance of defeating the Conservative one in your riding, then vote for that candidate.
  2. If it seems unclear what left-leaning candidate has the best chance, or it’s within the (large) margin of polling error, then vote for the candidate you like best.

The core goal of strategic voting on the left is to not hand a left-leaning riding to the Conservatives due to vote-splitting. While the Liberals are the only progressive party with a real shot at winning the election overall, successfully electing an NDP or Green MP is still a success for progressives in the parliamentary system. This is especially true now, given that a minority government seems likely and parties may need to form alliances.

If only we could get a prime minister who pledged to stop first past the post, we wouldn’t have to worry about strategic voting anymore. One can dream.

The Green Party

Traditionally a protest vote, early this election cycle the Green Party got substantially more attention than usual. This was due in part to the ever-increasing priority of climate as a critical election issue, but also because Greens have had electoral successes at the municipal and provincial levels in recent years.

With more attention has come more scrutiny, and for the first time that I’m aware, the Green Party has gotten press for campaign-trail gaffes – insufficiently vetting candidates, for example. Running a truly national campaign is tough.

An interesting facet of Green Party policy is that unlike other parties in Canada, they pledge to let elected Green Party MPs vote freely instead of being beholden to the party line. That sounds great in theory, but it does have the consequence that in order to confidently vote Green, you need to understand the particular candidate you’re voting for – who may or may not fully agree with the party platform.

While the Green Party is further left than the NDP on some issues, they are surprisingly centrist or neutral on other issues. They don’t consider themselves left-wing, and at most levels of government Greens seem less interested in taxing the rich to help the poor than the NDP do. From a strategic perspective, the Greens position themselves as a plausible alternative both for NDP and especially Liberal voters who want to send a clear message on climate.

Elizabeth May has long been party leader and lone MP, and is the longest-standing leader of Canada’s parties. While this may be the year the Greens pick up a couple additional seats – for example, on Vancouver Island – their support continues to be spread so thinly across the country that they pose a serious challenge in very few ridings. That said, the fact climate is a huge pillar of their platform could make this a landmark year for them.

You should consider voting Green if your riding is one of the few that has a strong Green candidate with a chance of winning, or if you want to lodge a protest vote on behalf of climate. If you’re a Green supporter looking to vote strategically, the rules I describe above all apply.

Bloc Québécois

Given that the Bloc is a separatist party that only runs candidates in Quebec, the personal blog of a tech guy from Vancouver is probably not the go-to source of information on them. On the other hand, they don’t seem to even have an English website, so maybe you are looking for information on them? If so, I apologize.

From what I’ve gathered, support for the Bloc has risen in the polls since last election’s lows, and in a minority government situation they could hold the balance of power. So they’re important to Canada, but not an option on most Canadians’ ballots.

You should consider voting Bloc if you’re a left-leaning voter who is interested in Quebec separatism and have actually read about their platform in French. Or, perhaps, if you’re an “Anything but Conservative” voter who is in a riding where Bloc is the best defensive vote.

The Liberal Party

The Liberals are Canada’s winningest political party, longtime experts at finding a balanced position in the center of Canadian politics – in the middle, but a bit to the left.

In 2015, Trudeau’s positivity, charisma, enthusiasm, and vocal support of progressive social values earned the Liberals a lot of new votes. He got “Stop Harper” votes from the left, open-minded votes from the right, previously non-existent votes from the young, and a non-trivial number of votes from fringe-party voters eager to do away with First Past the Post.

Over the last four years, the Liberals haven’t exactly screwed Canada up – by most measures the economy is doing well, and he fulfilled most of his promises – but he’s managed to alienate various voting constituencies that lent him their votes in 2015, especially on the left. Perhaps worse for the Liberal party, he’s annoyed enough of his base that Liberal turnout will almost certainly be lower this time around.

That said, there is an enduring appeal to centrism, and the Liberals continue to be the party whose views are closest to the median Canadian. Since the demise of Canada’s Progressive Conservative party in 2003, the Liberals have also been the closest we have to a libertarian party – the most fiscally conservative party you can elect that is still progressive in a social sense.

Perhaps most importantly for the Liberals, they are the stereotypical “not Conservative” strategic vote. As in most modern Canadian elections, the Conservatives and Liberals are the only two parties with a shot at actually forming government. In ridings that the Conservatives have a good chance of winning, the Liberals are often the next most likely party to win. You can read my overview of strategic voting above.

An amusing wrinkle for the center-left Federal Liberals every election is that the de facto right-wing political party in British Columbia is called the BC Liberals. I find this funny in two ways: both that the two parties share a name but have quite different positions in politics, and that BC is a liberal enough place that the most conservative major party we have is titled the “liberals”.

You should consider consider voting Liberal if you’re a moderate or centre-left voter who thinks Trudeau really does mean well and is learning from his various foibles, or if you’re a progressive voter who falls in the “anything but Conservative” camp and the Liberals have the best shot at defeating the Conservatives in your riding.

And please, if you voted for Trudeau last time and are annoyed at him for one of many valid reasons, please still take the effort to vote this year – even if it’s just to formally record your displeasure.

Conservative Party of Canada

In 2003, the center-right Progressive Conservatives and the right-wing Canadian Alliance merged. While this annoyed the most moderate and most radical factions of those parties, it vastly improved conservatives’ electoral chances in this country, and led to almost 10 years of Conservative government.

With this merger, voting became simple for many Canadians: they knew their views were conservative, and no longer had to weigh just how much social conservatism they wanted along with their tax cuts: the conservative base just ticks the box for Conservative. If that’s you, then you’re probably just hate-reading this article in order to send me angry email. Which is fine. Hi! Sorry! 😅

Voting is perhaps more interesting, though, for the libertarian-minded voter. Nowadays, we have Liberal/Conservative swing voters – people who are neither enthusiastic about the Liberals’ economic approach nor the Conservatives’ social or environmental policies. Each election, these voters must take a side, or perhaps lodge a protest vote for the Greens. Fun Fact: Elizabeth May was a policy advisor for the Progressive Conservatives in the 1980s.

While it’s easy to attribute this year’s increase in Conservative polling entirely to the tarnished image of Trudeau, I also think some right-leaning voters see fewer pressing social issues than they did 4 years ago. The absence of a socially conservative government has taken topics like abortion and same-sex marriage out of Canada’s national conversation. Meanwhile, increased attention on – and, in some cases, support for – extreme right-wing and/or authoritarian governments worldwide makes a politely Canadian Conservative government with a vague social agenda seem like a reasonable option.

Heading up the Conservatives this election is Andrew Scheer. Like Singh and Trudeau he’s in his 40s, bringing a youthful energy to his party. Also like Singh and Trudeau, Scheer doesn’t seem to have inspired a lot of enthusiasm from voters this election. As boring as their leader may be though, Conservative voters are enthusiastic about getting a progressive PM out of office.

One serious complication for the Conservatives this election is the newly founded People’s Party of Canada, which hopes to split out some Conservative votes with its more right-wing, populist message. Where in previous years the Conservatives’ obvious strategy would have been to moderate their message to mop up disaffected Trudeau voters, this new threat from the right has pulled the Conservatives back into conversations about things like same-sex marriage – battles lost that are hardly worth revisiting, but if ignored entirely could lose them their most conservative voters.

All that said, the biggest challenge for Conservatives is probably on the climate file. While Scheer has smartly maintained that climate change is important and that Canada should meet its Paris carbon targets, the Conservatives’ platform is very critical of carbon pricing, an approach that originated as a conservative market-based approach to global warming. Absent a carbon tax, the Conservatives are rather vague about how we might otherwise reach those targets.

You should consider voting Conservative if:

  1. You’re a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and you’re just reading this article to look for things to disagree with
  2. You lean Conservative and couldn’t stomach voting for Trudeau again, especially if you’re not very concerned about climate targets or the potential of Scheer enacting a few socially conservative policies
  3. You live in Beauce, Quebec, and have the irresistable chance to deny the People’s Party from getting a single seat in parliament.

The People’s Party

A natural consequence of a unified Conservative party is that there will, on occasion, be politicians who are too conservative, too extreme, to be part of a big Conservative tent. This election, we have somebody wild enough to try to out-conservative the Conservatives: Maxime Bernier.

Bernier says he would do “nothing” about climate change, thinks Canada’s “extreme multiculturalism” is a problem, called Greta Thunberg “mentally unstable”, wants to reduce funding for healthcare, called diversity a “cult”, and is overall a one-star clown.

That said, we’ve learned from elections worldwide that it’s too easy to dismiss populists as being idiots.

If you are considering voting for the People’s Party of Canada in any riding other than Maxime Bernier’s, you’re probably just splitting the vote and hurting the Conservatives, the party with an actual chance to advance your views. While in the short term it may be better for progressive politics in Canada to have a split conservative vote, I think legitimizing this kind of rhetoric sends a terrible message to the country and our children. Please just don’t.

Addendum: Vancouver Granville

By sheer luck – or lack thereof – this election I happen to live in one of the most interesting ridings in the country: Vancouver Granville. As such, a few people have asked me for some context for this rather unusual race.

Vancouver Granville’s incumbent MP is Jody Wilson-Raybould, who was the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada until the SNC-Lavalin affair resulted in the Prime Minster ejecting her from the Liberal Party. She is now running for re-election as an independent.

While it’s rare for an independent candidate to win a federal seat, it’s also rare for a candidate to be the former Minister of Justice and Attorney General, the incumbent MP, and only be independent because she recently took the sitting government to task for a breach of ethics. Which is to say, she seems to have a serious shot.

Making things hard to call, though, is the fact that in 2015, the riding split very evenly on either side of the Liberals: 26% Conservative, 44% Liberal, and 27% NDP. A result like that should predict a stable Liberal hold this year, but now those Liberal votes will likely split, one way or another, between Wilson-Raybould and the new Liberal candidate – meaning whoever wins the riding could have fewer than 30% of the vote.

Given that, Vancouver Granville is a headache for strategic voters and pollsters alike. 338Canada’s model projects a tossup between Wilson-Raybould and the Liberals, but if enthusiasm and turnout become the deciding factors, it could become be a race between JWR and the Conservatives. While strategic voters crave projections, 338’s estimates are based on national data, and seem to struggle with the complexity of this riding.

For example, when Wilson-Raybould was added to the 338 projection as an independent in June, the model oddly semeed to think this would primarily hurt NDP and Conservative results, but somehow increase the Green vote. Meanwhile, in real life, Green leader Elizabeth May has endorsed JWR over her own Green candidate in the riding.

While that may seem odd for a recently Liberal MP, the Greens and the Liberals aren’t far apart on most issues – and the issues Wilson-Raybould outlines on her website mesh pretty well with the Green platform.

And although an independent might not necessarily have much power in our very party-dominated parliament, there is a tiny but fascinating chance that an independent MP could affect the balance of power in a very close minority government situation. Whatever your politics, it would be hard not to appreciate the irony of Jody Wilson-Raybould holding power over a weakened Trudeau government.

All that said, one huge benefit of living in a “riding to watch” is that there are some surprisingly in-depth recent profiles of the race in places like The Globe and Mail, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere. Which is good, since this is one riding where a few votes could make a real impact.

Actually voting

To vote on Monday, October 21 – or during advance polling until Monday, October 14 – you just need to:

  • Have ID that proves your address
  • Be 18, and a Canadian citizen
  • Vote at your assigned polling station in your riding

If you’ve registered to vote you should have received a voting information card that will make voting faster. If you don’t have a voting card, you should still be able to vote, as long as you find your assigned polling station.

Voting hours vary by province, but are 7:00am to 7:00pm in BC, and are 9:30am to 9:30pm in Ontario.

Learning more

If you have any feedback or (especially) corrections on this guide, please get in touch!

While I hope this guide is a helpful starting point for people, I’m just a lone designer and developer from Vancouver – if you’re able, it’s great to do your own research, and spread the word about what you learn. Some starting points for doing your own research:

  • 338Canada, a rough but valuable trove of polling data and projections
  • The CBC Poll Tracker, which isn’t very useful for strategic voting but is nicer than 338’s
  • Justin McElroy, CBC Vancouver’s local affairs reporter and professional ranker of things
  • Party Platform Guides by the CBC and Maclean’s
  • The Vote Compass, which is a neat tool even though the issues this year make its results kind of uninteresting and at times misleading
  • The Oct 7 Leaders’ debate, made available in full on Youtube by CTV news including, inexplicably, hours of preamble
  • A variety of political podcasts, including the CBC’s Party Lines and BC’s PolitiCoast

© Allen Pike. See also Twitter and Steamclock.