By the time the Expo 67 and the Canadian Centennial had ended, it was 1968 and Canada was looking a bit different. Over the previous five years since the Liberals had come back into power, the country had a new flag, Universal Healthcare, the Canada Pension Plan, Canadian Student Loans and more. The country of 1968 was very different from the country of 1963.
Both of the main parties had new leaders as well. At the helm of the Progressive Conservatives was Robert Stanfield, who had replaced John Diefenbaker the previous year. While the party had done better in 1965, many felt that Diefenbaker was no longer the right man to lead the party. In 1965, 33 per cent of the country said they would vote Progressive Conservative, but by 1967 that number had fallen to 24 per cent. The ousting of Diefenbaker had left the party ruptured and it was hoping to rebuild and once again lead Canada. Bringing in Stanfield helped the party rise in opinions in Canada with nearly 40 per cent stating they would vote for the Progressive Conservatives. What the party could not have counted on was the person who would suddenly come out of nowhere to lead the Liberals.
Leading the Liberals was a new man, Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Trudeau had only come to Parliament in 1965 and was unknown until he was appointed to cabinet by Lester Pearson. Pearson had announced in December 1967 that he was leaving as leader of the party. The government nearly fell in February 1968, before a leadership convention could take place. As it turned out, the government would not dissolve at that point but it was now apparent that whoever the new leader was going to be, they would need to call an immediate election.
Trudeau would be the surprise winner of the leadership convention, defeating Paul Martin Sr. to become not only prime minister but leader of the party.
Pearson would write in his memoirs, quote:
“Trudeau created an immediate and exciting impression. He was the man to match the times, the new image of a new era. His non-involvement in politics became his greatest asset, along with his personal appeal, his charisma.”
The interest in Trudeau was shown in a survey that found 17 million Canadians, 85 per cent of Canadians, watched at least part of the final day of the leadership convention.
Trudeau was unlike any prime minister Canada had before, or really, since. He was intellectual, handsome, single, fluently bilingual and highly charismatic. With the election called, Trudeau quickly became the talk of the nation and Trudeaumania erupted around him. Whenever he appeared in public, he was greeted by screaming women and young people who saw him as a fresh face in politics. He could be seen diving into swimming pools, driving his Mercedes convertible around town, being kissed by women, and it was a sign to many that politics could be fun. From his victory in the Liberal leadership convention in 1968, to his retirement in 1984, Trudeau would dominate Canadian politics. In a National Election study using a 100-point thermometer to measure popularity, Trudeau registered 68, the highest for a political leader in Canada before or since. The outpouring of support for Trudeau would lead the Liberals to create a youth wing for the party called Action Trudeau. At the time, Canada had 9.8 million people under the age of 25, out of a population of 20 million. Of those, 1.4 million were old enough to vote. At the time, young people accounted for 12.5 per cent of all 11.2 million eligible voters.
The New Democratic party was still led by Tommy Douglas, which would campaign on the slogan of You win with the NDP. Douglas would campaign on affordable housing, higher pensions for the elderly, lower prescription drug prices and a reduced cost of living.
Overall, there seemed to be much more interest in politics in 1968 than in previous years. In a Liberal nominating meeting in Minnedosa, Manitoba, 1,200 voting delegates and 600 spectators came out. In Peel, Ontario, 1,500 Conservatives came out to choose a candidate. In another Liberal nominating meeting, 3,000 came out. Membership of the Davenport Liberal Association saw its own membership go from 200 to 5,455. In Alberta, where only two Liberals had been elected since 1957, membership in the Liberal Party was growing by 400 per day, while the Conservatives enrolled 20,000 between April and July.
The Conservatives ran on the platform of One Country One Canada, which was meant to contrast with the Liberal campaign and the Trudeau belief of Canada being one country with two nations within it. Their blue book policy platform included 56 election proposals including a national pollution abatement code, a reorganization of the Indian Affairs Department and a focus on social welfare.
The Liberals campaigned essentially on the strength of the personality of Trudeau. Campaign posters featured the picture of Trudeau with the words Come Work With Me written. The campaign was on the concept of creating a just society. Their red book policy platform also included implementing multiculturalism, bilingualism, a charter of rights and a reorganization of government departments.
Bilingualism would be a major component of the election, which earned Trudeau a standing ovation in Sherbrooke, Quebec while on the campaign trail on May 28. Trudeau would promise to have official status for French and English on all matters at the federal level, an establishment of bilingual districts, publication in both French and English on all government documents, and more. During that same rally, a man held a sign that stated Thank you Trudeau, I am homosexual, referring to the decriminalization of homosexuality by Trudeau when he was Justice Minister. Trudeau would respond, quote:
Stanfield and the Progressive Conservatives would campaign against creating two nations within Canada, stating that the essential powers of the federal government had to be maintained.
There was talk of a guaranteed income, which Stanfield stated he was in favour of if it, quote:
“The larger concept we have to concern ourselves with is the realization of the goal that every Canadian, whether or not he is a member of the labor force, must have available to him a minimum level of income.”
Trudeau in contrast stated that the idea of guaranteed minimum income was theoretically attractive but too simple, too broad and too blunt an instrument to deal with the complex problems of poverty and economic disadvantage.
Stanfield, or at least the Progressive Conservatives, would attempt to replicate the hysteria around Trudeau. At one campaign stop in Brantford, Ontario, Stanfield walked through hundreds of excited children who were let out an extra hour at lunchtime to see the Conservative leader. Stanfield appeared to be a mixture of dismay and pleasure as he struggled to get to the podium. He then asked for silence, then shouted for silence, and then gave up and left within minutes.
This would be the first election in Canadian history to have a leadership debate, which was held on June 9, 1968. It came only three days after Robert Kennedy had been assassinated and most considered the entire debate to be boring and inconclusive. The debate featured 18 questions over the course of two hours, with the party leaders answering each one. Peter Newman would write after, quote:
“Nobody won it, but the audience lost.”
Of the leaders at the debate, 40 per cent of viewers stated Tommy Douglas had won it and made the best impression, while Trudeau scored 27 per cent but only five per cent stated the debate changed their mind of who to vote for. The irony is that initially, Douglas was not invited to the debate when it was first planned. The effort to get the first debate put together was not an easy one, with Trudeau stating all parties should be part of it, stating quote:
“I’d be prepared to talk with Mr. Stanfield alone or with the others, if they prefer, but I want it to be fair and satisfactory for all parties.”
In the end, the debate was moved from CTV to CBC and it would go on as planned.
The shooting of Robert Kennedy would have implications on the campaign as well. Trudeau was put under police guard for the remainder of the campaign.
Overall, most pundits would see this not as an election of issues but on personality. Maclean’s would write on June 1, 1968, quote:
Trudeau would begin his campaign on May 18 in Toronto. Almost immediately, he was swarmed by people. The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:
“The jumpers, the squealers, the swooners and the grabbers were on hand as the prime minister took off on foot through a shopping centre and down busy streets.”
One girl, Roxanne Hollingworth, stated that she kissed Trudeau three times as the crowd swarmed around him. In all, 1,500 people jammed together around Trudeau before he was whisked away to another campaign stop.
This election would see a redistribution of seats in some of the provinces. The 1966 census had found that Alberta had 50 per cent more population, but the same number of seats as Saskatchewan. As such, Saskatchewan would lose four seats in the redistribution, and it would be the first time that an election in Canadian history had fewer seats total compared to the previous election, 264 to 265.
A week before the election, there was a scary incident for Douglas Irwin, the Liberal candidate in Red Deer, Alberta. It was on June 17, when someone fired gunshots through the windows of his station wagon while he was on a rural road. The incident came eight days after he received a message that told him to quit the election or he would be sorry. Three days before the shooting, a man called him and asked why he didn’t quit.
Lester Pearson would also take to the campaign trail during the election, visiting places such as Sault Ste. Marie where huge crowds came to greet him, showing his popularity was still strong after retiring from politics.
On June 22, five separatist demonstrators went to a Montreal rally for Trudeau and started to scuffle with others and yelled that Trudeau was a traitor. Trudeau, who had just come from a rally of 25,000 people, stated that the separatists had a right to their ideas, but did not have a right to hinder other French Canadians who want to have a say in what goes on in Canada.
On June 24, 1968, one day before the election, Trudeau attended the Saint Jean Baptiste Day parade in Montreal. While there, Quebec sovereigntists threw rocks and bottles at the grand stand where Trudeau was sitting, shouting Trudeau to the stake!. Trudeau rejected pleas to take cover and instead sat in his seat facing the rioters without showing any sign of fear. This image of the prime minister sitting defiant amid protesters would greatly impress the public and likely played a large role in his election the next day.
In the June 25, 1968 election, the Liberals gained 27 seats to finish with 155, winning a majority government for the first time since 1953. The Conservatives, with their new leader, sank and lost 22 seats to finish with 72 but they would remain the Official Opposition. The New Democratic Party under Tommy Douglas would lose no seats, but Douglas would lose his seat in what would turn out to be his last federal election as the leader of the party.
The Liberals would take the majority of seats in British Columbia, and dominated in Ontario and Quebec. In Ontario, they won 63 seats to the 17 won by the Progressive Conservatives. In Quebec, where the province once again had a francophone leader to go behind, the Liberals won 56 seats, leaving the Progressive Conservatives with only four. The Progressive Conservatives took 15 seats to the Liberal four in Alberta, and 10 seats in Nova Scotia, to the one won by the Liberals.
Trudeau would say of the election win, quote:
“On the whole, it has been a good election, fought vigorously and fairly.
Stanfield, expressed his disappointment in the loss, stating quote:
Diefenbaker, who this time only campaigned in his area of Prince Albert, would say of the defeat, quote:
“My heart goes out to Mr. Stanfield and the outstanding Conservatives who suffered defeat. I know what defeat is. I know victory too. From this moment on, let us in this party do our part to rebuild. The word is unity.”
Information from Macleans, Biographi, Wikipedia, Dynasties and Interludes, Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, Montreal Gazette,