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There have been several elections that have remade Canada, creating lasting ramifications that would be felt for decades. I’m not talking about Liberals defeating Conservatives, or vice versa, but elections that created a core change to the makeup of the nation’s politics.

It happened in 1896, it happened in 1917, it would happen in 1926 and, possibly most significant of all, it would happen in 1993.

For the majority of the 20th century, Canadian politics fell into two scenarios. Either the Liberals ruled with the Conservatives in Opposition, or the Conservatives ruled with the Liberals in Opposition.

There were other parties, but they typically had little power except in a minority government.

Since 1984, Canada had been led by two majority governments under the Progressive Conservatives and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The government of Mulroney in 1984 was based on a coalition of socially conservative populists in Western Canada, fiscal Conservatives in the Maritimes and Ontario, and Quebec nationalists. This same coalition would aid Mulroney in his re-election in 1988, but after that election, everything began to collapse.

Unemployment rose heavily, the economy was hit hard by a recession and the deficit grew from $34.5 billion in 1984 to $40 billion by 1993. The debt had grown to $500 billion during that same time. In order to deal with this huge debt and deficit, Mulroney would bring in the Goods and Services Tax in 1991, known today as GST.

The creation of GST was extremely unpopular among Canadians and coupled with the failure of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, Mulroney found his popularity at an unprecedented low. By 1991, his popularity was at 15 per cent and he knew he would face defeat in the next election. Rather than leave earlier to give a successor time to get ready, Mulroney announced his resignation as prime minister in February 1993, with a June leadership election. In that election, Kim Campbell would win the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, becoming Canada’s first female prime minister in the process.

Campbell proved to be very popular when she came in as prime minister, but the writing was on the wall no matter what she did, change was coming.

The coalition that Mulroney had was falling apart even by the 1988 election. The Reform Party of Canada would be organized in 1987, under founder Preston Manning, son of former Alberta premier, Ernest Manning. While the party only had one seat in the House of Commons, it was rapidly gaining support in the west, taking that support from the Progressive Conservatives who had dominated there since the 1960s.

The most significant change was creation of the Bloc Quebecois in 1991. After the Meech Lake Accord collapsed, Lucien Bouchard, friend and the Quebec lieutenant for Mulroney, left the party with several Progressive Conservative and Liberal MPs to form the new party. Due to these defections, the party had 10 seats in the House of Commons and was ready to become a major force in Quebec.

The Liberals were no longer led by John Turner, who had resigned in 1990. In the leadership convention, Jean Chretien, who had been in politics since 1963, apart from a brief retirement in the late-1980s, was chosen as the new leader. Chretien would prove to be the right person at the right time for the party. At the time, the Liberal Party was 32 per cent in the polls and near bankruptcy. In order to get ready for the next election, Chretien appointed Jean Pelletier, former mayor of Quebec City from 1977 to 1989, to rebuild the party.

Due to the five-year mandate, an election had to be called in the fall of 1993. For Campbell, her personal popularity was ahead of Chretien’s around that time and the party’s popularity had gone up enough to be only a few points back from the Liberals. In late August, the Conservatives polled at 32 per cent, compared to 36 per cent for the Liberals. In terms of the view of the leader of each party, Campbell was a full 20 points ahead of Chretien. In order to capitalize on this, she dissolved Parliament on Sept. 8 and set the election date for Oct. 25.

Overall, this election would be $300 million in terms of cost, or roughly $500 million today.

The Liberals had been planning for their campaign for some time and had built up a large amount of money in order to battle the Progressive Conservatives. On Sept. 19, the Liberals released The Red Book, which was their entire platform, giving a detailed account of what a Liberal government would do if it came to power. This platform included $1 billion to rebuild aging roads, bridges and sewers. The platform had been created over the course of several years. The Liberals would also spend $10 million on 11 ads that reintroduced Chretien to Canadians, especially young voters, and to demonstrate his leadership qualities.

Campbell would attack the platform, stating quote:

“I think Canadians are looking for government that is better, not bigger.”

Days after The Red Book was released, the Progressive Conservatives released A Taxpayer’s Agenda.

By the second week of the election, polls showed that a minority government was likely, with the Conservatives at 36 per cent, the Liberals at 33 per cent and Reform at 11 per cent.

When asked why he was running, Chretien would state, quote:

“There are not enough people in Canada, in my judgement, who try to keep Canada as a whole rather than thinking of Canada as only a grouping of different regions. I want to employ these concepts.”

The Bloc Quebecois would campaign on the promise of representing the interests of Quebec at the federal level, only running candidates in Quebec, while endorsing Quebec sovereignty.

In the west and Ontario, the Reform Party had built up a grassroots network, and campaigned on creating a democratically elected and regionally equal Senate, as well as an appeal for smaller government, lower taxes, support of free trade, opposition to the GST and other social conservative policies that would be popular in portions of western Canada. At the time, the Reform Party had little in the way of money or resources. This would result in party members flying economy, staying in inexpensive hotels and relying on pre-packaged lunches. This had the effect of gaining them support among money-conscious Conservatives.

Manning would attack the Conservatives heavily, hoping to bring their voters over to his party. At one point on the campaign trail, he would state quote:

“If you have a weatherman who predicts sunny skies tomorrow for nine years in a row, and all that ever came is rain, hail, sleet and snow, would you no be considering replacing him?”

The Progressive Conservatives would have current Toronto mayor John Tory as its campaign manager. The campaign was the best funded of all the parties but that did not save it from several problems internally. The party would use their money heavily in advertising, running 35 of the 57 ads run by all four parties. The first 13 ads focused on Campbell to make her more well-known to Canadians. The next set of ads focused on attacking Chretien and his role as a Liberal cabinet minister in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. More on these ads later.

The party would also run the most high-tech election campaign to that point in Canadian history. Along the campaign trail, a satellite dish would be used to broadcast the Conservative message without it going through reporters and the media. It would be reported, quote:

“The satellite will go everywhere with Campbell and can be set up in a cornfield or on a hotel roof.”

One Progressive Conservative strategist would add, quote:

“It will make sure the campaign is not remote from the pulse of the nation, that she is relating to people everywhere.”

Asked why she was running, Campbell answered, quote:

“I’m running because I have a very clear sense of where I think we need to go as a country. I believe I lead the only party that has a realistic approach to meeting the challenges of the 1990s.”

One issue was that the party did not get literature distributed to the local campaigns, forcing candidates to print their own material, which then caused an issue of a non-unified message from the party. One of the first problems arose right at the start of the campaign for the Conservatives. When asked about unemployment, Campbell said that it could take years to bring unemployment down, likely by the turn of the century. In reality, she was right, it would be a long process but that frank honesty was not something voters liked on the campaign trail. The Liberals would job on this, criticizing Campbell for stating unemployment would remain high for the foreseeable future. Another issue came up when Campbell was answering reporter questions on the 16th day of the campaign. She would state, regarding social reforms, quote:

“I think that the election campaign is the worst possible time to have such a dialogue on social programs.”

She then added, quote:

“Because I think it takes longer than 47 days to tackle an issue that’s that serious. The issues are too complex to try to generate some kind of blueprint in the 47 days available in an election campaign.”

Unfortunately, only the first part of the quote was used by media outlets. It would then portray her as arrogant, causing a 10 per cent slide in the polls in only a week. 

Campbell would respond days later, quote:

“What the hell have I been doing? I’ve been talking about serious issues the whole time. That’s what politics is about. I’m sorry to be so intense but this is really important.”

The party would campaign on job creation, deficit reduction and improving the quality of life among Canadians. The issue was that since 1984, when the party came to power, both unemployment and the deficit had risen heavily.

The New Democratic Party was now led by a new person after the retirement of Ed Broadbent. Audrey McLaughlin came into the leadership role in 1989, becoming the first leader of a political party with representation in the House of Commons of Canada. This created a unique situation in 1993 where two of the five major party leaders were women.

The main issue of the campaign would be jobs, with 1.6 million Canadians out of work and thousands of others worried about losing their jobs. At the time, the unemployment rate was at 11.6 per cent, down only one per cent from its peak in 1982.

By the time October rolled around, the Progressive Conservatives found themselves far behind the Liberals in the poll and the realization that they would not be re-elected as obvious.

When the debates began, there were no moments that would become part of Canadian lore, shifting the election, as was seen in 1984 and 1988. In the French language debate, the party leaders essentially joined together to attack Lucien Bouchard, with a few pointed remarks at each other. Manning, who could not speak French, gave an opening statement, and closing statement, but said nothing else in between.

In the English language debate, which again featured all five leaders, there was mostly small attacks at each other, with Campbell attacking Chretien, Chretien attacking Campbell, McLaughlin attacking Manning, Manning attacking Chretien and Bouchard attacking Campbell.

Two weeks before the election, the Liberals had a 15-point lead over the Conservatives, sitting at 37 per cent, while the Conservatives were at 22 per cent. Since Sept. 20, the Conservatives had seen a staggering 13 per cent drop in the polls. As the Conservatives fell, the Reform began to rise to take its place.

Campbell would state of the poll numbers, quote:

“It’s a tough campaign but I want to tell you that we are firmly in second place and our members show us gaining.”

While the Reform Party grew in popularity in the election, it also faced increased scrutiny and for some candidates, that was bad news. John Beck was kicked out as a candidate when it came to light, he had made remarks that were sexist, anti-immigrant and racist.

One such comment was quote:

“If an immigrant comes in and is making $150,000 a year, then he is taking jobs away from Gentile people, white people.”

Manning would state quote:

“The statements he was making are completely in conflict with the Reform policies.”

Before the election, the party also expelled a number of white supremacists, and in another incident during the campaign Hugh Ramolla, a Reform candidate, told another member of the Reform party to hit his female political opponent, Denis Giroux, to shut her up.”

Rather than apologize, Ramolla stated quote:

“It was clearly done in jest, clear to everyone but Ms. Giroux and her femin-Nazis.”

In the hope of preventing a Liberal majority, Tory launched a series of attack ads against Chretien. The most famous of these would become The Face Ad, which today is seen as one of the worst political ads in Canadian history. The ad featured images of Chretien’s face, which is partly deformed due to Bell’s palsy, with the words “I would be very embarrassed if he became Prime Minister of Canada.” The creators of the ad stated that it was meant to refer to the policies and ethics of Chretien, but it was widely seen as attacking his appearance. The ad created a massive backlash across the board, including from many within the Progressive Conservative party itself. Campbell had the ad removed from the air within 24 hours.

For Chretien, it was a gift. He would speak of how he was teased about it as a boy, stating quote:

“When I was a kid, people were laughing at me. But I accepted that because God gave me other qualities and I’m grateful.”

Campbell would say after the ad was pulled, quote:

“I’ve now been able to see one of the versions of the advertisements and I think the tone is inconsistent with the message that I’ve been trying to deliver. On looking at it, I think it is a bit offensive. I would apologize to Mr. Chretien and anyone who found them offensive.”

Campbell would begin to attack Bouchard, who threatened to rob the Conservatives of the vital support they needed in Quebec. She would say quote:

“His position is one of fundamental dishonesty towards the people of Quebec. He will be in Ottawa not to protect Quebec’s interests or create jobs as he says, but to make sure things don’t work so he can achieve his separatist goal.”

One week before the election, CBC hosted a Town Hall that featured all the leaders of the parties answering questions from Canadians, in what turned out to be a bad idea. The audience was described as a buzz-saw of anger, that tore into the leaders continuously.

In a rare occurrence, Pierre Trudeau came out of retirement to speak on an election matter, warning against electing the Bloc Quebecois. He would state quote:

“If you weaken the government of Canada, which Bouchard intends doing, you do no favor to Canadians, you do a favor to those who believe in separation.”

Three days for the election, all signs pointed to a Liberal majority, while the Conservatives had fallen to 17 per cent to be in line with the Reform Party for second place.

In the Oct. 25, 1993, election, the Liberal Party would gain 96 seats to finish with 177, more than enough than was needed to create a majority government. This was best showing for the Liberal Party since 1949, when it won 1949 seats under Louis St. Laurent. The Liberals were also the only party to win seats in every province.

One of the biggest surprises was that the Bloc Quebecois gained 44 seats to finish with 54, becoming the Official Opposition of Canada.

The Reform Party would pick up the second most seats of the election, to finish with 52, becoming the Third Party in the House of Commons.

For the other two major parties, it was a difficult election to say the least. After the NDP had its best election showing in 1988, it would lose 35 seats to fall to just nine in the House of Commons.

Nothing though, compares to the collapse of the Progressive Conservative Party. Many feel that Campbell was given a crashing plane from Mulroney and there was little she could do to prevent the collapse, but the scope of the collapse surprised everyone. The party would lose 154 seats, the worst loss not only in Canadian history, but in any country that used the Westminster System. Campbell would lose her own seat, and only two Progressive Conservatives would remain in the House of Commons, taking the party from the largest number of seats in Canadian history in 1984, to no longer having official status in Parliament in 1993. Only Jean Charest and Elsie Wayne remained. A total of 147 Conservative candidates failed to win 15 per cent of the vote, losing their deposits and putting the entire party deeply in debt. This was also only the third time that a sitting prime minister lost an election and their own seat. It had happened to Arthur Meighen in 1921 and 1926.

Campbell would state quote:

“Our day in the sun will come again. Many fine leaders, many fine parties, have had setbacks.”

With the Bloc Quebecois now the Official Opposition, Chretien would call for national reconciliation under his government. He would say to Bouchard in his speech, quote:

“I hope we can work together.”

The Reform Party took the majority of seats in British Columbia and Alberta, while the Liberals took 98 of 99 seats in Ontario. That alone was enough to win the election for the party. The party would take a scattering of seats in the west, including 12 in Manitoba, along with every seat in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland and the Northwest Territories. In Quebec, the Bloc Quebecois took 54 seats to the 19 won by the Liberals.

This election would have long-lasting impacts on Canada’s political landscape. From this moment on, Canada had moved from essentially a two-party system with a third party that had no real hope of gaining power, to a five-party system, in which the two main parties jockeyed for power as the other three parties took seats in key area. Many consider this the start of the dominant-party system in Canada, in which a single party continuously dominates election results over opposition groups or parties.

Information from Canadian Parliamentary Review, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Macleans, Ottawa Citizen

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