The first election of the 21st century would be the last for some, the first for others, and its result would help shape the coming years of the new century.
Only three years after winning the 1997 election by a razor-thin margin for a majority, Liberal leader Jean Chretien decided to call a new election. This election call, well before the five year mandate, came about for several reasons.
First, there was the hope to stem the tide of the growing popularity of the new Canadian Alliance party. The Reform Party had been the Official Opposition after the 1997 election, and in the hope of connecting the east and west, Preston Manning proposed a merger of the Reform and some Progressive Conservatives, including the party’s only Ontario MP. This would result in the United Alternative in 1998, which became the Canadian Alliance Party. Soon after, Preston Manning was out as leader, replaced by Stockwell Day on July 8, 2000.
Second, there was growing discontent in the Liberal Party and the party was splitting between those who supported Paul Martin, the federal finance minister, and Prime Minister Chretien.
Third, Pierre Trudeau had recently passed away from prostate cancer, and the election call would play on the nostalgia created by the death.
At the same time, the Canadian economy was going strong and there were few negative issues impacting the Liberals. Just prior to the election, the party was polling at 50 per cent, 12 points higher than the next closest party.
When the election was called, the Liberals were doing well in the polls thanks to ending the federal deficit, creating new environmental regulations and increasing spending on social programs that had begun in 1998 when the surplus was achieved. Payouts for health and education to the provinces increased from $15.5 billion to $18.3 billion.
In the week prior to the election call, the Liberals went on a $2.25 billion spending spree according to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Calculated at spending $223,060 a minute, money went to infrastructure agreements in Ontario and Quebec, $500 million to held Toronto’s bid for the 2008 Olympics and develop its waterfront, and money for east coast shipbuilders and western farmers. By the time the election campaign reached Nov. 2, the Liberals had promised $6.6 billion in spending.
The Liberals would focus their campaign on attacking the Canadian Alliance, while focusing on winning every seat in Ontario, more seats in Quebec and making inroads in Atlantic Canada, since the west belonged to the Canadian Alliance. The lack of focus on the west would be seen in the fact that Chretien spent only nine days in the west, including only two stops in Alberta.
Chretien would state at the start of the campaign, quote:
“This election offers two very different visions of Canada, two crystal-clear alternatives. The nature of that choice is clear and the fight time to choose is now.”
On the Canadian Alliance side of things, the hope of the party was the media friendly image of Day would appeal to Ontario voters. The platform document would feature pictures of Day jogging, lacing up skates and other activities to give the image of a younger man, compared to the image of Chretien, who was 66 years old at the time. Even press tags issued to the media had Day’s image on them. One Alliance Party member would state, quote:
“It looked like a vanity campaign that was all about image and little substance.”
This image was seen in the infamous press conference in which Day arrived at a press conference on the shores of Lake Okanagan, on a jet ski.
The incident was mocked in Parliament, with Joe Clark stating the Canadian Alliance should rename itself as the costume party.
The party would campaign on cutting taxes, ending the federal gun registration program and a focus on family values. One criticism levied at the party’s platform was the introduction of a two-tier health care program, as well as the threatening of protection of gay rights and abortion rights. Alexa McDonough would attack the abortion rights issue by stating, quote:
“I think it’s reprehensible, I think its cowardly. I think it shows that he has absolutely no understanding of the issues of reproductive choice of what it means to say that a woman should have the right to control their own bodies.”
The party, like the Reform Party before it, would have issues with statements by some candidates. Betty Granger would abandon her run for Parliament in Winnipeg after she made statements about an Asian invasion. Another individual, Kevyn Nightingale, who was an Alliance candidate in Toronto, described on TV his homosexual political opponent as a deviant.
There would be other moments of stumbling for Day on the campaign trail. One was when he stated that the Niagara River ran south out of Canada, when it fact it runs the opposite direction. Day would make light of it, saying at one speech quote:
“The geese are flying north. The Canadian Alliance can turn almost anything around folks.”
The most damning for his campaign was when he it was revealed that during a speech at Red Deer College, Day had stated he believed the world was only 6,000 years old and that humans and dinosaurs had co-existed. While most considered religion out of bounds in an election campaign, Ontario premier David Peterson would question his intelligence over the matter. This would hurt him in several Ontario ridings, and was widely mocked in the media. Warren Kinsella, a Liberal Party member, would state that Day thought The Flintstones was a documentary.
Day would shoot back over the matter, stating quote:
“There is scientific support for both creationism and evolution. I don’t think I should have to debate the interpretation of Genesis any more than I would expect Jean Chretien or Joe Clark to debate Catholic teaching on transubstantiation or the Immaculate Conception.
Clark would respond, quote:
“All of us in public life have to be judged by what we believe, what we do, how we perform. When you choose to go into public life, it is full immersion and you have to accept the consequences of that.”
Day would also use Ordinary Day by Great Big Sea at a campaign rally, without permission, and the band would demand he stop using the song for campaign purposes.
At one point on the campaign trail, an activist splashed two litres of chocolate milk on Day from the front of the stage during a speech to protest what he saw as homophobic comments by Day, as well as an anti-immigrant and anti-poor agenda. Mary Walsh of This Hour Has 22 Minutes would later offer Day chocolate milk, stating quote:
“All they had was homo, and I knew you wouldn’t like that.”
In one incident at Carleton University, student protestors disrupted Day’s speech to the point where the had to slip out a back door with a bodyguard and get into another car to escape the throng of protestors.
The Alliance would put forward direct democracy proposals during the campaign. This would require a referendum on any proposal if three per cent of Canadians signed a petition, about 350,000 people. This would be satirized by Rick Mercer on This Hour Has 22 Minutes when he proposed a petition for a referendum that demanded Day change his first name to Doris. The petition received 370,000 signatures, reaching the required threshold. Before long, there were over one million signatures.
By Nov. 3, polls showed that the Alliance was beginning to close in on the Liberals, polling at 29 per cent, while the Liberals had 42 per cent.
The Bloc Quebecois went into the election hoping to win over the previous supporters of the Progressive Conservatives. Unfortunately, the party was at a low point in popularity due to the provincial Parti Quebecois’ decision to merge communities around Quebec City into one community. Another problem was the 177 page platform that was criticized for being too large. Few copies were distributed and even online, it was barely accessed. To combat this, the party produced many small booklets that outlined the policies in the larger platform, but again people showed little interest in it.
The New Democratic Party had seen its provincial counterparts in British Columbia and Saskatchewan sag in popularity and that would translate to a lack of support for the federal party. Throughout the campaign, the party would receive little in the way of media attention, with the media focusing on the Canadian Alliance instead and the new leader of the Progressive Conservatives. The platform for the party would focus on protecting Medicare, while attacking the tax cuts for the wealthy made by the Liberals.
The Progressive Conservatives hoped to improve on its gains from the 1997 election. Jean Charest had left as leader and he would be replaced by someone from the glory days of the past, Joe Clark. Clark, who led the party to an election win in 1979, would become the leader of the party again in 1998. The party would launch several negative ads including one called Chretien’s 101 Greatest Lies. Overall though, the party attacked Day for the most part, but a lack of funds prevented the Progressive Conservatives from really making inroads nationally. The party also attacked the Clarity Act, which had been passed in March of 2000, which would make it much more difficult for any province to leave Canada, preventing a situation that nearly happened with the Quebec Referendum in 1995. I lived in Calgary at the time, where Clark was running, and saw him twice during the campaign, including standing next to me on a street corner. Even with his name recognition, Clark sometimes did not get a great reception in his riding. During an all-candidates debate, dozens in the audience yelled out Joe Who, mocking the phrase used against him from the 1970s, and Joe Has-Been. At one point, he would yell quote:
“You can’t shout me down.”
After the event, he would shrug it off stating, quote:
“I’ve been in rowdier crowds.”
While unemployment and the economy had been the major issue for Canadians for decades, in 2000 health care would become the most important issue for Canadians in the campaign.
At the French debate, many were surprised at Day’s awkward French. Previously, the Canadian Alliance had touted Day’s fluency in French, which did not seem to be the case. The news would state that Clark won the debate, while Day was Mr. Invincible.
During the English language debate, Day would come out with a hand-crafted sign that read No Two-Tier Health Care, to counter claims that the party would bring in the proposal if elected. Party strategists had tried to convince Day not to take out the sign, stating it violated debate rules. Clark, a seasoned veteran of politics, would state that Day was, quote:
“trying out for the position of game show host.”
Even with the sign, many felt that Day rebounded from the French debate the previous night.
By Nov. 16, over a week before the election, the polls had the Liberals cruising to a third majority with a 20 point lead over the Alliance.
Chretien would suffer a gaffe days before the election while in New Brunswick. He would state, quote:
“I like to do politics with people from the East. Joe Clark and Stockwell Day are from Alberta. They are a different type.”
As the crowd laughed, Chretien would state he was joking, then pause and say he was serious. In the west it caused an uproar and the Liberals would poll at 39 per cent soon after. Chretien would be forced to apologize a day later.
The campaign had been more negative than usual, with each party attacking other parties heavily. This would cause the impact of 20 per cent of voters being undecided on who to vote for. Conrad Winn, the president of the polling company, would state:
“This has been a textbook campaign. Negative campaigning has succeeded in alienating the electorate.”
The campaign was described as one of the meanest and slimiest in recent memory. During the campaign, Stockwell Day had been called a cockroach by Alexa McDonough, and a liar by Chretien. Day would in return call Chretien a crook, while Clark would attack both Day and Chretien with various name-calling. Chretien was often attacked for his age, and the scandals that were beginning to plague the party.
In the Nov. 27, 2000 election, the Liberals gained a solid majority of 172 seats thanks to an 11 seat increase from the previous election. The Canadian Alliance also gained seats, six in total, to finish with 66 and remain as the Official Opposition. The Bloc would lose another six seats, continuing its slide, finishing with 44 seats. The New Democratic Party would drop six seats as well, finishing with 13, while the Progressive Conservatives fell three to 12, retaining its official party status.
The third majority in a row was achieved for the first time since William Lyon Mackenzie King accomplished the same feat during the Second World War.
The Canadian Alliance took the vast majority of seats in western Canada, from British Columbia to Manitoba, where the Liberals only took 14 seats total. In Ontario, the Liberals once again dominated, winning 100 of 103 seats. In Quebec, the Canadian Alliance was completely shut out as the Liberals picked up 36 seats and the Bloc picked up 38. The Liberals would also take the majority of seats in the Maritimes, including every seat in Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.
Upon the loss, Day would state, quote:
“The message to us is not yet, not this time.”
Chretien, happy to have achieved another majority, would state quote:
“Welcome to the new millennium. We are at the end of a hard-fought campaign, a campaign that frankly was often too negative and far too personal. The Canadian people now expect all of us to carry out our responsibilities in accordance with long-standing Canadian values of tolerance, openness, civility, generosity and inclusion. That I will do.”
Clark, who had just finished his first election campaign as leader since 1980, would state, quote:
“I’ve become a realist about these things and I’ve done everything I can do.”
This would be the last election until 2011 to result in a majority government. It was also the only election that would be contested by the Canadian Alliance and it was the last election that the Progressive Conservative Party would take part in. Existing since 1942, the party had reached huge heights in the 1950s and 1980s, but it could not recover from its 1993 loss. In the end, it would merge with the Canadian Alliance, creating the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003.
This election would have a voter turnout of only 61.3 per cent, the lowest in Canadian history and the first time voter turnout had fallen below 62 per cent since 1896. Today, it ranks as the fifth lowest turnout in history.
Due to this election and the decision to call an early election date, Stephen Harper, when he became prime minister years later, would introduce fixed-date elections.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, iPolitics, Wikipedia, Macleans, Dynasties and Interludes, Ottawa Citizen