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Canada's Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, accompanied by his wife Sophie Gregoire and their children Ella-Grace and Xavier, reacts during the Liberal election night party in Montreal on Sept. 21.CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals won a third straight election on Monday, but fell short of the majority they sought in the snap vote and will return to government with what will effectively be a status quo Parliament.

The Liberal victory left Erin O’Toole’s leadership of the Conservative Party in jeopardy. The Tory leader rose to the helm of the party last year promising to deliver in seat-rich Ontario but he struggled in the campaign with questions on how he would handle the pandemic and wavered on key platform pledges.

As of Tuesday morning, the Liberals were leading or elected in 158 ridings, the Conservatives were at 119, the Bloc Québécois at 34, the NDP at 25 and the Green Party was at two seats.

“I hear you when you say that you just want to get back to the things you love, not worry about this pandemic or about an election. That you just want to know that your members of Parliament of all stripes will have your back through this crisis and beyond,” Mr. Trudeau said in his victory speech, as he called the virtually unchanged result “a clear mandate.”

“The moment we face demands real important change. You have given this Parliament and this government clear direction,” the Liberal Leader said.

John Ibbitson: Erin O’Toole tried to refashion the Conservative movement. He should be given another chance to lead

Federal election debrief: Live Q&A with Laura Stone and Campbell Clark today at noon

Mr. Trudeau will face tough questions after triggering the election two years early. The $610-million vote so closely mirrored the 2019 election that it also saw the Conservatives surpass the Grits in the popular vote, with 34 per cent to the Liberals’ 32 per cent in initial results. While the vast majority of votes were counted on Monday night, some seats were too close to call until Elections Canada tallies the mail-in ballots.

Mr. O’Toole’s concession speech was aimed directly at his Conservative Party membership as he made the case to stay at the helm ahead of an automatic leadership review.

“More people voted for Canada’s Conservatives than any other party and that’s a strength to build on,” Mr. O’Toole said from his election night party in Oshawa, Ont. “Clearly, there is more work for us to do to earn the trust of Canadians.”

The 36-day campaign, the shortest period allowed by law, was launched in the dead of summer and was dominated by the crisis in Afghanistan, growing COVID-19 case counts and divisiveness on the campaign trail. The election presented challenges for Elections Canada to pull off in the middle of a pandemic. Long lineups snaked outside polling stations after polls closed in some ridings and the agency warned before the election that some final counts may take days to deliver.

The NDP – led for a second election campaign by Jagmeet Singh - also failed to make significant gains. As of Tuesday morning, the party was leading or elected in 25 ridings, which would be an improvement of just one seat over its 2019 performance. The party’s final seat count could change slightly once all mail-in votes are counted this week.

“I want to let Canadians know, that you can count on New Democrats to continue fighting for you as we have fought for you in the pandemic when times were difficult,” Mr. Singh said at his party’s Vancouver election night headquarters.

Green Party Leader Annamie Paul lost her bid for Toronto Centre in a third straight election, placing a distant fourth in initial results. People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier also lost in his attempt to return to the House of Commons and his far-right party won no seats.

Two Liberal cabinet ministers also lost their seats on Monday: Bernadette Jordan in Nova Scotia, and Maryam Monsef in Peterborough, Ont.

For the first time in the Green Party’s history, the party picked up a seat in Ontario, but in a bittersweet twist it failed to win back the seat lost in New Brunswick where their MP defected to the Liberals.

The Liberals gambled on an early election because they believed they were positioned to win a majority – the Conservatives were low in the polls and doubts persisted about whether Mr. O’Toole could mount a strong national campaign. But voters were unwilling to give the Liberal Leader the decisive victory he sought.

Mr. Trudeau and Mr. O’Toole were unable to break past the credibility questions that dogged them during the campaign. For the Liberal Leader it was why he called the election midway through his mandate and for Mr. O’Toole it was the lack of transparency on his own team’s COVID-19 vaccinations in the middle of a pandemic. Despite Mr. Trudeau’s and Mr. O’Toole’s struggle to swing momentum their way, none of the smaller parties were able to capitalize on the lackluster response to the Liberals and Conservatives.

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Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire wave to supporters during the Liberal election night party in Montreal.Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Even before the polls closed on Monday, the Conservatives made a last-ditch effort to lower expectations for the election result, declaring that holding the Liberals to a minority would be a victory for the party. The comments were meant to salvage Mr. O’Toole’s tenure after he campaigned to the right in the leadership race last year only to move the party to the centre during the campaign.

In Mr. O’Toole’s call with the Liberal Leader, where he conceded the election, the Conservative Leader told supporters he challenged Mr. Trudeau to put national unity first and warned him against another snap election call.

“I told him if he thinks he can threaten Canadians with another election in 18 months, the Conservative Party will be ready. And whenever that day comes, I will be ready to lead Canada’s Conservatives to victory,” Mr. O’Toole said.

The move to trigger an election in August was immediately criticized by opposition parties, who accused the Liberal Leader of a “power grab” and a “selfish” decision in the middle of a health crisis and after Mr. Trudeau had just months earlier ruled out a pandemic election.

The election started as a fourth wave of the virus began to take off. Mr. Trudeau said the vote was necessary because the pandemic had not existed in 2019 during the last campaign, and Canadians should have a choice about who should lead them out of the health crisis.

Mr. Trudeau struggled at times to explain why he needed a mandate from Canadians to move forward on measures such as $10-a-day child care, when his government had already signed agreements with eight provinces before the campaign, and most of the measures he proposed in the election already had the support from the Bloc or the NDP. And while he portrayed Parliament as toxic before the election, the New Democrats had been broadly supporting the Liberals’ pandemic initiatives.

His primary target in the race was Mr. O’Toole, portraying the rookie Conservative Leader as a Stephen Harper carbon copy who is beholden to anti-vaxxers, pro-lifers and the gun lobby.

He also tried to tie Mr. O’Toole to the rising COVID-19 cases in Alberta and Saskatchewan. In the final days of the campaign, Mr. Trudeau focused on climate change and appealed to progressives to support his party in order to stop a Conservative win.

The Conservatives framed the campaign as a referendum on Mr. Trudeau’s leadership, urging voters not to “reward” the Liberals for calling the election two years early during a health crisis. Mr. O’Toole, who pitched himself as a “True Blue” Conservative during the 2020 leadership race, took a more moderate approach during the campaign, proposing heavy deficit spending, a carbon price, and frequently labelling himself as pro-choice and an ally to the LGBTQ community.

Mr. O’Toole cast himself as the “the man with the plan” to recover the Canadian economy and chart a course out of the pandemic. But throughout the race, Mr. O’Toole faced repeated questions about elements of his party platform, primarily on issues such as conscience rights for physicians and gun control.

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Conservative Party leader Erin O'Toole along with wife, Rebecca, and children Jack and Mollie during the election-night party, in Oshawa, Ont., on Sept. 21.CHRIS HELGREN/Reuters

The Liberals also took aim at Mr. O’Toole throughout the race for his position on mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations. Perhaps the most bruising attack on Mr. O’Toole was directed at his leadership: The Conservative Leader would not make vaccines mandatory for his own caucus, and wouldn’t reveal how many of his candidates were unvaccinated.

The New Democrats had focused their campaign on progressive promises such as taxing the wealthy, Indigenous reconciliation and affordable housing, with Mr. Singh taking aim at Mr. Trudeau for what he called a trail of broken promises to left-leaning voters. The New Democrats put a bigger spotlight on Indigenous issues than other parties, with the leader visiting First Nations communities during the campaign, highlighting the trauma of residential schools and ongoing boil-water advisories.

Mr. Singh sought to harness his social-media popularity at the polls, using platform such as TikTok and Twitch, a livestreaming service, as well as the video game Animal Crossing. But the NDP Leader struggled at times during the campaign to explain how his government would carry out complex promises such as ending all boil-water advisories in Canada, beyond expressing the political will to do so.

The Liberals were planning to chart their path to a majority through Quebec where the Bloc Québécois are their main competition. Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet struggled to gain traction in the first weeks but was able to turn his campaign around based solely on one question in the English-language leaders’ debate. At the beginning of the debate, Mr. Blanchet was asked to explain his support for “discriminatory” secularism and language laws in Quebec. The question’s framing angered voters in Quebec who viewed it as an unwarranted attack from English Canada, Mr. Blanchet seized on the issue and positioned himself and his party as defenders of Quebec in Ottawa.

The issue became so corrosive in Quebec that all the other party leaders were also forced to condemn the question and Mr. Trudeau, Mr. O’Toole and Mr. Singh called on the Debate Broadcast Group to apologize for the question.

The Green Party was consumed with internal strife heading into the campaign, leaving Leader Annamie Paul with little institutional and economic support. The rookie leader, the first Black woman leader of a federal political party in Canada, stayed mostly in Toronto Centre, in a failed bid to win the Liberal stronghold.

Mr. Bernier’s People’s Party emerged as the wild card in the race. The anti-establishment, anti-vaccination, far-right party was the election disrupter, with Mr. Bernier holding large rallies and many of his supporters protesting Mr. Trudeau’s events. One PPC official was charged for allegedly throwing gravel at the Liberal Leader during a campaign stop in London, Ont.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole spoke to supporters early Tuesday morning after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau won another minority government. O’Toole criticized the early election, shared an inclusive vision of the party and vowed to lead the Conservatives in the next campaign.

The Globe and Mail

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