The mood at NDP headquarters shifted from cautiously optimistic to silent and somber in a matter of minutes on Monday night as a majority Liberal government was confirmed.
Things weren’t looking good for the New Democrats as the results poured in from Atlantic Canada earlier in the evening, with major losses suffered in the formerly safe seats of Halifax (Megan Leslie) and Sackville-Preston-Chezzetcook (Peter Stoffer).
By the time polls closed in Ontario and Quebec, it became clear that the NDP’s fortunes would not be improving. Dozens of seats captured in the 2011 Orange Wave were washed away by a Liberal tide.
The official call came shortly after 9:30 p.m.: Tom Mulcair had failed in his quest to replace Stephen Harper as prime minister of Canada. It would be a Liberal government. By 10:45 p.m., it was a majority, and the 200 or so NDP supporters gathered in a convention centre in downtown Montreal were, simply put, stunned. One woman could be heard sobbing in the crowd.
Mulcair, who won in his riding and has not expressed his intention to step down as leader, addressed those gathered shortly after 11:30 p.m. He thanked his family and said he was proud of the campaign he and his team had run.
“With this election, Canadians have asked us all to work for them. We will not let them down,” he said, adding that he accepted the results “with humility.”
“I could not be more proud of the diversity and strength of our NDP team.”
Top party advisor Brad Lavigne also attempted to put a positive spin on things.
“It went so well, for quite some time,” Lavigne said. “Mr. Mulcair ran an incredibly strong campaign and had the support of a good number of Canadians for, I think, 55 of the 78 days.”
This was always going to be an election about change, Lavigne added.
“Mr. Mulcair was a big part of that. I think he paved the way … I guess that if there’s anything to take away, it’s that we weren’t able to be that agent for change on election day.”
When the writ dropped on Aug. 2, the New Democrats blasted out of the starting gate with all of the gusto of a party confident that it could form government. Fresh off their provincial counterparts’ victory in Alberta and leading in the polls at around 33 per cent support nationally, the party seemed poised to build on the incredible success seen under Jack Layton in 2011.
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But over 11 long weeks, the narrative changed dramatically. Polls showed the party falling back to third position, but still hoping to win enough seats to make this its second-best showing ever.
It’s difficult to pinpoint what combination of factors played into the NDP’s shifting fortunes as the campaign progressed, but most observers agreed that the trouble started in Quebec, where the party had previously held a staggering lead. Many blamed the steady and inexorable slide in that province on one central factor: the niqab.
Mulcair came out in favour of a woman’s right to cover her face while swearing the citizenship oath, saying that he believed that the federal government should respect the rulings of various courts. It was an unpopular position in Quebec, and a gradual slide that had begun in early September – before the niqab debate made headlines – began picking up speed through the latter half of the month.
Local candidate James Hughes, who lost to Liberal Marc Garneau in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount, acknowledged Monday night that serious damage was done.
“The niqab definitely hurt us in Quebec,” he said.
By early October, the NDP had lost significant ground and was polling in the low-to-mid 20s nationally. Mulcair’s pledges for a national affordable childcare program, a universal drug plan, action on climate change and a rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership even before the deal was finalized failed to bolster support.
Trudeau’s Liberals, meanwhile, surged across Ontario and what had been a three-way race was soon a two-party sprint to the finish line.
In the campaign’s dying days, Mulcair was still touting the possibility of leading his troops to victory on Monday night. But in his concession speech, he acknowledged it wasn’t to be.
“The next chapter begins with our effort to build a better Canada,” he said just before turning to leave the stage.
“Thank you. We push forward.”