After months of speculation, the 2021 Canadian federal election is officially on.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed on Sunday that he spoke with the newly-minted Gov. Gen. Mary Simon earlier in the day and asked her to pull the plug on the minority government he has led since October 2019.
Election Day will be Sept. 20, meaning the campaign will be a tight five weeks long.
Trudeau arrived at Rideau Hall at 10:20 a.m. ET alongside his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, and their three children: Xavier, Ella-Grace and Hadrien. The family walked over from their home at Rideau Cottage, just a few minutes away from the official residence of the governor general.
He spoke after emerging from roughly 40 minutes inside Rideau Hall, and framed the decision before Canadians now as one that will see vaccination as among the ballot box issues facing voters.
“We believe a government’s most important responsibility is to keep Canadians safe and thriving,” he said, before continuing in French.
“We are experiencing a historic moment and you have something to say about it. You have the right to chose the future of our country, whether it’s to pursue our vaccination efforts or to continue our support programs.”
He also highlighted the party’s promises to create a national childcare plan and said Canadians need to choose how they want to finish the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I need you alongside me in this fight. Because together, we can do so much more than we can apart.”
The English language leaders’ debate is scheduled to take place on Sept. 9.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole spoke shortly after Trudeau and quickly criticized the decision to send Canadians out to the polls in the midst of the COVID-19 fourth wave.
He faced repeated questions about his views on restrictions on unvaccinated people, which polls suggest have overwhelming support from the majority of Canadians, as well as about vaccination within his own party. O’Toole did not answer when asked repeatedly whether his candidates will all be vaccinated.
“I will always respect people’s decisions,” he said in French, noting tools like rapid testing and masking can also be used to limit the spread of the virus.
“We need to educate, not mandate.”
The federal government has said it plans to require vaccination for some federal workers and will put new rules in place requiring anyone who wants to take a commercial flight or train within Canada to be fully vaccinated as of October.
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet said if the situation is serious enough to require vaccine mandates, it should be a sign it is not safe enough to hold an election.
“If the threat is so significant that we need to impose mandatory vaccination, is it not too dangerous to go to the polls?” he said in a press conference on Sunday.
The Bloc has said all of its candidates are vaccinated, while the NDP has said all candidates are required to be vaccinated. The Liberal Party said it expects all candidates to follow public health guidance, including getting vaccinated, with an official saying that is tantamount to the party requiring vaccination.
A spokesperson for the Conservative Party did not answer questions from Global News last week about whether it is requiring or even asking candidates about their vaccination status.
Meanwhile, the news of an election is playing out against the backdrop of horrifying images emerging from Afghanistan, where the Taliban are taking control of the capital Kabul following a blitz over recent weeks that has seen the insurgent extremists retake control of the country amid a U.S. withdrawal.
The Canadian embassy has been temporarily closed and staff evacuated, but Afghans who helped Canadians on the ground have been left behind, sources tell Global News.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh called the election “selfish” on Sunday and said the government should be working to deploy “all possible resources” to help those still on the ground.
“I wouldn’t have called an election,” he said, pointing to the situation in Afghanistan.
“There’s so much more that we can do right now, that we should be doing, to help these allies out.”
Green Party Leader Annamie Paul also criticized the timing of the election as the country grapples with a fourth wave of COVID-19.
“Now is not the time for a national election. We are still in a pandemic and have entered a fourth wave,” she wrote on Twitter.
Confirmation of the election comes after weeks of whispers about a looming federal campaign.
Tempers frequently flared in the House of Commons as politicians neared the end of the spring sitting in June, and the government shifted its tone to attack the opposition parties as obstructing its agenda.
That shift supercharged speculation that Trudeau would soon argue the minority situation was untenable, and that he would seek a majority mandate from voters.
He first won a majority in 2015 but was reduced to a minority in 2019, and recent polls suggest he could be nearing majority territory for a fall campaign — but there are a lot of questions still up in the air, in particular about why Trudeau feels the risks of going to the polls during a fourth wave are worthwhile.
Trudeau told journalists gathered at Rideau Hall that in order to make the big changes planned, he wants to seek a new mandate from voters.
“The government and Parliament needs an opportunity to get a mandate from Canadians,” he said.
“As Canadians know, this is a moment where we’re going to be taking decisions that will last not just for the coming months but for the coming decades. Canadians deserve their say.”
Trudeau did not answer repeated questions on whether he will resign if he fails to win a majority.
Although the government had proposed legislation to amend Canadian election laws for a pandemic campaign, that bill died when Simon granted Trudeau’s request to dissolve Parliament.
That means Canadians will be heading to the polls under the same rules as in previous years.
How this election will look different
While the pandemic election bill had proposed extending the Election over three days to avoid crowding, that will not be the case. Voters will have the same opportunities and methods for voting as they did in the last campaign: mail-in ballot, advance polls, or in-person voting on Election Day.
That said, things will still look different compared to previous years.
Elections Canada bought 18.8 million surgical masks, 577,770 bottles of hand sanitizer, 411,310 face shields, 126,100 plexiglass shields and 40,000 packages of disinfectant wipes earlier this year in preparation for a pandemic election.
As Global News reported in April, it also picked up 16 million pencils — including 3.65 million ‘large-grip’ pencils — so that each one could be thrown away after a single use to avoid spreading the virus.
A spokesperson for the non-partisan agency, which administers federal elections, said they are in “a relatively good position to administer an election under the current legislation, despite the challenges inherent to the pandemic, which is not fully behind us.”
“Over the last year or so, the agency has undertaken extensive readiness activities to adjust to the evolving circumstances of the pandemic and allow voting to take place safely, should an election be called,” said Natasha Gauthier in an email.
In-person voting on either Election Day or advance poll days will likely be the easiest option for most voters, she said, adding all election workers, candidates and candidate representatives will be required to wear a mask at all times while inside polling stations to “lead by example.”
The rules around masks for voters will reflect local public health requirements at the time.
“Public health requirements around mask use are obviously in a period of transition and differ across jurisdictions,” Gauthier added.
“In all instances, Elections Canada would encourage electors to wear masks.”
COVID-19 and the election
Many regions across the country are reporting a sharp spike in cases among the unvaccinated, though only a small percentage of cases are in those who are fully vaccinated against the virus.
Trudeau is expected to put the spotlight on his handling of the pandemic, which polls suggest Canadians generally believe he navigated well. Other key issues for voters include climate change, the affordability of daily life, the broader economic future of the country, and the healthcare system.
The COVID-19 pandemic has largely ravaged the latter three, with the federal deficit ballooning and wage support programs wrapping up this fall as the economy tentatively reopens.
But those rising case counts and the potential for a fourth wave of the virus are top of mind for Canadians, according to polling from Ipsos exclusively for Global News.
“They feel at the moment that we are on the precipice of potentially going into more difficult circumstances,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Public Affairs, noting 62 per cent also said they believe vaccines will mitigate the impact of any future surge.
“The way I would best describe it is that people right now are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.”
Eighty-one per cent say they fear variants will delay a return to normal, while 69 per cent say they are worried about a potential fourth wave. And as schools reopen across the country, the risk to unvaccinated children remains at the forefront for many given they are not eligible for the shots.
How those concerns may factor in, however, is now in the hands of voters.
Bricker spoke with The West Block host Mercedes Stephenson as part of special live coverage of the writ drop on Sunday morning, and said the big variable facing the Trudeau Liberals is voter turnout.
Canada historically has had low voter turnout, hovering around the 60 per cent mark.
In the 2015 and 2019 elections won by Trudeau, voter turnout rose to roughly 68 and 69 per cent respectively, which was a key factor in helping the Liberals secure power.
Bricker said the fourth wave and concerns about the safety of voting in person — as well as potential challenges with poll stations located out of their usual spots like schools — could lead to lower turnout, and it’s not clear how many will take the chance to use vote-by-mail.
“The bigger implication for all of this is the effect that it has on turnout,” he said.
“If there’s a fourth wave and it looks risky to get outside your home … the effect on the Liberal party is potentially major.”