Trudeau, first elected prime minister in 2015, has led the country since October 2019 with a minority government. Winning a majority would mean he would no longer need to rely on opposition parties to advance his agenda and stay in power.
The next fixed election date was October 2023, but a prime minister may at any time request the governor general dissolve Parliament — the step that triggers an election. Trudeau, 49, met Governor General Mary Simon, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Canada, on Sunday, and she granted his request.
Speaking to reporters outside Rideau Hall, the official residence of the governor general in Ottawa, Trudeau said Canada is in a “consequential moment,” and he needs a mandate from voters on how to deal with the changes wrought by the pandemic and steer the economic recovery.
“Canadians need to choose how we finish the fight against covid-19 and build back better, from getting the job done on vaccines to having people’s backs all the way to and through the end of this crisis,” Trudeau said. “The decisions that your government makes now will define the future that your children and grandchildren grow up in.”
The 36-day campaign, the minimum required by law, follows months of speculation among political analysts about a possible election call this year. They’ve viewed everything from cabinet shuffles to Trudeau’s decision to shave the beard he’s sported for more than a year as signs that one was imminent.
In recent weeks, Trudeau and other Liberal Party lawmakers crisscrossed the country to announce new spending and policy initiatives in what has resembled a whistle-stop campaign. Before Parliament adjourned for the summer, time was set aside so that lawmakers who didn’t plan to run again could deliver farewell speeches.
Opposition party leaders on Sunday decried the decision to hold an election at a time when public health officials have said the country is in a delta variant-fueled fourth coronavirus wave. Most cases are among those whom are unvaccinated.
“We’re finally at a point thanks to the efforts of all Canadians who’ve stayed at home, got tested, got vaccinated, where we can see our loved ones, our friends and our families again,” Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole said in Ottawa. “We shouldn’t be risking that for political games or political gain.”
New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh described next month’s vote as a “selfish summer election.” Yves-François Blanchet, chief of the separatist Bloc Québécois party, said the election is “irresponsible” and is being held solely for Trudeau’s “personal ambition.”
Trudeau, the son of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, swept to power in 2015 as a champion of diversity who pledged “sunny ways” and climate action. His reelection in 2019 was thrown into doubt amid a scandal over allegations that he and senior aides had improperly pressured the attorney general and justice minister at the time to interfere in the criminal prosecution of a Montreal engineering company. Later, photos and a video emerged during the campaign of Trudeau as a younger man wearing blackface.
His Liberals won a plurality of seats in October 2019 but fell short of the 170 they needed to hang on to their majority. They were shut out of every seat in oil-rich Alberta and Saskatchewan, where discontent had bubbled over Trudeau’s climate policies.
Opinion polls have generally backed Trudeau’s hunch that a snap election could benefit him, though not all of them put him in striking distance of a majority. Several provincial elections in which incumbents have run on their handling of the pandemic have yielded majority governments no matter the political party. Still, analysts caution that campaigns matter.
Canada has suffered far fewer coronavirus cases and deaths than many of its peers, including the United States. Its coronavirus rollout started slowly, in part because the country lacks the capacity to mass-produce vaccines, but its vaccination rate now leads the Group of 20, according to Oxford University’s Our World in Data.
Trudeau’s main challenger is O’Toole, a former helicopter navigator for the Canadian Armed Forces, who was elected Conservative Party leader last August. He has vowed to broaden the party’s “big blue tent,” but he’s struggled to introduce himself to the Canadian public during the pandemic, when Trudeau has been front and center, at one point holding daily news conferences outside Rideau Cottage, an official residence in Ottawa.
O’Toole has also had difficulty within his party, which has declined to embrace his climate plan at a time when record heat and wildfires have scorched the western provinces. At a party policy convention in March, delegates voted down a motion to add the words “we recognize that climate change is real” to official party policy — hours after O’Toole warned that not embracing policies to address climate change could lead to another election defeat.
An attack ad posted to the Conservative Party’s Twitter account last week was panned by some party members. It shows Trudeau’s head superimposed on the body of Veruca Salt, a character from the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” in a scene in which she sulks for not getting what she wants: Presents, prizes and 10,000 tons of ice cream, among other items.
Singh also could pose a headache for Trudeau by siphoning away some of the progressive vote, especially as he been making a play to sway younger voters. Liberals often tell voters that a vote for the NDP is a vote for the Conservatives. The small Green Party has been mired in intraparty squabbling.
Canadians do not vote for the prime minister. Instead, voters in each of the 338 electoral districts, known as ridings, elect a member to represent them in the House of Commons. If a party wins a majority of the seats — 170 or more — it forms the government, and its leader is prime minister.
In a minority parliament, the prime minister must rely on opposition parties to pass bills. Formal coalitions are rare in Canada. More commonly, the prime minister will seek opposition support on a bill-by-bill basis. Opposition parties can defeat the government by voting against money bills, such as the budget, triggering new elections.
Minority governments in Canada typically last less than two years. The prime minister can request the dissolution of Parliament as Trudeau has done, or, if a government loses a vote on a question of confidence, such as a budget bill, they are expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament, triggering new elections.
Trudeau, who said in May that “nobody wants an election before the end of this pandemic,” has not had much difficulty securing opposition party support for his agenda. But opposition lawmakers have controlled parliamentary committees that have conducted bruising probes into the government’s handling of sexual misconduct allegations in the military and its awarding of a contract to a charity with ties to Trudeau’s family. (An ethics watchdog cleared Trudeau this year.)
Federal elections in Canada typically turn on who prevails in the vote-rich suburban ridings outside of Toronto and Vancouver and the crucial battleground province of Quebec.
Trudeau on Sunday telegraphed that the Liberals are looking to position coronavirus vaccines as a wedge issue. His government said last week that all federal public servants and travelers on trains and airplanes must be fully vaccinated. O’Toole has urged Canadians to get vaccines, but has not embraced mandates.
“Canadians should be able to weigh in on that and on so much more,” Trudeau said.
Stéphane Perrault, Canada’s chief electoral officer, has said the pandemic could cause delays in announcing some results. Mail-in ballots won’t be counted until the day after in-person voting.
The Communications Security Establishment, Canada’s national cryptologic agency, said in July that the country is a “low-priority target for electoral interference relative to other countries” but it’s “very likely” that voters would encounter “some form of cyber interference ahead of, and during, the next general election.”
“It is unlikely to be at the scale seen in the U.S.,” the agency said.