A Loss for the Left in Canada?

How the New Democratic Party Lost Steam

New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Tom Mulcair and his wife Catherine board their campaign plane in Toronto, October 18, 2015. Jim Young / Reuters

“Canada: the country you think of so little … that’s it, end of sentence,” quipped John Oliver, host of the satirical HBO program “Last Week Tonight,” on the eve of Canada’s 42nd federal election. As Oliver correctly observed, Canadian politics rarely generate much outside attention. Yet all that changed the next day, when the gregarious and charismatic Justin Trudeau led the Liberal Party to a resounding parliamentary win. The Guardian hailed the victory as a “big political shift to the center-left”; The Atlantic’s David Frum opined that Trudeau “repudiated” the “neoliberal Liberals of the 1990s”; and The Nation’s Washington correspondent John Nichols even called on American Democrats to “learn something” from the Liberal Party's example. 

It isn’t hard to understand why this win was seen as a victory for the left. Many Canadians had grown weary of nine years of conservative rule under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The Conservatives’ muzzling of government scientists in a bid to temper criticism of Alberta’s Tar Sands, a more hawkish foreign policy, shying away from welcoming refugees, and harsher security and policing laws were but a few of the prominent examples of the country’s rightward turn.

The Liberal Party's victory on Tuesday was thus no small win for the anti-Harper vote. (The prime minister’s personal brand of politics had become so toxic that, in an unprecedented move on October 16, The Globe and Mail endorsed the Conservative Party but not its leader.) But the election outcome should not be interpreted as a win for the Canadian left. The real story is how the Liberals’ electoral sweep came at the expense of the traditionally left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP), a party which, for the first time in history, had a real shot at winning. 

A New Democratic Party (NDP) supporter reacts to results from Canada's federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015.
A New Democratic Party (NDP) supporter reacts to results from Canada's federal election in Montreal, Quebec, October 19, 2015. Mathieu Belanger / Reuters
The NDP had entered this election season as a front-runner, polling ahead of both the Liberals and Conservatives for the first half of the campaign. But things began to change in the last month—Trudeau’s

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