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Canada’s election: What you need to know

  • >> Vjosa Isai and Ian Austen, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-09-20 20:18:30 BdST

People line up outside a polling station to vote in the federal election in Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada Sept 20, 2021. REUTERS/Blair Gable

Since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada called a snap election last month — two years ahead of schedule — he has struggled to explain why he thinks it’s necessary.

The last general election, in 2019, left his Liberal Party in a weakened position, able to govern only with the support of opposition lawmakers in Parliament. This time, Trudeau says, he needs a strong mandate to bring the pandemic under control and lead Canada to economic recovery.

But his rivals have called the election a power grab — and an unnecessary one, since Trudeau has largely been able to enact his legislative agenda.

They also said it was reckless to hold an election at a time when coronavirus cases are rising and restrictions are being reimposed.

Still, Trudeau is hoping that the 36-day campaign — the shortest election period allowed by law — pays off with the majority that eluded his party last time. The Liberals were heading into Election Day in a statistical tie with their main opponent, the Conservative Party, led by Erin O’Toole.


During the short campaign, Trudeau has argued that only a majority Liberal government can beat the coronavirus and set a path to recovery. But the other parties have supported his pandemic response all along, including his plans for vaccine procurement and delivery, and his popular economic aid programs.

The public approved, too. The Liberals’ standing rose in the polls, and Trudeau’s personal approval ratings soared. Most political analysts say he called the election to take advantage of that popularity, rather than risk an election two years from now, when memories may have faded.

If that was the idea, it seems to have backfired. Since he called the election, Trudeau’s poll numbers, and those of his party, have fallen.

On the campaign trail, his rivals have attacked his character (as they have throughout his political career), pointing to a series of ethical missteps and accusing him of putting his interests above the nation’s.

Nonetheless, Trudeau — a Canadian celebrity since his birth in 1971, when his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, was prime minister — has drawn large crowds to his rallies, with people eager to pose for selfies with him.


Canada has one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, but in some areas, the delta variant has driven case numbers up and hospitals are close to capacity. The western province of Alberta, which had lifted its restrictions, reimposed most of them during the campaign. Public health leaders are now warning of a fourth wave.

Trudeau supports vaccine mandates for travel and for federal workers, as well as vaccine passports. O’Toole opposes them.


— Climate change: Since Trudeau first took office in 2015, he has made climate change a top priority, introducing, among other measures, a national carbon tax.

The Conservatives, who opposed such taxes for years, came to this campaign with their first carbon tax plan. Many analysts have called it inadequate, but its existence made it impossible for Trudeau to paint the party as entirely unwilling to take action on global warming.

— Gun control: At the start of the campaign, O’Toole promised to repeal a ban on 1,500 different models of military-style assault rifles. But he seemed to abandon that plan quickly; polling in Canada consistently shows strong support for tight gun restrictions.

— The economy: Canada has recovered nearly all the jobs lost by the pandemic. Trudeau’s pandemic spending on vaccines and economic support, though, has left large debts and deficits. After criticising those deficits, O’Toole unveiled similar spending plans. He also promised to balance the budget within 10 years, a time frame that most economists say is too distant to be credible.

— The election itself: In some ways, Trudeau’s decision to hold an election during a pandemic has crowded out other questions facing the country. During the candidates’ recent French-language debate, the subject came up 13 times.


Even before this campaign, the Conservatives had consistently pounded Trudeau over China, arguing that he had been ineffective in dealing with Beijing.

China’s incarceration of two Canadian businessmen — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — has been a source of tension for almost three years. It has been seen as retaliation for Canada’s detention, at the United States’ request, of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at the Chinese tech giant Huawei.

After O’Toole said in a debate that Trudeau was not tough enough with China, the prime minister retorted, “If you want to get the Michaels home, you do not simply lob tomatoes across the Pacific.”

Afghanistan has also been an issue. Trudeau called the snap election the same weekend that Kabul fell to the Taliban. His opponents said the timing interfered with Canada’s mission to rescue Afghan refugees and criticised the government for not acting earlier to help them.

Trudeau’s relationship with former President Donald Trump was famously antagonistic. Trump called him “very dishonest and weak,” and imposed trade sanctions on Canada, arguing that its steel and aluminum exports were a threat to US national security. Relations between Canada and the United States have calmed since President Joe Biden came to office, and the issue was rarely raised during the campaign.

O’Toole has criticised the prime minister for Canada’s absence from a new security alliance between Canada, Britain and the United States that was part of a deal to sell nuclear submarines to Australia. Trudeau has said that Canada is not in the market for nuclear submarines, and that the arrangement does not detract from existing alliances.


In the months leading up to the election, Canadians were shocked by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential schools for Indigenous children. The discoveries renewed a national discussion about reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous communities, which has been another of Trudeau’s top priorities.

Jagmeet Singh of the left-of-centre New Democratic Party has accused Trudeau’s government of dealing too slowly with Indigenous concerns, as with a missed target to bring clean drinking water to all reserve communities within five years.


All 338 of Canada’s electoral districts, each represented by a member of the House of Commons, will hold an election Monday. The party that wins the most seats gets to form the government and make its leader the prime minister.

Canadians have 12 hours to vote. The last polls close in British Columbia at 7 pm Pacific time, or 10 pm Eastern. But Canadian elections are generally decided in Ontario and Quebec, the most populous provinces.

Canada still votes with paper ballots, and they all must be counted by hand before the results become clear well into Monday evening or early Tuesday.

© 2021 The New York Times Company