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For many Canadians, election was about one thing: Stephen Harper

Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party rode to an overwhelming victory Monday, ousting Mr. Harper who has been prime minister since 2006, and has shifted overall Canadian politics to the right.

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    A volunteer deputy returning officer carries her voting screen to a polling station in Toronto on Monday. Canadians vote today to decide whether to extend Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper's near-decade in power or return Canada to its more liberal roots.
    Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press/AP
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Editor's note: Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party soundly defeated Stephen Harper's Conservatives on Monday, taking 184 of Parliament's 338 seats. The Tories won only 99 seats. The story below explains why Canadians opted for the change. Click here for more coverage of the election results.

Bengt Lindvall grows nostalgic when he reminisces about the Canada he discovered when he moved here from Sweden in 1966 as a 26-year-old mechanical engineer. He arrived with his wife, who was five months pregnant at the time, after accepting a job he couldn’t refuse at a steam turbine factory in a nearby suburb.

“It was a gutsy move,” he says proudly.

The family landed in a Canada that shared many similarities with Sweden. The long-ruling Liberal Party had endorsed a progressive agenda that aligned the country more closely with Europe than the United States. Its policies – universal health care, gun control, and international peacekeeping – helped cultivate Canada’s image as an open, pluralistic society with an idealistic view of the world.

But that began to change when the Conservative Party won control of Parliament in 2006. Conservatives have since ushered in an era of partisan politics at home and a more bellicose posture abroad under the watchful guidance of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

The transformation has been difficult for Mr. Lindvall to watch. Like many on the left, he’s struggled to come to terms with Canada’s new brand of conservatism. He just hopes the country will reverse course when voters head to the polls on Monday to elect a new Parliament.

“The Conservative government has surreptitiously moved Canada further to the right,” Lindvall says while sipping coffee at a cafe in downtown Toronto. “Most Canadians feel that we are heading in the wrong direction.”

Both election observers and regular citizens say the stakes couldn’t be higher. Many have called it the most important election in decades. At stake for many is nothing short of Canadian identity.

“This election has forced us to ask ourselves who we are and who we want to be as a country,” says Stephen Marche, a novelist and political columnist who lives in Toronto. “It’s a test of Canadian values.”

‘Canada has changed’

Mr. Harper opened Canada’s longest campaign season in at least a century when he dissolved Parliament in early August. He has since run on a platform of “stability, not risk,” while employing a series of controversial campaign tactics to shore up votes.

Harper’s base of supporters, many of whom live in rural, oil-rich Alberta, have applauded his push to lower taxes and avoid climate change legislation. He’s also rallied conservatives in the suburbs of major cities with his strict national security policies and economic stewardship through the global recession in 2008.

"The Conservatives have taken a more level-headed approach to governing," says a Harper supporter in Kanata, a fast-growing city 14 miles southwest of downtown Ottawa, who asked to remain anonymous to speak frankly about the election. "They have kept the country on an even keel."

But the Conservatives have worn out their welcome with many voters after nearly a decade in power. Harper’s guarded style of governing has led his opponents to compare him to former US president George W. Bush. He has turned the government away from previous, open-door immigration and integration policies – most recently by calling for a ban of the niqab, a face veil that leaves only the eyes exposed, a move that critics see as anti-Muslim. Many have labeled his tenure decidedly “un-Canadian” as a result.

Recent polls have shown that about 70 percent of Canadians say they want change. A majority of them support the two main opposition groups, the New Democratic Party (NDP) and the Liberal Party. Both have promised to restore Canadian traditions of progressive liberalism and a soft power approach to foreign affairs, preferring peacekeeping missions over military intervention.

Each of the three parties has led in various polls at least once over the 78-day campaign. Recent polls show Liberal’s winning the election by a narrow margin, with the Conservatives coming in a close second and the New Democrats, the most left-leaning of the three big parties, coming in third.

While the outcome remains far from certain, Richie Assaly says Harper is overdue for a political reckoning. As managing editor of “The Harper Decade,” an online series of commentaries that evaluates the prime minister’s time in office, Mr. Assaly remains optimistic about Canada’s future. 

“Canada has changed, but Canadians have not,” he says. “We are an inclusive, accommodating, diverse country. That’s what defines us.”

Anyone but Conservative

Eight years ago, Kathy Edmund moved into a modest duplex in Kanata. But last Thursday, with the election quickly approaching, she was having second thoughts.

“If this city votes Conservative again then I’m moving out,” she said, betraying only a hint of hyperbole. The red sign in her front lawn for the local Liberal candidate made her allegiance clear.

The Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau – whose father, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, was prime minister for 15 years into the early 1980s – will need Ms. Edmund’s vote more than ever on Monday. The race in her riding, or parliamentarian district, is one of the closest in the country. 

With its tidy subdivisions, big-box stores, and chain restaurants, this quiet suburb has transformed into an unlikely battleground over the last two months. Each of the three big parties has enlisted a small army of volunteers for door-to-door canvassing. Hundreds of Liberal red, Tory blue, and NDP orange campaign signs dot the city’s manicured lawns.

Kanata has been a Conservative stronghold since the early 2000s. Yet Liberal candidate Karen McCrimmon, a retired lieutenant-colonel, has put up a strong fight by appealing to rural conservatives with her military background. She was the first woman to command a Royal Canadian Air Force squadron.

While Edmund says she supports many of Ms. McCrimmon’s policies, her top priority is to defeat Harper and his Conservative government. Edmund is part of newly galvanized group of nonaligned voters, known as A.B.C.s, Anything But Conservative, that experts predict will play a key role in the election.

“There’s never been such a vitriolic, emotional commitment on the part of so many Canadians to end this government,” says David Dyment, a senior research associate at the Center on North American Politics and Society at Carleton University in Ottawa. “They want to return to the model they are used to and cherish.”

A genie out of the bottle?

As Harper’s opponents point out, the Conservatives have formed governments after each of the last three elections without ever getting more than 40 percent of the popular vote. Yet that has been enough to win control of Parliament because most of the remaining votes were split between the Liberals and the New Democrats.  

“Harper was able to govern for so long by capitalizing on divisions between the two left-wing parties,” says Tom Flanagan, Harper’s former chief of staff and campaign manager. “Before he came along, many people were saying that Liberals were going to stay in power forever.”

Whether or not Harper wins re-election, experts agree that his success in challenging the Liberals’ self-appointed title of Canada’s “natural governing party” will be remembered as one his greatest achievements.

But Christopher Cochrane, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, says Harper’s no-holds-barred approach to politics has come at a cost. He blames the prime minister for eroding the country’s long tradition of big-tent consensus building in favor of overt partisanship.

“I highly doubt that genie will ever be put back in the bottle,” he says. “A more divisive, hostile form of politics is here to stay.”

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