For Americans tired of election suspense, a gaze north to Canada, where voters go to the polls Nov. 27, might be relaxing: Unlike the suspense that has engulfed the United States vote, the question here is not whether Prime Minister Jean Chretien will win a third mandate - but how decisively. Still, the brief prelude of campaigning has been contentious and a cause for much soul-searching.
The Liberals' status as the only party able to form a government speaks volumes about how politically fragmented Canada has become, especially since the early 1990s. Quebec is by no means the only national-unity issue.
That's why the little town of Midhurst is important: It's in a parliamentary riding (district) where a party long seen as a regional upstart from western Canada hopes to make a breakthrough in the east.
"Canada doesn't have one national election; it has 10 provincial elections all on the same day," says John Wilson, a political scientist at the University of Waterloo.
In this decentralized country, the provinces are generally where the action is. They, not Ottawa, run the programs that touch people's daily lives - education and healthcare. Constitutional guarantees of language and education rights made to Quebec at Confederation in 1867 "made it legit to be provincial," says Prof. Wilson.
And so in this election the Liberals face an official opposition party, the Canadian Alliance, with only one parliamentary seat in Ontario and none to the east; the Progressive Conservatives, with one seat in Quebec and none to the west; the sovereigntist Bloc Quebecois, strictly a Quebec party; and the New Democrats, spread thin across the country are in danger of losing their status as an official party in Ottawa.
The Liberals, too, with 161 seats out of 301 in the House of Commons, may be deemed geographically challenged, too: They currently hold seats across the country, but their base is unquestionably Ontario, where they hold 101 out of the province's 103 seats.
It is the Canadian Alliance, though, for whom bucking the regionalizing tide is existentially critical. And it is in the riding of Simcoe-Grey, the Alliance hopes to pick one of the 10 to 15 seats in the province - though other analysts say they will do well to win three.
The Alliance began out west as the Reform Party, a supply-side, social conservative protest regional party. Reform eventually replaced the Conservatives as official opposition and then attempted to merge with the Tories. Rechristened as the Canadian Alliance, the party did pick up new members, but seats have been hard to come by.
George Demery, a lawyer, is hoping to represent Simcoe-Grey as one of the first Alliance MPs elected from Ontario. Even Liberal analysts give him a good chance. In the 1997 election, Simcoe-Grey was the tightest race in Ontario; the Liberal candidate squeaked past his Reform opponent with a lead of less than 500 votes. A Tory candidate split the conservative vote then, however, and the Tories are running a candidate this time around, too.
"The federal Tories are doing nothing to rein in the Liberals," Mr. Demery tells a town hall meeting in this little community an hour and a half north of Toronto. "A critical element is that we don't split the vote with the Tories," whom he accuses of being spoilers.
Simcoe-Grey, which sprawls from farmland to recreation areas to commuter exurbs of Toronto, is arguably more like Alliance stomping grounds to the west than are other parts of urbanized, or suburbanized, multicultural Ontario. There are deer hunters up here, and they want to know what the Alliance would do about the controversial gun-registry law. "Repeal it," says Demery, without hesitation.
The question of Alliance leader Stockwell Day's religious beliefs comes up. Mr. Day's openness about his churchgoing apparently seems to offend some sensibilities of many Canadians, who worry that the Alliance could turn the country into a theocracy.
"If the RCMP can be forced to let the Sikhs wear turbans and daggers," one man in the audience observes, referring to a court case involving Indo-Canadians in the Royal Mounted Police, "it should be OK to say, 'I go to church.' "
He looks around the room to see a silent chorus of affirmative nods from his fellow citizens.
In a separate interview, Demery says that voters he's talked with "don't feel this is an election called in good faith. There are no issues to be decided. They view the calling of this election as an act of arrogance."
"Arrogance" is the word on the people's lips, too - perhaps because pundits and pollsters have put it there.
"I voted once for Chretien," says Marianne Guian, a Midhurst resident resolved to vote Alliance this time, "but I think he's been in too long, he's arrogant, and he's lying."
"I'm still considering," says another woman, who declines to identify herself as other than a Midhurst resident. "I'm fed up with the Liberals, and the Alliance has some very good new ideas as to tax reform.... The PCs [Tories] are looking like a lost cause. A vote for the PCs is a vote for the Liberals."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society