Is it the economy, stupid? Canadians think so as they head to polls.

Canada holds a tightly contested national election on Monday in which recent economic woes threaten to oust the longstanding Conservative government.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press/AP
A supporter held a French sign emphasizing economic concerns at a rally for Conservative leader Stephen Harper Friday.

André Larose had a somber birthday party this week, as the laid-off truck driver pondered the future of Canada just ahead of Monday's national election.

“I'm worried about the economy, about our future,” Mr. Larose says, glancing at his grandchildren as they ate birthday cake.

After entering a mild recession earlier this year, uncertainty pervades Canada, including here in Nepean, a middle-class suburb west of Ottawa's Parliament Hill.

It's a significant shift for a country that deftly weathered the 2008 global financial crisis but has seen its confidence rattled by falling oil prices and weak exports. For nearly a decade, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has positioned himself as a steady economic hand, but his Conservative party's recent message of restraint has even his supporters considering a reorientation of national fiscal priorities – and has contributed to one of Canada's most tightly contested races in recent history.

"There's been a great deal of economic anxiety that's shaped the perspective of voters in this campaign," says Shachi Kurl, senior vice-president with the Angus Reid Institute, a non-partisan polling firm.

A sudden crash

Canada's heavily regulated banking sector emerged from the 2008 global crash relatively unscathed, but its export-based economy has struggled with lower demand abroad.

The economy pivoted from manufacturing toward Alberta's oil sands, where high commodity prices bankrolled infrastructure projects from Quebec to British Columbia. For years, thousands of Canadians from poorer provinces flew in for lucrative three-week shifts. The area grew so fast that understaffed fast-food restaurants were offering salaries that outpaced office jobs in Toronto.

But it all crashed last year, when an oversupply saw the global price of oil plunge, sending shockwaves throughout the Canadian economy.

In July, the Bank of Canada cut its benchmark interest rate for the second time this year, after finding the economy had contracted in the first two quarters of 2015. The Canadian dollar's US exchange rate has fallen from parity a year ago to just 75.8 cents in August. But exports haven't picked up, and manufacturers are hesitant to stake out large projects.

That's helped to create the country's first three-horse race in recent memory.

Distinct choices

Larose, like many others, has thrown his support to the socialist New Democrats, who emerged from decades of being a distant third-place choice to leading the polls until last month. He says he's tired of reading headlines in which another big-box store has laid off hundreds of workers, including some at the shopping plaza around the corner.

“The rich keep getting richer, while nobody can find a job anymore,” Larose says. “The government's made it worse.”

But on the street behind Larose's house, landscaping entrepreneur John Poirier says Harper's Conservative government is the best choice to deal with a global downturn. He's not optimistic about the economy, but he blames external forces.

“Taxes are too high, especially for business owners,” says Mr. Poirier, a former soldier whose lawn sports a big blue sign supporting the Conservatives.

He argues that the government needs to cut civil service jobs, so the private sector can hire talented workers who currently toil in unnecessary social programs.

Many Conservative supporters in Nepean say they're impressed with Harper's balanced budget. They like the prime minister's tax breaks for parents and seniors, while some mention income-splitting, which allows individuals to attribute half their income to their spouse, lowering their overall tax bill.

Liberals pledge to head for the red

But those tax breaks annoy Monica Peck, whose front lawn features a red Liberal sign.

“Harper has cut outreach to veterans, Aboriginal programs. This is spending we need. He did these things to balance the budget, when we need a plan to stimulate the economy,” she says.

The centrist Liberal party's polling numbers had dipped to third place since the August election call. But the party pushed ahead of its two rivals last month when it pledged to run three years of deficits to stimulate the economy. The Conservatives and even the left-wing New Democrats have both pledged balanced budgets, and both are starting to slide in the polls.

The Liberals now lead, with 36.5 percent support, while the Conservatives net 30.6 percent and the New Democrats trail with 23.5 percent, according to Nanos Research.

Ms. Kurl says the Liberals' rise is likely not a coincidence. Last month, her firm found that 73 percent of Canadians preferred the government go into deficit instead of balancing the books.

“This was a bit of a surprise to me because Canadians have been, at least in the last two decades, on such … a mantra of 'We have to balance the budget,'” she says. “What's remarkable is even the Conservative base on this issue is split.”

An uncertain future

Kurl says polls show significant generational divides on the economy. At the top is an older, secure generation that wants low taxes to live off their savings. At the bottom is a low-wage younger generation living paycheck to paycheck. In between are comfortable middle-class families, who nonetheless lack confidence about the future.

"They're incredibly worried about job security," she says. "You see people assessing how they're feeling about things based on, 'Am I able to make ends meet? Am I feeling optimistic or pessimistic about my future?'"

For Larose and his family, those are more than just feelings.

"We need a change," he says. "Things just aren't working."

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