How Jean Chrétien led the Liberals to an Ontario blowout in 1993

After a series of Conservative missteps — and some disastrous television attack ads — the federal Liberals took all but one of the province’s seats
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Oct 21, 2019
Leaders' debate in the 1993 Canadian election campaign
Federal party leaders Jean Chrétien, Kim Campbell, Lucien Bouchard, Audrey McLaughlin, and Preston Manning pose for a photo-op prior to the leadership debate in May 1993. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

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The Progressive Conservatives felt optimistic about their chances in the lead-up to the 1993 federal election. Although the end of the Brian Mulroney era — which saw the implementation of the GST, a recession, and accusations of corruption — found the party deeply unpopular with the public, polling indicated that new prime minister Kim Campbell was more popular than the other party leaders. PC pollster Allan Gregg believed that the public would vote for the leader they most identified with.

He didn’t know how right he would turn out to be.

Acting on his advice, the PCs emphasized personality over policy. The campaign team, led by future Toronto mayor John Tory, depicted Campbell as a fresh face whose candid nature and rejection of traditional tactics offered a new approach to politics. 

But Campbell stumbled from day one. After calling the election on September 8, she suggested that unemployment numbers might not improve until the turn of the century. (Later that day, the driver of the PC campaign bus told party brass, “That’s it. Over. We’re done.”) Two weeks later, when asked during a stop in St. Hubert, Quebec, whether the PCs were secretly contemplating cuts to social programs, Campbell responded that election campaigns were not long enough “to get involved in a debate on very, very serious issues.” Such missteps — and the party’s initial lack of a policy platform — suggested that her inexperience was concerning rather than refreshing. Behind the scenes, she refused to admit mistakes and ignored pleas to focus on job creation rather than the deficit.

The Tory blunders were boons for the Liberals. Jean Chrétien, who, at the beginning of the campaign, had been criticized as stuck in the past, quickly established himself as a calm, reassuring figure able to remind voters of what had gone right (especially in terms of social programs) during the Lester B. Pearson and Pierre Trudeau governments of the 1960s and 1970s.

Early on, the Liberal campaign team released its most effective prop: a platform and economic plan that resembled a slick corporate report. Whenever Chrétien or his candidates fielded policy questions, they pointed to the “Red Book.” One element that didn’t make an appearance in the Red Book: constitutional reform — a topic the Liberals correctly sensed that the public was tired of in the wake of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accord fiascos.

The Liberals also scored on tone. While the PCs aggressively courted voters, the Grits took a calmer approach, positioning themselves as the party voters could turn to in the midst of the political upheaval sparked by sinking PC numbers and the rise of the Bloc Québécois and the Reform Party of Canada. Ads portrayed Chrétien as a denim-shirted everyman-with-a-plan who understood the public’s concerns about the economy and social programs. “In a time of deep voter cynicism, this populist from rural Quebec turned out to have experience and savvy,” political scientist Stephen Clarkson noted in his book The Big Red Machine. “Chrétien was a team player, appearing at rallies with his candidates from the region, not as a superior like Campbell, but as a leader in touch with his associates.”

While the NDP had won a then-record 43 seats nationally in 1988, the party was hurt in 1993 by the unpopularity of its provincial governments, especially in Ontario. An unnamed strategist told Maclean’s that it had become “just another party that says one thing in opposition and does another in government.” Leader Audrey McLaughlin’s national campaign initially lacked focus and was generally regarded as uninspiring.

While some who’d traditionally voted NDP made the jump to the Liberals, others angry with the Bob Rae government joined disenchanted PC voters in drifting over to Reform, which highlighted its grassroots focus and promised to weaken universal health care, reduce the debt, and drive down immigration. During campaign swings through the province, leader Preston Manning highlighted its focus on slashing the deficit.

But the party also attracted crackpots and racists — a few of whom slipped through the party’s vetting process. In interviews with publications such as the Financial Post and York University’s Excalibur, York Centre candidate John Beck made anti-Semitic remarks, claimed that immigrants brought “death and destruction” to the country, and said it was time “white Anglo-Saxons” got involved in politics. After students protested a speech by Manning at Osgoode Hall Law School on October 13, the party dropped Beck. (He told the Toronto Star that he hadn’t attended the speech, because it fell on the 13th day of the month, and “the number 13 pops up in a number of bad situations.”) Manning blamed the other parties, especially Liberals, for “making unstable people opposed to immigration come to us.”

On October 14, the PCs launched a new series of television attack ads in Ontario, featuring unflattering closeups of Chrétien’s face and voiceovers questioning his leadership ability. One ad posed the question “Is this a prime minister?”; another ended with “I personally would be very embarrassed if he were to become prime minister of Canada.” Viewers of all political stripes were upset by the suggestion that Chrétien was being mocked for his facial disfigurement — and flooded television stations and PC campaign offices with angry calls. Candidates were horrified. “It’s really not the reason I got into politics,” St. Paul’s candidate Isabel Bassett told the Globe and Mail. She and several other candidates issued personal apologies to Chrétien. Nipissing PC incumbent Moe Mantha demanded that Campbell apologize “for this personal injury as well as the insult to the public’s intelligence and sensibilities.” Some MPs threatened to resign. John Tory defended the ads, claiming that the pictures were no worse than one that had appeared on the cover of Maclean’s that week — their main focus, he said, was criticizing Liberal policies. Campbell said she hadn’t seen them beforehand. After running for less than 24 hours, they were pulled. Two never aired.

Chrétien compared the approach to the childhood taunting he’d endured. “It’s true that I have a physical defect,” he told an audience in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. “When I was a kid, people were laughing at me. But I accepted that, because God gave me other qualities, and I’m grateful.”

The scale of the Liberal blowout in Ontario on October 25 was unprecedented — the party went into the election with 43 MPs and came away with all but one of the province’s 99 seats. Only Simcoe Centre didn’t go Liberal: Reform’s Ed Harper defeated Barrie mayor Janice Laking by 123 votes. “Ontario is the least parochial part of the country,” Ontario Liberal campaign chair David Smith told the Toronto Star. “Ontarians don’t think in regional terms, they think in national terms.” In numerous ridings, a PC-Reform split produced Liberal victory. Reform’s overall growth translated into 53 second-place finishes across the province. The popular vote was Liberals, 52.9 per cent; Reform, 20.1 per cent; PCs ,17.6 per cent; and NDP, 6 per cent.

Nationally, the vote split along clear regional lines; the Bloc dominated in Quebec; the Liberals, in Ontario and the Maritimes; and Reform, in the west. The NDP fell to nine seats and lost official-party status. Defeated Essex–Windsor MP Steven Langdon, who had criticized the Ontario NDP’s “social contract,” joined the chorus of people demanding Rae’s resignation. But Rae refused to take the blame. “There are forces at work that go beyond any personalities involved,” he told the press a few days later.

The PCs were nearly obliterated: going into the election, they’d had 157 seats; after it, they were left with two. Campbell lost her seat in Vancouver. (Though there were attempts to revive the party’s fortunes under Jean Charest and Joe Clark, it never successfully rebuilt its old base, and, in 2003, it merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the Conservative Party.)

Across the country, 53 women — including 20 from Ontario — were elected across all parties. In Etobicoke–Lakeshore, Jean Augustine became the first female Black MP. When asked whether her victory constituted a breakthrough, Augustine replied that she “ran as a competent woman who is a Canadian.

Ontario also elected Canada’s first Sikh MP, Gurbax Malhi, in Bramalea–Gore–Malton. Malhi’s campaign manager later told Maclean’s that “people seem to look past the turban.”

Perhaps one of the night’s biggest winners, observed Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom, was Ontario PC leader Mike Harris. Although his party was in third place, Harris had embraced “common sense” policies more associated with Reform than with the federal PCs. “Some in his own party predicted he would never last until the next election, that sometime before then he would quietly be bundled into a sealed airplane and flown into exile to be replaced by a leader deemed more acceptable,” Walkom wrote. “No one says that any more about Mike Harris. No one laughs now.”

Sources: Time and Chance by Kim Campbell (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1996); The Big Red Machine by Stephen Clarkson (Toronto: UBC Press, 2005); Iron Man: The Defiant Reign of Jean Chrétien, Volume Two by Lawrence Martin (Toronto: Viking Canada, 2003); Full Circle by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2006); the October 16, 1993, and October 26, 1993, editions of the Globe and Mail; the October 4, 1993, October 11, 1993, October 18, 1993, and November 1, 1993, editions of Maclean’s; and the October 14, 1993, October 15, 1993, October 16, 1993, October 26, 1993, October 27, 1993, and October 30, 1993m editions of the Toronto Star.

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