How the NDP saved Pierre Trudeau’s government

After the Liberals came out just barely ahead in the 1972 federal election, the Tories called upon the government to resign — but the New Democrats had other ideas
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Oct 15, 2019
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau speaks at a June 19, 1972, press conference with cabinet minister Jean Chrétien. (Peter Bregg/CP)



“The Land Is Strong.”

Widely mocked for its vagueness, the Liberals’ 1972 slogan came to symbolize the emptiness of their campaign. While the public was concerned about the rocky economy and rising unemployment, Pierre Trudeau’s team offered neither solutions nor a promising vision of the future. For many voters, the slogan showed the same degree of detachment from reality that the prime minister displayed in his stump speeches.

As one angry southwest Ontario farmer told Trudeau at a rally, “If you had any sense, you’d know it’s horseshit, not Liberal shit, that makes the land strong.”

The Trudeaumania that had dominated the 1968 federal election had faded. While polling showed that Canadians still thought Trudeau was the most charismatic federal leader, it also revealed a growing sense that he was uninterested in their concerns. He had promised initiatives ranging from restricting foreign takeovers to addressing First Nations issues but then failed to introduce legislation. His efforts to support bilingualism, including the passing of the Official Languages Act, in 1969, provoked a backlash in English Canada.

When Trudeau called an election on September 1, 1972, the Liberals were polling 10 points ahead of the Progressive Conservatives. During his first campaign speech, he spoke unenthusiastically of “the integrity of Canada” and said that the challenge of this election would be ensuring “that Canadians continue to exhibit the self-confidence and the assurance that will permit Canada to pursue its own policies and demonstrate the advantages of its value system.” National Liberal campaign organizer Torrance Wylie claimed that elections were not a competition between parties but an opportunity to establish a relationship with voters — the party mistakenly assumed that the public didn’t care about its record and that their view of Trudeau remained unchanged. Some veteran Liberal campaigners felt that this approach was amateurish, but they made little headway in encouraging the adoption of more traditional election tactics. As Maclean’s editor Peter C. Newman observed, Trudeau behaved “like a computer printout of his former self.”

The lacklustre Liberal campaign suited the opposition parties, especially the Progressive Conservatives. Since becoming leader in 1967, Robert Stanfield had attempted to rebuild a party that had been torn apart during the last years of John Diefenbaker’s leadership. Research showed that PC voters were older, poorer, less educated, and more rural than Liberal supporters. Attempts to appeal to younger, urban voters sometimes caused caucus conflict, as when Stanfield’s support of the Official Languages Act provoked a brief rebellion among some of his western MPs.

Voters saw Stanfield as something of an enigma. While they perceived him as an honest, intelligent man of unquestionable integrity who was attuned to their economic concerns, he wasn’t a particularly dynamic or visionary leader. “He bristles with paradox,” John Aitken observed in Maclean’s. “He invokes trust in an age that prefers excitement and acceleration. He is humble and we consider humility to be embarrassing. He is diffident, and that quality, in this political decade, is catastrophic.”

Under the slogan “A Progressive Conservative Government Will Do Better,” the PCs promised to lower income taxes, index old-age pensions, impose temporary wage and price controls, and implement a scheme that would see workers taxed only on real increases in income. Their well-organized campaign was supported by Ontario premier Bill Davis, who provided people, resources, and even the band he had used during his successful provincial campaign the previous year. Davis made frequent appearances on the campaign trail, boosting Stanfield at stops across the country.

When the campaign kicked off, the NDP was emerging from serious internal warfare sparked by the Waffle, a rebellious faction that supported economic nationalism. After the Ontario NDP forced the Waffle to disband as a group within the party in June 1972, many of its followers departed. Positive news came on August 30, when the party won the British Columbia provincial election. On the federal side, leader David Lewis grabbed attention by using the term “corporate welfare bums” to attack corporate incentives and taxation. His campaign drew support from voters who believed the Liberals had moved too far to the right.

As the campaign wound down, the Liberals were shocked out of their complacency. When they opened the October 19 edition of the Toronto Star, they discovered that the paper, which had been a faithful supporter since its founding in 1892 (except in 1917, when it had sided with the Unionist coalition), was backing the Progressive Conservatives. In a signed editorial, publisher Beland Honderich outlined the paper’s issues with Trudeau’s economic policies and rising unemployment. The Star expressed concerns about Lewis’s nationalization proposals and Stanfield’s silence on foreign ownership, but said that, in its view, the Tories had slightly stronger economic policies.

Polling during the last week showed that the Liberal lead had dropped to four points. Trudeau suddenly began promising new projects for tightly contested ridings — notably, Harbourfront for downtown Toronto. He later admitted that such tactics embarrassed him; on the whole, he remained true to his belief that elections were a time for conversation, not partisan battles. “The beautiful thing about an election,” he told a small crowd at his final campaign stop, in suburban Toronto, “is that you can stand back and look at things as a whole.” He also issued an emotional apology for the unemployment situation.

On election day, October 30, Trudeau carried his 10-month-old son, Justin, on his back to his Ottawa polling station. After casting his ballot, Trudeau played with Justin, telling him to “do your stunts” as he tossed him in the air in front of press photographers. After spending the afternoon with family in Montreal, Trudeau went to the 25th-floor penthouse of Ottawa’s Skyline Hotel to watch the results.

At midnight, CBC reported that the Liberals were ahead of the PCs 106 to 103; half an hour later, though, they were tied. Aides shouted “bigots” and “fools” at TV screens while the Trudeaus digested the results alone. As the disastrous numbers began coming in from the West, the prime minister told his wife, Margaret, “You may be a farmer’s wife sooner than you think.”

The results continued to see-saw. Trudeau left the penthouse around 1 a.m. to address the press. He ended his brief remarks with a quote from the Max Ehrmann poem “Desiderata”: “Whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

Stanfield didn’t return to Ottawa until Halloween night. He was greeted at the airport by around 50 weary campaign workers. Newly elected local PC MPs Walter Baker and Peter Reilly handed him a giant cardboard skeleton key, which symbolized access to 24 Sussex Drive. As he exited the airport, Stanfield told reporters, “I hope the election will produce good results for the people of Canada.”

It took several weeks to come to a final seat count. The closest race in the country was in the riding of Ontario, which stretched from Pickering to Lake Simcoe and included most of present-day Ajax, Uxbridge, and Whitby. Progressive Conservative Frank McGee, who had served in Diefenbaker’s government, was attempting a political comeback against Liberal incumbent Norman Cafik. The main issue in the riding was the proposed Pickering airport, which McGee opposed. Cafik initially supported the plan, then claimed there was no need for it at the moment.

The first vote count gave McGee a 12-vote lead — the second, one additional vote. But the judicial recount, completed on November 15, gave the riding to Cafik by four votes. McGee was in a PC caucus meeting in Ottawa when he received the news, and he sent his congratulations to the winner. Cafik complained that he would have won by 133 more votes if the judge had allowed ballots on which the “X” was marked on the dotted line instead of inside the box.

The final results across the province of Ontario were 40 PCs, 36 Liberals, 11 NDP, and 1 other. Nationally, the seat count was Liberals 109, PCs 107, NDP 31, Social Credit 15, and 2 other.

Stanfield had initially said that the close result demonstrated that the Liberals had lost public confidence and should resign — and that he would be ready to form a government if the governor general called upon him to do so.

But the real decision lay in the hands of David Lewis and the 31-member NDP caucus. The party believed that the earlier the PCs called a new election, the likelier it would be that the NDP would lose most of its seats, which is what had happened to its predecessor, the CCF, when Diefenbaker pulled the same trick in 1958. While many NDP leaders respected Stanfield, seeing him as a decent man with a social conscience, they worried about the more right-wing elements in his party and believed that the Liberals would create better legislation. As a result, they decided to prop up Trudeau’s government, and continued to do so for the next two years. Stanfield, who went on to lose to Trudeau in the 1974 election, developed a reputation as “the best prime minister Canada never had.”

In an interview with journalist Patrick Watson more than a year after the election, Trudeau admitted that the campaign had shaken his faith in politics and the democratic process. “I used to think it would be sufficient to put a reasonable proposition to a person, for the person to look at it reasonably, without passion, but that’s obviously not true,” said, adding that 90 per cent of politics “appeals to emotion rather than to reason. I’m a bit sorry about that, but this is the world we’re living in, and therefore I’ve had to change.”

Sources: Socialism in Canada by Ivan Avakumovic (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1978);  Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000 by John English (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 2009); The Northern Magus by Richard Gwyn (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980); The New Democrats, 1961-1986 by Desmond Morton (Toronto: Copp Clark Pittman, 1986); Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2009); Stanfield by Geoffrey Stevens (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973); the October 30, 1972, November 1, 1972, and November 3, 1972, editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 1972 and October 1972 editions of Maclean’s; the October 19, 1972, October 28, 1972, October 31, 1972, and November 16, 1972, editions of the Toronto Star.

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