OTTAWA –It was in the hands of the ballot-counters early Monday as polls closed in federal byelections taking place in five ridings across Canada – two in Calgary, one in Montreal, one in Ottawa and one in the suburbs north of Toronto.
The seats in question were not expected to change hands; they were previously held by prominent MPs, including four former cabinet ministers and one former Conservative prime minister.
Stephen Harper was the MP in the riding now known as Calgary Heritage, while Calgary Midnapore was long the domain of one of his most trusted lieutenants: Jason Kenney, who has since jumped to Alberta politics.
The other three seats were held by the Liberals: the Toronto-area seat of Markham-Thornhill and Montreal’s Saint-Laurent were vacated when Stephane Dion and John McCallum left for diplomatic posts earlier this year.
The fifth seat, Ottawa Vanier, was held by backbencher Mauril Belanger who died last year.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire last month for campaigning in the byelection races. The opposition Tories said it creates questions about who is paying for the visits and puts public servants in a tough position.
The Conservatives and New Democrats both sent high profile candidates to campaign in some of the ridings.
Emmanuella Lambropoulos, a 26-year-old high school teacher, stunned many when she won the Liberal nomination contest in Saint-Laurent, defeating former Quebec cabinet minister Yolande James.
James had been considered the Liberal party favourite to replace Stephane Dion, the former Liberal leader who resigned his seat to become ambassador to Germany and the European Union.
Lambropoulos is up against Conservative candidate Jimmy Yu, NDP candidate Mathieu Auclair and William Fayad, for the Bloc Quebecois.
Lambropoulos’ nomination was considered a protest pick by many in the community because the popular mayor of the Saint-Laurent borough, Alan DeSousa, was prohibited from running.
When that happened, “the Greeks had their chance,” said Justine Frangouli, a member of a local feminist association, who was among the trickle of supporters who showed up at the Liberal gathering about a half-hour before polls closed.
“I knew we had it.”
Saint-Laurent is a particularly diverse riding, with over half of its population born outside Canada, 40 per cent of whom arrived in the country after the year 2000.
“She is young and pure,” Frangouli said of the 26-year-old Lambropoulos. “Pure in politics and sophisticated in her thinking.”
In Markham-Thornhill, Liberal Mary Ng – on a leave of absence from her job as director of appointments for Trudeau – vying to replace John McCallum, who resigned his seat to become the Canadian ambassador to China.
In that riding, Ragavan Paranchothy is running for the Conservatives and Gregory Hines for the NDP.
The other Ontario byelection is in Ottawa-Vanier, which Belanger represented from 1995 until he died last August.
There, Mona Fortier won a hotly contested nomination contest to be the Liberal candidate, and she is up against Conservative candidate Adrian Paul Papara, NDP candidate Emilie Taman and Green party candidate Nira Dookeran.
Ottawa-Vanier is one riding where the NDP is feeling some mild optimism, thanks in part to what party officials say is extensive disappointment with the Liberal decision to abandon its efforts at electoral reform.
And while no one expects Conservative candidates Rob Benzen in Calgary Heritage and Stephanie Kusie in Calgary Midnapore to lose, it will be interesting to see how the Liberals do in the vote tallies, especially since Trudeau campaigned there in person.
In 2015, the Liberal candidates placed second to Harper and Kenney in those ridings. In 2011, albeit under different electoral boundaries, the Liberal candidates running against those two Conservatives finished third behind the NDP.
In Calgary Heritage, Benzen’s rivals include Liberal candidate Scott Forsyth and NDP candidate Khalis Ahmed. In Calgary Midnapore, Kusie is up against a field that includes Haley Brown for the Liberals and Holly Hefferman for the NDP.
Conservative supporters in Calgary were in an upbeat mood as the polls closed Monday. Voters are angry, especially about the economy, said Sarah Watson, who worked on Kusie’s campaign.
“The voter’s we’ve talked to are pretty fired up. There’s a strong sense of really wanting to communicate that Alberta matters,” Watson said.
“I think you’ve had a chance to try on Mr. Trudeau for a year and a half to kind of see. Maybe people were willing to see if he was any different and I think that’s worn off.”
That could result in a stronger-than-expected turnout in Calgary Heritage, despite the status-quo expectations in a riding once controlled by Stephen Harper, said fundraising manager Mark Kihn.
“If you go further back, it’s Preston Manning’s riding too, right? That’s a long time of having right-of-centre leaders,” Kihn said.
“It has extra cache because it is Mr. Harper’s riding, of course. Byelections don’t get high turnouts. You’re not toppling the government or anything like that, but here it is definitely a protest vote.”