Canadian 2013 By-elections: Porous politics, vote-splitting, and women’s presence in politics


Toronto Centre

On 25 November2013, voters in four Canadian ridings went to the polls to elect a new Member of Parliament in mid-term by-elections.  The seats were left empty when four MP’s resigned: namely Manitoba Conservatives Vic Toews and Merv Tweed to join the private sector, Quebec Liberal and former interim leader, Denis Coderre, to become mayor of Montreal, and former interim Liberal leader Bob Rae to serve as negotiator for the Matawa First Nations in Northern Ontario. While two races (Toronto-Centre and Brandon-Souris) were highly contested, after the vote count there was no change to the status quo; the Liberals retained seats in Toronto and Montreal and the Conservatives theirs in Manitoba.

The Toronto-Centre contest appeared particularly newsworthy, pitting against one another two high-profile female candidates for the Liberals and the NDP. That race, in many ways, paints the picture of the porous boundaries of Canadian politics. The fact that both women were photogenic straight whites was not irrelevant: neither challenged the dominant pattern of women MPs, who make up less than a quarter of the House of Commons.  They share other similarities as well. Both stand in   the left of their parties and have careers as journalists and authors. Chrystia Freeland, a Canadian journalist, had been living in New York and working for the New York Times.  Her political pedigree originated in Alberta with a Liberal lawyer father and an NDP lawyer mother, a familial expression of the ties that sometimes link Canadians on the liberal left.  They help give rise to recurring support for a progressive Liberal-NDP coalition against the right.

An Oxford Rhodes scholar at Oxford, Freeland subsequently accumulated substantial experience with the mainstream press, in senior editorial positions at The Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, and Reuters.  The mother of three youngsters, ages 4 to 12, she appears to have successfully negotiated a critical barrier for many women in public life.  Her credentials as the author of one volume on Russia’s transition from communism to capitalism, Sale of the Century (2000) and another on global financial collapse (Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else (2012) also gave her some appearance of intellectual gravitas, an asset in her attempt to succeed Bob Rae, another Rhodes scholar, as MP for Toronto-Centre.  Her place in the Liberal Party may also be guessed from the strong support she received from Rae during the by-election. From 1978-1982?, Rae sat as a NDP MP for another Toronto riding before moving to the Ontario legislature as leader of the provincial NDP in 1982  and as premier from 1990 to 1995.  In 2006, he created a sensation by running for the leadership of the federal Liberal party.  In a curious way, his complicated history seems a good fit for the daughter of a Liberal and an NDPer.

The story of Freeland’s main rival, the NDP’s Linda McQuaig is also suggestive.  Unlike Freeland, her career had always been firmly planted in Canada as a journalist for both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail.  While a graduate from Toronto’s prestigious private girls’ school, Branksome Hall, McQuaig is well known for several best-selling indictments of modern Canadian capitalism, notably The Wealthy Banker’s Wife  (1993), Shooting the Hippo (1995), and All You Can Eat (2001), and of American policies at home and abroad, notably It’s the Crude, Dude: War, Big Oil and the Fight for the Planet (2004) and Holding the Bully’s Coat: Canada and the U.S. Empire (2007).  The NDP Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Mulcair, himself a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister, campaigned along side McQuaig and the ghost of former leader, Jack Layton, was regularly invoked as a signal of the ‘middle ground’ of Canada’s progressive politics.  In short, both Freeland and McQuaig appear to be staking out, as have their mentors, Rae and Mulcair, a new progressive politics.

In the end, the seat was won handily by Freeland.  Because of the low Conservative (and, indeed, small c-conservative) presence in the riding, vote splitting on the liberal-left did not play a significant role in the Toronto-Centre by-election.  It is easy, however, to see that Freeland and McQuaig may have divided the left-feminist vote.  What this means for the future is uncertain as the riding will be divided for the 2015 federal election. In the northern portion, generally considered their base, the Conservatives are likely to have a reasonable shot, especially if the progressive vote doesn’t coalesce around a single candidate.  The southern less well-to-do half may see a NDP-Liberal contest.

The Toronto by-election divisions didn’t benefit the Conservative Party but that result was visible in Brandon-Souris, Manitoba, where the combined weight of the Liberals and the NDP surpassed that of the Conservatives, a massive shift from the 2011 general election when the latter won more than 60% of the vote.  The Liberals were the chief beneficiary of changing preferences.  In the 2013, the Liberal candidate, Rolf Dinsdale, was the son of a member of John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservative cabinet, supplying another reminder of fluctuating political allegiances, and perhaps the search for a new home of some ‘Red Tories’ who find neo-Conservativism increasingly unpalatable (see Horowitz, 1968).

The meaning of the 2013 by-elections will not be entirely clear until 2015.  In the meantime, however, their results offer grounds for speculation about the direction of left-liberal voters (including feminists) and the fate of the ‘progressive’ part of the old Tory Party.  On the left, the prospect of another Conservative majority may elicit strategic voting by progressive voters, but which party they choose may depend on where the riding is located: regional differences matter.  If the Liberals and the NDP nominate barely indistinguishable candidates, as in Toronto-Centre, electoral coordination is more challenging, even as it appears more logical. What will become the home for whatever remains of Canada’s ‘Red Tories’ is also at issue. A Liberal party activist has suggested that this category of conservatives is a disappearing phenomenon on the Hill while those in the electorate face the choice between forgetting their socially liberal values in Harper’s Conservative Party or sacrificing traditional conservative loyalties by seeking social liberalism in another party. In face of that conundrum, the majority may be fading away. Of course, the vote split and shifting allegiances may not be a simply occur on the right or on the progressive left. Decades ago the political scientist Gad Horowitz argued that in Canada red Tories and socialists have more in common with each other than either does with a liberal ideology, which values individualism and equality of opportunity. In other words, the Red Tories who no longer find a home in the Conservative Party of Canada may support the New Democratic Party, a phenomenon that has led political parties in Manitoba to use strategies to capture collectivist-minded voters (Wesely).  Given the implications for electoral outcomes and particularly for the direction of Canadian politics and policy, the shifting political affiliations and allegiances will be closely watched for 2015. None will be watching closer than progressives and feminists whose presence whose policy interests have been vulnerable and, in deed, a deliberate target under the current Conservative government.


The other three contests were far less interesting. Mainstream men won the other seats. Five women ran (three NDP, one Green, and one Liberal) . Two NDPers had no real prospects. In Provencher, Quebec, where women represented both the Greens and the NDP, they shared barely more than 10% of the vote. The Toronto result is only the second by-election during the 41st Parliament to improve women’s numbers. Early in 2013, Liberal Yvonne Jones defeated Conservative Peter Penashue who had been forced to resign over concerns over spending and expense reporting.   The November 2012 by-elections resulted in a net decrease in women’s representation: Conservative Erin O’Tolle replaced Conservative Bev Oda while Conservative Joan Crockett replaced Conservative Lee Richardson, and NDPer Murray Rankin took over from NDPer Denise Savoie..


Further Reading

Horowitz, G. (1966) Conservatism, Liberalism and Socialism in Canada: An Interpretation. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 32, 2: 143–71


Horowitz, G. (1968) Canadian Labour in Politics: The Trade Unions and the CCF NDP. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.


Paikin, Z. (2012). Can Liberals Replace the Bleeding Red Tories?.  The Huffington Post. June 6, 2012.


Parent, M. (2013). What the death of Red Toryism means to Canada. The Chronicle Herald. November 13, 2013.


Preece, R. (1977). The myth of the red tory. Canadian Journal of Political Science.


Wesley, J. (2006). The Collective Center: Social Democracy and Red Tory Politics in Manitoba. paper presented to the CPSA, York University, June 2006,

Lore, Grace

Lore, Grace

PhD Student in the Department of Political Science - University of British Columbia

This article was written by: Lore, Grace

PhD Student in the Department of Political Science - University of British Columbia