The Sheraton Centre’s Grand Ballroom was arguably the saddest place in Canada last night, serving as the election night headquarters for the devastated Liberals.
After weeks of sliding steadily in the polls and watching any hope of defeating Stephen Harper’s Conservatives fall all but out of reach, the Liberal Party not only lost its place as the official opposition to the New Democrats, but leader Michael Ignatieff also lost in his own riding to Conservative Bernard Trottier.
“It’s tough to lose like this,” Michael Ignatieff said of the monumental defeat, though not directly referring to his own unseating in Etobicoke-Lakeshore. He addressed a sombre group of supporters—which hadn’t once applauded or mustered a cheer until speeches got underway—shortly after 11 p.m.
In fact, it was difficult to even spot a Liberal supporter in the crowd of mostly media workers for much of the night; there were few to be seen in the ballroom as the CBC declared the Conservatives the next government at 10 p.m., and it was much more of the same when the Liberals lost their position as the official opposition minutes later. By the time Global announced a Conservative majority at 10:40 p.m., a small crowd—a few hundred strong at most—had gathered, silent, sullen and in complete disbelief.
“I don’t know what to think. I’m just trying to absorb it,” said Etobicoke-Lakeshore resident Diana Melnyk, a few minutes after the majority was called. The sadness and shock in the room were palpable, as eyes welled, heads shook, and a group of Grits began to come to terms with how its country had voted.
The Liberals lost 43 seats across the country (they lost 26 in 2008 under Stéphane Dion), leaving them with 34, and well behind the second-place New Democrats, who managed to claim victories in 102 ridings. It’s the first time since Confederation that the Liberals have formed neither the government nor the official opposition. Even in the historically Liberal-friendly Greater Toronto Area, the Grits lost all but six seats in Toronto, and all of their seats in Mississauga, Brampton, and Ajax-Pickering.
Considering the circumstances, Ignatieff managed to rally tepid hurrahs from his supporters with a heartening speech that reminded the room why he was elected to lead the party after its disappointing finish under Dion in 2008. He was charismatic, eloquent, and quick to congratulate his opponents. He thanked his wife and his supporters, all while shouldering the burden of his party’s worst showing in a federal election.
“I take all the responsibilities for what didn’t work, but all the credit for what did goes to you,” he told the crowd. Though he said he would continue as the party’s leader, should that be what the party wants, if it isn’t, he’d “play any part the party wishes me to play.”
Despite the night’s dismal results, Ignatieff’s profound belief in the Liberal Party remained firmly intact. He praised its ancient roots and called upon the people in the room to “remember what we’ve always fought for: equality of rights, equality of responsibilities, equality of opportunity, and equality of hope for all Canadians, a passionate commitment to national unity, a love of our fellow citizens and pride in our country.” A humble heir of the Liberal tradition, Ignatieff didn’t come in to this role to see his party die.
However, perhaps looking back on the days of Mackenzie King and Wilfred Laurier isn’t what the troubled party needs. And once the initial shock began to wear off, some Liberal supporters were quick to consider what their party should do next.
“If you’re going to get beat up, you might as well get knocked out,” said Monique Chin, who worked on Christine Innes’s campaign team. Innes, who lost her Trinity-Spadina race to the NDP’s Olivia Chow by a wide margin, was also present at the night’s event, and addressed the crowd before Ignatieff.
Chin was direct in her belief that the Liberals need to return to its grassroots approach to garnering support, re-evaluate the party from the top-down, and stop assuming they can continue to ride off the success of Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien.
At 10 a.m. today, Ignatieff once again got in front of the mics, this time to announce that he would be stepping down as Liberal Party leader: “The only thing Canadians like less than a loser is a sore loser, and I leave politics with my head held high.”
Photos by Christopher Drost/Torontoist.