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Supporters of York Centre Liberal candidate Ken Dryden watch the early election results on television. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
Supporters of York Centre Liberal candidate Ken Dryden watch the early election results on television. (Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Liberals' Toronto foundation crumbles Add to ...

A stormed fortress, a slain leader, an empire in shambles - with the loss of key seats in its Toronto stronghold, the bedrock of the Liberals has crumbled beneath the party's feet.

Before election night, it was thought that the Liberal Party could save face as long as it clung to the 21 Toronto ridings that have served as the party's intellectual and electoral nucleus stretching as far back as the governments of Lester Pearson.

But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff lost his seat and the party lost other key ridings belonging to stalwarts Joe Volpe, Ken Dryden and Gerard Kennedy.

"This is the capital of the English Liberal Party in the country," said Stephen Clarkson, University of Toronto professor and author of Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics. "A rout in Toronto, it's devastating for the prospects of the Liberal Party recovering its national standing."

The phenomena that worked against the Liberals on election night: a late surge in popularity for Jack Layton that landed NDP candidates in Parkdale-High Park and Davenport and several other ridings, a Conservative election machine that conscripted the services of Mayor Rob Ford in targeting seats where Grit support was believed to be soft, and then a combination of the two where vote splitting between Liberals and NDP allowed a Conservative candidate to come up the middle.

In Toronto, the bellwether for the NDP's history-making fortunes was Davenport. The riding has been considered a Grit entitlement for decades, passing faithfully from Pearson-era finance minister Walter Gordon to Charles Caccia, who held it for nearly 40 years before incumbent Mario Silva took it over.

The man that upset that era of Liberal dominance is NDPer Andrew Cash, a musician running in his first election. At Mr. Cash's campaign celebration, cheers erupted as the candidate swept the polls. Eric Double said Mr. Cash got his vote for his energy and personal politics. "I'm interested in him fighting for the rights of people like me."

In York Centre, the Liberals fought hard to keep Ken Dryden's seat. York Centre has been a core part of "Fortress Toronto," considering the Liberals have held the riding since 1962.

However, their margins of victory had progressively dwindled over the last three elections. In 2004, the Liberals beat the Conservatives by 11,202 votes, then 9,640 in 2006, and 2,090 in 2008. Ken Dryden was the elected in all three of those elections.

Seeing that trend, the Liberals expected the 2011 vote to come down to the wire. For that reason, they unleashed Jean Chrétien in York Centre in the week leading up to the campaign. It was the former prime minister's first campaign appearance at a rally this election.

The Liberals were particularly worried about the quality of their rival. Rookie Conservative candidate Mark Adler was born and raised in York Centre and he has business credentials as the founder and chief executive officer of the Economic Club of Canada. Moreover, Mr. Adler is a member of York Centre's large Jewish community.

At press time, the riding was being called in Mr. Adler's favour.

In west-end Toronto, in the riding of Parkdale-High Park, Liberal incumbent Gerard Kennedy also fell to the Orange Wave, yielding his seat to NDP challenger Peggy Nash, who was the local MP from 2006 to 2008.

Mr. Kennedy had shown before that he could buck the national trend, winning the riding in 2008 despite a disastrous campaign by then-Liberal-leader Stéphane Dion.

The Conservatives were never a factor in this diverse downtown riding where the electoral dynamic was often described as a fight between the left and the "more left."

At the packed Queen Street bar where the supporters of NDP candidate Peggy Nash waited for results, the jubilation of the night was cut with moans as the number of Conservative seats edged closer to the 155-seat mark.

Still, lifelong supporters were stunned by the scope of the NDP's wave.

"I had to wait until I had grey hair to see this," said Steven Gurevitch, 56, who first volunteered for the party as a teen. "I'm totally amazed."

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