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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole puts on his mask after speaking to the media in Fredericton on Aug. 28, 2021.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Erin O’Toole and the Conservatives knew long before the election campaign began that any hope they had of forming the country’s next government would have to begin in Atlantic Canada.

After the Liberals swept the four Eastern provinces in 2015, taking all 32 seats here, the Conservatives regained a foothold in the east in the 2019 federal election – taking back four seats, and losing another six races by less than a 5 per cent margin.

That set the stage for an intense fight for support in Atlantic Canada this time around, with repeated trips to the region by the major party leaders and federal campaigns focusing on localized issues such as highway bypasses, doctor shortages and fisheries regulation. It also raised the stakes in several ridings in which the Liberals and Tories appeared to be in a dead heat.

The Conservative Party’s efforts helped them gain ground in the region, where Tory candidates were leading or elected in nine seats on election night, more than doubling their total, though the Liberals still held the majority of the seats.

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That includes South Shore-St. Margarets in Nova Scotia, where federal fisheries minister Bernadette Jordan was defeated by the Conservatives’ Rick Perkins, in a riding where the Liberals were facing anger from Indigenous and non-Indigenous fishermen for the party’s handling of the moderate livelihood fishery issue.

The Tories also took Nova Scotia’s Cumberland-Colchester away from Liberal MP Lenore Zann, who won by just 453 votes in 2019. The Conservative candidate, local family doctor Stephen Ellis, was able to seize on concerns around health care – a significant worry in many parts of rural Atlantic Canada, where doctor shortages and rotating hospital closures helped the Progressive Conservatives win Nova Scotia’s provincial election last month.

In New Brunswick, the Conservatives also won in Miramichi-Grand Lake, where two former provincial cabinet ministers faced off, and they claimed victory in Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame, in Newfoundland and Labrador. Both ridings were previously held by the Liberals.

Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole spoke to supporters early Tuesday morning after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau won another minority government. O’Toole criticized the early election, shared an inclusive vision of the party and vowed to lead the Conservatives in the next campaign.

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The margin for error was very narrow in key ridings in Atlantic Canada, yet any party hoping to form a government had to win them, said J.P. Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John.

On his multiple visits to the region, Mr. O’Toole asked voters to give the Conservatives another chance, and he focused on concerns around rising housing prices and a shortage of federal health care funding – an issue also addressed by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

The Conservatives, however, faced a challenge in 2021 they didn’t have to worry about in the 2019 election – the growth in support for the People’s Party of Canada (PPC), widely seen to be taking voters away from the Tories.

“Even if they take a few hundred votes, in some of these tight races, that’s enough to make a difference,” Prof. Lewis said.

One race in which the PPC wasn’t a factor was in Fredericton, the university town and provincial capital where the party’s candidate failed to register paperwork in time for the Elections Canada deadline. That added an extra complication for Liberal MP Jennica Atwin, the former Green MP who crossed the floor to the Liberals and was trying to keep her seat for her new party.

She was in a race against Conservative Andrea Johnson and law professor Nicole O’Byrne, who was hoping to return the riding to the Greens after Ms. Atwin became the party’s first MP elected outside of B.C – beating Ms. Johnson by just over 1,600 votes in the last election. Ms. Johnson and Ms. Atwin were neck and neck as counting continued Monday night, and it’s expected the final result won’t be known until mail-in ballots are counted.

The NDP, meanwhile, was trying to hold onto its only seat in Atlantic Canada, in St. John’s East in Newfoundland and Labrador. That riding was open after NDP MP Jack Harris chose not to run again after being diagnosed with cancer, and the party tapped Mary Shortall, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour, to replace him. She lost to the Liberals’ Joanne Thompso.n

The NDP focused on health care, promising a dramatic expansion of the services covered by government. Among the ridings where the party narrowed the gap was in Halifax, where Liberal MP Andy Fillmore held on in a close race with Lisa Roberts, a former provincial NDP MLA.

The Liberals promised big money for the region, too, including multiyear affordable child care deals signed recently with P.E.I., Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador worth more than $1-billion.

In July, the Trudeau government also signed a $5.2-billion agreement to help Newfoundland and Labrador cover cost overruns that have plagued the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project – a bailout that will keep hydro rates down in the province.