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Two of the people who battled Stéphane Dion for the Liberal leadership will take seats in the House of Commons after by-elections last night in four federal ridings - but the Conservatives took one riding from the Liberals.

Desnethé-Missinippi-Churchill River in Northern Saskatchewan was expected to be a close race. But it turned heavily toward the Conservatives after early results and Rob Clarke, an aboriginal who is a 17-year veteran of the RCMP, surged ahead of Joan Beatty, the former provincial New Democrat who was hand-picked by Mr. Dion.

Bob Rae, meanwhile, sailed to an easy victory in the Liberal stronghold of Toronto Centre. (The Green candidate, Chris Tindall, was ahead of both the NDP and the Conservative candidates when the early poll results started flowing in and was locked in a tight race for second with New Democrat El-Farouk Khaki for most of the evening.)

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And Martha Hall Findlay thumped her rivals in the Toronto riding of Willowdale - a seat that went to the Progressive Conservatives during the Brian Mulroney years.

The Liberal grip on Vancouver-Quadra, a party stronghold for a quarter-century, loosened last night. Former B.C. environment minister Joyce Murray won the seat, but was only about 5 per cent ahead of Deborah Meredith, running for the Conservatives. It was a massive shift from the last federal election in 2006 when Stephen Owen had a 21-per-cent lead over his Tory rival.

However, Mr. Dion's team was undoubtedly pleased to see the victories in Toronto.

But the loss in Saskatchewan may have tempered any Liberal desire to take down the Conservative minority in the very near future. The Conservatives had been careful to keep expectations low and repeatedly pointed out that the seats being contested were the Liberals' to lose - so the win by Mr. Clarke will undoubtedly be trumpeted as a sign of success by supporters of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Last night, Mr. Dion was at Mr. Rae's campaign headquarters, celebrating the Liberal victory in Ontario.

"I am a team player and a team builder and tonight it's clearer than ever that I have a much better team than Stephen Harper," Mr. Dion told jubilant Rae supporters.

Mr. Rae, a former New Democratic premier of Ontario who has been acting as the Liberal foreign affairs critic even though he was without a seat in Parliament, was emotional last night.

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"What we have done tonight is to embrace a new politics in Canada that looks to what we owe each other, to what we can do together for Canada, to what we can do together for our families and for our communities," Mr. Rae told the appreciative crowd.

"We do not have the best possible government in yet in Canada, and we are going to get it. We can do better."

The Saskatchewan riding was tough to call in the lead-up to the vote, having switched from the Conservatives to the Liberals in the last general election when Gary Merasty won by just 67 votes. It has been held by all three parties in the past 10 years, and the Liberals won by just 67 votes in 2006.

Ms. Beatty's campaign was troubled from its inception. Mr. Dion chose to bypass the nomination process to anoint her as his chosen candidate, a move that angered supporters of David Orchard. Mr. Orchard, whose support played a crucial role in Mr. Dion's leadership victory, was unhappy with the way he was treated, and his devoted backers worked behind the scenes to persuade traditional Liberals not to vote this time.

Voter turnout hovered near 20 per cent in the riding. In Sturgeon Lake First Nation, former chief Henry Daniels said he was shocked by how few people were coming to the polls.

"Usually Sturgeon Lake is one of the reserves that go all out and vote. In past years we've had 80 to 90 per cent for band council elections," Mr. Daniels said.

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The race was described by some band leaders as pitting aboriginal voters in the riding's north against non-aboriginals in the south. All three major parties ran aboriginal candidates this time, but Ms. Beatty had by far the highest profile.

Mr. Clarke said his goal was to work on issues of northern development, including a road linking northern Saskatchewan to Fort McMurray, Alta.

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