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Politics Canada's electoral geography: Where parties are likely to gain seats

Elizabeth May, Leader of the Green Party of Canada, kicked off her election campaign in Sidney, B.C., on Sunday.

CHAD HIPOLITO/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada does not have one national election. Practically, Canada has five regional elections on the same day, producing a parliament and government. Although there are local variations – rural versus urban, northern versus southern – common elements define the electoral landscape in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia, distinguishing each region from the others.

Here, then, is a political geography of Canada, at the launch of the 42nd general election.

Atlantic Canada

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Despite signs of declining support elsewhere in the country, Justin Trudeau's Liberals are strong throughout Atlantic Canada and should pick up seats on election night.

Conservative changes to employment insurance that toughened eligibility have cost the governing party support in the region. The Conservatives are already shut out of Newfoundland and Labrador and have only one of Prince Edward Island's four seats. They are at risk in Nova Scotia, where they currently hold four of 11 seats, and in New Brunswick, where they dominate with eight of 10 seats.

Atlantic Canada is generally more rural and more socially conservative than the rest of Canada, which is why it may be the last place in the country where Red Tories (moderate conservatives) are found in abundance. It also has fewer immigrants. "Atlantic Canada has changed less than other regions of the country," pollster Nik Nanos observes.

Although polls show the Liberals with a healthy lead over the other two parties, the New Democrats are also hoping to make gains, though Mr. Nanos points out that the defeat of the NDP government in Nova Scotia could hurt the party federally. Still, they have hopes for South Shore-St. Margaret's in Nova Scotia, Madawaska-Restigouche in New Brunswick (both currently held by the Conservatives) and Avalon in Newfoundland (currently Independent). One or two gains for the NDP in Atlantic Canada on election night could foreshadow far greater gains to come in time zones to the west.

Quebec

If Atlantic Canada is a Liberal bastion, the NDP owns Quebec. What appeared to be a fluke – the Orange Crush that catapulted 58 NDP MPs into office on the coattails of Le Bon Jack Layton in 2011 – has turned into an entrenched NDP advantage. The Conservatives may gain a few seats in the Quebec region, but no more. The Bloc Québécois shows no real signs of revival, despite the return of Gilles Duceppe as leader, and Mr. Trudeau's Liberals are struggling to break out of Montreal.

For Mireille Paquet, a political scientist at Montreal's Concordia University, the rise of the NDP equates with a fundamental shift in Quebec politics from sovereigntist/federalist to left/right. With most Quebeckers identifying as progressives, "the NDP is the more natural choice in Quebec," she maintains.

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Justin Trudeau may be hampered by his last name; Pierre Trudeau's legacy is ambiguous at best to Quebeckers. And while Liberals are seen as progressives in English Canada, Prof. Paquet observes, in Quebec they have a more conservative brand.

That said, Quebec is a volatile province whose voters can stampede without warning in the most surprising directions. So stay tuned.

Ontario

While the NDP is strong in the North, and the Liberals and NDP contest the city centres, the Conservatives are dominant in rural Ontario and in the dozens of suburban ridings that can swing an election one way or another. In a way, their success is bad news for Tory supporters. They are unlikely to increase their seat count, and could see it go down.

The victory of Kathleen Wynne's Liberals provincially last year confirms "that a majority of the province is closer to a social liberal outlook" than to anything being offered by the Conservatives, according to Dennis Pilon, a political scientist at Toronto's York University.

Traditionally, Ontario voters seeking to oust a Conservative government rush to the Liberal Party. But the strength of the NDP in Quebec and in national polls may cause them to reconsider, Prof. Pilon maintains.

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"Voters are going to be looking to see who they think can win," he believes.

However, the Conservatives remain strongly competitive in Ontario. One indication: Despite the travails of his brother Rob, Doug Ford took 34 per cent of the vote in the Toronto mayoral race last year.

Stephen Harper's team has built up a sophisticated ground game in the suburban ridings outside Toronto known as the 905. And Ontario receives 15 additional seats as a result of legislation expanding the size of the House of Commons. Most of those seats are located in suburban communities currently held by the Conservatives.

So really, the outcome in Ontario hinges on two factors: how much of its suburban bastion the Tories are able to defend, and which party benefits from any erosion.

The Prairies

Manitoba is not Saskatchewan is not Alberta, as Allen Mills, a political scientist at University of Winnipeg, hastens to point out. "There's this view that there's something called 'the Prairies,' as though they're all alike," he said in an interview. "But in many ways, they're not."

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Nonetheless, the Conservatives are popular in all three provinces, especially in rural areas, while the Liberals and NDP are both hoping to make gains in cities from Winnipeg to Edmonton.

NDP aspirations in Manitoba are hampered by the deeply unpopular provincial government of Greg Selinger. Still, the party has high hopes in Winnipeg's Elmwood-Transcona riding, where Daniel Blaikie is representing the party. His father, Bill, held that riding (it had a different name) for two decades.

But Winnipeg is also a place where Mr. Trudeau's Liberals have a good shot at making gains. "The Liberals have high hopes of winning Winnipeg South, Winnipeg South Centre, possibly St. Boniface," Prof. Mills reports.

In Saskatchewan, redrawn riding boundaries have eliminated the old tradition of combining urban and rural precincts into individual ridings, which traditionally favoured the Tories. As a result of new, all-urban ridings, the NDP is hoping for gains in both Regina and Saskatoon. And they hope to expand their footprint in Edmonton, riding the coattails of Rachel Notley's provincial win.

The Liberals believe they have a chance of taking Calgary Centre. Other than that, well …

British Columbia

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B.C. polarizes between left and right, which is why you find straight Conservative-NDP fights there, especially in the suburban ridings of Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. Nonetheless, Mr. Nanos believes the Liberals are also competitive in the province. "B.C. is a definitely a three-way fight," he says.

It is also the only province where the Green Party has substantial support, especially on Vancouver Island. Elizabeth May is expected to hold her seat of Saanich-Gulf Islands, and the Greens are fighting hard to capture Victoria. The interior of the province is expected to remain solidly Conservative.

There is a strange synchronicity to Vancouver and Toronto. Both cities have large immigrant populations, and each tends to vote the same way as the other. Downtown ridings are Liberal/NDP contests, with the Conservatives becoming dominant in the suburbs. As goes Greater Toronto, so goes the Lower Mainland. That, at least, has been the case in the past. But political geography is subject to shifts.

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