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Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff pauses as he addresses supporters on Monday, May 2, 2011 in Toronto.

Frank Gunn/Thed Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/Thed Canadian Press

Michael Ignatieff made history as the Liberal Leader who took his party to new lows, placing third for the first time ever, behind the Conservatives and New Democrats. The Grit fortress in Atlantic Canada was gone, as was Toronto. The Leader even lost his own seat.

For a man who returned to Canada in 2005 intent on making a mark on his home country, it was a disaster of epic proportions. He did worse than his predecessor, Stéphane Dion, who won 77 seats in 2008. He watched as NDP Leader Jack Layton supplanted him as leader of the Official Opposition in Mr. Harper's longed-for majority government.

By the end of the night, the Liberals ended up winning just 34 seats, down from the 77 seats they held in the previous parliament. Meanwhile, the Conservatives surged to a majority with 167 seats, with the NDP trailing at 102 seats.

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"It is tough to lose like this," Mr. Ignatieff told the tiny and sombre crowd, who gathered in the ballroom of a Toronto hotel.

"Defeat is a teacher," he went on. "I have learned more in my life from my own personal defeats … now we have to learn the lessons of defeat. We have to be big enough, courageous enough … big enough as a party to look at ourselves in the mirror."

He did not offer his resignation. Rather, he said that he will do whatever the party asks of him as it goes forward to "rebuild and reform," after losing more than half of the seats won in 2008. He said there was "a longing for change, a yearning for change. Unfortunately, we could not be the beneficiaries of that longing for change."

"We have seen an emergence of polarization in Canadian politics and risk that it will move the country to the right," he said. "We will have an Official Opposition that will possibly move the country to the left."

Bob Rae, one of the few Liberals to hold on to his seat, raised the spectre of a merger on the left. He said, according to reports, that there shouldn't be "little barricades" between parties.

"Mr. Ignatieff has been a passionate advocate for the cause of his party - a party which has made great and important contributions to the development of this country," Conservative Leader Stephen Harper said during his victory speech. "I extend to him the high regard that is due of a worthy opponent."

No one was publicly blaming or pointing fingers at Mr. Ignatieff, a Harvard professor and renowned journalist before his entry into politics. But the whispers have already begun. Some say he miscalculated by calling the election too soon, when the party wasn't ready.

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Others pointed to the success of the Tories' attack ads - launched well before the writ was dropped - that characterized the Liberal Leader as an elitist academic returning from the United States to grab power. In Brampton-Springdale, David Small, campaign manager for Liberal incumbent Ruby Dhalla, found resistance to Mr. Ignatieff.

"The hatchet job is complete," he said Monday night, referring to the Conservative attack ads. At the door, Mr. Small heard from Liberal-identified voters that the party Leader was "too intellectual." When he pushed back and said, "Well, what about Pierre Trudeau?," there was no answer.

Privately, the Liberals had approached this "E-day" with much apprehension. The national opinion polls have not been kind to them throughout this campaign, showing their support dropping most days.

Publicly, however, Mr. Ignatieff went into Monday with enthusiasm and hard work, and with much the same face he had throughout the 36-day campaign. He and his team concentrated their efforts on shoring up votes in Ontario, travelling to ridings they lost in 2008 in close races and to ridings they held but that were being hotly contested.

Up early on Monday, Mr. Ignatieff greeted commuters at the Royal York subway station in his Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding and encouraged them to vote. He then went to a local school in his riding to cast his ballot.

He vowed that the Liberal base - those Grits who stayed home in 2008 - would come back. His speechwriters worked on five different scenarios, unable to predict the outcome.

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Early on election night, a camera crew was allowed in to take some pictures of Mr. Ignatieff and his wife, Zsuzsanna Zsohar, gathered with their team. The Leader looked calm and clapped at positive news for his Liberals.

But as the night went on, it quickly became clear that the rout was on.

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