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Canada's "blue wave"

I mention the federal/provincial power split in an article I wrote for the Brown Political Review about Canada's "fundamental centrism." In this article, I go more in depth as to why the provinces and the federal government are so often at odds with one another.


In 2018, Democrats made significant gains in midterm elections, in part as a reaction to President Trump's tumultuous first two years in office. This was termed the "blue wave." The backlash against the president's party in their first midterms is a well-studied phenomenon in the United States. In 2010, after two years under President Barack Obama, the Democrats lost 63 seats in the Congress, significantly more than Republicans did in 2018.

There are a few explanations for this backlash: Untested presidents are very vulnerable to criticism, and while voters from the president's party tend to be content with their victory, opposition party voters are far more motivated, leading to a difference in turnout. Data from Gallup shows voters' "intended message" in midterm elections, and there is a clear trend: A greater portion of voters believe their vote is against the president.

While Canada does not have three elected bodies at the federal level like the United States, I do wonder whether the party of a new Prime Minister, exposed to fresh criticism and faced with a motivated opposition, suffers from a similar backlash.

In Canada, as in the United States, the executive benefits from incumbency and is usually elected to a second term. Obama, as we know, won a second term fairly easily, even after the Democrats' losses in the House in 2010. The backlash always manifests itself elsewhere: In the U.S, it's Congress and the Senate, in Canada, I'd argue it's in provincial elections.

Since Trudeau's election in 2015, a number of conservative premiers have been elected: Doug Ford, Jason Kenney, Brian Pallister, Blaine Higgs, Dennis King, and CAQ leader Francois Legault. Of these, the first two in particular have been foils to PM Trudeau. Conversely, no Liberals have been elected premier except in provinces where the incumbent premier before Trudeau's election was also Liberal.

Does this really constitute a "blue wave" similar to the one in the United States? Obviously, each province has its own politics that exist separately from federal politics. It seems far less likely that voters for Ford or Kenney saw their votes as opposing Trudeau in the same way that Republicans saw their votes as opposing Obama in 2010.

Ontario is an instructive example: More than a bellwether, Ontario is not only close to the median politically among the provinces (less conservative than the prairies, less liberal than BC and the Maritimes, less fickle than Quebec), it has more people and more ridings than any other province. As a result, the party that wins Ontario in federal elections has also appointed the prime minister all but three times since the end of the Second World War.

Yet, between voting overwhelmingly for the Liberals in 2015 and voting overwhelmingly for the Liberals in 2019, Ontarians gave Doug Ford a majority in Queen's Park. There's more going on here than just a backlash to the first years of Trudeau's mandate. Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne was very unpopular, while the NDP had gained in popularity, splitting the left.

However, Ford did run a campaign that emphasized his opposition to the federal carbon tax, and has reversed the effects of the Trudeau Liberals' 2018 national price on carbon. Kenney and Moe also made opposition to the carbon tax central to their campaigns. Provincial politics aside, some of the premiers elected in the Canadian "blue wave" campaigned on opposing the federal Liberals.

Trudeau really was faced with electoral backlash after the first few years of being prime minister, and it manifested itself in provincial legislatures across the country. Like Republicans with Obamacare, conservatives at the provincial level ran in opposition to one of the prime minister's more contentious policies. Some estimate that voting for Obamacare cost thirteen congressmen their jobs in 2010. It's not likely that the anti-carbon tax vote or even the anti-Trudeau vote had the same stark effect on provincial elections, but it definitely mattered.

A more in depth study is necessary to determine this with certainty, but it's possible that this anti-PM provincial vote has been the state of affairs for quite some time. As mentioned, Ontario has a knack for choosing the prime minister. However, of the past thirty years, the prime minister and the premier of Ontario have been from the same party for only six.

This graphic shows the party of the prime minister on top and the premier of Ontario on the bottom. Notice the lack of overlap. Photo (cropped) courtesy of

In the United States, the constant squabbling between Congress, the Senate, and the president has slowed change. This opposition between the bodies at the federal level is all but assured by midterm backlash in the president's first term. The same can be said for the opposition of provincial leaders to changes made at the federal level in Canada. Many of Canada's most notable national policies of the past few decades have been tested at the provincial level before being consolidated by the federal government, such as the Canada Health Act.

When an electorate is more motivated in opposition to leaders and policies than in support of them, different branches and levels of government are mobilized against one another, leading to a sluggish incrementalism. While it has received less attention here, this is the case in Canada as in the United States, manifesting in the conflict between the federal and provincial governments.

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