On the night of October 25th, 1993, Canadians cast their ballots to determine the make-up of the next federal government. In the aftermath, the previously in-power Progressive Conservatives were all but wiped out, with only two seats remaining. Kim Campbell, who had been the 19th Prime Minister of Canada, said of her defeat, “Gee, I’m glad I didn’t sell my car.”
But why did the election go terribly for the Conservative party? How did a prime minister, who was in office for less than a year, lose the confidence of Canadians so quickly? How did Campbell get to be prime minister in the first place? And why does it matter? To answer these questions and more, we go back to the year 1984, when Campbell’s predecessor Brian Mulroney took office.
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Brian Mulroney, the 18th prime minister of Canada, began his first term in 1984. There were a number of moments that occurred during his first term to set the stage for the huge political shift in 1993. Firstly, there was the bombing of Air India Flight 182. The 1985 disaster was the deadliest aviation terrorist attack in the world up until that point, killing all 329 people aboard. The tragedy was not well-handled as the Canadian government had received warnings from Indian foreign intelligence about the possibility of terrorist bombs aboard Air India flights but ignored them. On top of that, their negligence allowed evidence to be destroyed and witnesses related to the incident to be murdered. As such, the opinions of Mulroney’s administration were not high.
The significance of this moment in Canadian history is enormous. Air India Flight 182 remains the deadliest terrorist attack in Canadian history. For it to happen on Mulroney’s watch was a huge strike against him, but for the government to then continue to mismanage resources for years after the event added insult to injury. In terms of Canadian National Security, this was an event on the level of 9/11 and it made Mulroney look incompetent at best.
A number of other factors contributed to Mulroney’s poor image. Under his government, the national deficit increased significantly from $32.4 billion to $39 billion. He also moved CF-18 aircraft servicing from Manitoba to Quebec in 1986, despite Manitoba’s bid being lower with a better company rating. Furthermore, he exerted pressure on Manitoba over French-language rights, an action that led him to receive death threats.
Things weren’t looking good for Mulroney by the end of his first term and they didn’t improve in his second term. While Mulroney was re-elected, his image was still tarnished. His re-election is largely attributed to support from Alberta and Quebec voters, as both provinces have historically been largely conservative in overall voting trends. The party won less than half the popular vote, but were still able to form a majority government and thus stay in power. However, Canada was already in a recession, and specific decisions by Mulroney’s government lowered his party’s popularity even more. A prime example was the creation of a national goods and services tax in 1991, which was unpopular as few people like to pay more money for things.
A major issue that hurt Mulroney more was the failure of the Charlottetown Accord. The Accord was a proposed package of amendments to the Constitution of Canada that failed to pass. It was put to a referendum and those voting “No” came in at 54.3%. The accord was initially quite popular and proposed some significant changes to Canada’s government, the legal system, and more. Mulroney’s lack of popularity has been cited as part of the reason for the Accord’s diminished popularity and ultimate collapse. The collapse made those who supported the Accord even less pleased with Mulroney.
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Things finally came to an end when Mulroney resigned his position in 1993 due to his insurmountable unpopularity, leaving Canada’s highest office in need of a replacement. This replacement was chosen through a leadership race, where the winner would take over as the next prime minister. It was a close contest, but Kim Campbell won the leadership race and was elected at a national convention.
Campbell was forced to call an election in October because the Conservative party had been in power for five years at that point, meaning their mandate had run out. The election didn’t go well for the Conservatives, whose decisions were still fresh in the minds of Canadians. It didn’t help matters that Campbell admitted that she didn’t foresee Canada’s deficit or unemployment rate being much reduced before the end of the next century. This comment injured her image quite a bit. After a brutal defeat in the election, the Conservative party was left with barely any seats and Campbell was no longer prime minister. And so Campbell’s short time in Canada’s highest office came to a close.
It should be noted though that Campbell did not fade into obscurity after her departure from politics. She may have lost her seat, but she returned to academic life and accepted a fellowship at Harvard University. She later served as Canada’s Consul General to Las Vegas.
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Thus, we now know the answers to our questions. Kim Campbell became prime minister because Brian Mulroney made a string of questionable decisions over the course of nine years that united Canadians in their dislike of him. The Conservatives needed new leadership, and Campbell won the leadership race by popular vote. She had to call a general election since the Conservative mandate had run out. Campbell was unable to surmount the ill-will gathered over nearly a decade of Conservative rule and in some ways worsened the situation with her own decisions. The October election saw Campbell and most of her Conservative compatriots booted from their seats, bringing her political journey to an abrupt end.
This period in history should have more prevalence in the minds of Canadians, as it deals with so many prominent events like Air India Flight 182, a prime minister stepping down, the rise of the country’s first female prime minister, and a historic political shift that nearly erased an entire political party from the House of Commons. Big events like the formation of Canada are undoubtedly important to learn about, but Canada’s more recent history isn’t always given the same level of consideration in the Canadian education system and beyond. This was a point where the power of democracy was keenly felt by the Progressive Conservatives and teaching Canadians about their history and their power is, and will always be, of paramount importance.