It may seem a bit crass to think of Canadian political winners in a year as objectively awful as the one now mercifully grinding to an end.
The COVID-19 pandemic cost lives, closed businesses, kept Canadians at home and disrupted all manner of normalcy and best-laid plans. It also put pressure on political leaders to both protect public health and manage the economic fallout the virus wrought.
In those heady first months of the crisis, Canadians tuned in to daily press conferences from the prime minister, usually outside his residence at Rideau Cottage, where they were reminded to wash their hands and told about billions of dollars in emergency spending measures.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had viral moments, from his now-infamous “speaking moistly” quip to that long pause when asked about Donald Trump’s treatment of anti-Black racism protesters.
Trudeau also took blows over his cabinet’s ill-fated decision to tap WE Charity to administer a student grant program. He conceded he should have recused himself from that decision because of his family’s ties to the organization. The conflict of interest and ethics commissioner is investigating the matter, raising the spectre that Trudeau could be found to have violated ethics rules for a third time.
Watch: CERB recipients who got CRA warning letters shouldn’t be anxious, Trudeau says
Provincial premiers also raised their profiles this year, perhaps none more so than Ontario Premier Doug Ford. The Ontario premier, who not long ago saw his approval ratings in the ditch, gained popularity as the folksy everyman in charge, dishing one-liners and a family cherry cheesecake recipe.
Despite a crisis in long-term care homes that saw the Canadian military called in, and clear stumbles and a dramatic rise in cases in the second wave, Ford appears to be ending the year in a relatively strong position.
It’s too early to know for certain how much Trudeau and Ford gained politically from this year, or if whatever goodwill they’ve accrued might vanish by the time voters next pass judgment.
It’s possible that we instead look back at 2020 and remember the rise of other Canadian political figures who made the best of a bad situation.
Here, in one politics editor’s view, are the top Canadian political winners of 2020.
Toronto lawyer Leslyn Lewis was largely unknown, even in Conservative circles, when she entered the race to replace Andrew Scheer as Tory leader. Her only prior political experience was a last-minute, long-shot run for a seat in Scarborough in 2015, where she replaced a Tory candidate dropped over an old video of him urinating in a coffee cup in the kitchen of a client’s house.
Though the leadership contest was overshadowed by the COVID-19 crisis, Lewis’ remarkable performance became a key storyline. Lewis, who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica at the age of five, was the first Black woman to run to lead the Conservatives.
“My presence alone sends a very strong message,” she told The Canadian Press earlier this year. “I don’t think I need to articulate the obvious.”
Lewis was one of just four candidates to get on the ballot by raising at least $300,000 and getting 3,000 signatures by the end of March, succeeding where other hopefuls, including MP Marilyn Gladu, fell short.
A social conservative, Lewis had the backing of anti-abortion advocacy groups and won a handful of endorsements from MPs.
At a televised English-language debate in June, the leading contenders, Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole, made points of repeatedly agreeing with Lewis. By early August, Lewis’ stunning fundraising numbers — $996,000 in donations in the second quarter of the year — saw her labelled both a potential kingmaker and wildcard contender for the crown.
In the end, Lewis finished a strong third, behind O’Toole and MacKay. Down-ballot support from Lewis supporters following her elimination after the second ballot was central to O’Toole’s victory.
She is now the acclaimed candidate in the rural Ontario riding of Haldimand–Norfolk, a Tory stronghold held since 2004 by former cabinet minister Diane Finley.
Finley has already announced she will not run again and last month delivered a farewell speech to the House of Commons, though she said she will stick around “a little while longer.” In response, O’Toole thanked Finley for providing “wisdom” and “mentoring” to Lewis.
Whether in a byelection in the new year or possible federal election, Lewis now sits in a prime position to punch her ticket to the House and the Conservative front benches.
The second federal leadership race of the year ended in October with a barrier-breaking, historic result when Toronto lawyer Annamie Paul won on the eighth round of balloting.
Paul is the first Black person and first Jewish woman to lead a major federal political party.
In her victory speech, Paul noted how her 84-year-old mother came to North America from the Caribbean amid the racial segregation of the 1960s and “never imagined, one day, her daughter would be elected to lead a national party in Canada.”
In a stark reminder the race played out amid a public health emergency, Paul also paid tribute to her father who died in a long-term care facility in May. “He died from the neglect that has caused thousands of people to die in our long-term care facilities,” she said. “He died of an avoidable infection.”
Paul, who replaced longtime leader Elizabeth May, came out swinging by calling other parties too “intellectually exhausted” to meet the challenges exposed by the pandemic and the existential crisis of climate change. “This is a moment that demands, daring, courageous leadership,” she said.
At her first press conference as leader, she said her win would bring “hope to all the people that have not seen themselves represented in politics to this point.”
Listen to HuffPost Canada’s “Follow-Up” podcast, ‘Goodbye Elizabeth May, Hello Annamie Paul’:
The same month, Paul competed in a byelection in Toronto Centre to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of former finance minister Bill Morneau. Paul ran in the riding in 2019, finishing a distant fourth.
She publicly pushed Trudeau in vain to postpone the contest, as well as another byelection in Toronto’s York Centre, because of rising COVID-19 cases in the city. Paul was not successful in her bid to win a seat, but she finished a strong second to Liberal Marci Ien in the historically Grit riding.
Though her quest for a seat goes on, Paul has found ways to be relevant from outside of the Commons. She was the first federal leader to call on the Canada Revenue Agency to suspend demands for repayments of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit until the new year.
Blaine Higgs and John Horgan
This year also saw two premiers – New Brunswick’s Blaine Higgs and British Columbia’s John Horgan – roll the dice, controversially call elections, and find themselves rewarded with strong majority governments.
While Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and his Saskatchewan Party were re-elected with a majority in October, a fixed election date law in that province meant that vote needed to happen in the fall.
Higgs called a snap vote in August after opposition leaders rebuffed his highly unconventional pitch for a deal that would see no provincial election until September 2022 or until health officials declare the pandemic over.
N.B. Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers called it a “negotiation with a gun to our head,” telling reporters Higgs threatened he would call an election that very day if parties couldn’t get on board.
Though Higgs faced immediate accusations of opportunism, the N.B. premier maintained he was seeking a stable government in uncertain times. After a four-week campaign, Higgs’ Progressive Conservatives won 27 of the province’s 49 seats, putting an end to a streak of four straight single-term governments in the province.
Vickers, one of the heroes of the 2014 attack on Parliament Hill, lost his seat and announced on election night that he would step down as Liberal leader.
“New Brunswickers have voted for leadership that is prepared, for leadership that has been tested and will continue to be tested, and for leadership that will make tough and balanced decisions to keep our province moving forward,” Higgs told supporters on election night.
Days later, on another coast, Horgan announced that B.C. voters would also be headed to the polls. The NDP premier, who came to power in 2017 thanks to a power-sharing agreement with Greens, also said he was looking for political stability.
Though a fixed election date was set in that province for October 2021, Horgan argued he needed a new mandate to respond to the health and economic challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. “I believe that stability will come by asking the people of British Columbia where they want to go and who they want to lead them,” he said.
B.C. Liberal Leader Andrew Wilkinson and Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau, who won the job just a week before the election call, blasted the decision as irresponsible because of the pandemic. While they also branded Horgan an opportunist, New Democrats rolled to victory.
In the end, Horgan’s party won 57 of the 87 seats in B.C.’s legislature. Wilkinson announced his intention to resign as leader the next day and officially stepped down in November.
“This has been an extraordinarily difficult election for many, many reasons, but it’s one that I believe had to happen and I’m grateful for all British Columbians that we can put the election behind us and we can get back to focusing on the things that matter,” Horgan told supporters on election night.
The successful bets Higgs and Horgan both made this year no doubt led others to wonder if another leader of a minority government —Trudeau — missed a similar window of opportunity in the fall.
When 2020 began, Erin O’Toole was the Conservative critic for foreign affairs. He’s now ending the year as leader of the Official Opposition and a potential prime minister.
To get there, O’Toole had to best Peter MacKay in a Conservative leadership race that largely played out over Zoom meetings and virtual events. MacKay, a co-founder of the modern Conservative Party who held some of the most coveted jobs in Stephen Harper’s government, including minister of foreign affairs, defence, and justice, was considered the favourite at the contest’s outset.
O’Toole ran as the “true blue” alternative to MacKay on a pledge to “take back Canada,” leaning on both a meaty policy platform and social media videos railing against so-called “cancel culture.” The race turned bitter and saw O’Toole’s campaign filing complaints with the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, and Toronto police, alleging MacKay’s campaign stole confidential campaign data.
O’Toole secured the job on the third ballot in late August after enough supporters of the eliminated candidates, Lewis and social conservative MP Derek Sloan, marked him as a second or third choice in the party’s ranked-ballot system.
Malfunctions with the voting machines saw results delayed for hours, forcing O’Toole to give a victory speech in the wee hours of the next morning. In his opening pitch, O’Toole made it explicitly clear he wants Canadians of all walks of life to see a Conservative in the mirror.
“Whether you are Black, white, brown or from any race or creed, whether you are LGBT or straight, whether you are an Indigenous Canadian or have joined the Canadian family three weeks ago or three generations ago, whether you are doing well, or barely getting by, whether you worship on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, or not at all... you are an important part of Canada and you have a home in the Conservative Party of Canada,” he said.
At his first press conference as the new Tory leader, O’Toole said he’d won the race as a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ politician, despite having courted social conservatives in the race. His predecessor, Scheer, was dogged during the 2019 federal election over his views and voting record on abortion and same-sex marriage.
In the weeks since, O’Toole has pressed the Liberal government to end the discriminatory gay blood ban but allowed a free vote on the government’s bill to ban conversion therapy. Seven Tory MPs voted against the proposed legislation.
In his first question period in his new role, a moment delayed after he tested positive for COVID-19, O’Toole’s opening remarks focused on reconciliation. He accused Trudeau of being “all talk and no action” on the file.
O’Toole has also moved to broaden his party’s appeal with organized labour by lamenting the decline in private-sector union membership in an October speech to the Canadian Club of Toronto. “This was an essential part of the balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees. Today, that balance is dangerously disappearing,” he said at the time.
Listen to HuffPost Canada’s “Follow-Up” podcast on O’Toole’s first 100 days as Tory leader:
His motion calling for a new “anti-corruption committee” to investigate the WE Charity affair and other “potential scandals” related to pandemic spending could have resulted in a snap election after Liberals declared the matter a confidence test.
O’Toole hit the skids in December with a tame response to Sloan’s sponsoring of an anti-vaccine petition and the surfacing of a video in which O’Toole told Ryerson university students that residential schools were created to “provide education” but turned “horrible.” The Conservative leader later backtracked — but didn’t apologize — saying in a statement the system was not intended to provide education but instead to “remove children from the influence of their homes, families, traditions, and cultures.”
O’Toole has been frank that he is still introducing himself to Canadians and has said he wants the pandemic to be behind Canadians before they are asked again to head to the polls. But with a spring budget looming and, with it the possibility of another campaign if the spending plan is rejected by the House, the new Tory leader could soon get his shot at the job he really wants.
Chrystia Freeland was already being touted as Trudeau’s “indispensable” minister before anyone had heard of COVID-19. But in 2020, she became his “minister of everything” and, potentially, his heir apparent.
When the prime minister created a special COVID-19 committee in early March, it was Freeland who was named chair.
As deputy prime minister and interprovincial affairs minister, Freeland helped improve the federal government’s relationship with conservative premiers. She told The Toronto Star in April that she and Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who was a prime target for Grits in the last federal election, had “come to describe one another as each other’s therapists.”
By August, it became obvious Morneau’s days as finance minister were limited — not just because he didn’t recuse himself from the government’s WE Charity decision despite family ties to the organization, but because of leaked stories of a rift with Trudeau.
Though there was speculation that former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney might be drafted to fill Morneau’s budget shoes, it was Freeland who got that call. She became Canada’s first female finance minister a day after Morneau’s resignation.
“I’d like to say to all the Canadian women across our amazing country who are out there breaking glass ceilings, keep going,” she said. “We are 100 per cent with you.”
She later made the economic case for increased emergency spending in a speech to the Toronto Global Forum, with the caveat she is not among those who believe deficits don’t matter.
“Whether on Bay Street or Main Street, there are no blank cheques, and there are no free lunches,” she said.
Her much-anticipated fall economic statement in November kept the spending taps open and projected a federal deficit of at least $381.6 billion this fiscal year. She promised up to $100 billion will be spent on Canada’s economic recovery from the pandemic.
Her fiscal update also included the first steps to a potentially legacy-defining goal of creating a national child-care system that she said will be “affordable, accessible, inclusive and high-quality” from coast to coast to coast.
“I say this both as a working mother and as a finance minister. Canada will not be truly competitive until all Canadian women have access to the affordable child care we need to support our participation in our country’s workforce,” she told the House of Commons.
The specific details of that child-care plan and other big-ticket Liberal promises will be included in her spring budget, the government’s first since March 2019.
Though the role of deputy prime minister has in the past been seen as largely symbolic, Freeland’s power and influence have been immense. Her elevation to finance minister in 2020 solidifies her position as one of the most consequential ministers in recent memory.
On the day Freeland was sworn in as finance minister, Trudeau was asked if his name will be on the ballot the next time there is a federal election. He responded with a chuckle, and said “absolutely.”
But if it is not too early to think about who might replace Trudeau as Liberal leader, 2020 might one day be seen as the year Freeland’s rise became inevitable.