Hebert: Spate of byelections will leave big shoes to fill

Under the guise of the first large set of byelections since Justin Trudeau became prime minister, voters are about to turn a definitive corner on generational change on Parliament Hill.

The vote to take place on April 3 in the immediate aftermath of the federal budget in five ridings spread across Quebec, Ontario and Alberta will not – despite the hype – amount to a major test of the government or, for that matter, the Conservative official Opposition.

Three of the ridings at play are among the safest Liberal seats in the land. At the worst of times for the party, in 2011, the ridings all returned Liberal MPs with a relatively comfortable majority.

The other two are Conservative fortresses set in Alberta – the province that has been most resilient, according to the polls on voting intentions, to Trudeau’s sunny ways.

If Trudeau failed to hold Ottawa-Vanier, St-Laurent and Markham-Thornhill on April 3, it would not be a leap to conclude that there is not a safe Liberal seat in the country. Ditto for the Conservatives in the case of Calgary Midnapore and Calgary Heritage.

What makes this set of byelections special is not its probable non-impact on the makeup of the House of Commons, but rather the big shoes that the incumbents are leaving behind for others to try to fill.

The April 3 vote marks the end of an era in more ways than one.

Stephen Harper initially came to the House of Commons as part of the contingent of Reform MPs that took the Hill by storm in 1993. He was the last of them to be elected – in Calgary Heritage – in 2015. In between, he did fulfil the core Reform promise to bring Alberta and Western Canada into the federal power loop.

His constituents sent him off in style, with almost two-thirds of the votes cast in the riding in the last election.

Of the Quebec federal ministers who stared down into the post-referendum abyss, Stéphane Dion was the last to still hold a seat.

On his first day as Jean Chrétien’s post-referendum point minister, shortly after the 1995 referendum, Dion had said he was coming to Ottawa to change the reality of the country. Suffice it to say that, as the voters of St-Laurent get set to replace him, there has not been at the cabinet table a so-called unity minister for more than a decade. With Dion gone, that sweater may have to be retired.

Jason Kenney and John McCallum both made a mark, in different ways, as immigration ministers.

The first brought Canada’s ethnically diverse communities inside the federal party’s tent in a way that no other Conservative had in the past. Based on the fear-mongering undertone of the ongoing federal leadership campaign, it may take more than a new Conservative MP for the riding of Calgary Midnapore to preserve that legacy.

McCallum presided over the execution of Justin Trudeau’ s signature promise to bring in more Syrian refugees. From his new diplomatic perch in Beijing, he will get to see whether that initiative marked the end of a more innocent age or the opposite. By moving on now, he may well have dodged a major refugee crisis.

As MP for Ottawa-Vanier, Mauril Bélanger was very much the voice of Ontario’s francophone community in Parliament and it is a mantle he wore with grace.

The Liberals would like to give the Conservatives a bit of a run for their money in Calgary. They have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to potential candidates in Saint-Laurent, but also a potential embarrassment to resolve.

Yolande James, Quebec’s former immigration minister, is one of three candidates vying to run for the Liberals in Dion’s riding. In her previous political incarnation, she twice supported the decision to deny access to French-language courses to a woman who insisted on wearing a niqab to class. That could put her on a collision course with Trudeau on a defining issue for the prime minister.

The NDP ran a distant second or third in all five ridings. It does not really have a dog in this fight. Things will be different if outgoing NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair ever puts the riding of Outremont in play by deciding to not serve a full term as MP.

Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer.

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