'I hear your concerns': Trudeau reflects on devastating byelection loss

OTTAWA — After losing a Toronto-area riding the Liberals have held for more than three decades, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday he heard the "concerns and frustrations" of voters.

His party, pollsters and even Conservatives had considered Toronto-St. Paul's to be a relatively safe seat for the Liberals as voters headed to cast ballots in a byelection Monday.

But by the wee hours of Tuesday, the Conservative candidate took a narrow lead and clinched the seat — the first time the Tories have won in Toronto proper since 2011.

The upset has sparked questions about the political prospects of Trudeau and his Liberals, whose polling numbers across Canada are down around their ankles.

"These are not easy times, and it is clear I, and my entire Liberal team, have much more work to do to deliver tangible, real progress that Canadians can see and feel," Trudeau said at a press conference in British Columbia, where he did not take questions.

"We'll never stop working and fighting to make sure people have what they need to get through these tough times. My focus is on your success, and that's where it's going to stay."

The statement appeared to pour water on any speculation that the prime minister plans to resign as party leader.

At a press conference in Toronto, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland expressed her support for the prime minister and his ability to carry the party into the next election.

She wouldn't reflect on the reasons for the loss.

"We know that these are hard times for Canadians, we know that we have to work hard to earn back their trust," she said.

"The prime minister is committed to leading us into the next election, and he has our support."

The Liberal party issued a generic statement that thanked candidate Leslie Church and her volunteers for their hard work and acknowledged that the party knew the byelection would be a tough race.

Meanwhile, most Liberal MPs have been almost eerily silent in the aftermath of the loss, allowing their cellphones to ring directly to voice mail and pausing social-media posts.

"I have no interest in playing any role in this feeding frenzy," said Prince Edward Island Liberal MP Sean Casey when The Canadian Press reached him and asked for his reaction to the results.

Several ministers did take questions at events on Monday, including Veterans Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor, who said the byelection results were not what Liberals wanted, and Revenue Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau who said she still feels confident about her party's future.

Though pollsters and political watchers have been keen to expound on what the byelection says about the Liberals' prospects in the next general election, Toronto Liberal MP John McKay suggested the conditions may have been unique to the riding.

He said he did some door-knocking one afternoon for the campaign in a Jewish community in the riding, and found that previous Liberal voters who supported Israel were planning to vote Conservative.

"I come away from it saying to myself that, really, this was a referendum on Israel as much as anything else, and unhappiness with Trudeau kind of played in the background," McKay said Tuesday, noting the massive effect of the Israel-Hamas war on domestic politics.

"The double-whammy effect of that puts the Conservative candidate over the top. I don't think it's a huge love affair with Poilievre."

Toronto has seen a rampant increase in antisemitism and hate-motivated incidents since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and ensuing conflict in the Gaza Strip.

The Conservatives appealed to the Jewish community to vote Tory in response to the Liberal "silence" on the rise of antisemitism and hate.

"We can no longer afford leaders who are silent in the face of this existential threat," Melissa Lantsman, the deputy Conservative leader, said in a letter received by Jewish households in the riding.

Andrew Kirsch, an organizer with Jewish Ally, which registered as a third party to run ads during the byelection, says he was surprised by the results.

He suggested the government's response to the rise in antisemitism motivated Jewish voters to vote.

The Liberal candidate, Leslie Church, said she plans to run again in Toronto-St. Paul's, but said voters have told her the party will need to re-earn their trust.

Carolyn Bennett, the former Liberal cabinet minister whose resignation in January triggered this byelection, won the seat nine times for the Liberals, and by more than 20 percentage points every time except once.

It's tough for incumbent governments in western democracies to bring home wins after years of global instability including a pandemic, said British Columbia Liberal MP Ken Hardie, but it's even harder when the nominee is a young candidate "who just simply didn't have the roots that deep in the community."

"The slate was clear," Hardie said. "And people did what they sometimes do in a byelection: they sent a message."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 25, 2024.

— With files from Stephanie Taylor

Laura Osman and Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press