Oh, Canada The country that prides itself as the social-policy soul-mate of Scandinavia—with universal health care, progressive drug policies, gay marriage, and yes, even legalized swingers’ clubs, of late—has elected as its leader a former oil-and-gas man from Alberta, the Canadian equivalent of Texas. Huh?

On Monday, Canada’s Conservative Party won the majority of seats in parliament, ousting the once-formidable Liberal Party from power for the first time in 13 years. Paul Martin, who became prime minister in 2004, resigned as head of the Liberal Party.

What’s an American Cascadian to think?

Well, Canada has four major political parties (the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Quebecois), so what may look like a sudden and unexpected upheaval is actually a more nuanced election than you typically get in the United States. Mix in the biggest political corruption investigation in years (the “sponsorship scandal,” which involved widespread mishandling of a public fund used to promote federalism over separatism in Quebec), and you have a race that the incumbent Liberal government was itching to lose.

Upon closer inspection, the vote was tight, and the Conservatives, or the Tories as they’re known north of the border, are left with a minority government—only 124 out of 308 seats in parliament—which means they have to reach out to other parties and form a coalition to actually govern. In fact, they only received 36.3 percent of the popular vote.

A mandate it ain’t.

  • And in Canada’s three biggest cities—Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver–it was a shut out. The Conservative Party won zero seats.

    In British Columbia, there was a certifiable progressive resurgence. The New Democrat Party (NDP), social democrats to the left of the Liberals, doubled their seats, largely through scrappy, narrow victories in diverse metropolitan neighborhoods like Vancouver’s Kingsway. (This follows strong gains for the NDP in the provincial election last May, when the NDP recovered from the total annihilation of 2001, which left them with a pathetic one seat in BC’s legislative assembly. In the May 2005 provincial election, many voters were reacting to the sweeping government cutbacks provincial leader Gordon Campbell unleashed on the province after he became premier in 2001.)

    The Tories lost BC seats, even in rural regions dominated by resource industries. Areas like Northern Vancouver Island, the Southern Interior, and the North all elected NDP candidates.

    How will the election affect environmental policy?

    Campbell is still the premier of British Columbia, and most land-use planning decisions will be decided on his watch.

    But with only 21 more seats than the Liberals, the Conservative party is in no position to throw out Kyoto. Many Canadians are proud of the leadership role their country has played in finding global solutions to climate change, including hosting the Montreal conference last November.

    One hot BC issue is the longstanding federal moratorium on oil-and-gas drilling off the BC coast. The NDP incumbent 33-year-old Nathan Cullen, won out over Conservative Party candidate Mike Scott, who was campaigning on the promise to lift the moratorium.

    Cullen campaigned to safeguard the coast from drilling, strengthen aboriginal rights and title, and battle the encroachment of fish farms. The area he represents as a member of parliament is no progressive oasis. Stretching from the Queen Charlotte Islands all the way to Fort St. John, it’s full of cash-strapped communities and forests decimated by Asian pine beetles.

    Perhaps the most interesting outcome of the Canadian election is the emergence of Liberal star Michael Ignatieff. This ex-pat—a Harvard professor, frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and human rights activist—returned to Ontario at the start of this eight-week campaign to run for office and clean up the Liberals. He won a seat in parliament, and he’s now vying for party leader. Some have crowned him the Liberals’ new philosopher-king, and, perhaps, Canada’s future prime minister.