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'Not the result we wanted': Trudeau responds after surprise Conservative byelection win in Liberal stronghold

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Conservative candidate Don Stewart winning the closely-watched Toronto-St. Paul's federal byelection, and delivering a stunning upset to Justin Trudeau's candidate Leslie Church in the long-time Liberal riding, has sent political shockwaves through both parties.

Responding to the result, and facing calls from his main opponent now to call a general election, Trudeau acknowledged the outcome has made it clear that "I and my entire Liberal team have much more work to do to deliver tangible, real progress that Canadians across the country can see and feel."

Congratulating Stewart for his "tightly fought" victory, and for Church's "positive campaign," Trudeau did not address the broader questions now being raised about his future.

"This was obviously not the result we wanted, but I want to be clear that I hear people's concerns and frustrations," Trudeau said, without taking questions. "My focus is on your success and that's where it's going to stay."

After a late night of tallying historically long ballots carried on into the early morning, the stronger early Liberal vote count faded into Pierre Poilievre's Conservatives taking the lead and maintaining it by more than 500 votes by the time all Elections Canada polls had reported.

The news left the war rooms for both the Conservatives and Liberals in shock. Senior sources from both parties seem to have been surprised by the outcome, and already wheels are turning about what's next. 

According to the preliminary results, Stewart secured 42.1 per cent of the vote with 15,555 votes cast for him, while Church received 40.5 per cent of the vote, with 14,965 ballots cast for her. The NDP candidate Amrit Parhar came a distant third, and Green Party candidate Christian Cullis placed fourth.

Liberal sources speaking to CTV News on Tuesday said that they didn't think the gap would close as much as it did, but the view that Church was closely tied to a deeply unpopular prime minister was clear at the doors.

The Conservatives did not expect to win, according to the sources CTV News spoke with. Their internals had Stewart winning about 36 or 37 per cent of the vote, with the campaign team hoping for a five-point gap, to be able to make the case that voters sent Trudeau a message.

For several weeks, political pundits and pollsters have speculated that the outcome could be consequential for the political summer ahead, with the consensus being that if Trudeau's party showed signs of slipping, it could spark a bigger conversation. 

Now that it has been confirmed that not only did the Liberal support slip, but the party has lost what has been a textbook definition of a Liberal stronghold for three decades to Poilievre's Conservatives, the prime minister is likely to face more tough questions about his future.

As pollster Nik Nanos said Tuesday morning, the "smash and grab" Conservative victory is "basically a slap in the face" for the Liberals. His view is that something needs to change with how the party is operating, or the country will be careening towards a clear change election.

As of Monday night, Nanos had said a Liberal loss or even a narrow win would be "completely devastating" for Trudeau and his party, because it would mean that if the Conservatives can be competitive in downtown Toronto, there'd be no real safe seat for the Liberals.

Liberals disappointed, talk next steps

Going from her election-night sentiment of feeling "great about the result," to conceding defeat and congratulating her opponent for a "well-run campaign," Church called the results "disappointing," but vowed to run again in the riding come the next federal election. 

"Yesterday voters in Toronto-St. Paul's sent us a clear message, that they want us to re-earn their trust. I hear that message loud and clear," Church said. "They want a government that fulfills its promise to be there for them. That does not mean we give up, it does not mean we walk away. It means we must deliver more action on their priorities."

When asked what they think this could mean for the question of whether the time has come for Trudeau to step down after 11 years as Liberal leader, early indications from the senior Liberals CTV News spoke to were that it's ultimately up to him.

However, four backbench Liberal MPs who spoke on a not-for-attribution basis expressed more direct concern about the outcome.

One told CTV News that they are now worried about losing all of the Greater Toronto Area if Trudeau doesn't resign, and another said after moving "so far left" with the latest budget, the party shouldn't be shocked. One suggested the time has come for Trudeau to "take a walk," and another said they view the party as "drowning."

Publicly, the Liberal MPs who took questions Tuesday largely expressed their continued support for the prime minister.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday afternoon, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland said Trudeau "certainly" can stay on, and has the Liberal minority government's support.

"I'll just say, this is a disappointing result. We take it seriously. We know that things are hard for people in Canada, and we know we have to work even harder delivering for Canadians, winning back the trust of Canadians," Freeland said. "That's what we're all committed to do." 

Minister and the party's Ontario co-chair for the next campaign Karina Gould said she thinks the Liberals "need to regroup" but she doesn't think this disappointing defeat means Trudeau's leadership is in peril. 

Reacting early Tuesday, CTV News political commentator Scott Reid said in a post on social media that "this changes everything for the Liberals and for the PM," echoing Nanos' analysis about the uncertainty now of other Liberal strongholds.

Expanding on this later on CTV News Channel, Reid said this result has landed "like a bolt of political lightning."

"It is undeniable now that the party's current trajectory takes them to political devastation," Reid said, echoing Nanos' assessment that if the Liberals can lose this riding, they could lose "just about any riding in the country."

"The trend and the demand for change is so pronounced," Reid said. "The real question that the prime minister obviously is going to have to come to grips with is: what can he do to alter the current trajectory? Is there anything short of stepping aside?"

Cracking the fortress, calls for election

For the Conservatives, cracking Liberal fortress Toronto for the first time since 2011 is a major win, set to only bolster the party's backing of Poilievre, who has been running double digits ahead of the Liberals in opinion polling for some time.

Heading into election night the Conservatives seemed to be trying to temper electoral expectations, with Poilievre continuing his RV roadtrip through Quebec with his family.

Now, they're feeling buoyed about the prospect of other safe Liberal seats opening for them, according to the sources CTV News spoke with. There are nearly a handful of other federal byelections that will have to be called in the coming months, including a few seats where other Liberal MPs have vacated ahead of the next general election.

Celebrating the win, Poilievre's deputy Melissa Lantsman welcomed the party's newest addition in a coveted area code, who will take his seat in the House of Commons as a member of Parliament in September.

"Congratulations to the team… and to the unwavering leadership of Pierre Poilievre," Lantsman posted on social media. "Thank you most of all to the voters of Toronto - St. Paul's."

Poilievre then joined in, posting on social media that the verdict from the "shocking upset" is that "Trudeau can't go on like this," and must call a general election now.

"It's a catastrophe for the Liberals," said Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer. "This is like if Pierre Poilievre lost a seat in rural Alberta… It's an absolute embarrassment."

Lietaer also noted the low support seen for the NDP in the ballot outcome, and while NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh congratulated his candidate, he suggested the Liberals' supply-and-confidence deal partner now has a lot to think about in terms of how long they remain hitched to team Trudeau.

That two-party pact is slated to last until June 2025, with the next federal election scheduled for October 2025, with Trudeau repeatedly asserting his intentions to lead his party into it.

'Two visions of Canada'

Speaking to supporters at his campaign office before midnight, Stewart told his backers to "not give it up," and "bring it home," to cheers, according to The Canadian Press. Just after noon on Tuesday Stewart issued a statement thanking voters in his new riding for their support.

"I am beyond humbled for the trust you have put in me and I will never take it for granted... The results sent Justin Trudeau a loud and clear message: He is not worth the cost. Pierre Poilievre has a common sense plan that is resonating in every corner of the country, including right here in the heart of Toronto."

Stewart has an engineering and business background, and has spent time working on Bay Street, and is a former associate of top Poilievre adviser Jenni Byrne.

Church previously worked as Freeland's chief of staff. Church has also worked at Google and the University of Toronto, between political staffer positions.

During an event on Monday, Freeland – who represents a neighbouring riding – framed the vote as "a choice between two visions of Canada, two sets of values."

"I'm really calling on the people of St. Paul's to go out there and vote for [Church] because the alternative is really cold, and cruel, and small. The alternative is cuts and austerity, not believing in ourselves as a country, not believing in our communities and in our neighbors," Freeland said.

Conservative sources pointed to Freeland's comments as the Liberals' so-called "Hillary moment," a reference to when former U.S. democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called her opponent Donald Trump's supporters a "basket of deplorables."

Asked Tuesday about her comments, the deputy prime minister did not walk them back. 

Both candidates had help over the last few months from party heavyweights, seeing droves of Liberal ministers and MPs lace up their runners and knock on doors for Church, while Stewart had support from Poilievre and many on his party's front bench.

As CTV News reported from the riding, growing political discontent with Trudeau and preoccupation over big issues such as affordability, housing and the Israel-Hamas war, played out at the doorsteps.

The riding opened up after Carolyn Bennett stepped down, and has since been appointed as Canada's ambassador to Denmark.

In her last election in 2021, the margin of victory between Bennett and the runner-up Conservative opponent was considerable, but not as wide as it had been in 2019. Bennett secured the seat with 49.2 per cent of the vote in 2021, with 26,429 of the 53,698 valid ballots cast, while the Conservative candidate took about 25 per cent of the vote.

Byelection turnouts are historically lower than in general elections. In this race, turnout was 43.5 per cent. 

Defending the "longer than usual" amount of time it took for results to be tallied, Elections Canada cited the record-setting 84 candidates running, a coordinated effort by electoral reform advocacy group the "Longest Ballot Committee."

"The unusual dimensions of the ballot itself meant that some steps took more time than normal," said Elections Canada spokesperson Matthew McKenna, noting the bigger ballots also meant more ballot boxes.

"We always do our best to share election results as soon as possible after polls close, but maintaining the integrity and transparency of the counts is always our first priority," McKenna said. 

With files from CTV News' Chief Political Correspondent Vassy Kapelos

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