OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Canada’s governor general on Sunday morning and set the country on a path to an early vote. The move had been widely anticipated and signaled his confidence that voters would return him to power after three consecutive campaigns.
The election will come less than two years after the previous vote and at a time when coronavirus cases are rising in many parts of the country, leading health officials to declare that a fourth wave is underway. Mr. Trudeau could have waited until 2024 to call an election.
Approval of Mr. Trudeau’s request to dissolve Parliament to allow a vote was largely a matter of rubber stamping for Governor General Mary Simon, who is the head of state as Queen Elizabeth’s representative. In the past few days, members of Mr. Trudeau’s government have been told to prepare for an election campaign that would start Sunday, with a vote set for Sept. 20, the minimum period for campaigning by law.
For several weeks, Mr. Trudeau, prominent members of his cabinet and the leaders of the main opposition parties have been making campaign-style appearances across Canada. Throughout the summer, several politicians have announced their retirements, signaling that a vote was looming.
While campaigning recently, Erin O’Toole, the Conservative leader, and Jagmeet Singh, who leads the left-of-center New Democratic Party, condemned the idea of an election during the pandemic as dangerous, although provincial governments from both of their parties have held votes amid the health crisis. The opposition leaders also characterized an early vote as an unnecessary play by Mr. Trudeau to help his Liberal Party secure a majority in the House of Commons, something it was denied in 2019.
Canadian political observers widely agree that Mr. Trudeau, 49, is gambling that his government’s generally well-received handling of the pandemic — Canada is on the verge of having the highest vaccination rate in the world — will translate into political success if an election is held soon. Waiting longer could allow that good will to dissipate, said Shachi Kurl, the president of the Angus Reid Institute, a nonprofit polling group based in Vancouver, British Columbia.
All major Canadian polls put Mr. Trudeau’s party ahead of the Conservatives, but Mr. Trudeau’s hoped-for parliamentary majority is not a sure thing.
Much has changed for him politically since he promised “sunny ways” when the Liberal Party he helmed unexpectedly defeated the Conservatives in 2015.
A self-described feminist and strong supporter of reconciliation with Indigenous people, Mr. Trudeau was thrown into a spin before the last election. A federal ethics watchdog found in August 2019 that his office had violated an ethics law when it pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, an Indigenous woman who was justice minister and attorney general, to drop a criminal case against a Montreal-based company.
A conviction for the company could have cost thousands of jobs and diminished the Liberals’ political fortunes in Quebec, Mr. Trudeau’s staff believed. When Ms. Wilson-Raybould did not yield, she was demoted to a lesser cabinet post, which she ultimately quit.
Then, during Mr. Trudeau’s last election campaign, it emerged that before he was in politics, he had dressed up in blackface or brownface on at least three occasions. His party won the most seats in the 2019 election, 157, but fell short of an outright majority in the 338-seat House of Commons.
During the pandemic, Mr. Trudeau’s economic support programs for individuals and businesses have proved popular. But a program to funnel money to students left without summer jobs became a political anchor for the prime minister.
The student program was to be administered by WE Charity, a group that had paid his mother, Margaret Trudeau, and his brother Alexandre Trudeau about 282,000 Canadian dollars (about $225,000) for speaking engagements. The prime minister had spoken at many WE Charity events, and his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, once hosted a podcast connected to the charity.
Mr. Trudeau said that WE Charity had been selected by nonpartisan public servants to run the program, but he acknowledged that he should have recused himself when the cabinet considered the no-bid contract. The grant program was ultimately canceled.
Despite those setbacks, Mr. Trudeau’s ability to draw an enthusiastic, photo-snapping crowd remains unsurpassed among Canadian politicians.
Another asset for Mr. Trudeau going into a campaign is Mr. O’Toole’s slow start since becoming the Conservative Party leader almost a year ago. The pandemic most likely contributed to Mr. O’Toole’s low political profile and approval ratings.
That applies even in the Conservative stronghold of Alberta, where the Liberals were shut out in the last election.
“We found that O’Toole was really no more popular than Trudeau,” said Janet Brown, who runs a polling firm in Calgary, Alberta, that mostly works for news organizations. “Even Albertans who are traditional Conservative voters just don’t feel that they know him very well yet.”
A campaign, of course, may allow Mr. O’Toole, a former Royal Canadian Air Force navigator and corporate lawyer, to become better known.
Because the provinces of Ontario and Quebec are home to about two-thirds of Canada’s population, they are crucial to taking power.
Polls show that the Liberals continue to dominate the electoral districts around Montreal, while the Bloc Québécois, a regional party committed to Quebec independence, rules most of the rest of the province, leaving few opportunities for Mr. O’Toole there.