The election everyone was ready for — except Pierre Trudeau

Candidates quit their day jobs and advertising strategies were fully fleshed out, but in the end it was all for nothing — or not quite yet.

An election call seemed all but certain in 1978, but PM certainly didn't want it

'The election that never was'

44 years ago
Duration 1:58
Everyone expected there would be an election called, except Pierre Trudeau.

Pierre Trudeau wasn't going to win the election — but that was OK, because he was the one who got to call it.

And on May 11, 1978, after weeks of feverish speculation and preparations, he decided it wasn't going to happen.

"It's obvious that ... the spring would have been about four years since the last election," he told a press theatre packed full of journalists that day. "At least, early summer would have been."

But he was confirming there would be no election anytime soon at his weekly press conference after weeks of being asked about it. 

"I can't say that I planned for any, and I had to turn down, or turn off, a lot of plans." 

'His party's greatest liability'

Pierre Trudeau did some gladhanding on Parliament Hill after not calling an election on May 11, 1978. (Newsmagazine/CBC Archives)

Outside on Parliament Hill after the announcement, well-wishers shook Trudeau's hand in the spring sunshine.

They were apparently not among the majority of Canadians who, according to reporter CBC Tom Leach, had told pollsters they would not be voting Liberal that spring or summer.

"There was no sign ... of the deep personal hurt he's reported to be feeling because those same polls say he himself is his party's greatest liability," added Leach.

Journalists listened "in an atmosphere of resignation and anticlimax," said Leach.

"Others made new plans for the summer vacation they thought they'd lost."

They were off the hook

Everyone was ready except the PM

44 years ago
Duration 2:04
Broadcasters, candidates, and ad agencies suddenly had to change their plans when Pierre Trudeau didn't call the election.

CBC-TV had even made a graphic for Election 78 that would only be pulled out to illustrate the non-election call on the news.   

"Canada's broadcasters ... spent thousands of dollars between them for the expected election," noted Leach.

Over at Elections Canada, workers welcomed the breather. 

Elections Canada was just about ready for the election, but got a breather when it wasn't called. (Newsmagazine/CBC Archives)

"What with new boundaries, printing ballots ... they've been working full tilt for months," said Leach. "Although much of the work had already been completed, they were happy to have more time to finish it off." 

Jean-Marc Hamel, the Chief Elections Officer, said much of the money that had gone to preparations would be spent eventually.

Still, the election — whenever it came — was going to cost an estimated $55 million, between acquisition of materials and running the election itself. 

"On top of this will be the reimbursement to candidates and political parties under the Elections Expenses Act," said Hamel.

The parties had already been spending on posters and handbills, with printers churning out PC campaign matter for months.   

"Officials have been planning ahead, booking meeting halls, generally getting party machinery into gear," said Leach.

That PC machinery wouldn't kick into high gear for almost another year, ending in victory for Joe Clark

Pierre Trudeau attends St. Jean Baptiste Day celebrations with sons Alexandre, left, and Justin, in 1978. Had he called an election on May 11, he would have been campaigning instead. (Rod MacIvor/Canadian Press)

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