The governing Liberal Party suffered some embarrassing setbacks Monday, including losses by two Cabinet ministers, but eked out a reduced majority in a Parliament more divided than ever by regional interests.
For the first time, a party playing on anti-Quebec sentiment - the Western-based Reform Party - emerged as the main opposition force in the House of Commons.
Reform failed to make inroads in eastern Canada, but rolled to a near-sweep in Alberta and British Columbia with a platform suggesting too many concessions had been made to persuade Quebeckers not to secede.
The centrist Liberals, who five weeks ago were cocky enough to call the election 18 months early, held 174 seats in the outgoing Parliament. With returns almost complete, they appeared likely to win about three or four seats more than the 151 needed to form a majority government under Prime Minister Jean Chretien.
Chretien himself barely survived a close race in his own district in Quebec against a strong separatist challenger.
The separatist Bloc Quebecois was ahead in 45 of the French-speaking province’s 75 districts, enough for them to claim there was still momentum for to call a referendum on independence within the next few years. They had held 50 seats before the election.
The Bloc’s leader, Gilles Duceppe, said the overall results - including Reform’s success - should signal to Quebeckers that secession was necessary.
“Reconciliation of the aspirations of Quebec and those of the rest of Canada are impossible,” he said.
The first batch of returns, from the four Maritime provinces, were devastating for the Liberals. They had held 31 of the 32 seats there, but lost two-thirds of them, including the Nova Scotia seat of Health Minister David Dingwall and the New Brunswick seat of Defense Minister Doug Young.
But the Liberals rebounded, as expected, in populous Ontario, scoring a near-sweep of the 103 seats. And they also were doing well in Quebec, adding perhaps 10 seats to the 19 they held before.
The nationwide results cast doubt on the Liberals’ claim to be the only truly national party in Canada. Their poor showing in the west and the Maritimes left Ontario as their only major stronghold. In Manitoba, they lost half of their 12 seats, in part because of anger that Chretien called the election in the midst of the province’s worst flood of the century.