OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday announced an early election in Canada, a step he said was needed to give his government a mandate for dealing with the pandemic and the recovery from its economic effects.
The widely anticipated move signaled his confidence that voters would return him to power after three consecutive campaigns.
The election, scheduled for Sept. 20, 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.
“Everyone understands that we are really at a pivotal moment in the history of our country,” Mr. Trudeau said after asking Governor General Mary Simon to dissolve Parliament to permit the snap election. “This is a moment where Canadians can and should be able to weigh in on what we’re going through and on how we’re going to build a society that is stronger and better.”
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, 29 members of Parliament announced their retirements, signaling that a vote was looming.
As they have been during the pre-election campaigning, on Sunday Erin O’Toole, the Conservative leader, and Jagmeet Singh, who leads the left-of-center New Democratic Party, condemned voting 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 opportunistic and unnecessary play by Mr. Trudeau to allow his Liberal Party secure a majority in the House of Commons, something it was denied in 2019.
On Sunday, Mr. O’Toole said the prime minister was fully aware that the fourth wave of the pandemic was underway.
“He has more information than all Canadians,” Mr. O’Toole said in an Ottawa studio which he will use for virtual campaign events. “I sincerely hope Justin Trudeau is not putting people at risk by launching this election.”
Mr. O’Toole did not answer repeated questions about whether his party had followed the lead of the Liberals and New Democrats by requiring its candidates to be fully vaccinated. He also did not reply to questions about Mr. Trudeau’s plans to require complete vaccination for public servants as well as airline and intercity train passengers or about whether vaccine passports are needed.
“Conservatives would like Canadians to be able to make their own decision,” Mr. O’Toole said in French while urging voters to get their shots. “We have to educate people, not force them.”
Canadian political observers widely agree that Mr. Trudeau, 49, is gambling that his government’s generally well-received handling of the pandemic — Canada is at or near 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.
Speaking at a park in Montreal, Mr. Singh of the New Democratic Party noted all the work the government had done despite its minority status while taking credit for successfully pressing the Liberals to enhance several of those measures. That, he suggested, undermines Mr. Trudeau’s assertion that he needs a new mandate to deal with the remainder of the pandemic and its aftermath.
“Why does he want a majority?” Mr. Singh asked. “The reality is he is fed up with New Democrats pushing him to deliver more help to more people.”
All major Canadian polls put Mr. Trudeau’s party ahead of the Conservatives, who were the largest opposition group in the last Parliament. 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.