OTTAWA – Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sealed his place in the history books, rolling to his third consecutive Conservative election win.  This is the first majority government for the Conservatives since 1988, thanks to a remarkable showing in Ontario.

Harper joins Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, and 1950s-era John Diefenbaker as just the third Tory to prevail in three consecutive federal votes.

In the process, he’s also delivered an historic defeat to Canada’s once “natural governing party,” as Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals tumbled to third place in the seat standings behind the NDP.

The New Democrats, who had hoped to ride a mid-campaign surge of support to an orange revolution, become Canada’s official Opposition for the first time.

The Conservative run started in Atlantic Canada, where the Tories overtook the Liberals in the popular vote and added three of the 12 additional seats needed to ensure solid control of Parliament.

The Liberals emerged from the Maritimes scarred but alive, having dropped two seats to the New Democrats and three to the Conservatives. The Tories picked up one seat by a razor-thin margin in Newfoundland and Labrador after being shut out in the last election.

Nationally, the Conservatives had 38 per cent of the vote, compared to 30 per cent for the NDP and 28 for the Liberals.

Harper gave his victory speech at his party in Calgary.

“Thanks to our national team in Ottawa and on the road. Thanks to the tens of thousands Conservatives in the country,” Harper thanked his supporters. “You are our strength, you are our inspiration, you are our conscience.”

He also mentioned his family, including his mother and wife.

“Thank you to my mother who has held down the fort for the last five weeks with the kids and survived,” he joked. “And to Lorraine, I don’t know how you do it,” he said. “I could never adequately express my love.”

A fractious campaign that began slowly in the last week of March turned into a ground-churning, two-horse race to the finish.

A buoyant Harper cast his ballot at an elementary-junior high school in his Calgary Southwest riding, with wife Laureen and their two children at his side.

Layton and his Liberal rival, Michael Ignatieff, both voted in their Toronto ridings earlier in the day, reflecting what is expected to be the most significant dynamic of the national ballot.

Ignatieff, the subject of more than a year of negative Conservative advertising going into the 36-day race, proved to be a game campaigner but his anti-Harper call for change appeared to benefit Layton.

The NDP surged to unprecedented levels in Quebec after the leaders’ debate and appeared to gain momentum across Canada in the last two weeks of the campaign.

Layton voted in his Toronto Danforth riding accompanied by his wife, incumbent New Democrat Olivia Chow, along with his mother-in-law, daughter and granddaughter.

Ignatieff shook hands as he arrived at a polling station in a junior high school in suburban Etobicoke, trailed by news media. He appeared a bit on edge and after slowly inserting his ballot in the box, he got on the bus and waved to the cameras.

Later, he and wife Zsuzsanna Zohar visited a nursing home. The Liberal leader said it “feels great” to vote after the rigorous campaign.

Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe cast his ballot in the morning in the Montreal riding where he’s believed to be fighting for his own seat.

And in the British Columbia riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands, Green Leader Elizabeth May was looking to defeat Tory cabinet minister Gary Lunn.

May focused virtually her entire campaign on the riding in her attempt to gain a voice inside the House of Commons. Insiders suggest the race is too close to call.

Depending largely on those vote splits, the Conservatives appeared to be on the cusp of their first majority since Harper initially took power in January 2006.

Just 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot in the 2008 federal election, the lowest in Canadian history.

However, voters turned out in record numbers for early balloting on Easter weekend, leading some to speculate that an election derided as unnecessary by the governing Conservatives has generated amply public interest.