FREDERICTON (CP) Atlantic Canadians bucked the national trend in yesterday’s federal election, increasing the Conservative’s share of the popular vote but giving the Liberals the bulk of the region’s seats – again.

Voters in the four Atlantic provinces sent mixed messages, suggesting that while the time-for-a-change theme had resonance, it wasn’t enough to shake their allegiance to the Liberals – the dominant political force on the East Coast for a generation.

Across Canada, the Conservatives made significant gains in both the popular vote and in seats, enough to give them a minority government.

“Clearly today in Canada there will be a new government and a new prime minister,” said Premier Bernard Lord, who campaigned for Tory Leader Stephen Harper.

“But everyone will have to work together to move the country forward. I think the premiers will have to take a leadership role to help provide stability.”

Heading into the election campaign, the Liberals held 22 of the 32 Atlantic seats, compared with seven for the Conservatives and the NDP’s three.

The standings didn’t change much last night, with the Liberals losing only two seats to the Conservatives – one in Newfoundland, the other in New Brunswick. The NDP kept their three seats.

The Conservatives made headway in the region in terms of the popular vote, increasing their total share by about five percentage points to 35 per cent while the Liberals were down about four percentage points to 40 per cent.

“We were hoping for bigger gains,” Lord said of the final results in Atlantic Canada.

“We made significant gains in terms of the popular vote across the region, but the way the vote split, it was more to the advantage of the Liberals. That happens sometimes on election nights.”

Prince Edward Island stayed true to its deep Liberal roots, voting all Liberal once again in its four ridings. The Island has been painted red since 1988.

Brian Lee Crowley, head of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a conservative think-tank based in Halifax, said Harper and the Conservatives still make Atlantic Canadians uneasy.

“Their message makes a lot of them anxious,” Crowley said.

“A lot of people in Atlantic Canada have become reliant on the federal government in one form or another, whether it’s money from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency or unemployment insurance or whatever. They associate the Conservatives with skepticism about many of those government programs and they probably voted defensively.”

It has been a tough sell for Harper in Atlantic Canada, where voters largely rejected the merged Canadian Alliance-Progressive Conservative Party in the last federal election a year and a half ago.

Many people were still smarting from Harper’s remarks that the region had a “culture of defeat” fed by handouts from Ottawa.

The most recent opinion polls suggested Harper’s image was mellowing with Atlantic Canadians, thanks to a concerted effort to smooth his rough edges and present a gentler, more personable leader.

The Conservatives picked up a seat in eastern Newfoundland and Labrador, where Fabian Manning won the riding of Avalon.

The riding was considered a Liberal stronghold and was previously held by former federal natural resources minister John Efford, who retired from politics last year due to health problems.