Canadian Political Parties

Canadians tend to be an opinionated lot, so it should come as no surprise that the country is home to plenty of political parties. With at least four different national parties and even more at the provincial level, it can sometimes be a bit of a headache to keep track of them all.

How Canadian Political Parties Work

Political parties hold a great deal of power in the Canadian system of government. Indeed, the Canadian parliamentary system would not be able to function without them. As we learned in previous chapters, the party that elects the most members to the House of Commons forms the Government of Canada and gets to pick the prime minister and his cabinet. The party with the second-largest number of seats forms the Official Opposition.

Political parties in Canada are structured in a very hierarchical fashion. There’s always a single leader at the top, who serves as all-powerful boss of the party. The leader formulates party policy and determines where his party stands on various issues of the day. All politicians below him, including members of the House of Commons and Senate are expected to support and endorse his agenda. In Canadian federal elections, party leaders run as candidates for prime minister.

Party members in Canada are individuals who pay to hold a card-carrying membership in a political party. These are the people who elect the party leader and local candidates, and vote on various internal matters like amendments to the party constitution. Different parties organize their internal affairs differently, and most notably, use different systems for electing their party leaders. Though being a party member carries a number of perks, it’s usually estimated that only about one or two per cent of Canadians actually hold membership in a political party. It’s mostly the politicians themselves and their staff and family who are willing to pay the costs (usually around $15 a year) and go through the trouble. Party membership does tend to increase during leadership elections, though.

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley (b. 1964) addresses the 2016 NDP party convention in Edmonton.
NDP/Flickr

The Canadian Party System Today

Canada has what is sometimes called the “two party-plus” system. This means the country is usually dominated by two large parties — one of the left (broadly favouring social reform and activist government), and one of the right (broadly favouring social tradition and limited government) — there is almost always a strong third-place party as well, either of the further-left or further-right, that threatens to bump off one of the “big two.”

Historically, the Canadian two-party plus system has been dominated by the centre-left Liberal Party and a centre-right Conservative Party that has gone by several different names. Since the 1980s or so Canada’s dominant third-place party has been the further-left NDP. There is also a fourth-place, Quebec separatist party known as the Bloc Quebecois that has fluctuated in popularity over the years, but obviously has a fairly limited appeal.

Current Canadian Party Leaders

Justin Trudeau

Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada

Andrew Scheer

Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada

Jagmeet Singh

Leader of the New Democratic Party

Martine Ouellet

Leader of the Bloc Quebecois

The Liberal Party of Canada

The Liberal Party of Canada is the party that currently rules Canada. It is the country’s oldest political party and the most historically successful. When Liberals are feeling particularly boastful, they like to call themselves “Canada’s Natural Governing Party” in recognition of the fact that they’ve held power for such long periods of Canadian history.

Born as a movement of disenfranchised French-Canadians and Catholics in the mid 19th century, by the early 20th century the Liberals had evolved into a more generic, centrist party favouring traditional British liberal values of free markets and personal responsibility, as well as tolerant relations between French and English Canadians. Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919), who championed all of the above to become the most successful and long-reigning of Canada’s early Liberal prime ministers, remains a iconic figure of commonsense, moderate Canadian liberalism of this period.

After World War II (1939-1945), the Liberals moved in a more notably left-wing direction, particularly during the long reign of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000, ruled 1968-1979 and 1980-1984). Suspicious of the free market, Trudeau believed a larger, more activist Canadian government could help alleviate the country’s social and economic ills, and create what he dubbed a “Just Society” of compassion and equality. A worsening financial situation in the 1990s caused the next two Liberal prime ministers, Jean Chretien (b. 1934, served 1993-2003) and Paul Martin (b. 1938, served 2003-2006) to move more to the right on fiscal matters, adopting generally conservative ideas about the importance of keeping taxes low and budgets balanced.

The Liberal Party Today

Now led by Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau (b. 1971), the modern Liberal Party portrays itself as a party that is fiscally responsible, but socially progressive. Liberals are strongly supportive of unrestricted abortion, LGBT rights, and high rates of immigration, but also favour a free market economy that is not subject to overly burdensome regulation. The party is not as inclined towards “big government” solutions as it was in the past, but still opposes right-wingers who call for scaling back cherished social programs such as universal health care and old age pensions. The need to balance responsible economic development with strategies to combat climate change has steadily risen to become a defining Liberal priority as well.

The Conservative Party of Canada

The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is technically Canada’s newest party, having been founded in 2003 by merging the Progressive Conservative Party with the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance Party. This represented an effort to create a single unified conservative party of the sort that had existed for most of Canadian history, but was briefly divided from the late 1980s to the early 2000s.

Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

The Progressive Conservatives (PC) were, until 2006, the only party other than the Liberals that ever governed Canada. It traced its origins to the “Tories” of the 19th century, a group of Canadians in the colonial era who defined themselves through their staunch loyalty to British rule, Protestantism, and English culture (“Tory” is still used as a nickname for Canadian conservatives to this day). During the 20th century, the party was mostly a broad alliance of people who were not Liberals, but was still considered primarily a party for English Canadian interests. The PCs underwent a significant ideological shift under the leadership of Brian Mulroney (b. 1939), a Quebec-born corporate CEO who became PC leader and then prime minister from 1984 to 1993. Mulroney’s rise represented the triumph of a new flavor of conservative thought, based mostly around free-market economics, that swept much of the western world during the 1980s.

The Reform Party

Mulroney’s new flavor of conservatism failed to impress everyone, however. In Canada’s western provinces, which tend to be the most conservative and religious parts of the country, there was growing sentiment during the 1980s that Mulroney was a bit of a phony, and was actually continuing the high-spending, high-taxing policies of his Liberal predecessors. There was also a growing sense that his government was completely indifferent to the plight of Canadians living outside Ontario and Quebec. 1987 thus saw the creation of the Reform Party of Canada (later renamed the Canadian Alliance Party), a new populist right-wing party that ate into much of the old PC base and elected a lot of hardline conservatives to the Canadian Parliament during the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Liberal Party won three back-to-back elections from 1993 to 2000, which many conservatives blamed on two conservative parties splitting the anti-Liberal vote. In 2003, the new leader of the Alliance Party, Stephen Harper (b. 1959) and Peter MacKay (b. 1965), the leader of the PCs, agreed to merge their parties into a new, moderate entity: the Conservative Party of Canada. It proved a strategically wise decision, and Harper, who became first leader of the united party, was elected prime minister three years later. He would serve until 2016.

The Conservative Party Today

If forced to define themselves, today’s Conservatives would describe their party as one that favours low taxes, smaller, less intrusive government, a strong regime of law-and-order, a strong military and respect for traditional values. In 2017, following Stephen Harper’s electoral defeat, the Conservatives elected former speaker of the House of Commons Andrew Scheer (b. 1979) as their new leader. Scheer is considered a fairly orthodox conservative who often names Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013) as his political heroes. A religious man, he is seen as an ally of his party’s social conservative wing — the faction that holds generally traditionalist views on matters involving sex, gender, family, and human life.

The NDP

Founded during the midst of the Great Depression (1929-1939), Canada’s New Democratic Party, or NDP, was originally a hardline socialist party dedicated to the democratic overthrow of the capitalist system and the creation of a “planned economy” in its place. In the decades since, the NDP has moved in a more moderate direction, and today champions the goal of a social democratic society with a “mixed economy,” in which the government tightly regulates the economy but doesn’t run it.

Canada has never had an NDP prime minister and for most of its history, the NDP — or Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) as it was known before 1961 — has consistently come in a distant third or fourth place in the parliamentary seat count. Only once, in 2011, did it come in second, briefly surpassing the Liberals. The party is strongly backed by Canadian unions, academics, environmentalists, and social justice activists of all sorts, though this has helped saddle the party with a reputation of being too “fringe” to gain traction beyond a small, core base of supporters.

The NDP has been most powerful during periods when seats in the Canadian parliament are quite evenly divided, and even a small number of votes can determine whether a vote passes or fails. Important Canadian social programs such as old age pensions and national medicare are usually at least partially credited to NDP deal-making in closely divided parliaments of the past.

The NDP Today

Following the 2011 death of the highly successful Jack Layton (see sidebar), the NDP elected Quebec politician Thomas Mulcair (b. 1954) as leader, reflecting the growing power of that province in the party. A former Liberal, Mulcair was known for his moderate, pragmatic approach to politics, which irritated some of the more left-wing members of his party. After a disappointing showing in the 2015 general election, in 2016 the NDP voted to remove Mulcair and in 2017 Jagmeet Singh (b. 1979) was elected in his place. A charismatic former lawyer and the son of Sikh immigrants from India, Singh is the first non-white, non-Christian person to lead a Canadian political party.

The Bloc Quebecois

As we discuss in more detail in the Quebec chapter, one of the biggest issues in contemporary Canadian politics is whether or not the French-speaking province of Quebec should separate from Canada and form its own country. In Canadian political lingo, people who support this idea are known as separatists, and the Bloc Quebecois is Canada’s leading separatist political party.

Founded in 1990 by Lucien Bouchard (b. 1938), a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, the Bloc was Canada’s first national political party to openly support Quebec separatism, and remained the most popular political party in the province until quite recently. The Bloc only runs candidates in Quebec, and for this reason, it’s impossible for it to ever form the government of Canada. But that’s not its point — by voting Bloc, Quebecers are expressing their disdain for the Canadian system and essentially opting out of federal politics altogether. As Quebec MPs would put it, they are going to Ottawa to defend the interests of Quebec and nothing else.

Ideologically, the Bloc is quite left-wing, perhaps unsurprisingly considering Quebec is said to be the most left-wing region in all of North America. Though they won’t ever be in a position to impose an agenda of their own, Bloc MPs do sit in Parliament and vote just like everyone else (and, controversially, collect their paycheques and pensions, too). In the last two Canadian elections the Bloc’s popularity has declined massively, possibly suggesting that Quebec interest in separatism is fading.

The Green Party of Canada

One of the great dilemmas of modern Canadian politics is how seriously to take the Green Party of Canada. Though its been around for more than 30 years, the Green Party did not elect its first Member of Parliament until 2011, and even now it’s still not entirely clear if it’s a party with a future or just a minor passing fad.

Founded in 1983, the Greens were originally a one-issue party exclusively devoted to raising awareness of “the environment” as a political issue and didn’t gain a lot of traction until the early 2000s, when they began to broaden their appeal a bit. Under former leader Jim Harris (b. 1961) and current leader Elizabeth May (b. 1954), the Green Party moved away from the environment as its sole issue and marketed itself as a more generically centre-left party for Canadian voters disillusioned with the existing options. The strategy worked, and the Greens steadily gained media coverage and public support during the 2000s — though their share of the vote never climbed above the high single digits. In 2011 party leader Elizabeth May was elected to Parliament (and was re-elected in 2015), but the party seems unable to make a more dramatic breakthrough.

Fringe Parties

Beyond the three major parties and the two smaller ones, Canada has over a dozen other legally registered parties that are all quite unpopular and generally obscure. Usually referred to as fringe parties for their limited appeal and often eccentric or extreme political agendas, they are not considered very relevant to Canadian politics. At best, they can sometimes “spoil” races in very close elections by pulling votes away from the mainstream parties.

Based on the number of votes cast, Canada’s most popular fringe parties are the Libertarian Party of Canada, which believes in the abolishment of most government functions, and the Christian Heritage Party, which promotes an agenda of evangelical Christian morality. Of course, “popular” in this context is quite relative — the combined vote total of both parties in the 2015 Canadian election was only around 52,000.

Dead Political Parties

As you may have noticed from some of the party histories above, Canadian politics can be fairly volatile, with parties rising and falling with great speed. Here are a couple of parties that have seen their moment of glory pass.

The Social Credit Party

The Social Credit Party (sometimes called simply Social Credit) is Canada’s most recently deceased political party. It held influence in various parts of the country, to varying degrees, from the 1930s to the 1990s.

Properly speaking, “Social Credit” is a widely discredited monetary philosophy based on the writings of Major C. H. Douglas (1879-1952), a Scottish engineer who rather naively argued that a lot of social problems could be solved if governments would simply print more money and give it to their citizens. During the chaos of the Great Depression (1929-1939), this idea sounded reasonable enough, and Canadians elected several Social Credit MPs to parliament, and in the province of Alberta, the local Social Credit Party was elected to power.

As the years went on and Social Credit grew into a more serious and sophisticated political movement, Major Douglas’ theories were gradually abandoned and Social Credit became a fairly standard right-wing political party with a strong emphasis on Christian morality and populism. Its strongest support remained in some of the most rural and religious parts of the country, particularly rural Alberta and Quebec. Though the “Socreds” would remain in power in Alberta until 1971, and ruled British Columbia for most of the period between 1952 and 1991, it never elected more than 30 members to the Parliament of Canada, where it routinely languished in third or fourth place. By the 1990s, most Socred supporters had migrated to other parties, and across the country, what remained of the old Social Credit organization was quietly dismantled or dissolved.

The Progressives

An intentionally disorganized, philosophically vague movement, the Canadian Progressives were a loose coalition of angry farmers in the 1920s who formed a number of short-lived parties in protest of the changing economic circumstances of their era. Even in the 1920s, it was clear that the Canadian economy was steadily moving away from agriculture as its dominant industry, and many farmers felt their plight was being ignored or undermined by the nation’s political elite. Militant “farmers’ rights” movements began to arise in response, and the 1920s saw a string of surprise victories for them, including the election of farmer governments in Ontario (1919-1923) and Alberta (1921-1935), and dozens of farmer-backed MPs in the Canadian House of Commons. From 1920 to 1926 they were organized into a single party known as the National Progressive Party.

The Progressives never really had a clear plan on how to govern or what to do with power, however, and they declined as quickly as they had risen. During the Great Depression (1929-1939), much of their voting base migrated to parties that offered more ideological solutions to economic complaints – either Social Credit on the right, or the socialists on the left. The term “progressive” lives on to this day, but is now used as a generic term for Canadians on the liberal-left.

Saskatchewan Party President James Thorsteinson (b. 1973) at his party's 2014 convention.
Saskatchewan Party/Flickr

Provincial Parties

In early Canadian history, the political parties found in the Canadian provinces matched closely with the parties seen in Ottawa. Which is to say, most provincial governments operated under a two-party system divided between the Liberals on one side and the Conservatives on the other (and the NDP in third place). Today, however, most provinces have evolved unique two-party systems that reflect the “left/right” split in a variety of different ways.

  • In British Columbia, the dominant parties are the B.C. NDP and the B.C. Liberals. Since the decline of the British Columbia Social Credit Party in the 1990s, much of the Socred vote has shifted to the previously-fringe Liberals.
  • The Alberta party system has realigned dramatically in recent years — the current system pits the ruling Alberta NDP against the United Conservative Party of Alberta, which was formed in 2017 by merging the moderate Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and the more ideological Wildrose Party.
  • Saskatchewan is ruled by the Saskatchewan Party, which is a coalition of Liberal and Conservative supporters. The opposition party is the Saskatchewan NDP, which has ruled for long stretches of the province’s history.
  • The dominant parties in Manitoba are the Manitoba NDP and the Manitoba Progressive Conservatives.
  • Ontario has probably the healthiest “traditional” three-party system in Canada, with the Ontario Liberals, Ontario Progressive Conservatives, and Ontario NDP all holding significant amounts of seats in the provincial legislature. All have run the government at some point over the last 30 years.
  • Quebec’s party system, as discussed in the Quebec chapter, is largely based around the issue of separatism, and pits the pro-separation Parti Quebecois (PQ) against the anti-separatist Quebec Liberal Party. Until the late 1970s, there was also a strong conservative party known as the Union Nationale. Today, Quebec conservatives who are disinterested in the separatist question vote for the libertarian-leaning Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), which sits in third place in the provincial legislature.
  • The four provinces in Atlantic Canada (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland) all have two-party systems under the Liberals and Conservatives. The NDP is generally completely shut out, except in Nova Scotia, where it sits in a healthy third place after having served a one-term government from 2009 to 2013.