Political Parties of Canada
Canadians have no shortage of political opinions, and the country’s partisan system reflects this. With at least four national political parties and many more at the provincial level, it can sometimes be a bit of a headache to keep track of them all.
How Do the Parties Work?
Political parties hold a great deal of power in the Canadian system of government. Indeed, the entire Canadian parliamentary system presumes the existence of parties and would not be able to function without them. As we learned in the Parliamentary System chapter, it’s the party with the most seats in the Canadian House of Commons that 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 all organized the same fashion, which is to say, very hierarchically. There’s always a single “leader” at the top who is basically boss of the party. The leader formulates party policy and determines where his party stands on the issues of the day, and all party members below are expected to respectfully support him. In federal elections, party leaders run as candidates for prime minister.
Being a party “member” in Canada refers to someone who holds an active, fee-paying, card-carrying membership in a political party. These are the people who get to elect the party leaders and vote on various other internal matters, like amendments to the party constitution. Though being a party member can bring a number of perks, only about 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 and go through the trouble.
The Party System Today
Canada has what is sometimes called the “two party-plus” system. This means that while the country is usually dominated by two large parties — one of the left (broadly favouring reform and activist government), and one of the right (broadly favouring 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” if they don’t watch it. Historically, the Canadian two-party plus system has featured the centre-left Liberal Party and the centre-right Conservative Party as the two dominant parties, with more ideological parties existing on the further right or further left. Here’s the basic spectrum of the main Canadian political parties of the last decade:
Let’s look at them one by one.
The Liberal Party of Canada is the longest-running political party in the country, and the most historically successful. When Liberals are feeling particularly braggy, they even 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.
Originally the party of disenfranchised French-Canadians and Catholics in the early colonial period, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries the Liberals 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 the iconic figure of commonsense, moderate Canadian liberalism of this period.
After World War II, the Liberals moved in a more noticeably left-wing direction, a process that was greatly sped up during the reign of Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (1919-2000), who ran the country from 1968 to 1984, and remains a sort of “founding father” figure of modern Canadian liberalism. Suspicious of the free market, Trudeau believed that a larger, more activist Canadian government could help alleviate the country’s social and economic ills, and create a more compassionate and egalitarian “Just Society” in the process. Today, Trudeau-fans usually credit him with helping popularize ideas such as immigrant-welcoming multiculturalism, French-English bilingualism, and an internationalist foreign policy that have remained mainstream Liberal Canadian values ever since.
After a maintaining steady hold on the prime minister’s office for most of the 1990s, the party began to decline rapidly in popularity during the 2000s, culminating in the 2011 federal election, where it slipped to third-place status in parliament with a mere 34 seats. A string of weak leaders is usually blamed, and in 2013 Pierre Trudeau’s charismatic son, Justin Trudeau (b. 1971) was made head of the party and led a dramatic turnaround in the 2015 election, winning the prime ministership with a hearty parliamentary majority.
Today, the Liberal Party portrays itself as a party that is fiscally conservative, but socially progressive. They are strongly supportive of abortion rights, gay marriage and ample immigration, but also favour a largely unregulated free market. The Party has moved away from being quite as pro-“big government” as it was in the past, but still opposes right-wingers who call for the scaling back of cherished social programs such as universal health care and old age pensions.
The New Democratic Party
Founded during the midst of the Great Depression, Canada’s New Democratic Party, or NDP, was originally a hardline socialist party dedicated to the downfall of the capitalist system. In the decades since, the NDP has moved in a more moderate direction, away from doctrinaire Marxism and towards a more modern spirit of social democracy and a “mixed economy,” where the government regulates but doesn’t rule.
For most of its existence, the NDP — or Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) as it was known before 1961 — remained only popular enough to finish third or fourth place in the parliamentary seat count, and suffered a persistent reputation as being too “fringe” or “radical” to garner mainstream support. Its backers were generally those on the furthest left of the Canadian society — people like union bosses, street protesters, and anti-capitalist academics, but rarely the broad middle class. Historically, the NDP has only exercised true political power in the context of a Liberal minority government, where it can use its balance-of-power position to help push the Liberals in a more leftist direction. Important Canadian social programs such as old age pensions and universal health care are usually at least partially credited to NDP meddling of this sort.
For a long time it seemed like the NDP was stuck on the fringes forever. During the 1990s, some predicted it might disappear entirely. But then, in the 2011 federal election, the party made a sudden, dramatic breakthrough, upping their seat count from 37 to 102 overnight — and sending the Liberals to third place with a distant 34. Much of this success was credited to NDP leader Jack Layton (1950-2011), a politician of great charisma and skill who helped make his party more electorally viable in Quebec — a province written off by many of his predecessors.
In 2013, the NDP officially removed the final traces of socialism from its party constitution, and today the party is probably best regarded as a pragmatic party of the centre-left with an appeal and agenda broadly similar to that of the Liberals. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly fashionable to argue the two parties should probably just merge to avoid splitting the progressive vote. Ideologically, NDPers are stalwart champions of Canada’s social safety net and generally favour high tax rates for large corporations and the wealthy. The party also has a long pacifist tradition and very strong ties to organized labour, particularly public sector unions such as teachers, nurses, and government employees.
The Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is the party that currently governs Canada. It’s also Canada’s newest party, having only been founded in 2003. Previously, what is now the CPC used to be two distinct parties: the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance. In order to understand what the CPC is about today, it might be best to review the history of the two parties that merged to form it.
The Progressive Conservative Party (1867-2004)
The Progressive Conservative Party was, until 2006, the only party other than the Liberals that ever governed Canada. For most of its existence, the PCs were simply a broad alliance of people who were not Liberals (in the same way the Liberals were often a broad alliance of people who were not Conservatives). Historically, it defined itself as the party of loyalty to England, English-Canadians and English culture in general, an ideology that was often bound up in traditional Victorian notions of social Darwinism, imperialism, and Protestant traditionalism. Though this might seem like a rather dated set of beliefs, it continued to be the motivating force of the PC Party well into the 1960s, particularly under the Anglophilic John Diefenbaker (1895-1979, prime minister 1957-1963), who, among other things, fought passionately against switching Canada’s flag from the Union Jack to the Maple Leaf.
Much as Pierre Trudeau helped modernize the Liberals and steer them to the left, the PCs underwent a significant ideological shift under the leadership of Brian Mulroney (b. 1939), a corporate CEO who became PC leader and then prime minister from 1984 to 1993. Mulroney was dubbed a “neo-conservative” and was a self-declared member of the right-wing movement that swept much of the western world during the 1980s. His administration called for lower taxes, deregulation, and privatization of government services in order to generate greater wealth and prosperity.
The Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance (1987-2004)
Though he was the most right-wing leader of the PCs in quite some time, a lot of conservative Canadians still felt Mulroney was not nearly right-wing enough. In Canada’s western provinces in particular, which tend to be the most religious and libertarian parts of the country, there was growing sentiment during the 1980s that Mulroney was a “conservative in name only,” and was actually continuing the high-spending, high-taxing, immoral policies of his Liberal predecessors.
1987 thus saw the dawn of the Reform Party of Canada (later known as 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. Following Mulroney’s 1993 resignation, the PC party, in contrast, began to shift further and further left. There were persistent concerns among conservative commentators and others, however, that the coexistence of both the PCs and Canadian Alliance was causing an ongoing split of the right-wing vote and keeping the Liberals in power due to a divided opposition. In 2003, the new leader of the Alliance, 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, the first leader of the united party, was elected prime minister three years later, serving until 2015.
The New Conservative Party of Canada
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. Though the party is officially neutral on social matters like abortion and gay rights, the Conservatives also possess a large and important constituency of Christian conservatives who oppose both.
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. People who support this idea are known as separatists in Canadian political lingo, 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 federal political party to openly support Quebec separatism, and remained the most popular political party in the province until very 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 this isn’t really the point. By voting Bloc, Quebecers are expressing their disdain for the Canadian system and essentially opting out of the federal government altogether. As Quebec MPs would put it, they are going to Ottawa to defend the interests of Quebec and nothing else — none of this “national solutions” stuff the other parties are always going on about.
Ideologically, the Bloc is quite left-wing, perhaps unsurprisingly considering that 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) and generally support causes similar to that of the NDP. From 1993 to 2011 the Bloc finished a strong third place in every Canadian election, but was then thoroughly decimated in the game-changing 2011 election, plunging from 49 seats to a measly four. Much like the surge of the NDP (which gobbled up much of the Bloc’s voting base), this is something political analysts are still scratching their heads over. Is separatism finished as a political ideology in Quebec, or were French-Canadians simply tired of voting for the same party all the time?
Another one of the great dilemmas of modern Canadian politics is how seriously to take the Green Party of Canada. Only electing its first Member of Parliament in 2011, the party has remained on the extreme fringe of Canadian politics until very recently, and even now it’s still not entirely clear if it’s a party with a future or just a flash in the pan.
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 only issue and instead marketed itself as a centrist party for Canadian voters disillusioned with all the other options and searching for dignified, “non-ideological” solutions to complex problems. The strategy worked, and the Greens steadily gained media coverage and public support during the 2000s, winning around four to seven per cent of the popular vote in the last three (2006, 2008, 2011) federal elections — though not a single seat until 2011. Though the 2011 election represented a key breakthrough for the party, many Canadians would probably still be hard pressed to tell you what exactly the Green Party stands for, beyond its obvious commitment to environmental issues. Many political pundits routinely question whether the party is actually offering a clear new option to voters or is simply tapping into a temporary moment of frustration among a small minority. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Dead Political Parties
As you may have noticed from some of the histories of the parties above, Canadian party 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 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 Quebec. Though the “Socreds” would remain in power in Alberta until 1971, and ruled British Columbia for most of the 1952-1991 period, 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.
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 arrogantly 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 58 farmer-backed MPs in the Canadian House of Commons.
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 Depression, much of their voting base migrated to parties that offered more ideological solutions to their economic complaints – either Social Credit on the right, or the socialists on the left.
While they’ve never quite matched the influence of the Socreds or Progressives, there have been a number of other small-time parties that have elected a few politicians here and there over the years. The Labour Party was a short-lived socialist party that enjoyed some successes in some provinces before the foundation of the CCF/NDP. Similarly, there were a number of small, pseudo-nationalist parties in Quebec prior to the formation of the Bloc Quebecois, the most notable of which was probably the Bloc Populaire. In general, the historical trend in Canada has been for small political movements to get gradually absorbed into larger “coalition” parties.
In early Canadian history, the parties seen in the Canadian provinces usually matched up closely with the parties seen in the federal government. 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 actually evolved unique two-party systems that reflect the “left/right” split in various different ways:
In British Columbia, the dominant parties are the NDP and the Liberals. Since the decline of the British Columbia Social Credit Party in the 1990s, much of the conservative vote has shifted to the Liberal Party, though in recent years the B.C. Conservative Party has begun to make a comeback.
Alberta has a traditional “two-party plus” system with the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP. However, a new, further-right party known as the Wildrose Party has made substantial inroads in recent years. Since 2012, it has held second-place status in the provincial legislature. The NDP was elected to government in 2015 for the first time, ending over 40 straight years of Conservative rule.
Saskatchewan is ruled by the Saskatchewan Party, which is a coalition of Liberal and Conservative supporters. The opposition party is the NDP, which has ruled for long stretches of the province’s history.
Manitoba‘s dominant parties are the NDP and Conservatives, with the Liberals in a distant third place.
Ontario has probably the healthiest “traditional” three-party system in Canada, with the Liberals, Conservatives, and NDP all holding significant amounts of seats in the provincial legislature and all having served as government during the last 20 years.
Quebec‘s party system, as we discuss in the Quebec chapter, is largely based around the issue of separatism, and pits the pro-separation Parti Quebecois 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, 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 in distant third, except in Nova Scotia, where they served a one-term government from 2009 to 2013.