Opposition politics took organizational shape in the colonies of British North America with the establishment of representative institutions in Nova Scotia (1758), New Brunswick (1784) and Upper and Lower Canada (1791). Since power in these colonies was concentrated in a governing oligarchy of appointed officials not responsible to the elected assemblies, reformers appealed to the Whig principle of parliamentary supremacy in pressing for the adoption of RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT. In the Maritimes Joseph HOWE led a 10-year struggle for responsible government that was finally successful in 1848. In the same year, a Reform coalition led by Robert BALDWIN in Canada West and Louis-Hippolyte LAFONTAINE in Canada East achieved the same breakthrough.
Pre-Confederation Reform politicians believed in the principles of British liberalism. Opposition to tariff protection (see PROTECTIONISM), which conservative administrations tended to favour, led mid-century Reformers to advocate free trade with their neighbour to the south. The crowning achievement of the Reform administration of Francis HINCKS and A.N. MORIN was the negotiation of a RECIPROCITY treaty with the US in 1854.
The Reform movement began to break apart in the early 1850s. In Canada West, the radical farmers of southwest Ontario, known as the CLEAR GRITS, began to oppose the Reform government, which they saw as too conservative. Inspired by the radicalism of William Lyon MACKENZIE, they strongly attacked the CLERGY RESERVES as an institutionalization of the FAMILY COMPACT's domination and a denial of liberty to the Protestant denominations. In this, the Grits were vocally supported by the Globe, whose publisher George BROWN would soon become their leader. In Canada East, the radical PARTI ROUGE pushed for universal suffrage and the abolition of the SEIGNEURIAL SYSTEM.
Moderate Reformers formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in 1854. Left in opposition were the Clear Grits and the Parti rouge, led by Antoine-Aimé DORION. Though divided on issues like "representation by population," they formed an uneasy alliance that endured until Brown joined the GREAT COALITION in 1864.
In the early years of Confederation, the Clear Grits and the Rouges joined with Reformers from the Maritimes to form a party under the Liberal name. They had little success against the political wiles of the Conservative prime minister Sir John A. MACDONALD and the breadth of his coalition in federal politics. The post-Confederation Liberals, however, did develop successful provincial organizations. As premier of Ontario from 1872 to 1896, Sir Oliver MOWAT led the provinces' assault on the power of the central government in the name of provincial rights, a tenet of Liberal thought for several decades.
Following the downfall of Macdonald's government over the PACIFIC SCANDAL, the stonemason Alexander MACKENZIE formed the federation's first Liberal administration in 1873, but a severe economic depression and Mackenzie's lack of political vision led to Macdonald's re-election in 1878 on a platform of protection. The resulting NATIONAL POLICY of tariff protection was vigorously opposed by Edward BLAKE, a Toronto lawyer and ex-premier of Ontario, who led the Liberal Party from 1880 to 1887. (Blake was the only federal Liberal leader until the 21st century never to have become prime minister.) Blake and Mowat pressed for further reforms of the ELECTORAL SYSTEM and managed to wean their Ontario supporters from the anti-Catholicism they had inherited from the Clear Grits and George Brown.
Meanwhile, in Québec, Wilfrid Laurier was turning the Rouges from anticlericalism by preaching the principles of the liberalism of British prime minister William Gladstone and the virtues of racial conciliation. Chosen party leader by a reluctant federal Liberal caucus upon Blake's advice in 1887, Laurier gradually broadened the party's base in Québec.
Capitalizing on the Conservatives' mishandling of the MANITOBA SCHOOLS QUESTION, Laurier won the election of 1896 on a platform of provincial rights. He went on to win the next 3 elections by copying Macdonald's formula for success - a nationwide coalition of forces, an expansionary role for government, and an accommodation between the French and the English - tempering the principles of Liberal reform with pragmatism and PATRONAGE. He built his electoral coalition in English Canada on the organizational backs of Liberal provincial premiers whom he brought into his Cabinet as power brokers for their regions. He endorsed the aggressive IMMIGRATION POLICY of his Manitoba minister, Clifford SIFTON, to settle the West, and he entered the same kind of transcontinental railway-building collaboration with the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern that his caucus had denounced in the 1880s when it was championed by Macdonald.
Nevertheless, differences of principle still distinguished the Laurier Liberals from their Conservative opponents. In external affairs, the Liberals showed their affinity to Gladstone's anti-imperialism by creating the Royal Canadian Navy, rather than contributing to the British navy (see NAVAL SERVICE ACT). In commercial policy Laurier achieved the long-held Liberal goal of a reciprocity agreement with the US. It was a victory that proved his undoing: reciprocity alienated the protection-minded business community whose support he had cultivated, and the Liberals went down to defeat in the 1911 election in the face of the Conservative Party's anti-Americanism. Laurier soldiered on as leader, watching in despair as the WWI military CONSCRIPTION issue nearly destroyed his party by temporarily shaking the solidarity of its English-French alliance.
The Liberals' next, and probably greatest, leader was William Lyon Mackenzie KING, who began his career as a public servant and ended it as the longest-serving prime minister in Canadian history (1921-48 except for 2 periods in opposition, in 1926 and 1930-35). King's political longevity has been ascribed to his uncanny capacity for blurring political issues to maintain support among such ideologically opposed groups as western free-trade farmers and protectionist manufacturers in central Canada; his shrewd recognition of the importance of sustaining Québec support, especially during WWII; his talent for attracting to his Cabinet strong ministers with regional power bases and making the best use of their abilities and connections; and his success in presenting a progressive face to the electorate by gradually initiating social-welfare programs while mollifying the business community. King established an independent role for Canada internationally. Domestically, he straddled the middle of the political road while leaning slightly left. His genius for obfuscation was epitomized by his 1935 campaign slogan "King or Chaos" and his Delphic position, "not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary," with which he walked the tightrope between English-Canadian militants and Québec isolationists during WWII.
King's hand-picked successor, Louis SAINT-LAURENT, was admired by the bureaucratic and business elites more than King had been, but because of Saint-Laurent's disregard of party organization and his dependence on the Ottawa bureaucracy, his regime witnessed the collapse of King's great Liberal alliance and the beginning of the party's persistent alienation from western Canada. Since Saint-Laurent's narrow defeat by John DIEFENBAKER (1957), the Liberal Party has been struggling to regain its previous high levels of support in the West.
It took Lester Bowles PEARSON, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning former diplomat and secretary of state for external affairs who was elected party leader in early 1958, 3 elections before he won back power in 1963. It was largely thanks to the organizational skills and reformist convictions of his close adviser, Walter GORDON, that he was able to build the party organization. One price of Gordon's organizational reforms was the further alienation of the West from what had become a Toronto-dominated party. Gordon received the credit for winning a minority victory in 1963 and then was blamed for recommending another election in 1965, which returned the Liberals as a MINORITY GOVERNMENT once more. Despite never having a majority, the government accomplished much in its five years in office, creating a national medicare program, the Canada Pension Plan, and a distinctive Canadian flag.
Pierre Elliott TRUDEAU succeeded Pearson in a hotly contested leadership campaign in 1968. Under Trudeau's aegis, French Canadians achieved a greater place within the Liberal Party and the government of Canada than ever before. Trudeau's dedication to FEDERALISM and his preoccupation with combating the separatist forces of Québec nationalism lay at the heart both of his early electrifying appeal to the public and of the strong animosities he later generated among English-Canadian voters. Despite marked vacillations in the party's popularity, it managed to remain in office until 1979 and then again from 1980 to 1984 on the basis of its strength in central Canada, and continued to scramble unsuccessfully to rebuild its position in the West. Trudeau's controversial personal style and the policy inertia caused by the economic downturn that began in 1973 kept his personality the chief issue of the political scene, notwithstanding his significant achievement in generating a wide consensus outside Québec for the "patriation" of the CONSTITUTION and for the adoption of the CANADIAN CHARTER OF RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS in 1982.
Trudeau stepped down as leader in 1984 and was succeeded by John TURNER, his former minister of finance. Sworn in as prime minister on 30 June, Turner quickly called a general election, hoping to profit from the Liberals' brief surge of popularity in the public opinion polls. Without an adequate organization or platform, and lacking an appealing personal campaign style, he led the party to the worst electoral defeat in its history to that point. The results were Progressive Conservatives 211, Liberals 40, New Democrats 30 and Independent 1. For the next four years, the party was plagued by organizational and ideological problems. In the 1988 election, Turner ran a strong campaign that appealed to nationalism, capitalizing on the anxiety generated by the Conservatives' plan to sign a free trade agreement with the US. He brought the party back to a respectable position in the House of Commons, winning 82 seats. But Turner's success was short-lived.
When Jean Chrétien became leader in 1990, he inherited a party that was disorganized and almost bankrupt. His support of the Conservatives' CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD cost his party support in Québec, but concentrating on policy development and on organization, the Liberals were well prepared for the election of October 1993. The Liberals emphasized job creation and released a detailed platform book that effectively answered criticisms that the party would return to the spending extravagances of previous Liberal governments. The campaign was a triumph, as the Liberals won a clear majority of 177 seats. With the annihilation of the Progressive Conservative Party (which fell from 154 seats to 2), the collapse of the NDP (which retained only 9 of 43 seats), and the rise of the Bloc Québécois (which won 54 seats), Chrétien's Liberal Party was the sole national party boasting representation in the House of Commons from every province. In the next two general elections, the Liberal Party was re-elected with majorities, winning 155 seats in 1997 and 172 in 2000.
Once in office, the Chrétien government embarked on a vigorous effort, led by Finance Minister Paul MARTIN, to balance the federal budget. The government eliminated the $42 billion deficit it had inherited, but at the cost of large cuts to social programs and to provincial transfer payments. Chrétien largely ignored Québec nationalists, confident that he was providing good government and that this would be an effective answer to calls for Québec sovereignty. The flaw in this approach was revealed in the 1995 referendum, which the federal side won by only the narrowest of margins. Chrétien's response was the Clarity Act, in which the federal government declared that it would only negotiate Québec's separation after a strong majority had voted yes in a referendum based on a clear question.
Facing increasing opposition from the supporters of Martin, his long-time rival, and fearing that he would lose a confidence vote at a Liberal convention, Chrétien announced in 2002 that he would step down. Martin became party leader on 14 November 2003, and prime minister on 12 December, promising to strengthen health care, improve Canada's position in international affairs, and address what he called the country's "democratic deficit" by increasing the powers of ordinary MPs. Martin's government, however, was immediately besieged by a scandal involving the misuse of federal sponsorship funds in Québec during the Chrétien years. The new prime minister attempted to distance himself from the affair by appointing the GOMERY COMMISSION to investigate, but Liberal support continued to fall. In the election of 28 June 2004, the party was reduced to a minority, winning 135 of 308 seats in the Commons. Pursuing multiple priorities, Martin often appeared as a man unable to make decisions. The report of the Gomery Commission exonerated Martin of any wrongdoing in the sponsorship affair, but confirmed allegations of corruption in both the bureaucracy and the federal Liberal Party's Québec wing. Liberal support dropped further, and the party was defeated in the election of 23 January 2006, winning 103 seats to 124 for the Conservatives. On election night, Martin announced he was stepping down as prime minister and as party leader.
In December 2006, Liberals chose former Cabinet minister Stéphane Dion as their new leader. Dion inherited a party that was disorganized, deep in debt, and suffering from low morale after the long Chrétien-Martin feud and the 2006 electoral defeat. In 2007 and 2008, the Liberals backed away from opportunities to defeat the minority Conservative government and force an election. Prime Minister Stephen Harper took the matter into his own hands by calling an election for 14 October 2008. The centrepiece of the Liberal campaign was the "Green Shift," a promise to lower income taxes and raise taxes on greenhouse gas emissions. It failed to capture public support, and the Liberals were reduced to 77 seats in the Commons. On 20 October, Dion announced that he would step down as party leader.
When Parliament met in November the opposition parties agreed to vote down the government and ask the Governor General to appoint Dion as prime minister. To avoid defeat, Harper had Parliament prorogued until January. The Liberals moved quickly to replace Dion, installing Michael Ignatieff as leader on an interim basis until May 2009, when a party convention acclaimed him to the position.
Despite vigorous attacks on the Harper government, the Liberals were unable to gain traction under Ignatieff's leadership. The party gambled in March 2011, combining with other opposition parties to force an election, despite trailing the Conservatives by almost 10 percentage points in public opinion polls. In the early days of the campaign it appeared as though the Liberals were gaining ground on the Tories, but Liberal hopes were dashed with the televised leaders' debates. NDP leader Jack Layton upstaged Ignatieff, appearing down-to-earth and attacking the Liberal leader for his poor attendance in the Commons and for supporting Harper's corporate tax cuts. In the dying days of the campaign, the Liberals were in a freefall. On election day, 2 May, the Conservatives won with a healthy majority, with the Liberals finishing behind the NDP with only 34 seats, the party's worst showing in history. Ignatieff announced the next day that he would step down as leader. Bob Rae, a Liberal MP and a former NDP premier of Ontario, became interim leader later in the month, while Liberals began a period of deep soul-searching about the organizational, leadership, and policy weaknesses that had reduced Canada's once-dominant federal party to a distant third-place position.
As in any such broadly based party, there are always small but significant groups that oppose the dominant view of the leadership. In BC in the 1950s many provincial Liberals formed an electoral coalition with the right-wing Social Credit movement, to the dismay of the federal party. In the 1960s, Ross THATCHER, the Liberal premier of Saskatchewan, strongly opposed the welfare liberalism of Prime Minister Lester Pearson. Both conflicts damaged the federal party's credibility in the West. Since the 1960s, most provincial Liberal parties have established separate organizations and often pursue policies at odds with the federal party.
Throughout the party's history there has been tension between the forces of continentalism and NATIONALISM within Liberal ranks; it became most obvious during the 1960s when Walter Gordon led the effort to limit the growth of foreign control in the economy (see FOREIGN INVESTMENT). Though he faced may setbacks, Gordon continued to push his ideas within the party, unlike other dissidents, such as James RICHARDSON and Eric KIERANS, Cabinet ministers who quit the Trudeau government over policy issues (language policy for Richardson, economic policy for Kierans).
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were left-right tensions in the party, chiefly between Pierre Trudeau and John Turner and their respective followers. Though Turner, Trudeau's minister of finance, quit the Cabinet in 1975, he played the role of Liberal dauphin-in-exile for almost a decade.
Later disputes in the party had less to do with policy than leadership. Internal conflicts developed after the party's 1984 convention, in which Chrétien placed second to Turner. Turner's supporters accused Chrétien of undermining the new leader behind the scenes. Similar accusations emerged from the Chrétien camp after he defeated Martin for the leadership in 1990. Tensions continued throughout Chrétien's term as prime minister, culminating in his announcement in 2002 that he would step down.
The Liberals traditionally raised election campaign money from big business and, to a lesser extent, small entrepreneurs (see PARTY FINANCING). After the introduction of the ELECTION EXPENSES ACT (1974), reliance on business funding declined in favour of tax-deductible member donations and direct subsidies from the public purse (see PARTY SYSTEM). Corporate contributions all but disappeared in 2004 with the introduction of new legislation on political financing, which limited corporations and trade unions to contributions of $1000 per year to a political party. To make up for the shortfall, parties now receive public funding based on the number of votes they received in the previous general election.
Electoral Appeal and Popular Support
Ideologically, the party has clung to the political centre, modulating its stance in each region in an effort to win broad national support. In the Atlantic provinces, where the social democrats have traditionally had great difficulty in becoming a third political force, Liberals usually vie directly with Conservatives in a 2-party fight for votes. From 1896 to 1980, strong support in Québec generally translated into an overwhelming majority of the province's seats. In 1984, however, Brian MULRONEY's Conservatives won 58 of 75 seats in Québec, breaking the Liberal stronghold in the province. Since the collapse of the Progressive Conservative Party in 1993, the Liberals have generally won between 20 and 40 of Québec's 75 seats, with most of the rest going to the BLOC QUÉBÉCOIS - or, in 2011, to the NDP (59 seats), when the Liberals retained only 7 seats in Québec, and the Bloc only 4. In Ontario, the party won virtually all the seats from 1993 to 2000 thanks to the NDP's collapse and Reform splitting the conservative vote. In 2004, the unified Conservative party was able to win several ridings in rural Ontario, holding the Liberals to 75 of the province's 106 seats. Since 1957, the party has run second or third in the western provinces, only winning a plurality of the region's seats once, in 1968. The party won 14 of the West's 92 ridings in 2004, but had lost all but 4 of these seats by 2011.
The Liberal party dominated Canadian politics through much of the 20th century. It thrived in the 1920s, a time when its namesake was collapsing in Britain, and in the 1990s, when "liberal" was a derogatory term in the United States. The party's success has reflected its ability to straddle the political centre, while showing ideological suppleness. This flexibility has allowed it to argue for increased government spending in one era and balanced budgets in the next, to support free trade in some periods and vigorously condemn it in others. In recent years, its emphasis on tolerance has appealed to immigrants and urban voters, and has allowed the party to portray its opponents in English Canada as small-minded. In Québec, however, the rise of the Bloc created a major challenge, making it difficult for the Liberals to re-establish their traditional hold on the province.
Author CHRISTINA MCCALL and STEPHEN CLARKSON Rev: STEPHEN AZZI
Stephen Clarkson, The Big Red Machine: How the Liberal Party Dominates Canadian Politics (2005), The Heroic Delusion (1994); Christina McCall-Newman, Grits (1982); J. Wearing, The L-Shaped Party (1980); R. Whitaker, The Government Party (1977).
Links to Other Sites
The official web site of Elections Canada. Just about everything you need to know about elections in Canada.
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Liberal Party of Canada
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William Lyon Mackenzie King Diary, 1893-1950
The entire text of William Lyon Mackenzie King's personal diary reveals his unique perspective on six decades of Canadian political and social history. Accompanied by teaching resources and informative essays about the diaries. From Library and Archives Canada.
Louis S. St. Laurent National Historic Site of Canada
This Parks Canada site commemorating the childhood home of Louis S. St. Laurent features a profile of the life and political career of the former Prime Minister. Also includes an extensive overview of the prominent domestic and international political issues during his tenure.
Laurier House National Historic Site
This Parks Canada website features a historical profile of two Canadian Prime Ministers, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King, as well as an interactive virtual tour of Laurier House (National Archives of Canada) in Ottawa.
The Hill Times
The website for the Canadian newsweekly "The Hill Times." Features news and opinion about Canadian federal politics.
Political Parties and Leaders
Profiles and related data about past and present leaders of Canadian political parties. From the Parliament of Canada website.
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Double Vision: The Inside Story of the Liberals in Power
A review of "Double Vision: The Inside Story of the Liberals in Power" by Edward Greenspon and Anthony Wilson-Smith. From "Quill & Quire."
A portrait of prominent Liberal politician Mitchell Sharp. From Library and Archives Canada.
SHARP, The Hon. Mitchell William, P.C., C.C., B.A., D.Sc., LL.D.
The Parliamentarian file for The Hon. Mitchell William Sharp, P.C., C.C., B.A., D.Sc., LL.D.
Join the conversation about important issues of the day at the personal website of federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...