Political History 101
I have been a liberal for as long as I can remember but I am a liberal with a small l. I have voted NDP, more than once. I have voted Conservative, (only once).
It isn’t because I change my mind or don’t have a strong grip on my values. It is because each party and their policies have added something to what it means to be a Canadian.
We are encouraged to demonize each other’s political stance and argue our value system as being the only value system that counts for anything. We call down politicians as being power hungry, greedy and dishonest and we are all critics of polices and conflicts that we have little understanding of.
Life is complicated and humans are complicated and I have always argued that people evolve just like political parties evolve. Political leaders, who make mistakes because they are young, or human or misled can grow and evolve and change into strong leaders with clear direction. What I believed at 20 is not even on the same page as what I know to be true today. I have evolved.
I count many personal friends who are politicians on all sides of the fence. I know them to be honest, sincere and hard-working humans who make mistakes and learn from them, who face constant, unrelenting criticism for just trying to do their jobs.
I have always tried to concentrate on criticizing the policy and not the person but I admit I have not always been successful, especially where Trump is concerned. That said, I am learning. I am evolving and I encourage you to consider evolving too.
No political party in history has ever gotten everything right but each party has contributed to the good of Canadians. The following is a brief history of the parties and their contributions to what makes being a Canadian so valuable.
Conservatives were the founders of Confederation and the first to create a national economic strategy. They believed in equilibrium and moderation. Under John A. McDonald, they emphasized what we all had in common while, obscuring the areas in which the country was divided. This was no easy task in 1854 with the country so divided geographically and ideologically.
At the time, the conservative party was seen as serving private interests instead of public interests, especially with regards to the railroad expansion. That accusation still hangs in the air today.
In the beginning, the Liberal and Conservative party were united and known as the Conservative/Liberals. However, their support of conscription in 1921 lost the francophone support and the Liberal Party separated and moved left and took power.
Following the downfall of MacDonald’s government over the Pacific Scandal, a stonemason named, Alexander Mackenzie formed the Liberal party in 1873. It took the party some time to form its political footprint but it was opposed to the National Policy of trade protection brought in by the Conservative government.
Conservatives historically had protected industry and focused on using the party’s close ties with Britain to strengthen imperial trade advantages.
Liberal party members took more of a central position under the direction of Sir Wilfred Laurier. Sir Laurier was able to broaden the parties home base of Quebec. He was known for his fiery speeches on racial conciliation. Laurier won the election in 1896 by campaigning on the promise of provincial rights and by capitalizing on the Conservatives mishandling of the Manitoba Schools question. He went on to win the next three elections by building a nationwide coalition of forces, expanding the role of government and building bridges between French Canadians and the rest of the provinces including the west.
Wilfred Laurier also used pragmatism and patronage against the more traditional principles of the Liberal reformism. Something the Liberal party is still criticized for continuing to do.
For the first time, provincial premiers were brought into Lauriers cabinet as spokespeople and power brokers representing their constituents. Under Laurier, a more aggressive immigration policy encourage settlement in the West and he worked hard to support the railway connections across Canada in an attempt to unite the country. The government worked with transcontinental railway building even though his party has formerly denounced it with it was championed by the Conservatives. I guess a good idea is only good if you think of it…second.
While the Conservatives were strongly British in their thinking and alliance, the Liberals believed in a more independent Canada and as such created the Royal Canadian Navy rather than contributing directly to the current British Navy. Laurier also completed a campaign promise when he finalized a reciprocity agreement with the USA. While solid in principle, it became his undoing as the business community turned to the Conservatives anti-Americanism and removed the Liberals from power in 1911.
In 1919, William Lyon Mackenzie King took over the Liberal leadership and became the longest serving prime minister in Canadian history. Elected in 1921, he led Canada through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
King had the ability to maintain support among ideologically opposed groups by being a strong leader that listened to everyone and believed that everyone had a voice. He recognized the importance of the support of those in Quebec but he also attracted strong cabinet ministers with good regional base supports. He was a good leader who made the best use of the abilities and connections of those ministers and presented a progressive face to the country. He was the one that created strong social support programs while at the same time attending to the needs of the business community.
In 1942 the Conservatives moved more to the left and closer to centre and changed their name to the Progressive Conservatives. The Liberal party moved even further over the line and to the left.
In 1944, during the second world war, the Conservatives again supported conscription and as a result, handed power to the Liberals. The Conservatives at that time became known as the party of Ontario and began to be seen as only supporting eastern interests. Another insinuation that continues to haunt the party even now.
William Lyon Mackenzie King had picked Louis St-Laurent as his successor. He was much admired by the business and political community but he disregarded party organization and focused on Ottawa bureaucracy, losing the support of the west. Accusations of ignoring the west and being a party of elitists is something the Liberal party is still trying to overcome to this day.
The scales tipped for the Conservatives with the arrival of the fiery showman and wonderful orator, John Diefenbaker. He was a westerner, a populist and a consummate entertainer. In 1957, Diefenbaker won a minority and the following year he took the country. For the first time since 1911, the Conservatives became a national political party once again.
When I was a young girl, I was fascinated by John Diefenbaker and at the age of 12 had memorized many of his speeches.
John Diefenbaker made politics exciting once again and the country was behind him however, he struggled with Canada’s bicultural nature and over time lost support. Interesting how the Conservatives are under suspicion of being the party of white people and seemingly still struggling with biculturalism.
The next Liberal party leader was Lester Pearson. He was a former diplomat who had won the Nobel Peace Prize. He had been the secretary for external affairs and he became the Liberal leader in 1958. He was elected to power in 1963. Unfortunately, under Pearson, the west became even more alienated as the Liberal party became centered in Toronto.
Even with a victory in 1963 and a defeat in 1965, the Liberal government accomplished a flawed but beginning of a national Medicare program, the Canadian Pension Plan and gave the country our beautiful Canadian Flag.
In 1961, Tommy Douglas formed a new national party called the New Democratic party (NDP) in Ottawa. It was a cooperative between Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the unions of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Douglas was a leader in social democracy and is best known for the completion of an excellent Medicare system, giving all Canadians access to life saving medical treatment at no cost to them personally. He was an amazing Canadian who had started his career as the premier of Saskatchewan, a reign that lasted for 17 years.
The NDP has always been a strong influence on Canadian politics holding around 15% of the vote. It had never been enough to form government or have official opposition status but in 1988 the party won 43 seats, a historic high but the following year, it was pushed back to just 9 seats in the House of Commons.
In 1968, Pierre Elliot Trudeau became the leader of the Liberal party. He used his strong ties to Quebec, to attempt to stamp out any idea of separation. He was dedicated to keeping a united Canada. Known for his charisma, he generated Trudeaumania but as popular as he was, he created strong animosities with English Canada. Although fluctuating in power, this government was able to patriate our Constitution and present us with our current day Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982.
Trudeau stepped down in 1984 and replaced by John Turner. Turner, hoping to ride to victory on the current Liberal party popularity called an immediate election and lost. For the next four years, the Liberal government would struggle to redefine itself and the party.
The Green party began running some candidates in the federal elections. With limited success, as they were seen as tree huggers without a national plan.
The Conservative party struggled until 1983 with the arrival of another charismatic leader, Brian Mulroney. Although he had no political experience, his skill was in organizing people and projects and he had a deep understanding of Canadians, especially in his native Quebec. Under Mulroney, the Conservatives won the largest landslide in Canadian History.
While Mulroney’s government was plagued with scandals and ministerial resignations, the Conservatives were able to implement a lot of their agenda, privatizing crown corporations and completing the free trade agreements with the USA. They were unable to reduce the public debt or help Canadians through the recession and Mulroney’s popularity took a deep plunge.
The Conservatives splintered at this point with Preston Manning taking part of the group under his right-wing, populist Reform Party using the slogan “the West want In”.
Lucien Bouchard, a former friend of Mulroney, in a disagreement over the Meech Lake Accord, left and formed the Party Quebecois. Quebec supporters turned to Lucien Bouchard and the western supported turned to the Reform party.
The election resulted in the most devasting defeat in Canadian political history with the Conservatives winning only two seats and losing official party status.
In 1988, John Turner appealed to the country’s nationalism. The free trade agreement had created anxiety and Turner used that anxiety to move voters his way. While not winning the election, he won enough seats to bring the party back into some status. Although the party was still disorganized and almost bankrupt.
The Conservative party struggled to reunite the party. Two attempts were made, the United Alliance led by the Reform party and the Canadian Alliance led by the Stockwell Day.
In 1990, Jean Chretien won the leadership of the Liberal party and by concentrating on policy and organization, he was able to get the party back on its feet. By the time of the election in 1993, they were well organized. Using a platform of job creation, they released a very detailed plan that reassured Canadians that the Liberals were not going to return to the days of free spending. The Liberals won a clear majority capitalizing on the collapse of the Conservative and NDP parties. As a result of the disorganization and confusion in the other parties, Chretien’s party had control of the House from every province.
Finance Minister Paul Martin led an ambitious program to balance the federal budget. The Liberal government eliminated 42 billion in federal deficit but in doing so they made large cuts in social programs and provincial transfers. Chretien ignored Quebec, thinking that good government would be enough to garner their support. Quebec responded with a bid for freedom to which Chretien could only weakly respond with Clarity Act in which the federal government could only negotiate Quebec’s separation if a strong majority voted yes in a referendum based on a clear question. It was a very risky move but it and the support of Canadians across the country worked and Quebec stayed as part of Canada.
Chretien was re-elected again in 1997 and in 2000.
In 2002, he stepped down, allowing Paul Martin to step in as the new leader. Before he could comfortable in his seat, his government was besieged by an accusation of misuse of federal advertising funds in Quebec during the Chretien years. The new Prime Minister tried to get to the bottom of the scandal by appointing the Gomery Commission to investigate. In the meantime, he was campaigning on the promise of improving health care, focusing on Canada’s position in international affairs. He also wanted to increase the powers of ordinary MP’s. Martin was often accused of being unable to make a decision and was seen by many in his own party as a weak leader. Once the corruption in both the bureaucracy and the federal Liberal Party’s Quebec wing was revealed, it was all over for Paul Martin.
In 2000, the Conservatives chose Peter McKay as their leader under the condition that he not pursue a merger with the Canadian Alliance, which by that time was under the leadership of Stephen Harper. Months after being elected leader, Peter McKay broke his promise and merged with the Canadian Alliance under Stephen Harper.
In 2003, a united Conservative party under Stephen Harper was formed in an attempt to unseat the Liberals.
The merger was bitterly opposed by more traditional Conservatives and many of them left the party as they believed that that merger was less a joining of equals and more a takeover by the Alliance. It was decided to drop the word “Progressive” from the name and the Conservative party as we know it today was born. Under Stephen Harper, the party both by policy and by ideology became more aligned with the US Republicans then with the traditions of the Conservative party to date.
Under Harper, the political right-wing became united. In 2004 they became the official opposition and took power in 2006. Many saw this as a shift from Eastern Canada holding power to Western Canada coming to the table, finally.
While Harper was criticized for being overly confrontational and partisan in dealing with other parties in the House, the Canadian government under the Conservatives continued Canada’s involvement in combat in Afghanistan, cut taxes, restricted Canada’s involvement in the Kyoto Protocol on global warming and tried to reform the Senate. They also pasted the fixed future election dates. Harper was also known for being secretive and controlling in his dealings with the media. It was later discovered that Harper was a strong supporter of American political strategy under the Republicans and many of his early leadership styles can be seen more sharply now on the south side of the border.
The Green party runs its first full slate of candidates for the first time in all 308 federal ridings in 2004. While still seen as a fringe group, they began to gain a space on the national stage. They took 4.5% of the national vote under the leadership of Elizabeth May.
In 2006, the Liberals choose Stephane Dion as their new leader. They were disorganized and disillusioned. They were deep in debt and divided into Chretien supporters, Martin supporters and former supporters who were deeply upset by the financial corruption and other scandals of the previous era.
When Stephen Harper called an election in 2008, the Liberals campaigned under a promise of a green shift. They promised to lower income taxes and raise the carbon tax on greenhouse gas emissions. The public, still stinging from the deception of the past, didn’t buy in and the Conservatives took power.
When Parliament met in November, the opposition parties including the Liberals agreed to try to vote down government and replace Harper with Dion. To avoid this, Harper prorogued parliament until January. The Liberals used this time to replace Dion with Michael Ignatieff as their new leader.
In 2008, Harper ignored his own fixed election date legislation and called an election which the Conservatives once again took power. As the Liberal party had tried to form a coalition between the Liberals, New Democrat Party and the Party Quebecois, they were unable to form a consensus quickly enough to satisfy the voters.
In 2004, Jack Layton, a former Toronto city councillor and the new leader, rebuilt the NDP party and increased the level of voter support. In 2006 they won 29 seats and in 2008 they won 37.
The Liberals were unable to unite and when forcing an election in 2011, Jack Layton of the NDP made Ignatieff look inexperienced. The result was the worst Liberal defeat, forcing the party to go back to the basics and do some real work on who they were and what they stood for. Bob Rae became the interim leader of the Liberal party.
The NDP under Jack Layton gained huge numbers in what was then called the “Orange Crush”. The party took 103 seats and 30% of the vote. The NDP moved the Liberals out of the way and for the first time became the official opposition. Many of the seats were won in Quebec which was unusual as NDP support had generally been seen as a western movement.
Jack Layton led his party through the 2011 election campaign with enthusiasm and vigour but then announced he would be taking a leave to fight cancer. He died one month later and was given full honors by all members of the house.
In this second term, the Conservatives were forced to confront the growing recession brought about by global influences. The Conservatives announced massive economic stimulus spending including a multibillion dollar bailout of the auto industry, creating large federal deficits. Under the Conservative government, the tough on crime measures created court and prison back logs as the systems tried to keep up with the governments demands. The Conservatives also introduced many targeted tax breaks and ended the mandatory long-form census document.
In 2011, the Conservative government was found to be in contempt of Parliament for refusing to provide cost estimates on various program and they were removed under a non-confidence vote which meant a new federal election.
The Conservatives campaigned on a platform of economic stability in uncertain times and won 166 of the 308 seats.
The Conservative party faced allegations of mismanagement in the procurement of new military fighter jets and in 2012, an expenses scandal erupted among many Conservative as well as Liberal Senators. The party became embroiled in a series of election scandals. In 2011 the Conservatives plead guilty to illegal tactics in the 2006 election campaign – for exceeding national ad expenses and using the Conservative database to misdirect potential opposition voters in Ontario.
The public perceived the government was not keeping its promise around responsible fiscal accountability as the Conservatives continued to deliver deficits. They were spending taxpayer’s money in the hopes of stimulating the economy while introducing tax cuts. The only place they weren’t spending money on was national defense with the withdrawal of Canadian troops from Afghanistan in July of 2011.
The Green Party lost votes in 2011 but had its first member elected to Parliament in the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands. Elizabeth May became the first Green Party Candidate to take her seat in the House.
Elizabeth May is well-liked and respected through the House and across all parties’ lines. She has won the Parliamentarian of the Year in 2012, the Hardest Working MP award in 2013 and Best Orator award in 2014.
In 2013, the Liberal party, reunited under the leadership of Justin Trudeau. As the oldest son of Pierre Trudeau, Justin brought back some of the charisma of past era’s and won the leadership by a landslide. As an avid social media user, Justin Trudeau was able to use his influence and influencers to use social media as an effective tool in winning new party members and broadcasting his parties’ ideologies. As a young leader, he was criticized for making controversial comments about Quebec separation and for admitting that he had smoked marijuana but he remained popular.
The Green party took a second seat in the House when Form NDP MP Bruce Hyer left the NDP and joined the Green Party. However overall the party continued to hold only 3.5% of the vote. They were still viewed as a hippy, fringe party.
In 2015, the NDP rose in prominence in Alberta and a country wide shift began leading up to the election.
The Canadian economy was stagnated and the Alberta oil industry was hurting. It was difficult to convince Canadians who were struggling under debt and difficult job conditions that the Conservatives were the best economic stewards.
Thomas Mulcair, a lawyer from Quebec, led the NDP into the 2015 federal election by attempting to woo moderate, centrist-minded voters with promises of a strict adherence to balanced budgets.
In October 2015, the voters removed the government of Stephen Harper, despite his return to balanced budgets and many other campaign promises.
The Conservatives and NDP tried to discredit Justin Trudeau as being too young and inexperienced to lead the country but Justin Trudeau positioned himself as the champion of change and won the voters hearts.
The Liberals under Justin Trudeau, with promises of electoral reform, defeated the Conservatives and is currently the Prime Minster of Canada.
Rona Ambrose became the interim Conservative party leader and in May 2017, party members elected Andrew Scheer to be the new Conservative party leader.
The NDP became divided while trying to choose a new leader after 52% of the delegates removed Mulcair. The Leap Manifesto which demanded a transition of Canada’s economy away from fossil fuel development and a full ban on new oil and gas pipelines divided the party especially in Alberta.
In 2017, Jagmeet Singh was elected the new leader. Jagmeet is a lawyer from Windsor and a former member of the Ontario legislature. He is also the first visible minority and first Sikh to lead a national political party. He waded into the debate on the government’s controversial Bill 62 which dealt with restrictions around Muslim women’s face coverings. Under Jagmeet Singh, the NDP has advocated for the decriminalization of all illegal drugs and a complete reform of Canada’s electoral system.
Traditionally, the Liberals raise their financial support from business both big and small. With the new Election Expenses Act, the Liberals are now relying more on individual contributions to fund their campaigns.
It was difficult to research how the Conservatives are funded traditionally but currently they are also funded mostly by private donation.
The Conservatives success has been around supporting more traditional values. It supports religious, cultural or nationally defined beliefs and customs and resists change. It tends to be critical of radical social changes most of all. The struggle is in defining what our beliefs and customs actually are and getting Canadians to buy into their view of what that should look like. They have to walk the fine line between keeping their voter base happy by giving lip service to things like abortion debate and climate change deniers while still maintaining the new voters support for moving forward with woman’s rights and science based thinking as opposed to religious dogma.
The NDP’s financial success traditionally has been with union funds but under the new regulations, they will have to work their individual member list for personal donors.
The Liberal party’s success has been around their ability to stay slightly to the left of centre. This flexibility allows them to support policy that is left when required and right when required. So, they could support increased government spending in one period while practising restraint in another. The party’s emphasis on tolerance is the new appeal. It is hoped that this will appeal to new immigrants and urban voters and allow all Canadians, regardless of province, culture, religion or color to feel like they all belong.
The NDP prides themselves in having a moderate form of socialism and supporting a mixed economy. It has strong support for public ownership (including Crown Corporations and co-operatives). The NDP have always been strong supporters of social justice and social security measures like universal medical care, pensions for the elderly, employment insurance and worker’s compensation. NDPer’s believe that this is a way to reduce class inequalities. It is currently promising a national dental care and child care program supports which will be paid for by higher taxes on corporation and the rich. It supports governments need to expand social programs and social services to those in need. Historically it has targeted big banks, pointing out the high fees charged to consumers. It is union supported and a strong union supporter. Internationally the NDP has more of a pacifist stand and was opposed to Canada’s involvement in NATO and NORAD. It wanted Canada to become a nuclear free zone. The NDP have been cautious about involvement with the US especially militarily and didn’t want Canada to join the North American anti-ballistic missile system. Of all the parties, the NDP is most supportive of the peace efforts put forward by the United Nations.
The NDP is critical of foreign ownership both of business and personal property but very against foreign ownership of industry.
The NDP has its own way of electing its leaders using a unique two-step process first by ballot by party members and affiliated unions and then by national convention.
The NDP has played a key role even in the role as opposition, adding more support for social programs with its amendments to the Liberal budget. They lobbied for less involvement with the US in war measures and continue to press Canadians to care for those who need care and are seen to be strong supporters of the working man.
They have written policy like the Climate Change Accountability Act which when passed will make Canada the first to adopt scientific targets to cut climate change emission by 80%.
While the NDP have done well running provincial governments, they have still not had enough push over the top to elect a national leader.
The Green Party of Canada advocates environmentalism as the key to a sustainable society. It has maneuvered to replace the left versus right politics that dominated Canada historically. The mandate is to protect the environment and conserve natural resources. They adopted the six fundamental principles of the Global Green Charter: Ecological wisdom, social justice, participatory democracy, non-violence, sustainability and respect for diversity.
They face a number of uphill battles as they are generally ignored by other parties and often excluded by national media. Many Canadians feel that casting a vote for the Green Party is a wasted vote. Under our current electoral system, the Green will continue to struggle but if the country was to accept electoral change, the Green Party would show a much higher representation.
The Green party should not be overlooked as they influence much of Canadian politics even from their sidelined position.
There are other parties but these are, in my view, the only real contenders at this time.
I hope this little glimpse of history has helped you see where you stand as you choose who to support going into this next election.
I only ask three things of you. First and foremost, please vote. If you are too busy to research and don’t really know who to vote for, then go with your gut but please get out there and let your voice be heard. Canada is only as strong as the voice of the ordinary man, woman and child who is the backbone of the economy, the liveability and the heart of this nation. Your voice is absolutely crucial in this election.
Secondly, I ask that you consider the human beings who put themselves into the race and be careful about the things you post on your social media. Make sure that you are talking policy and not making it personal. There is a real, living, breathing, caring, trying human being on the other end of that political photo and we need to have respect for that, even if we disagree with their viewpoint.
Lastly, I ask that you consider getting involved, even if it is in some small way. This is your country and our responsibility. Our politicians work for us and we have to be engaged to see that continue. We can’t just sing the “we stand on guard for thee” part of the song, we actually have to stand…on guard against fake news, outside influences and the biggest problem of all – apathy.
This is your country – step up.
That’s all I ask.