Party System

For the first half century after Confederation, Canada had a two-party system, like Great Britain's, after which it was modelled. However, this pattern was shattered with the rise of the Progressive movement during the Great War. Nationally, since 1921, there have been representatives of at least 3 and more often 4 or even 5 political parties in Parliament. The Liberal Party, the Conservative Party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (and its successor the New Democratic Party) have been represented in every Parliament since 1935. Other parties sometimes represented have included the Progressive Party, the United Farmers of Alberta, Social Credit, the Bloc Populaire and the Labour Progressive Party. In 1993 the Reform Party (succeeded by the Canadian Alliance in 2000) and the Bloc Québécois made dramatic entrances into the federal arena. Indeed, more than 100 other political parties have run at least one candidate in an election.

In 2000, 11 political parties were registered, ie, eligible to run candidates with the party name designated on the ballot, to receive donations and issue income-tax receipts, and to be reimbursed for certain expenses by the federal government. This was down from a high of 14 in 1993. To be registered a party must nominate at least 50 candidates at least 21 days before the election. By a court decision, Figueroa v. The Attorney General for Canada, parties that nominate at least 12 candidates are also entitled to have their party names on the ballot

Provincially the situation is equally complex. There have been Liberal, Conservative and CCF-NDP governments, but there have also been United Farmers of Alberta, United Farmers of Ontario, Progressive and Social Credit governments. Between 1936 and 1960, Québec politics was dominated by the Union Nationale, which was not represented in federal elections. Since 1976 the Parti Québécois and the Liberals have alternated in power.

Origins of the Party System

At the time of Confederation, Canada's politics were modelled on those of its British parent at Westminster. Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier brought together a broad ruling coalition that comprised a diverse collection of ideological, regional, religious and economic interests. At the political level, they allied the Tories of Canada West with the French-speaking bleus (see Parti Bleu) of Canada East together with heterogeneous business elements from the Maritimes. With the exception of the 1874 election, when Macdonald's government was driven from office by the Pacific Scandal, his party dominated Canadian politics until 1896.

The alliance between the Ontario and Québec wings of the Conservative Party were seriously weakened when Macdonald allowed the Métis leader Louis Riel to be hanged in 1885 in the face of fierce Catholic opposition. However, in 1891, Macdonald rallied patriotic forces in opposition to the Liberal Party's proposals for a form of free trade with the United States.

The Liberal Party at its inception rested on a much narrower base. The Clear Grits of Canada West joined the anticlerical rouges (see Parti Rouge) of what is now Quebec and the reform element in the Maritimes led by Joseph Howe. Little united these factions except for a common dislike of Macdonald.

The ascension of Wilfrid Laurier to the leadership in 1887 transformed the party. Elegantly bilingual and a politician of genius, Laurier neutralized the hostility of the Roman Catholic Church in Québec toward the concept of political liberalism. His election victory in 1896 set the stage for the subsequent Liberal domination of Québec and for the party's predominance in the next century. Laurier lost office, however, when he again proposed free trade with the United States in 1911. Robert Borden, who succeeded him and led the country through the Great War, solidified the deep anti-Conservative sentiment in Québec by imposing conscription in 1917 for what many Quebecers considered an English, not a Canadian, war.

When Laurier died in 1919, his successor was Mackenzie King, whom many historians and political scientists consider Canada's best prime minister. King's own political philosophy prepared Canada, slowly but surely, for the welfare state, and his cautious statesmanship led the country through the Depression and the Second World War. From the time that King became leader, it would be fair to describe Canada as a single-party dominant state. For example, since 1921, the Conservatives have won four majority governments; the Liberals have won twelve.

Since King it seems almost as if the Liberal Party has formed its own system of government and opposition, alternating between periods of reforming zeal and conservative management. Louis St Laurent, a stolid lawyer, succeeded King. His successor, Lester Pearson, laid the plan for medicare, the Canada Pension Plan (see health policy; social security) and the Bilingualism and Biculturalism policies. When Pierre Trudeau first took office in 1968, his government seemed radical, but practised a cautious management style. However, when he returned to office in 1980, he introduced the dramatic changes of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After the policy turmoil of the Mulroney years, Jean Chrétien has returned to the style of competent management.

Other parties have risen in the twentieth century to challenge the dominance of the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Social Credit party and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation grew from the Progressive movement, a farm-based party led by T.A. Crerar from Manitoba and Henry Wood in Alberta, who were radical populists that fought against the influence of the large financial interests such as banks and railways. As a national party it survived for about 15 years, until some Progressive and UFA MPs helped found the CCF in 1932.

The CCF's Regina Manifesto of 1933 defined the party as social democratic. Tommy Douglas led the party to power in Saskatchewan in 1944, where it became the first democratically elected social democratic government in North America. It remained the leading party of the left until it faced near electoral annihilation in 1958. It then decided to ally with the recently formed Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to form a new party, the New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1961. The NDP provided Canada with a "two-and-a-half-party" system until the 1990s. Then a combination of weak leadership, scandal at the provincial level, competition from other protest parties and trade union dissatisfaction seriously weakened the party to the point where some, including its own members, questioned its survival.

Brian Mulroney brought his Conservative Party to office in 1984 and 1988. However, Preston Manning, son of the former Social Credit premier of Alberta, began to mount a challenge to his western power base as early as 1987. He founded the Reform Party, a blend of Western populism, neo-conservatism and social conservatism. It elected its first MP in 1988 and had supplanted the Conservative Party by 1993 and became the Official Opposition in 1997. In 2000 it voted itself out of existence and was replaced by the Canadian Alliance. In 2002 the CA elected Stephen Harper as leader.

The other blow to the Conservative Party was the departure of Lucien Bouchard. A former cabinet minister, he resigned over the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and soon after formed the Bloc Québécois, a political party that runs candidates solely in the province of Québec and whose principal policy is Québec's separation from Canada. In the 1993 election the Bloc received 54 seats, the second largest number, and became the Official Opposition, though its support dropped to 38 in 2000.

The 1993 election dealt a disastrous blow to the Conservative Party when Kim Campbell, Mulroney's successor as prime minister, led her party to only two seats. After the 2000 election the party increased their number of seats to only 12, concentrated mostly in the Maritimes.

Although there are many smaller parties such as the Green Party, the Marijuana Party and the Canadian Action Party, it looks as if, more than ever, the Canadian party system has reverted to one of single party dominance.

Structure of the Party System

Canadian political parties aim to promote objectives compatible with liberal-democratic values and hope to obtain their ends by achieving power through constitutional means within a parliamentary system of government. Canada's electoral system is based upon single-member constituencies, and a political party tries to win a majority of seats in a general election to form a government. Most parties maintain associations at the constituency level organizations that contest national or provincial elections. At annual or biennial meetings, the associations elect officers, adopt resolutions and organize party followers. The extra-parliamentary organizations are not tightly structured, and no party has a large dues-paying membership. Active involvement by ordinary party members is minimal except at election time; although the NDP, Bloc and Alliance are committed in principle to more democratic internal procedures, they too are largely dominated by the national leader and the parliamentary party. Neither the Bloc nor Alliance run candidates at the provincial level.

The constitutions of the older federal parties protect bicultural and regional interests (eg, that of the Liberals provides for equal francophone and anglophone representation; the NDP selects an associate president and an associate secretary from a cultural group not represented by the president and secretary). All parties seek to increase the participation of women and ethnic minorities. In the 2000 election there were 373 women candidates, representing 20.6% of the total, down from 24.4% in 1997. The NDP had the largest percentage of women candidates at 24.4%, but their total showed a marked decline from the 35.5% in the previous election. The Alliance was represented predominantly by white males; only 11% of its candidates were female.

Each general election involves simultaneous elections in all of Canada's 301 ridings, and in each constituency there may be candidates from registered political parties, as well as representatives of other parties without registered status, whose names appear on the ballot as "Independents." In 2000 there were 1808 candidates, the second highest total ever for a Canadian general election. At least 3 candidates ran in every Canadian constituency and 98 electoral districts had 7 or more.

The financing of elections is often controversial. Various parliamentary statutes have attempted to make them transparent and fair. The Liberals raised about $17 million in the 2000 election, approximately two-thirds of which came from business contributions. The Bloc, by contrast, refuses to accept business contributions. The NDP receives about 40% of its donations from the trade union movement, and the Canadian Alliance relies on individual donation for almost 60% of its financial resources.

At the local level, the first task of the constituency party is to choose its candidate; although the procedures for doing so are normally loosely established by the national political party, there is considerable autonomy accorded the local parties and their practices vary widely. Usually the candidate is selected by a secret vote of all members resident in the constituency over the age of 14. Although membership in a constituency party of a major national party might normally run in the 200-500 range, this figure sometimes swells to 4000-5000 for nomination meetings. Because the rules for contested nominations are not clearly established and these events normally involve the infusion into the party of large numbers of new members only weakly committed to the party as an institution, the system often produces conflict and tension.

Once the party's candidate is chosen, the local party tries to secure his or her election. The party will choose a campaign manager, rent a campaign office and begin the process of publicizing the party and the candidate by signs and advertisements in the media. Closer to the election, it will organize door-to-door canvasses and the distribution of literature. After election day the party will quickly lapse into a loosely organized social club, guarding a desultory existence and waiting to be resurrected for the next election.

It is not easy to describe the exact relationship between the various provincial parties and the national units with which they share a common name. For example, in Ontario membership in the federal and provincial parties is separate; in Québec there is no provincial Conservative Party, and membership in the federal and provincial Liberal parties is separate. Even where party membership overlaps between federal and provincial parties, it is not uncommon for activists or ordinary members to have different preferences at different levels. In Ontario, for example, voters have frequently elected one party at the provincial level and soon after chosen another in federal elections.

One primary task of both provincial and federal parties is to choose the party leader (in effect the party's candidate for premier or prime minister) and then secure the election of a sufficient number of party supporters. Election of party leaders normally takes place after the resignation or death of the incumbent. Historically most parties have chosen their leader in a Leadership Convention. However, in the 1990s most parties other than the Liberals shifted to some form of election involving active participation by ordinary party members. Reform/Canadian Alliance counts all members' votes equally regardless of place of residence. The Progressive Conservative Party operates on a points system that allocates an equal number of points to each riding in the country, but still encourages individual party members to vote. Parties have used phone-in and mail-in voting, all in an attempt to encourage wider membership participation. These new methods of leadership selection have the advantage of being more democratic, but they lack the television impact of a convention and they don't bond party followers the same way that bringing them together in a central location to choose a leader did.

The parties also elect a president and other executive members whose job it is to manage the party's administrative apparatus. As well as leadership conventions, most parties hold policy conventions, usually every 2 years. There is often controversy between the MPs and participants in policy conventions as to how far the elected members are bound by the content of resolutions. In a general election, it is the task of the national party to manage the overall national campaign. It plans the leader's tour, raises and spends money on advertising and campaign literature, and distributes money and other resources. At other times, the parties operate offices with a small but paid staff, whose responsibility it is to conduct party business and to co-ordinate the various constituency, provincial and national organizations.

There is sometimes a conflict between the extra-parliamentary party and the senators and elected MPs. The latter see themselves as the top of the power pyramid and consider the volunteer and paid party workers as their agents, whereas the volunteers in particular often consider themselves important political forces within the constituency, or within the provincial or national party, and view the elected MPs as their representatives. The parliamentary caucuses of the major parties have always tended to be unrepresentative of the nation as a whole, and even of their own voters. After 1993 the pattern of representations became very fragmented. The Liberal Party's core support came from central Canada, and for 3 consecutive elections it virtually swept all the seats in Ontario. The Bloc ran candidates only in Québec. Reform and the Canadian Alliance, in spite of their best efforts, could barely break out of the West, and the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives, although they attracted broader voter support, found their seats primarily in the Maritimes.

Since the 1993 election, the party system itself has been called into question. Voters increasingly do not identify as partisans of particular political parties and turnout at elections has declined from 75.3% in the emotional free trade election of 1988 to 61.2% in 2000. The Canadian Alliance, the Canadian Action Party and others have called for increased citizen participation. Even the traditional parties promise more involvement of elected members in policy and more accountability.