The Conservative Party of Canada is currently the largest party in the Canadian House of Commons and the Senate, making it the government. Though the party’s current form has only existed since late in 2003, the earliest incarnation of the Conservative Party of Canada (under this name) dates back to shortly after confederation and its roots predate it.
As a result of the term’s application during two unique and different periods in Canadian history, there are two parts to this writeup and it will proceed in chronological order. Different manifestations of the parties have existed in the periods between 1874 and 2003, and where appropriate they will be detailed in their own nodes (particularly in cases when parties using different names were easily distinguished from the party during the periods in which it was known as the Conservative Party of Canada).
It should be noted, before beginning a comprehensive history of the party and its role in Canadian parliament throughout the nation’s history, that there are key differences between the historical Conservative Party of Canada and the Conservative Party of Canada that was formed in the twenty-first century. They should not be considered the same party. This point is so important that I considered breaking the subject up into two writeups with the help of other noders. The current Conservative Party of Canada often refers to the accomplishments and legacies of the historical Tories but is well aware that it was not technically the historical equivalent of itself. The twenty-first century’s Conservative Party is the product of a merger between what were once two separate parties, both of which were influenced in at least some way by the historical Conservative Party. It is unfair to both the first and second incarnation to imply that the Conservative Party of Canada as we know it today is a straightforward “continuation” of its historical counterpart.
The periods between 1942, when the Conservative Party of Canada reinvented itself as the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and 2003, when the Progressive Conservative Party merged with the right-wing Canadian Alliance, should be examined in their own nodes as they are fundamentally important periods in Canadian history in their own right. This period, therefore, should be examined and illustrated in its own node.
The Conservative Party of Canada
The Conservative Party of Canada’s origins date back to the general confederation period
, though its roots can be traced back to somewhat more regional parties from before the British North America Act
. The “provincial” conservative parties of Ontario and Quebec led by John A. Macdonald
and George-Etienne Cartier
formed an alliance in 1854 and gave rise to the Liberal-Conservative Party. The coalition also included reform groups from the west.
Though it officially became a new, “national” party with Confederation in 1867 (and Macdonald became its leader), it retained the Liberal-Conservative moniker until 1874 and according to historian Peter Waite, Macdonald always referred to the party as such. Most usually referred to it as the Conservative Party, however, and for the purposes of this writeup it will be referred to as such except where other coalitions and changes prompted brief name alterations and changes. Some candidates even continued to run as Liberal-Conservatives into the early twentieth century; it has been said that those who did were usually socially liberal and fiscally conservative (Red Tories) and those who ran under the Conservative label were further to the right of the party’s spectrum.
After confederation, the Conservatives formed the newly created Dominion of Canada’s first government (a majority), holding 38 more seats than the Liberals in the House of Commons. Macdonald, having been elected leader of the coalition, became the country’s first prime minister. The party’s political success was not quite a landslide, though it did have a majority government. Its first term in office was reasonably successful at first, and it pushed its agenda of developing and maintaining ties with Britain, opposing free trade with the United States and developing the Canadian Pacific Railway. This turned into a problem for Macdonald and the Conservatives, however, as he was accused of taking bribes. The Pacific Scandal felled the Conservative government in 1873 when it resigned after being unable to survive a vote on the matter. The Liberal Party of Canada formed the second government and the Conservatives were relegated to the Opposition after suffering a crushing electoral loss.
The period between 1873 and 1878, when the Conservatives would win another mandate, was the party’s first term as Official Opposition since confederation. During this period, the governing Liberal Party (under the leadership of Alexander Mackenzie, though Wilfred Laurier was quickly becoming a popular member of the caucus) became known for its pro-free trade stance and its attempt to create a greater sense of continentalism
(increasing Canada-U.S. relations). The Conservatives ran on a platform opposing these ideals in 1878 and were successful, given the general British loyalty among some parts of the country. They were again rewarded with government mandates in the 1882 and 1887 federal elections but their momentum began to slow after Macdonald’s death in 1891.
The individual groups that had united to form the Conservative Party were barely able to contain their differences without Macdonald’s unifying leadership, and strains between the party’s English and French (and, similarly, its Catholic and Protestant) factions increased. Without Macdonald (and certainly due to events including the Manitoba Schools Question and other similar perceived rejection of French-Canadian culture by the Conservatives), hostility towards the party among French-Canadians mounted. This eventually allowed the Liberal Party, under the leadership of Wilfred Laurier, to win a majority government in 1896.
The Conservatives eventually knocked the Liberals from power again in 1911, again on the grounds of being anti-free trade and against the Liberal quest for a continentalist relationship with the U.S. They clung to these differences between the two parties especially during their 15-year period in the opposition during the governance of the Laurier Liberals. It is widely believed that the free trade issue is what pushed the Conservatives to defeat the Liberals in 1911 and that this was also the issue that generated so much Conservative support among English Canadians.
Robert Borden, the party’s new leader, headed the resulting Conservative government. Borden and his government stressed the party’s anti-free trade stance, and focused on creating and maintaining high tariffs so as to protect local industry from American competition. He also emphasized the country’s British heritage and insisted on pushing to maintain its links to its imperial roots. This is not to say that he was vastly ignorant of the French; he attempted to encourage some French-Canadian participation within the party but this was largely unsuccessful due to the existing tense rivalries between the French and English divisions in the country. Some of the members of the Conservative government were devoutly anti-French and even some of the French-Canadian nationalists who were adamantly opposed to Laurier and his party could not fathom the idea of working with Conservatives from English Canada; as such, individuals from both sides were unwilling to work together against the Liberals.
Borden also faced a major issue after the declaration of war in 1914. Canada, still considered British, was expected to help defend its colonial power. Though the response from Britain itself and from English Canada exceeded expectations, the enrolment rate from French Canada was relatively low. It was widely believed that French-Canadians were unwilling to sign up for military duties not merely because animosity between French and English Canada may have further damaged the reputation of Great Britain among French-Canadians, but also because French-Canadians were skeptical about having to work with English-Canadians in a predominantly English environment. After enduring much criticism from predominantly English supporters, Borden was forced into passing conscription legislation in 1917. He did not have enough support in the House of Commons to do this with his own party, however, and was forced to try to build coalitions with other parties. Laurier refused to hand over Liberal support and Borden eventually struck a deal with some English Liberals who did not support Laurier, forming the Unionist Party temporarily.
The greatest success of the Unionist Party was not the successful implementation of conscription legislation in 1917 but also that it split the Laurier Liberals, as more English-leaning members of the party were often willing to join the Unionists. Borden won the 1917 federal election with a combination of Liberal and Conservative MPs under the Unionist banner. This created some confusion in that Liberal MPs who ran for the Unionist Party often referred to themselves and Liberal-Unionists but the Conservative members identified themselves as Unionists. The coalition continued after the war’s conclusion, and Borden’s successor, Arthur Meighen, changed the party’s name to the National Liberal and Conservative Party. It was his intention to singularize the party, which had functioned as two united parties without one singular structure. He was unsuccessful in this attempt; Laurier loyalists stuck with their own party and the Liberal-Unionists were drawn back to the Liberal Party of Canada after Laurier’s death; they had fewer qualms with its new leader, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Others, particularly those disenchanted with the Conservative policy on free trade, joined the new Progressive Party of Canada. Meighen and his National Liberals and Conservatives lost the next election and were relegated back to the opposition. Another name change followed and the party thus became the Liberal-Conservative Party of Canada. It was rarely referred to as thus after this point, however, and became more commonly known as the Conservative Party of Canada – again.
King’s Liberals, though having won a majority in 1921, were reduced to a minority in the 1925 federal election. Though they struck a deal with the Progressives, who held the balance of power, the Conservatives defeated them on a House vote. Constitutional monarchical parliamentary procedure dictates that the monarch (or, in Canada’s case, the monarch’s representative – the governor-general) has the option of either calling an election or asking the official opposition to form a government. The latter option is rarely chosen, but Governor-General Julian Byng asked Meighen and his Conservatives to form a government after the parliamentary loss; they accepted. The resulting anger on the part of the Canadian people, known commonly as the King-Byng Affair, prompted a landslide Liberal victory in 1926: Canadians were upset at the use of such a feudal tradition by a non-elected head of state and sought to punish the party that benefited from the use of this technique. The Conservatives were once again relegated to the opposition.
The Conservatives swept to power once again in 1930 after promising to bring about an end to the Great Depression. New Conservative leader Richard Bedford Bennett told Canadians that higher tariffs would end financial strife in three days, so they voted for him and his party in record numbers. Needless to say, he was unable to bring about the end of the Depression and economic problems only grew from this point on. The Conservatives’ overall popularity suffered because of this. Public dissent grew so great that the unemployed masses organized the ‘On to Ottawa Trek,’ a campaign to move as many people from Vancouver to Ottawa by rail so as to make the prime minister and his government aware of the problems they were facing. Bennett himself ordered the RCMP to put a stop to the demonstration, which they did in Regina in the summer of 1935. One person was killed and countless others were injured. Though Bennett did attempt to repair damage done to his party’s reputation by reversing his policies on free trade and thus hoping to change economic fortunes in Canada, the general reaction to his decision was that it was “too little, too late.” King and the Liberals were once again returned to the government side of the House of Commons with a majority.
The party was not particularly popular at this point; an attempt to get away from Bennett’s unsuccessful campaigns surfaced when new leader Robert Manion attempted to rename the party the National Government. This was, like Borden had succeeded somewhat in doing decades earlier, an attempt at a wartime coalition between parties – and for much the same reason. Conscription was once again becoming an issue during World War II, and though King’s plan was “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription,” the opposition attempted to form a coalition in order to be able to force King into passing legislation if the need arose. They did not improve their standing in the 1940 federal election and eventually asked Arthur Meighen to return as party leader. This didn’t work out either, though, since Meighen wasn’t even able to win a seat in the House of Commons in a by-election in 1942.
The Conservative Party of Canada effectively ceased to exist in 1942 after the election of John Bracken as its leader and its name change to the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. This was partially an attempt to soften its image.
The Conservative Party of Canada
The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada was reasonably successful in its time, forming several governments. The last Progressive Conservative government was first elected in 1984 and re-elected until 1993 when Jean Chrétien
and his Liberals won a majority. The 1993 election decimated the federal PC Party, bringing its seat-count down to two. The Reform Party of Canada
had also been founded in 1987 as a voice for conservative populism, especially in Canada’s western regions. Western alienation
had become a major issue in Canada and many Western Canadians had felt, particularly during Liberal mandates such as those led by Pierre Elliott Trudeau
, that they were being ignored. The Reform Party became the third-largest party after the 1993 election and as years and elections passed, the Progressive Conservative Party increased its seat-count slowly. Despite these successes, the Liberals seemed insurmountable and several Reform officials pushed for a merger of the country’s two right/centre-right wing parties.
The initial reception to such a merge was a cool one. Since the Progressive Conservative caucus was a fraction of the size of the Reform caucus, few PC MPs were willing to consider it seriously. The Reform Party dissolved into the Canadian Alliance, a party that made more of attempt to cater to fiscal and ideological conservatives across Canada, and was originally intended as a merge between the two parties. The party’s original name was the Canadian Conservative Reform Alliance Party but this was quickly changed for two reasons. Very few Progressive Conservatives were open to the idea, first of all, and the party’s acronym was CCRAP. It was henceforth referred to as the Canadian Alliance. Preston Manning, the Reform Party’s first (and only, really) leader ran for the leadership of the new party but was defeated by a younger provincial politician named Stockwell Day. Day pushed for a merger but was frequently shot down by prodigal Tory leader Joe Clark, who had returned to politics to lead the party. (This will all be explained in the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada writeup, I swear). Clark was weary of the Alliance’s social conservatism and argued that a merger would put Canada’s fiscal conservatives between a rock and a hard place.
What few people had counted on, however, was that Stockwell Day would become intolerable to members of his own party and would eventually be forced out of his position as leader. An equally ideological conservative (though not quite as seemingly obsessive about it), Stephen Harper, was elected as the Canadian Alliance’s (and subsequently the official opposition’s) next leader. Joe Clark, well into his senior years by this point, also stepped down as party leader in early 2003. A PC leadership convention was held and several of the candidates – including a lawyer-turned-MP named Peter MacKay, though he seemed to flip-flop on the issue – swore they wouldn’t merge with the Alliance if elected. MacKay even worked out a deal specifically stating that he had no intention of pursuing a merger deal with the Alliance in order to guarantee the endorsement of a leadership candidate who had dropped out of the race. He was elected as the party’s leader in the spring of 2003. On October 16, 2003, large photos of MacKay and Harper seated side-by-side at a press conference table ran on the front pages of nearly every newspaper in the country. Jaws dropped in unison from coast to coast. The deal was done.
Well, the deal was almost done. The merger had to be ratified by both party caucuses in order to become official, after which the new party had to be registered with Elections Canada. There was little concern as to whether or not the Alliance would vote in favour of such a thing – they were more or less gaining about 13 new members, after all – and it passed the Alliance caucus test with a 94% approval rating. The real test would be whether or not the Progressive Conservatives would vote for it – and 90% of them did. This move was not without an uproar. PC MPs and members across the country accused MacKay of selling out; some even accosted him after a speech in Toronto demanding that he either resign or be impeached. Several MPs, including former leader Joe Clark, refused to join the new caucus and sat as independents when parliament reconvened after the holiday break. Others, including PC leadership candidate Scott Brison, crossed the floor and joined the Liberals. The new party was officially named the Conservative Party of Canada. Many, including former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, said this was a nod to the country’s historical conservative roots. The removal of ‘Progressive’ from the title also angered some who argued that the new name was an indication that the CPC was merely the Alliance in sheep’s clothing and that they had a hidden agenda.
Harper was elected the party’s first official leader after the leadership convention in the spring of 2004. MacKay had mused about running but opted not to, partially because one of his financial backers in the PC leadership race, a businesswoman named Belinda Stronach, had opted to run for the leadership herself. Stronach’s campaign was heavily criticized because she had no real political experience but she defeated former Ontario provincial cabinet minister (under Mike Harris) Tony Clement to come in second to Harper. Harper’s victory was controversial because it appeared as though the Canadian Alliance had merely undergone a name change and recruited roughly a dozen more members. One of his first acts as party leader was to appoint MacKay the party’s deputy leader, an attempt to diffuse criticism and appeal to the slightly less socially conservative demographic.
The CPC was expected to perform well in the 2004 Canadian federal election (particularly after the sponsorship scandal took the Liberals’ credibility rating down a notch) and it did increase its seat count. At certain points, pollsters were predicting a Conservative minority but this was later revealed to be because numbers were calculated by adding the previous election’s Canadian Alliance vote totals to its Progressive Conservative vote totals. Not all PC or even Alliance supporters voted for the new party; some chose the Liberals instead and others opted to vote for smaller parties or for independents. The Liberals were reduced to a minority government and the Conservatives, with the help of the Bloc Quebecois, are widely expected to bring it down with a non-confidence motion at any given time.
The party also held its first policy convention in March of 2005. It reaffirmed its stance against same-sex marriage and announced that it would not introduce legislation to change the current policies on abortion. As of right now the federal Conservative Party is pro-free trade and Canada-U.S. relations. This is not necessarily a huge jump from its counterpart's relatively opposite positions on these issues in the past; one must remember that at the time of the first Conservative Party of Canada, Britan was the world's biggest economic power and the U.S. especially emerged as a global force after World War II.
As of the first week of May, 2005, the Conservative Party of Canada is lagging in the polls behind the Liberal Party, even though support for the Liberals is waning due to the sponsorship scandal. The Tories suffer from constantly being accused of having a hidden agenda and the difficulty that comes with getting away from the ideological social conservative stereotype associated with the Canadian Alliance, the larger of its two "legacy parties" (they really call them that).
The party won a minority mandate in the 2006 Canadian federal election and was sworn in as the government of Canada on February 6, 2006. It won a second — larger — minority government in the 2008 Canadian federal election. Then it won a majority government in the 2011 Canadian federal election, and lost power in the 2015 Canadian federal election. Apparently I have a wee bit of an election backlog.
Stephen Harper stepped down as party leader following the 2015 election. The vote to replace him will be held in the spring of 2017. The interim party leader is Rona Ambrose.
The Seemingly Perpetual Use of "Tories" as a Descriptor
The term “Tory” has been widely used to describe Conservatives and, historically, British loyalists in Great Britain and other parts of the world. This is also true in Canada; the term was first used to describe the historical Conservative Party of Canada because it was also done to describe their British counterparts. The term carried over when the Conservatives became the Progressive Conservatives and no such term was applied to the further-right Reform or Alliance parties. The 2003 merger of these parties meant that former Alliance MPs and members were now being referred to as Tories by the press.
As I recall, reporters made a rather big deal of asking former Alliance MPs what they thought of their “new” nickname as they entered the House of Commons on their first day as a united party. Many said they liked it, though at least two said they didn’t know what it meant. Once Peter MacKay showed up and explained that the term originally referred to Irish rebels who were loyal to the British monarch, they expressed happiness with the label. Harper said he wasn’t entirely fond of it since the Reform and Alliance parties were started in protest to Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government but since the alternative was “Cons,” he’d learn to live with it.
Waite, Peter. “Between Three Oceans.” The Illustrated History of Canada, Craig Brown, ed. Key Porter Books: Toronto, 2002.