The Liberal Party of Canada currently forms the nation’s government in the House of Commons and the Senate. Its historical roots can be traced back to pre-confederation times, and its forerunners were involved in the rebellions of 1837.
Unlike the Conservative Party of Canada (and to some extent, the New Democratic Party of Canada), the Liberal Party has only ever been referred to as such since confederation. Though it is widely accepted that there are factions within the party’s left and right wings (for instance, the Trudeau Liberals and Martin Liberals have many differences), the Liberal Party has always remained one party (officially). That said, even during the World War I period in which some Liberals ran under the Unionist banner with members of Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Conservative government, the Liberal Party continued to exist.
Infighting and the split between supporters of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and current Prime Minister Paul Martin have recently plagued the party. (Martin’s politics are somewhat more fiscally conservative than those of Chrétien and it was fairly obvious from early in the Chrétien government’s mandate that Martin was gunning for his job, which heightened tensions).
The Liberal Party of Canada has formed the nation’s government in 23 of Canada’s 38 parliaments. Since it and the Conservative Party have been the only two parties to govern the country, and the Liberals have done so for the majority of the twentieth century, it has been called “the natural governing party of Canada.” Its moral authority to govern has been called into question as of late, after recent corruption charges became public.
The Liberal Party of Canada
The Liberal Party of Canada, though officially founded when the Dominion of Canada
came into existence, dates back to the mid-nineteenth century and the Rebellions of 1837. The Reformers who wished to see responsible government implemented (including George Brown
, William Lyon Mackenzie
and Louis-Joseph Papineau
) were forerunners of the post-confederation Liberal Party. The first Canadian federal election placed John A. Macdonald
and the Conservative Party on the government side of the House of Commons; the Liberal Party of Canada became the nation’s first official opposition. The party was seen as radical during this period and it was widely believed (by conservatives, naturally) that it would not be able to govern.
Its only government mandate in roughly the first 30 years after confederation lasted for five years. Macdonald was found to be taking bribes over railroad contracts and his government was subsequently defeated in a confidence vote. Alexander Mackenzie, the Liberal leader, became the country’s first Liberal prime minister in 1873. The party also won the 1874 Canadian federal election. During this mandate, the party developed a reputation for being pro-free trade and devoted to ‘continentalism,’ that is, the strengthening of ties between Canada and the United States. It also advocated greater autonomy from Britain, whereas the Conservatives were devoted to maintaining ties with Britain (and were nicknamed Tories for that reason). The mandate was also notable for Mackenzie’s introduction of the secret ballot voting system, founding the Royal Military College and helping to finish the Canadian Pacific Railway. The Liberals lost the 1878 Canadian federal election and were again relegated to the opposition.
Former Ontario premier Edward Blake followed Mackenzie as Liberal leader. He had been a major player in the uncovering of the Pacific Scandal and had even been offered the party leadership (and subsequently the prime ministerial position) shortly thereafter but had declined due to his failing health. The 1882 and 1887 elections yielded no fruit for Blake or the Liberals, and the Conservatives won each time. He sat as opposition leader until 1887 when he left federal politics and moved to Britain. Blake was instrumental in bringing Wilfred Laurier in as party leader.
Laurier, a lawyer from St-Lin, Québec, is credited with “modernizing” the Liberal Party of Canada and bringing it into the twentieth century. Until he became party leader, the Liberal Party was not really “associated” with French-Canada as it eventually came to be. Various actions and policies of the Conservative Party in regards to Francophones in Canada (including the Manitoba Schools Question and the execution of Louis Riel) were divisive issues and are believed to have alienated French-Canadians from the Conservatives. This was also not helped by the Tories’ allegiance to Britain, which didn’t necessarily sit well with French-Canadians.
Laurier was also French-Canadian, which increased the party’s profile in French areas of the country. He was also able to re-forge ties with the strict Roman Catholic hierarchy in such areas (as they had been damaged by the perception of the Liberal Party as radical and secular). Though the Conservatives were generally “on top” in Canada West, the Liberals’ enjoyed growing support among the agricultural population because of their pro-free trade views. Such nationwide support earned the party a mandate in 1896, and made Laurier the country’s first French prime minister.
Laurier’s Liberals governed Canada for 15 years, until 1911. During this period, they increased immigration, created the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and continued to push for free trade and other relations with the United States. This eventually became problematic for the party, as attitudes towards free trade began to change and the Conservatives were re-elected on an anti-free trade platform in 1911.
Relations between the Conservatives and French-Canadians were strained again during World War I when French-Canadian response to the need for military personnel was significantly smaller than that of their English counterparts. Conservative prime minister Robert Borden knew conscription was probably the only answer but also knew that this would be political suicide, especially in French Canada. He attempted to convince Laurier to form an alliance with him so as to minimize political fallout among French Canadians, but Laurier refused. Borden eventually did manage to pass conscription legislation in 1917 after English-Canadian Liberals (many of whom opposed Laurier) joined with the Borden Conservatives to form a Unionist government. This was nonetheless damaging to the Tories in Québec, however, and there is great mistrust of the party (no matter what its incarnation is) in the province to this day.
William Lyon Mackenzie King, a grandson of William Lyon Mackenzie, succeeded Laurier as leader after his death 1919. King continued the ideals of Canadian sovereignty popularized by Laurier during his tenure. King, however, was more successful in his attempts, however, and what might be considered political failure may actually have helped him. When Governor-General Julian Byng refused to dissolve parliament upon King’s request in 1925 and instead asked Conservative leader Arthur Meighen to form a government, the Liberals successfully argued for changes to the Governor-General’s position. After this point, the British government no longer appointed the Governor-General; the Canadian elected assembly did this instead. During the three separate times in which King was prime minister, he also successfully argued that Canada should be responsible for its own foreign affairs and issues related to defense. He also appointed Canada’s first ambassador to the United States, marking a change from the old system in which Britain took care of Canada’s foreign affairs for it.
Conscription again became an issue during World War II. Many Conservative supporters feared that King’s Liberals would go “too easy” on French-Canadians who were not interested in enlisting. King was able to avoid a major controversy by implementing his policy of “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” He also secured the support of many French-Canadians by promising that if conscription became a reality, all conscripts would be given home duty. King also implemented social programs and services that were integral to the creation of Canada’s social welfare system. To be fair, his government often made these implementations at the insistence of the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation, with which it had an alliance in a minority government.
King retired from politics in 1948 and was replaced by Louis St-Laurent as party leader and prime minister. King personally wanted St-Laurent to replace him, and believed the party should alternate between leaders of English and French origin. St-Laurent’s tenure was marked by a growing role for Canada on the international scene. He is also credited with becoming the first Canadian politician to use a “media image,” as he was frequently “packaged” as “Uncle Louis” by the press. He began to be seen as tired and old by 1957, however.
The Liberals were returned to the opposition in the 1957 Canadian federal election, when the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (led by John Diefenbaker) swept to power. St-Laurent served as leader of the opposition for a time and then retired from politics. He was 75. His Secretary of State for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, succeeded him as party and opposition leader. Pearson had become relatively famous for coming up with an effective solution to the Suez Crisis, and had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. He led the Liberals to a minority government in 1963. Among the services implemented during this tenure were Canada’s maple leaf flag and policies that would later influence the Canada Health Act.
Pearson remained the party’s leader until 1968, when a Montreal lawyer and writer from Québec, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, won the leadership convention after Pearson’s retirement. Trudeau called an election shortly thereafter and held power until the 1979 Canadian federal election, when western alienation and the oil crisis of the 1970s got the better of him and he lost to Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives. Clark had only won a minority government, however, and was defeated several months after parliament resumed. Trudeau had intended to leave politics after the 1979 defeat but was persuaded to return to re-defeat the Tories in 1980. Until his (real) retirement in 1984, Trudeau advocated civil rights, bilingualism, multiculturalism and Canadian federalism. The greatest controversy of his Liberal governments was the invocation of the War Measures Act during the October Crisis. He retired from politics in 1984 and John Turner was elected to succeed him.
Though Turner was the prime minister for a short while, the Liberals fell to Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives in the 1984 Canadian federal election. The Tories won their largest majority victory since Diefenbaker’s sweep in 1957 and proceeded to negotiate free trade agreements with the United States. Mulroney also pushed for constitutional reform; this was exemplary of the divides within even the Liberal party. More ideologically left leaning Liberals such as Trudeau, who returned to the public spotlight to denounce the Meech Lake Accord, were against such reforms but fiscally moderate Liberals such as Paul Martin were generally in favour of it. The reforms ultimately failed (though the free trade agreement went through). Turner stayed on as Liberal leader until 1990, when he resigned and prompted another leadership convention. Former cabinet minister (under Trudeau) Jean Chrétien edged out Paul Martin and Sheila Copps, and later had to be re-elected to parliament in a by-election (having had left politics years prior).
Chrétien and company returned to the government side of the House of Commons after the 1993 Canadian federal election, which had been utterly disastrous for the Progressive Conservatives. Mulroney had resigned from politics after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord, and Justice Minister Kim Campbell replaced him. Her campaign was dismally unsuccessful, however, and the Progressive Conservative caucus was demolished – only two Tories were elected in 1993.
Chrétien’s years in power were marked by increased interest in sovereignty for Québec, which culminated in another referendum. Federalists narrowly won out, and many hailed Chrétien as a hero of national unity. There were also controversies, including “Shawinigate,” which involved allegations of corruption and favoritism, questions involving the rights of the government to authorize the use of pepper spray against protestors, the broken campaign promise to scrap the GST and, perhaps the most memorable incident, Chrétien’s attempt to fend off a protestor (which kind of looked like throttling) during an appearance. During his final years in power, Chrétien refused to send Canadian troops to Iraq and supported the decriminalization of marijuana and the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage.
Chrétien remained prime minister until December of 2003, when he retired and was replaced by Paul Martin, the former finance minister who had been publicly gunning for the top job for years. Towards the end of his career, Chrétien removed Martin from his cabinet post (which he had held since 1993) because he had been essentially campaigning while Chrétien was still in power. News of his retirement became public in the fall of 2003 and it was widely expected that Martin would succeed in replacing him. He was contested by longtime Liberal MP Sheila Copps but won the leadership of the Liberal Party on the first ballot with well over 90% of the vote. Copps and other skeptics have referred to this as “the coronation.”
Infighting has surrounded the Liberal caucus as of late; Chrétien and Martin loyalists fought bitter nomination battles for the right to run in the 2004 Canadian federal election, and many of those who had been strong supporters of Chrétien found themselves ousted. The most publicized example of this was Sheila Copps, who retired from politics after losing her nomination battle (which she blamed on dirty politics). Auditor-general Sheila Fraser released a report in February of 2004 accusing the Liberals of misspending and mismanaging public funds during the 1990s. Liberal support dropped greatly after this, and the party was reduced to a minority government in the 2004 Canadian federal election.
As testimony continues at the sponsorship inquiry, the opposition parties have speculated about bringing the Liberal government down and forcing an election. It has been widely speculated that the Liberals could salvage another minority or that the Conservatives will find themselves in power for the first time in over ten years. As other writeups above mention, they have come under fire for campaigning from the left and governing from the right. Many people also view the party as corrupt. This is entirely subjective.
The party lost power in the 2006 Canadian federal election and will form the official opposition in the 39th parliament. Paul Martin relinquished parliamentary leadership duties to former defence minister Bill Graham and has said he will not lead the party into the next election. Stéphane Dion, a former Liberal environment minister, won the party's leadership on December 2, 2006, and was sworn in as Leader of the Opposition. Dion's time as party leader was not successful — he led it to its worst showing in years in the 2008 Canadian federal election — but nearly became prime minister in the Canadian constitutional crisis of 2008.
Dion resigned as leader in December 2008 and was replaced on an interim basis by Michael Ignatieff, who had been the runner-up in the 2006 leadership race. The party will confirm Ignatieff as its leader at a convention in May 2009.
Just as the Conservatives are known as Tories
, the members and supporters Liberal Party of Canada (and its provincial counterparts, most often) are known as “Grits
.” This is a reference to the party’s background: the Clear Grits
were a radical reform group during the 1837 Upper Canadian Revolution
. The ties between the parties have existed ever since, though some argue that the term also applies to the party’s determination in becoming Canada’s first official opposition to becoming what some call its “natural governing party.”
Liberal Party of Canada (http://www.liberal.ca) 9 May 2005
Liberal Party of Canada (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberal_Party_of_Canada) 9 May 2005
I also remember everything from about 1991 onward.