Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Political History of Canada

[This text was written in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]

Political history in Canada , as distinct from constitutional history, may be described as the history of political parties. In a sense, there have been political parties in Canada ever since, in 1608, some of Champlain's men plotted to murder him, and hand over the newly founded settlement of Quebec to the Basques. At a later date, there was a widespread division of opinion in New France between those who supported Frontenac's attitude toward the use of firewater among the Indians and those who supported Laval's opposition to it; and in the early days of British rule in Canada there was a violent cleavage between those who wished to see French laws and institutions continued in Canada and those who wished to see English laws and institutions introduced. But it was not until the establishment of representative institutions (an event which took place in Nova Scotia in 1758, in New Brunswick in 1784, and in [Upper and Lower] Canada in 1791) that organized political parties began to make their appearance in what is now Canada . The character of the old colonial constitution, with its concentration of power in the hands of the governing class, was such that there sprang up at an early date an organized opposition to the government party. Signs of opposition to the government and its supporters were apparent in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick long before 1800, and in Upper and Lower Canada shortly after that date. The name by which the opposition party came to be known was that of " Reformers "; though in Lower Canada at a later date, because of the racial twist given to the political struggle, they came to be known as "Anti-bureaucrates" or " Patriotes ". At various times, the Reformers obtained a majority in the Legislative Assemblies of the various provinces of British North America , and in such cases they were able to elect the speaker of the Assembly ¾ a fact which predicated a certain amount of organization. On the other hand, when the " Tories ," or government party, had control of the Assembly, they put a nominee of their own in the speaker's chair.


The Reform and Tory Parties.


In these far-off struggles is to be found the origin of the Liberal and Conservative parties of today. It is true that liberalism and conservatism correspond to two tendencies in human nature. One is a tendency toward change and reform; the other is a tendency toward acceptance of things as they are. Some men are naturally inclined to attempt to make things better, and these are commonly described as Reformers or Liberals; others like to let sleeping dogs lie, and these are described as Tories or Conservatives. But one cannot speak of a political party until that party has attained some degree of organization; and it was only during the struggles that preceded the Rebellion of 1837 that the Reform or Liberal party in Canada may be said to have taken shape.


During this period, the organization of both the Reform and Tory parties was extremely loose. Each party had its own newspapers, and there were no doubt temporary party organizations in various constituencies; but there were no province-wide political associations, and there was little party discipline, except that of course exercised by Government House. These early parties, moreover, tended constantly to break up into smaller groups. In 1837, for example, the Reform party broke up into those who favoured rebellion, and those who did not; and even among the Tories there were those who favoured ruthless repression, and those who did not. Even when the Reformers, having finally attained power in 1848, were able, with Lord Elgin's support, to bring into operation Lord Durham's panacea of responsible government , they proceeded to break up into warring factions over such matters as the clergy reserves and the seigniorial tenure, in such a way that Robert Baldwin , the leading Canadian exponent of responsible government, retired into private life in disgust in 1851. A reconstruction of the government took place under Francis Hincks   and A. N. Morin ; but this government lasted for only three years, and the situation then created gave rise to the organization of the two great parties that have dominated Canadian politics since that time.


The Origin of the Liberal-Conservative Party.


There were in the Canadian legislature in 1854 no fewer than seven distinct political groups. Four of these were from Upper Canada . The first was the remnant of the Family Compact, or high Tory party, and was led by Sir Allan MacNab . The second was the moderate Conservative party, led by John A. Macdonald . The third was the party known as the "Baldwin Reformers", moderate Liberals who had been followers of Robert Baldwin. Lastly, there was a small, but growing, Radical or advanced Liberal party, commonly known as the "Clear Grits". This group had no one leader, but George Brown was beginning to assume in it a commanding position. In Lower Canada , there were three groups or parties. First, there was the " parti bleu ", comprising the majority of the French Canadians. This party had been led by Louis H. LaFontaine , the colleague of Robert Baldwin, and had been nominally Liberal; but the French Canadians are an essentially conservative people, and the Liberalism of this group was more nominal than real. Second, there was a small party known as the " parti rouge ", composed of real French-Canadian Liberals, some of whom had radical or republican leanings. Lastly, there was the English-speaking minority in Lower Canada, composed of representatives of the English-speaking population of the Eastern Townships and Montreal .


When the Hincks-Morin administration resigned, the governor-general called upon Sir Allan MacNab to form a government. MacNab's immediate followers, however, numbered only a handful; and he therefore applied to Macdonald to aid him in forming a cabinet. Macdonald took the view that the bounds of the Conservative party should be enlarged "so as to embrace every person desirous of being counted as a progressive Conservative". He had little difficulty in persuading the Baldwin Reformers to support a progressive Conservative administration, since their views did not differ widely from those of the moderate Conservatives; but he found it more difficult to win over the majority of the French Canadians. It was not easy for the sometime rebels of '37 to join hands with English-speaking Tories. But Macdonald, with his adroitness in the management of men, had cultivated cordial relations with the French Canadians so successfully, and the natural instincts of the majority of the French Canadians were so essentially conservative, that he was able, in the end, to obtain their support. There was thus brought about between Macdonald and the majority of the French Canadians a working alliance which lasted until Macdonald's death, and was indeed the corner-stone of his success. He succeeded also in obtaining the general support of the English minority in Lower Canada ; and to the party thus formed, of diverse elements, he gave the name of the Liberal-Conservative party. This is the name by which the so-called Conservative party in Canada is still known. The groups left in opposition ¾ the "Clear Grits" and the parti rouge ¾ were, on the other hand, the nucleus from which has developed the Liberal party in Canada to-day. Thus the two historic parties in Canadian politics had their origin.


The Great Coalition.


The Liberal-Conservative party dominated the Canadian legislature, with one brief interruption of four days, until 1862; but the Liberals made great progress during these years, especially in Upper Canada , with the result that after 1862 government came to a deadlock. The two parties were so evenly divided, and the two parts of the province were so bitterly arrayed against each other, that in 1864 a crisis was reached. In order to find a way out of the deadlock, George Brown, the leader of the Liberals, and John A. Macdonald , the leader of the Conservatives, though bitter personal enemies, were persuaded to form a coalition government. This coalition had the support of all but the parti rouge and a wing of the "Clear Grit" party, and it successfully earned through the great project of Confederation. George Brown, it is true, withdrew from the government in 1865; but a number of his Liberal colleagues declined to follow him, and the Great Coalition, as it was called, remained in existence until Confederation was completed in 1867.


Parties in the New Dominion .


The task of forming the first government of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 was entrusted by Lord Monck , the governor-general, to John A. (or, as he now became, Sir John) Macdonald. Macdonald realized that the first years of the new Dominion would be a critical period. "Confederation," he said, "is only yet in the gristle, and it will require five years more before it hardens into bone." He was therefore anxious that the government which presided over the infancy of the Dominion should be, like that which presided over its birth, a coalition. He even went the length of decrying the evils of partyism. "Party," he quoted, "is merely a struggle for office, the madness of many for the gain of a few." In his first cabinet, he included an almost equal number of Liberals and Conservatives; and he made a genuine attempt to form a nonparty government. In this attempt, however, he did not succeed. George Brown set up the standard of opposition; and at a convention held in Toronto in 1868 he succeeded in carrying the majority of the Liberal or "Clear Grit" party with him. In Quebec , the parti rouge remained in opposition; and thus the Liberal party survived what was regarded as Macdonald's attempt to wreck it. Gradually, the Liberal members of Macdonald's cabinet retired; the great majority of those Liberals who had supported the Great Coalition reverted to their former allegiance; and by 1872 the government had become essentially a Conservative administration. The system of party government had re-asserted itself.


The climax came in 1873. In 1872 there was a general election. In this election the Macdonald government was supported at the polls; but, unfortunately, Macdonald was so indiscreet, during the election, as to solicit campaign funds from Sir Hugh Allan , to whom had been granted the contract for building the Canadian Pacific Railway . The revelation of this fact in 1873 created a sensation in the country, since it carried with it the suggestion that Macdonald had sold the charter for the building of the railway in return for large contributions to the Liberal-Conservative campaign funds. It is probable that this charge was baseless. The Liberals would seem to have confused post hoc with propter hoc . But the incident created a painful impression on the public mind; and it came to be known as the " Pacific Scandal ." Despite Macdonald's protestation that "These hands are clean", the House failed to support him, and in 1873, without waiting for a vote, Macdonald resigned.


The Mackenzie Government.


The " Grits ", as the Liberals had by this time come to be known, now had their opportunity. The governor-general sent for Alexander Mackenzie , one of the Liberal leaders; and Mackenzie formed in 1873 a Liberal government. In 1874 a new general election was held, and in this the Liberal-Conservative party suffered a disastrous defeat. Macdonald came back to the House with a group of only forty-five supporters; and there were those who regarded him as a ruined and discredited politician. He himself wished to make way for a younger leader; but the "Old Guard", as he called his handful of supporters, would not hear of his resignation, and he therefore decided to bide his time. He did not have long to wait. The new government was honest and economical; but Mackenzie, the new prime minister though a man of integrity and ability, was not the politician that Macdonald was. He was so honest and so economical that he offended many of his own supporters. "Give the Grits rope enough," Macdonald had said, "and they will hang themselves"; and his prophecy proved to be true. In addition to this, the years during which the Mackenzie government were in power proved to be years of severe depression. The result was that when, in 1878, another general election fell due, the Mackenzie government was swept from power by an avalanche of votes hardly less spectacular than that which had carried it to power in 1873.


The issue on which the election of 1878 was fought was that of protection. The depression had given rise to a demand for the protection of Canadian industries by tariff barriers; and this had been stimulated by the campaign of the "Canada First" party [alternative site ]. Macdonald was at heart a free trader; but when Mackenzie, who was a bigoted free trader, came out in opposition to higher tariffs, Macdonald, with that frank opportunism which distinguished him, adopted the policy of protection. "Protection," he rather cynically told his friend Goldwin Smith , "has done so much for me that I feel I must do something for protection." He re-named protection the " National Policy ", on the ground that it was calculated to build up Canada as a nation; and the "N.P." (as the National Policy was called for short) brought him back to office. Thus, after five years, the discredited politician of "Pacific Scandal" fame turned the tables on his opponents, and restored to power the Liberal-­Conservative party.


The Last Years of Macdonald.


The lease of power which Macdonald obtained in 1878 lasted until his death in 1891. During this period, there were three general elections - in 1882, in 1887, and again just before Macdonald's death, in 1891. In all three the Liberal-Conservative party was triumphant, not by the majorities of 1878, but by majorities that, though shrunken, were adequate. During these years, the Liberals strove to find a battle-cry that would drive the Conservatives from power. In 1882, they directed their attack chiefly against the government's policy in building the Canadian Pacific Railway; and Edward Blake , the Liberal leader who succeeded Alexander Mackenzie, prophesied that the Canadian Pacific "would not pay for its axle-grease." In 1887, they attacked chiefly the policy of the government in regard to the North-West Rebellion of 1885, and particularly in regard to the execution of Louis Riel . In 1891, the chief plank in their platform was an attack on the National Policy , which had not produced all the results prophesied from it, and the advocacy of "unrestricted reciprocity" with the United States. In truth, the Macdonald government during these years gave the opposition plenty of grounds for attack. The "gerrymander" of 1882 and the Franchise bill of 1885 were examples of Macdonald's statecraft at its worst, loading the dice as they did against his opponents; and the situation which led to the North-West Rebellion of 1885 was undoubtedly mishandled by the government. The North-West Rebellion and the execution of Riel , moreover, drove a wedge between the French and English sections of the Liberal-Conservative party, laying the basis of the strength which the Liberal party has since that time enjoyed in the province of Quebec; and the controversy over the Jesuits' Estates Act disrupted the Conservative party in Ontario, so that thirteen of Macdonald's supporters ­ "the noble thirteen", as they were called - bolted from the government on this issue. But the Liberals were handicapped by their leaders. Edward Blake , who succeeded Alexander Mackenzie in the leadership of the Liberal party in 1880 was a statesman, but no politician; and while Wilfrid Laurier , who succeeded him in 1887 was both a statesman and a politician, he had no chance before 1891 of commending himself to the English-speaking provinces. On the other hand, Macdonald, who was a politician first and a statesman afterwards, had an advantage in appealing to the electors which neither of his opponents had. The election of 1891 was virtually won on the Liberal-Conservative slogan, "The old man, the old flag, and the old policy", and on Macdonald's famous pronouncement, "A British subject I was born, a British subject I will die. With my utmost effort, with my latest breath, will I oppose the 'veiled treason' which attempts by sordid means and mercenary proffers to lure our people from their allegiance."


Abbott, Thompson, Bowell, and Tupper .


The death of Macdonald in 1891 was a disaster for the Liberal-Conservative party. He left behind him no one who could bend the bow of Ulysses. The chief candidates for the prime ministry were Sir John Thompson   and Mackenzie Bowell ; but Thompson, who was a Roman Catholic convert from Protestantism, was not acceptable to the Orangemen of Ontario, whereas Bowell, who was grand master of the Orange Association , was not acceptable to the French-Canadian Roman Catholics of Quebec. In these circumstances, Sir John Abbott , who had the merit of being acceptable to both wing of the party, but who was already three score years and ten, was thrust into the gap as a compromise. Abbott succeeded in allaying the party dissensions; and when he resigned in 1892, after nearly eighteen months of office, Sir John Thompson was able to succeed him. Thompson, a very able man, might have done something to restore the declining fortunes of the party, but he died suddenly in 1894. His place was taken by Mackenzie Bowell; but Bowell proved unable to compose the differences between the warring factions even in the cabinet; and in 1896, after seven of the ministers had "bolted" in a body from the cabinet, he was forced to make way for Sir Charles Tupper , who had been brought back from England in a last attempt to revive the party's fortunes. But Tupper, who had to appeal to the country after a brief three months' tenure of power, went down to a disastrous defeat; and with his resignation the eighteen years of Liberal-Conservative rule came to an end.


The issue on which the election of 1896 was fought was the question of separate Roman Catholic schools in Manitoba . For many years the French-speaking Roman Catholics of Manitoba, descended from the engagés of the fur-trade, had enjoyed the privilege of separate schools, under Roman Catholic auspices; and when these were abolished in 1890 by the legislature of Manitoba, there sprang up a demand among the French, both of Manitoba and of Quebec, that the Dominion parliament should compel Manitoba to restore separate schools. The question had been one of the most difficult with which the successive Liberal-Conservative governments at Ottawa had had to deal, for the Liberal-Conservative party relied for its support not only on the Orangemen of Ontario, but also on the bleus of Quebec. For this reason, Tupper decided in 1896 to bring in "remedial legislation" to compel Manitoba to restore separate schools [the author is factually incorrect on this point. The Remedial bill was introduced in the House of Commons on February 11, 1896 under the administration of Mackenzie Bowell; as for Charles Tupper, he was only appointed Prime Minister of Canada on April 27, 1896. See the Chronology on the Manitoba School Question ]. On this issue he went to the country. Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the Liberal party, was in a difficult position. He was a French-Canadian and a Roman Catholic, and it was not easy for him to oppose the restoration of French Canadian Roman Catholic schools in Manitoba. But he took refuge in the traditional Liberal doctrine of provincial rights; and he maintained that the province of Manitoba should be left free to regulate its own affairs, without interference from the Dominion parliament [as will be gathered from this document , the position of Laurier during the elections of 1896 was far more nuanced, and ambiguous, than stated here.]. This proved a wise decision. The province of Quebec, facing its first opportunity to elect a French-Canadian prime minister, voted for Laurier against the bishops; the English-speaking provinces gave him widespread support; and only Manitoba, by a curious freak of politics, voted for its own coercion [The Conservatives won the popular vote in all provinces except in P.E.I., Quebec, British Columbia and the North-West Territories. While it is true that Laurier did well enough in the anglophone provinces of Canada, it should be noted that he won 69 seats outside of Quebec while his Conservative opponent gained 72. Overall, he owed his overwhelming political victory primarily to the considerable support he received from Quebec. ].


The Laurier Régime.


The tenure of power on which Laurier entered in 1896 lasted for fifteen years ¾ a longer continuous period of office than had been enjoyed even by Sir John Macdonald . In 1900, in 1904, and in 1908 Laurier appealed to the country, and the Liberal party was returned to power with large majorities. For this there were several causes. In the first place, Laurier surrounded himself in 1896 with a strong cabinet, not inaptly described as a "ministry of all the talents"; and though he discarded with ruthlessness those ministers who crossed his will, his cabinets were always composed of first-rate men. In the second place, Canada entered, shortly after his accession to office, on a period of unprecedented prosperity. For this the government was in some measure responsible. It was not responsible for the gold-rush to the Klondike in 1898-9, or for the exploits of Canadian troops on the battlefields of South Africa , both of which to some extent focussed [sic] the eyes of the world on Canada for perhaps the first time; but it was responsible for the vigorous immigration policy which, under the guidance of Sir Clifford Sifton   filled up the vacant spaces of the Canadian west, and it was responsible for the policy of railway expansion which, though it proved in the long run a fatal mistake, brought into Canada a flow of capital that contributed in large measure to the wave of prosperity that swept over the country in the first years of the twentieth century. "The nineteenth century was the century of the United States ; the twentieth century will be the century of Canada ," exclaimed Laurier, in his eloquent way; and his optimism was reflected in the country at large. There is no doubt, moreover, that Laurier's nationalism commended itself to the majority of the Canadian people. He conceived of the British Empire as "a galaxy of free nations"; and he advanced Canada several stages along the road to nationhood. Under him, Canada assumed the full responsibility for her own defence, both military and naval, internal and external; he asserted the right of Canada to regulate British immigration; and he obtained from the Mother Country an assurance that no imperial treaty should be binding on Canada , without Canada 's express consent. In the domestic sphere, his nationalism was a benign influence binding together the French and the English; and it was noteworthy that during his régime there were none of those clashes between the two races in Canada which have defaced other pages of Canadian history.


During the Laurier régime, the Liberal-Conservative party had an uphill fight. From 1896 to 1901 the party was led by Sir Charles Tupper; but in 1900 the party went down to an even more disastrous defeat than in 1896, and in 1901 Tupper, already a man of eighty years of age, resigned the leadership of the party. He was succeeded by R. L. (later Sir Robert) Borden, a man of ability and integrity who lacked, however, the magnetism of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Laurier, with his picturesque appearance, his silver tongue, and his old-world manners, captivated both French and English electors; and Borden, who was neither picturesque, nor silver-tongued, nor particularly old-world, seemed a rather drab person beside him. On at least two occasions, there were cabals in the Conservative party against Borden's leadership; and it was only gradually that his really great qualities of patience, fairness, and determination came to be appreciated.


The Laurier government gave to the opposition, of course, during its long tenure of office, various grounds for attack. Its hesitation over sending a Canadian contingent to South Africa, its dismissal of Lord Dundonald, the general officer commanding the forces in Canada, its establishment of separate schools in Alberta and Saskatchewan, its weak handling of the railway problem, and its establishment of a Canadian "tin-pot navy" ¾ all were targets of attack by the Liberal-Conservative opposition. These attacks, however, gave Laurier little concern compared with a revolt against his leadership in the province of Quebec . In 1899 one of his most brilliant supporters, Henri Bourassa , a grandson of Louis-Joseph Papineau , had broken with him, and inaugurated a nationalist movement in the province of Quebec; and when, in 1910, Laurier's old constituency of Drummond-Arthabaska returned to parliament a Nationalist candidate, it began to look as though Bourassa was destined to replace Laurier as the " favourite son " of the habitant.


In these circumstances, it became clear that some spectacular appeal to the electorate would be necessary if the government were to survive another election. By what seemed singular good fortune, the Laurier government were able in 1911 to negotiate with the government of the United States an agreement for reciprocity in natural products. Reciprocity in trade between Canada and the United States had often been advocated; and between 1855 and 1866 a reciprocity treaty had actually been in force, and had been of much benefit to Canada . But this treaty had been abrogated by the United States ; and since 1866 the United States had rejected all proposals for its renewal. The reciprocity agreement of 1911 seemed, therefore, a feather in Laurier's cap. But in the years since 1866 Canada had become a continent-wide federation, had adopted the National Policy , and had built up interprovincial trade. The Liberal-Conservative party took the view that to wipe out the tariff barriers between Canada and the United States, and to encourage trade to flow north and south instead of east and west, would be to undo a large part of the result effected by Confederation, by the National Policy, and by the transcontinental railways. The election, which was virtually fought on the issue of reciprocity in trade [but in Quebec more on the issue of the creation of a navy], was one of exceptional bitterness. The opposition raised against the Liberals the cry of disloyalty ¾ the cry which, in a country settled by the United Empire Loyalists , had on more than one occasion been employed with deadly effect against the Liberal party. They argued that reciprocity was the precursor of commercial, and possibly political, union with the United States ; and it was unfortunate that some prominent people in the United States used language which seemed to lend colour to this view. The president of the United States , for instance, described Canada as being "at, the parting of the ways". The result was the defeat of the Laurier government by the combined forces of the Liberal-Conservative and Quebec Nationalist forces - a combination which was, not without justice, described as an "unholy alliance."


The Borden Government .


The task of forming a new government was entrusted in 1911 to R. L. (or, as he soon became, Sir Robert) Borden . He included in his cabinet two or three Quebec Nationalists; but these proved to be uneasy bed-fellows, and soon disappeared from the government. The cabinet was predominantly Liberal-Conservative; and as such followed the traditional policies of this party. The first major question that faced it was that of naval defence. Long before the Great War broke out in 1914, the shadow of war hung over Canadian politics. The menace of German aggression was too apparent to be ignored. Borden had been elected as a peace minister; but, like the younger Pitt, he was compelled to become a war minister. He came to the conclusion that an emergency existed, and he decided that Canada should make a direct contribution of three dreadnoughts to the British navy, if only for the purpose of making a gesture. He did not discard the policy of building up a Canadian navy; but he decided that something more was necessary, if Canada was to signify her allegiance to the British Empire . Unfortunately, as everyone must now admit, the Liberals chose to oppose this proposal. Laurier denied that any emergency existed. " England ," he said, "is in no danger, whether imminent or prospective." By means of the closure [forcing an end to debate in the House of Commons], the bill for the building of the dreadnoughts was forced through the Canadian House of Commons; but in the Senate, which was still dominated by a Liberal majority, it was voted down.


When the Great War broke out in 1914, therefore, the Liberal party in Canada was, from a party point of view, in a bad position. Sir Wilfrid Laurier, quite properly, proclaimed a party truce; and he made what amends he could for his attitude in 1912 by throwing his support solidly behind the war effort of the government. It might have been well at this stage if Borden had invited Laurier to join with him in forming a national or coalition government; but the opportunity was missed. Gradually, the mistakes of the government in the prosecution of the war roused criticism among Liberals, and even among Conservatives. When patronage governed almost exclusively the contracts for war supplies, it was difficult for loyal Liberals to remain silent. But the crisis did not come until 1917, when Sir Robert Borden made up his mind that, in view of the falling off in voluntary enlistments, compulsory military service must be enacted. To this Laurier was unwilling to agree; and the truce to party warfare thereupon came to an end. Borden was able to secure the support of a large number of Liberals from the English-speaking provinces in his programme of compulsory military service ; and he formed a unionist or coalition government which contained a large proportion of Liberals. This government appealed to the coun­try on December 17, 1917; and it was returned by a majority of nearly two to one. It had a majority in every province except Quebec; but there the Liberal opposition captured 62 seats, against 3 seats held by the government. This produced a most unfortunate cleavage between Quebec and the rest of the Dominion which has profoundly influenced Canadian political history since that time.


The Unionist Government .


The government formed in 1917, and the Unionist party that supported it, had a record probably superior to that of any government in Canada before or since that time. It carried to a successful conclusion Canada's war effort ; and in doing so it gave an admirable example of the pure and patriotic administration of public affairs. Patronage was thus for the time being completely abolished in the civil service and in the purchase of war supplies; the Military Service Act was administered with fairness and impartiality; and the demobilization of the Canadian army was carried through at the end of the war with astonishing smoothness. It seems natural to expect that the government which had faced so successfully the problems of the war should continue to deal with the problems of reconstruction after the war. But once the war was over, party spirit began to reassert itself. A wing of the Conservative party began to demand a return to straight Conservative rule; and, at the same time, defections began to occur among the Liberal Unionists. Many Liberals who had supported the Unionist government in 1917 reverted at the end of the war to their former party allegiance; and among these were several members of the cabinet. Just as the coalition government of Sir John Macdonald in 1867 became gradually a predominantly Conservative administration, so the Unionist government of Sir Robert Borden took on after 1918 a predominantly Conservative complexion.


It was the fate of war governments, in virtually all countries, to become, after the signing of peace, unpopular; and the Unionist government was no exception to this rule. This was due in part to the unrest in men's minds after the Great War; but it was also due to the attacks made on the government almost before the armistice of 1918 was signed. [As well, it could be argued that the record of the Union government was not as brilliant as the author of the article believes it to have been.] These attacks came from two quarters. In the first place, there arose a new Farmers' or Progressive party , which espoused a radical programme formulated by the Canadian Council of Agriculture in November, 1918; and which actually captured, in 1919, a majority of seats in the legislature of Ontario . In the second place, the Liberal party, once the war was over, enjoyed a revival of strength. On February 17, 1919, Sir Wilfrid Laurier died; and in the following summer a Liberal convention was held at Ottawa to choose a new leader and to formulate a programme. The choice of the party fell on W. L. Mackenzie King , a comparatively young man, who had been one of Laurier's most trusted lieutenants; and a programme was adopted which, while it lacked some of the advanced features of the Progressive platform, was calculated to make an appeal to those who were dissatisfied with the moderate and conservative policies of the Unionist government.


The Meighen Government .


Sir Robert Borden, whose health had been impaired by the strain of the war, and who had perhaps read the handwriting on the wall, retired to private life in 1920; and the Unionist government was reorganized under Arthur Meighen , one of the ablest of his lieutenants. A convention was held of the supporters of the government; and at this convention the Unionist party was re-christened ¾ with singular ineptness ¾ "the National Liberal and Conservative party", in the hope that this name would draw all men under it. The hope, however, was vain. The Meighen government gave the country eighteen months of honest and capable administration; but the tide was setting too strongly against them, and on December 6, 1921, they went down to a disastrous defeat. The Liberals captured in the new House 117 seats, the Progressives 66, and the Conservatives only 50. Meighen immediately submitted his resignation to the governor-general; and Mackenzie King was sent for to form a government.


The First Mackenzie King Government.


The Mackenzie King government had in the House of Commons a bare majority of one. It enjoyed the general support of the Progressive party; but this support was uncertain. In these circumstances, it says much for Mackenzie King's political skill and sagacity that the government survived nearly four years of office. With such a slender majority, it was not surprising that the government was not able to pursue a very strong line of policy. It had to count the immediate political consequences of every step it took; and, remarkable as its achievement really was, the record of the government was not perhaps such as to appeal strongly to the electors. The result was that when the King administration appealed to the country on October 29, 1925, it suffered a reverse. The Liberal representation in the House was cut from 117 to 101, and the Progressive representation from 65 to 24; whereas the Conservatives (as "the National Liberal and Conservative party" had already come to be known) captured 117 seats, and lacked only one vote of being in a clear majority in a House of 235 members [the author is in error here. The total number of Members of Parliament elected in 1925 was 245; the Conservatives were at least 6 members short of the majority in the House].


It might be expected that Mackenzie King, who was now only the leader of the second largest group in the House, would have resigned; but it was not clear that he had actually lost control of the House, since he would still be in a majority of one if all the Progressive and Independent members voted for him. He therefore determined to meet the new House. Parliament opened on January 7, 1926, consequently; in an atmosphere of great excitement. Hardly had the address from the throne been read, however, before it was clear that the Mackenzie King government could not command. a majority of the House of Commons. Within three days, it was defeated, because of the defection of two or three Progressives, by a majority of one. But it was not until June 26. that the government finally lost control of the House. The prime minister thereupon asked the governor-general, Lord Byng, to dissolve parliament, and to order a new election. But this Lord Byng declined to do, believing apparently that the government, having made one appeal to the country, should not have the privilege of making another. Over this decision of the governor-general a bitter controversy [called the King-Byng affair ], arose. Mackenzie King assailed with great vigor the constitutionality of the governor-general's attitude; but he was compelled nevertheless to submit his resignation, and Meighen was invited to form a government.


The Second Meighen Government.


The situation that resulted had in it elements of comedy, reminiscent of the " Double Shuffle " of 1858. It is [this custom has been abandoned since] a rule of Canadian political life that members of the House of Commons when appointed as ministers of the Crown, must resign, and appeal to their constituents for re-election. As soon as the members of the Meighen government assumed office, they automatically vacated their seats in the Commons. In order to carry on, a "shadow cabinet" of acting ministers was formed; but with the ministers absent from the House, the Conservatives were in a minority, and on July 2 the new government was defeated by a majority of one. Thereupon Mr. Meighen asked for a dissolution; and a new election was held on September 14, 1926. In this election the Conservatives failed to hold their gains of 1925. The Liberals captured a total of 118 seats [the number of elected Liberals was in fact 128], and they were able to count on the support of some of the Liberal-Progressive, Progressive, United Farmers of Alberta , Labour, and Independent members elected; so that they had a substantial majority over the 91 Conservatives returned.


The Second Mackenzie King Government.


  Meighen promptly resigned; and Mackenzie King formed his second administration. This administration, like that of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, coincided with one of the most prosperous periods in the history of Canada , but just before another general election became due, the Great Depression began in 1929. The government went to the country in 1930; and for various reasons sustained a decided defeat. In 1926, Meighen resigned the leader­ ship of the Conservative party; and at a convention held in Winnipeg in October, 1927, R. B. Bennett   was chosen leader of the party in his place. Bennett waged a vigorous campaign against the government; and in the elections held on July 28, 1930, he obtained a clear majority in the House of Commons. There were returned 136 Conservatives, as against 89 Liberals, 15 Progressives, Liberal-Progressives, and United Farmers, 3 Laborites, and 2 Independents.


The Bennett Government .


Bennett, a man of energy and ability, devoted himself as prime minister with self-sacrificing zeal to endeavouring to solve the problems created for Canada by the depression; and it is probable that his policies did much to mitigate its effects. As the general election due in 1935 drew near, in fact, the depression seemed in some degree to lift [see Bennett's New Deal]. But at the same time a rift occurred in the Conservative party. H. H. Stevens [see this speech by Stevens at the Empire Club], one of Bennett's chief lieutenants, broke with his leader over the question of the regulation of "big business", and formed a separate party known as the Reconstruction party. The Progressive party had, moreover, in 1932, reorganized itself as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (see the article about the CCF's lack of success in Quebec ], with a distinctly socialistic platform; and the Liberal party, under the expert leadership of Mackenzie King, who adopted a policy of masterly inaction, was gradually recovering the ground it had lost. In one province after another the Liberals captured the control of the government; until they were in power in every province except Alberta . In these circumstances, the defeat of the Bennett government was almost a foregone conclusion; and when the votes were counted in the general election held on October 14; 1935, the Conservatives were found to have suffered the severest defeat in the history of the party. They retained only 40 seats in the House; and H. H. Stevens's Reconstruction party captured only one seat, that of Stevens himself. The new Social Credit party [see its history in Alberta ] in Alberta [nearly] swept that province; but the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation lost ground everywhere. The Liberals rolled up a representation in the House of Commons of over 170; and on Bennett's resignation, Mackenzie King embarked on his third period of office as prime minister.




There is as yet no single treatment of the history of political parties in Canada ; although many general histories of Canada deal mainly with the political theme. Valuable chapters on political history will be found in A. Shortt and A. G. Doughty (eds.), Canada and its provinces (23 vols., Toronto, 1914), and in the Cambridge History of the British Empire, vol. vi (Cambridge, 1930), and shorter discussions of Canadian political history will be found in the numerous textbooks of Canadian history in print, such as C. Wittke, A History of Canada (New York, 1928; new ed., 1934), W. L. Grant, High school history of Canada (Toronto, 1914), D. A. McArthur, History of Canada (Toronto, 1927), W. S. Wallace, A Hi story of the Canadian people (Toronto, 1930), and J Bingay, A History of Canada for high schools (Toronto, 1934). Particular periods of political history are dealt with in R. Christie, History of the late province of Lower Canada (6 vols., Quebec and Montreal , 1848-55),. C. Dent, The Story of the Upper Canadian rebellion (2 vols., Toronto , 1884), and The last forty years: Canada since the union of 1841 (2 vols., Toronto , 1881), and Sir J. S. Willison, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party (2 vols., Toronto , 1903; new ed., 1926) - the last a contribution to Canadian political history of outstanding importance. The serious student of Canadian politics must go, however, to the biographies of public men, in which Canadian literature is exceptionally rich. With the exception of Edward Blake, there is hardly a Canadian politician of the first rank whose life has not been published. Especial mention may be made of those of William Lyon Mackenzie, Louis Joseph Papineau, Robert Baldwin, Sir Louis Lafontaine, Sir Francis Hincks, Joseph Howe, Sir John Macdonald, George Brown, Sir Oliver Mowat, Sir George Cartier, D'Arcy McGee, Sir Charles Tupper, Sir Leonard Tilley, Alexander Mackenzie, Sir John Thompson, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Sir Clifford Sifton, Sir George Foster, and W. L. Mackenzie King. Of especial importance is Sir Richard Cartwright, Reminiscences

(Toronto , 1912), though this must be used with discretion. For political history from 1878 to 1886 the Dominion Annual Register is useful, and from 1900 to the present day the Canadian Annual Review. An interesting analysis of recent Canadian politics will be found in Escott M. Reid, Canadian political parties: A study of the economic and racial bases of Conservatism and Liberalism in 1930 (Toronto, Contributions to Canadian Economics, vi, 1933); and a recent sketch of Canadian political history is F. H. Underhill, The development of national parties in Canada ( Can. hist. rev ., 1935).


Source: W. Stewart WALLACE, "Political History", in W. Stewart WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada , Toronto , University Associates of Canada , 1948, 396p., pp. 175-186. Comments between brackets [.] have been added by the editor of the site.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College