Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

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


History of the Liberal Party of Canada


[This text was published in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the document. Parts between brackets [.] have been added by Claude Bélanger in an effort to bring the history of the party in line with current findings.]


The Liberal party or (as it was more often known in earlier days) the Reform party, had its origin in the struggle for responsible government in British North America in the first half of the nineteenth century, or perhaps (to be more exact) in the opposition which sprang up in the provinces of British North America to the bureaucracy known in Upper Canada as the Family Compact, in Lower Canada as the Château Clique, and in Nova Scotia as the Council of Twelve. Opposition to this bureaucracy appeared at an early date. As early as 1806 certain Irish elements set up an opposition to the bureaucratic régime in Upper Canada ; as early as 1822 the French-Canadian patriotes locked horns with the official oligarchy in Lower Canada ; and as early as 1828 Joseph Howe and his associates had joined battle with the governing class of Nova Scotia. The sources of this opposition to "government" were various. Much of the inspiration of the early Reformers in Upper Canada came from Irish and American republicanism, with its emphasis upon popular election; some of the rebels of 1837 in Lower Canada derived their ideas from the same sources, though many of them drew their inspiration from the British constitution [and principles emanating from the French Revolution]; and the Reformers in the Maritime provinces derived their ideas chiefly from British history. The idea of responsible government was evolved among the Reformers fairly late. It was first clearly developed by Robert Baldwin in 1835. The Rebellion[s] of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada, however, threw into the shade the republican and electoral ideas of the rebels; and in the years that followed the advocacy of responsible government came to dominate the programme of the Liberal or Reform party. This was the chief plank in the platform of the party during the decade from 1840 to 1850.


After the principle of responsible government had been established, however, and an amnesty had been granted to the rebels of 1837, the more radical and republican elements in the Reform party came once more to the fore; and the Clear Grit party had its birth. In 1854 the Reform party was split wide open; and the more moderate Reformers united with the Conservatives to form the Liberal-Conservative party, leaving in opposition only the Clear Grits of Upper Canada and the parti rouge of Lower Canada. The Clear Grits derived much of their inspiration from American republicanism and the parti rouge from French republicanism; but the Clear Grits fell early under the masterful influence of George Brown, the editor of the Toronto Globe, who took his cue from Scottish Liberalism, and the parti rouge ultimately [by the 1870's] fell into line behind Wilfrid Laurier, who looked for his inspiration, not to French republicanism, but to the English Liberalism of Fox and Burke. It took some time for the Reform party to transform itself into the Liberal party; and for nearly twenty years the Reformers were at a loss for a clear-cut programme. Some of them supported Confederation, for example, and some of them opposed it. But with the formation of the Mackenzie government in 1873, the Liberal party found its feet. It placed itself in line with the policies of the Liberal party in the Mother Country, and particularly with the policy of free trade. This policy, in a country in which protectionism had already been established, it has never been able to put into effect; but it has steadfastly moved in the direction of this ideal - in its advocacy of "unrestricted reciprocity" in 1891, in its "imperial preference" of 1897, in its abortive Reciprocity Treaty with the United States in 1911, and in its Reciprocity Agreement of 1936. While the Liberal-Conservatives have been the high-tariff party in Canada, the Liberals have been the low-tariff party [It should be noted that by the 1980's the position of the parties had been reversed: the Conservative Party under Brian Mulroney championed free trade with the United States while the Liberal Party, under John Turner, opposed it].


Similarly, as might have been expected of the party which, to some extent, had opposed Confederation, the Liberal party has been the champion of provincial rights. Sir Oliver Mowat, the Liberal prime minister of Ontario from 1872 to 1896, waged a long and successful struggle with Sir John Macdonald over this matter of provincial rights; [similarly, in Québec, provincial autonomy and rights was first effected into policy by Honoré Mercier, leader of the Liberal party in the province in the 1880's] and in 1896 Sir Wilfrid Laurier took his stand on the doctrine of provincial rights in regard to the Manitoba schools controversy. It cannot be maintained that Conservative governments in the provinces have not on occasion championed provincial rights, or that Liberal governments in the Dominion have not sometimes ignored them. But, on the whole, the Liberal party has been the champion of provincial rights, while the Liberal-Conservative party has as a rule espoused the cause of federal rights. The Liberal-Conservative party has tended toward centralization, while the Liberal party has tended toward decentralization. [Since the Great Depression of the 1930's, this trend has been reversed. As the Liberal party has more often than not been in power in Ottawa, it has developed a state interventionist policy that has made the federal government especially active in several fields under provincial jurisdiction (health, education, welfare, etc.). Thus, the party has been regularly associated with centralist policies. By contrast, and in reaction to these centralist policies of the Liberal party, the Conservative party has increasingly championed the rights of the provinces.]


The same principle has guided the party in its attitude toward imperial affairs. It was to be expected that the party which had achieved for Canada the boon of responsible government would be opposed to any plans for the centralization of the British Empire. No one can deny that there were in the policies of Sir John Macdonald some features that savoured of political nationalism; but it was Sir Wilfrid Laurier that first conceived of the British Empire as "a galaxy of free nations". It was he that blazed the trail that led to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, by which the last traces of colonial subordination were swept away. In this process, Liberal-Conservative governments played their part; but the chief impetus in the movement came from the Liberal party. If the Liberal-Conservative party has championed nationalism in the economic sphere, the Liberal party has been its chief champion in the political sphere.


A [.] feature of the [.] history of the Liberal party [for most of the XXth century] has been its [.] dependence upon French Canada. Until 1890 Sir John Macdonald was able to hold for the Liberal-Conservative party the support of a large element in the province of Quebec ; but in 1896 Sir Wilfrid Laurier carried the overwhelming majority of the French Canadians with him. Since then Quebec has remained steadfastly and predominantly Liberal [This remained until the patriation of the constitution in 1982 and the retirement of Pierre Trudeau in 1984. The Liberal party has been unable to control the province since.]. This fact has had, from the standpoint of the country as a whole, unfortunate results. It has meant that the country has been too often divided between the French and the English; and it has meant that Liberal governments have too often been at the mercy of French-Canadian politicians, who (whatever other qualities they may have) are essentially conservative in their outlook. [Again, this was particularly true until the Quiet Revolution of the 1960's. Since then, the trend has been reversed: the more progressive politicians have tended to come from Quebec .] Thus it has come about that language and religion have bedevilled Canadian politics.


It cannot be pretended that Liberal governments in Canada have always followed slavishly the ideas of the Manchester school of English Liberalism . But on the whole the party has been faithful to the English idea of liberalism. For the history of Liberalism in Canada, see Sir J. S. Willison, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberal party (Toronto, 1903; new ed., 1926).

Source: W. S. WALLACE, The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 75-76.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College