New Democratic Party (NDP)

Founded in 1961, the New Democratic Party (NDP) is a social democratic political party that has formed the government in several provinces but never nationally. In 2011, it enjoyed an historic electoral breakthrough, becoming the official opposition in Parliament for the first time. Four years later, despite hopes of winning a federal election, the NDP was returned to a third place position in the House of Commons.

Jagmeet Singh
Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, at the 2017 Pride Parade in Toronto.

Tommy Douglas and His Successors

The New Democratic Party (NDP) was founded in Ottawa in 1961 at a convention uniting the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and affiliated unions of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and also New Party clubs. The NDP's founding leader was Tommy Douglas (1961-71), a long time CCF Premier of Saskatchewan and a Baptist minister. Douglas was a champion of social democracy, and is best known as the father of medicare, after introducing Canada’s first government funded health insurance in Saskatchewan (see Health Policy). He led the first socialist government elected in Canada and, after serving as premier for 17 years, made history again as the first leader of the NDP. In 2004 Douglas was voted “The Greatest Canadian” in a national CBC Television contest.

Douglas, Tommy (1961)
Tommy Douglas at the founding convention of the New Democratic Party, 1961, at which he was elected leader (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C36222).

After Douglas, the NDP was led by seven other political figures: David Lewis (leader from 1971-75), Ed Broadbent (1975-89), Audrey Mclaughlin (1989-95), Alexa McDonough (1995-2003), Jack Layton (2003-2011), Thomas Mulcair (2012-2017) and ​Jagmeet Singh (elected leader in October, 2017).

Broadbent, Ed
Ed Broadbent in 1975 when he was elected leader of the NDP. He is flanked by David Lewis (left) and Stanley Knowles (CP).

Federal Party

From its founding until 2008, the federal NDP obtained on average 15.6 per cent of the vote in national elections. Such a percentage is sufficient to influence Canadian politics, particularly during minority governments, but is not enough to form either the national government or official opposition. Because of the electoral system, the NDP, like the CCF before it, had consistently received a smaller percentage of the seats in Parliament than its percentage of votes.

In 1988 the party achieved a then-historic high of 43 House of Commons seats, but in the following election of 1993 plummeted to a record low of nine seats. In 2004, Layton, a former Toronto city councillor, led the NDP back to its normal level of voter support, which slowly increased in 2006 (when the NDP won 29 seats) and in 2008 (when the NDP won 37). In the 2011 election, Layton led the NDP to what was described as an "Orange Crush" triumph (named after the NDP's colours) when the party captured an unprecedented 103 seats (and 30.6 per cent of the vote). Layton and his wife, fellow NDP MP Olivia Chow, moved into Stornoway, the residence of the official opposition leader.

Many of the Commons seats captured in 2011 were won in Québec. This was unusual. Traditionally the West has provided the highest number of seats and individual memberships for the party, while the largest number of actual NDP votes traditionally come from Ontario. The NDP was unable to elect an MP from Québec in a general election until 2011, although it had acquired the occasional Québec seat via the defection of an MP from another party (1986) or in a by-election (1987).

Provincial Victories

A number of provincial branches of the NDP have formed governments. In British Columbia the NDP ran the province under the following premiers: Dave Barr​ett (1972-75); Mike H​arcourt (1991-96); Glen Clar​k (1996-99); ​Dan Miller (1999-2000); Ujjal Dosan​jh (2000-01) and John Horgan (July 2017- ).

In Alberta, an NDP government came to power for the first time in 2015 under Rachel Notley (2015- ).

The NDP has had considerable success in Saskatchewan under the following premiers: Tommy Douglas ( 1944-61); Woodrow Llo​yd (1961-64); Allan Blake​ney (1971-82); Roy Roman​ow (1991-2001); Lorne Ca​lvert ( 2001-07).

In Manitoba, the NDP ran the government under the following premiers: Ed Sc​hreyer (1969-77); Howard Pa​wley (1981-88); Gary D​oer (1999-2009) and Greg Selinger (2009-2016).

In Ontario, Bob R​ae (1990-95) was NDP premier. In Nova Scotia Darrell Dexter was NDP premier (2009-2013). And in Yukon Tony Peni​kett (1985-92) and Piers McDonald (1996-2000) ran the territory as NDP premiers.

Harcourt, Michael
Photographed during his victorious 1991 election campaign (courtesy Vancouver Sun).
Roy Romanow
NDP Victory
Premier-elect Bob Rae a day after the NDP victory in Ontario in 1990.
Darrell Dexter, Premier of Nova Scotia
(courtesy of the Office of the Premier of Nova Scotia)


In domestic affairs, the NDP is committed to a moderate form of socialism and a mixed economy. It favours government planning and public ownership (including Crown Corporations and co-operatives), where necessary, to provide jobs and services. The NDP has always been a vigorous exponent of such social security measures as universal medical care, old-age pensions, workers' compensation and employment insurance as a means to reduce class inequalities. It has called for national dental-care and child-care programs, favoured higher taxes on corporations and the rich and generally favoured greater government expenditures to expand social services.

In recent decades, the federal NDP under Layton and Mulcair targeted the big banks and fees charged to consumers. As the official political voice of labour, the NDP has encouraged trade-union organization. While the CCF advocated strong, federal government, the NDP has been more receptive to provincial rights.

In foreign policy, the NDP has manifested strong pacifist tendencies. While this pacifism lessened somewhat in the 1950s and early 1960s, the party has opposed Canada's involvement in NATO and NORAD and has called for Canada to become a nuclear-free zone. The NDP has also been uneasy about increased military integration with the United States, believing that this will jeopardize Canadian sovereignty. It has warned of the dangers of the weaponization of space and American lobbying to have Canada join the North American anti-ballistic missile system. The NDP has been highly critical of America's unilateralism and propensity for military interventions in world politics, and instead favours more peaceful international efforts through the United Nations.

Throughout its history, the NDP has been critical about the high rate of foreign, particularly American, ownership of Canadian industry. Under NDP pressure, the Liberal minority government of Pierre Trudeau introduced the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) in the 1970s. When Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives campaigned for economic integration with the US under the Free Trade Accord (FTA) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the NDP opposed both agreements.

Rebuilding After 1993

Following its 1993 electoral setback, the federal NDP sought to rebuild organizationally and sponsored policy conferences in an attempt to re-energize itself and its platform. One innovation employed in 1995 was to elect its next leader by means of a two-step process — first involving a direct ballot of party members and affiliated unions and then followed by a national convention. The new leader, Alexa McDonough, led the NDP into the 1997 campaign with the challenge of regaining official parliamentary status for the party. The goal was achieved, but the NDP still remained a distant fourth place in the House of Commons. The 2000 election saw the party slip in both votes and seats, narrowly retaining official party status in Parliament.

After several disappointing elections, party members once more debated the future of social democracy, the party's organizational structure and its relationship to the labour movement. To facilitate the renewal process, McDonough stepped down as leader. In a 2003 nation-wide direct ballot, individual and affiliated union members elected Layton the new federal NDP leader.

Layton's victory signalled that the NDP membership wanted a more visible leader better equipped to tackle urban issues and foster links between the party and new social movements. Leading up to the 2004 campaign, the energetic Layton attracted media attention and the party rose in the polls. Some Ottawa reporters joked in the press that Layton never met a camera he did not like. In the 2004 election, the NDP recorded its best vote count in more than a decade (almost doubling its votes to 15.7 per cent) but the number of seats won increased only to 19, significantly less than the party had anticipated.

New Democratic Party Logo
The federal New Democratic Party (NDP) logo (courtesy New Democratic Party).

Minority Parliaments

Nevertheless, in the minority Parliament of 2004/2005, the NDP was able to play a key role. The NDP's amendment to the Liberal government's budget generated more spending for infrastructure and social programs. The NDP also successfully lobbied the Liberal government of Paul Martin to resist involvement in the US missile defence system and to pass the same-sex marriage legislation. In the 2006 election, the NDP under Layton continued to make gains in votes and seats. Given the diffusion of power in yet another minority Parliament, the NDP's role continued to be substantial.

One of the greatest organizational difficulties for the NDP has been the 2004 election finances legislation, which virtually eliminates trade union financial contributions to the party that labour co-founded. Another challenge emerged during the 2006 election when Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) president Buzz Hargrove called for union members to vote strategically. He urged unionists and others, where necessary, not to vote NDP, but instead to vote Liberal, in order to stop a Conservative Party victory. The debate continues over the place of Canada's labour party and the role of trade union members in political action and party politics.

The party continued to make strides in the areas of peacekeeping overseas, environmental issues and amendments to the Clean Air Act, and in the issue of residential schools, which resulted in an apology from the federal government in June 2008. The federal election that year returned the NDP to Ottawa with a stronger team to take on the larger Liberal opposition party and to exert pressure against the Conservative Party. The NDP pushed the Conservatives on issues that included health care wait times, global warming, jobs and affordability. In May 2010, the House of Commons passed the NDP's Climate Change Accountability Act, which would have made Canada the first to adopt scientific targets to cut climate-changing emissions by 80 per cent before 2050; the bill was voted down in the Senate the following November, but was reintroduced by the NDP in 2011.

Coalition Bid

Following the 2008 election, the Conservative government opened Parliament with an announcement of temporarily suspending federal employees' right to strike and denying monetary subsidies for political parties. The leaders of the other three parties responded by announcing that they could not support such measures. Layton, along with Liberal leader Stéphane Di​on and Bloc Québécois leader Gilles D​uceppe, negotiated terms to form a coalition to replace the Conservatives in the House. In early December 2008, they signed an accord for an agreement on a coalition government. They were expecting Governor General Michaëlle Jea​n to replace the Conservatives with the coalition government, rather than dissolve Parliament and call another election. Except for inside Québec, popular opinion across the nation was opposed to the coalition. Prime Minister Stephen Ha​rper applied to the governor general to prorogue Parliament until January, when he would introduce the new budget; on 4 December, Jean granted his request.

Dion was replaced as leader of the Liberal party by Michael Ignati​eff before the issue of a coalition was resolved. Layton, opposing the Conservative budget, urged the Liberal Party to unseat the Conservatives before the coalition expired, but on 28 January 2009 Ignatieff agreed to support the Conservative budget, thereby ending any possibility of a coalition.

Official Opposition

In the subsequent March, 2011 election, Layton led the NDP to a record number of seats in the House of Commons and the role of official opposition. The party’s success came largely as a result of a breakthrough in Québec — having entered the race with only one seat in that province, and then winning 59 of the province's 75 seats.

Layton had announced in February 2010 that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Yet he led the NDP through the 2011 election campaign with the same apparent vigour and enthusiasm he had displayed throughout his career. In July 2011 he announced he would be taking a temporary leave from his duties to fight a second cancer, and said that Nycole Tur​mel would be interim leader. Layton succumbed to the disease only a month later. Thomas Mulcair, a lawyer and former Québec government Liberal Cabinet minister, was elected the party’s new leader in March 2012.

Mulcair and 2015 Election

Mulcair provided steady leadership, proving an effective performer and questioner in the House of Commons as leader of the official opposition. He led the NDP into the 2015 federal election, widely expected to challenge the Conservative hold on power and perhaps form the country's first NDP government. This belief was bolstered by the unprecedented victory earlier in the year, of the provincial wing of the party in Alberta, a Conservative bastion, where the NDP had been elected to power. Did this signal hope for the NDP nationally?

Mulcair and his party ran what they considered a safe campaign, turning away from the NDP's traditionally activist role and instead wooing moderate, centrist-minded voters by promising — like the Conservatives — a strict adherence to balanced budgets. The effort failed. Canadian voters were ready for change after nine years of Conservative rule, but most threw their support instead behind the Liberals led by Justin Trudeau. The NDP came a distant third in the election, and many of its most prominent MPs were defeated. Its dreams of winning power in Ottawa were once again unfulfilled.

Thomas Mulcair
Thomas Mulcair, leader of the New Democratic Party, 2012 to present (courtesy New Democratic Party).

In 2016, Mulcair was ousted when 52 per cent of delegates at the party's convention in Edmonton voted against his leadership. Mulcair decided to remain in his post until a new leader could be chosen, no later than the fall of 2017. Along with the leadership turmoil, the Edmonton convention further divided the party over a document put forward for debate called the Leap Manifesto, which called for a transition of Canada's economy away from fossil fuels development, and a ban on new oil and gas pipelines. Although supported by activists both in and outside the party, the Manifesto was deeply unpopular among many Alberta delegates — a newly powerful wing of the party led by Alberta NDP premier Rachel Notley.

Jagmeet Singh

On 1 October, 2017, Jagmeet Singh was elected the NDP’s new leader, defeating several sitting party MPs for the position. A lawyer from Windsor, ON and a former NDP member of the Ontario legislature, Singh is the first visible minority (and first Sikh) to lead a major national political party in Canada. In the leadership campaign, Singh denounced the Québec government’s controversial Bill 62, which would ban Muslim women from giving or receiving public services while wearing a face covering. He also advocated the decriminalization of all illegal drugs, and the reform of Canada’s electoral system.

Jagmeet Singh
NDP politicians Olivia Chow and Jagmeet Singh at a Labour Day parade in Toronto, 1 September 2014.

Soon after becoming leader, Singh raised eyebrows in a CBC television interview for failing to condemn members of the Sikh community who continue to revere and display posters of Talwinder Singh Parmar — a deceased Sikh activist who was the reputed mastermind of the 1985 Air India bombing that killed 329 people, Canada’s deadliest terrorist attack.

With no seat in the House of Commons, Singh named another leadership candidate, Québec MP Guy Caron, as the party’s leader in Parliament.

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Further Reading

  • S. Knowles, The New Party (1961); D. Lewis, The Good Fight (1981); D. Morton, The New Democrats 1961-1986 (1986); L. McDonald, The Party that Changed Canada (1987); T. McLeod and I. McLeod, Tommy Douglas: The Road to Jerusalem (1987); D. Gruending, Promises to Keep (1990); A. Whitehorn, Canadian Socialism (1992); I. McLeod, Under Siege (1994); J. Laxer, In Search of a New Left (1996); B. Rae, From Protest to Power (1996); M. Harcourt, Mike Harcourt (1996); K. Archer & A. Whitehorn, Political Activists (1997); E. Broadbent, ed, Democratic Equality (2001); Z.D. Berlin and H. Aster, eds, What's Left? (2001); J. Layton, Speaking Out: Ideas That Work for Canadians (2004).

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