Political parties are organizations that seek to control government and participate in public affairs by nominating candidates for elections. Since there are typically multiple groups that wish to do this, political parties are best thought of as part of a party system, which is the way political parties conduct themselves in order to structure political competition.
Federal Political Parties
National political parties have existed since before Confederation, but they were not formally recognized on ballots until 1970. Starting in 1974, political parties could register with Elections Canada, which entitles them to several privileges, the most important of which are the right to have the party’s name listed on the ballot underneath the names of its nominated candidates and the right to issue official tax receipts for financial contributions to the party (see Political Party Financing). In order to be eligible for registration, parties need to meet certain legal requirements and have 250 members. To be registered, parties need to nominate a candidate in a general election or by-election. At the time of the 2015 federal election, there were 23 registered political parties in Canada. Only some of those, however, could reasonably expect to win seats in an election.
Provincial Political Parties
Most provinces in Canada have party systems that reflect the parties in national politics: the dominant parties have tended to be Liberals, Conservatives and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF)/New Democratic Party (NDP). Provincial politics can feature more idiosyncratic parties as well, as there have been United Farmers of Alberta, United Farmers of Ontario, Liberal-Progressive, Social Credit, Union Nationale, Parti Québécois and Saskatchewan Party governments.
Although there are often provincial parties with similar names or aims as national political parties, Canadian parties are not generally well-integrated. The Conservatives have no formal relationship with any provincial parties while the Liberal Party of Canada has more formal ties with the provincial Liberal parties — with the exception of the Parti libéral du Québec, which is independent. Provincial NDP parties are fully autonomous, except in Québec, where formal ties exist between the Nouveau parti démocratique – Québec (NPD) and the federal party. According to the NDP charter, the NPD must “conduct itself in general consistency with the social democratic principles of the New Democratic Party of Canada.”
Despite the general lack of formal ties, however, there is often significant overlap between supporters of provincial and national parties of the same name.
For the first half-century after Confederation, Canada had a two-party system, like Great Britain's, after which it was modelled. The Progressive Party’s rise to Official Opposition after the election of 1921 shattered Canada’s two-party system. Until the late 1950s, the Liberals and Conservatives would be joined by groups such as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the Progressive Party, the United Farmers of Alberta, Social Credit, the Bloc populaire canadien and the Labour Progressive Party. In the early 1960s, Canada’s party system settled around the Liberals and Conservatives and the much smaller New Democratic Party (NDP). In 1993, however, Canada’s party system fragmented once again, with the rise of the Reform Party of Canada and the Bloc Québécois. Although those parties disappeared or diminished in importance, the Canadian party system has evolved to the point where three main parties compete for power and a number of smaller parties organize in a more limited way.
At the time of Confederation, Canada's politics were modelled on Britain’s system of parliamentary democracy, which meant that two broad-based political parties would compete for power. In the Conservative Party, Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Étienne Cartier brought together a broad ruling coalition that comprised a diverse collection of ideological, regional, religious and economic interests. At the political level, they allied the Tories of Canada West with the French-speaking bleus (see Parti bleu) of Canada East and business interests from the Maritimes. With the exception of the 1874 election, when Macdonald's government was driven from office by the Pacific Scandal, the Conservative Party dominated Canadian politics until 1896.
The alliances between the Ontario and Québec wings of the Conservative Party were seriously weakened when Macdonald allowed Métis leader Louis Riel to be hanged in 1885 in the face of fierce Catholic opposition. The Conservatives further alienated French Catholic voters with its implementation of conscription during the First World War (see also Election of 1917; Union Government).
The Conservatives’ inability to win support in Québec made it difficult for the party to compete nationally after the First World War. The Liberals dominated national politics from 1921 through 1957, with the Conservatives only winning one election, partly aided by voter dissatisfaction in the wake of the Great Depression. In 1942, after Progressive Party member John Bracken won the Conservative leadership, the party’s name was changed to the Progressive Conservative Party (PC). Several members of the Progressive Party moved to the PC, however others abandoned the Progressives for the CCF and the Liberals.
In 1957, John Diefenbaker led the party to a minority government and then to a landslide victory in 1958. Diefenbaker won significant support in Québec, but was unable to manage this coalition, and the Liberals came back to power in 1963. Western Canadian provinces — which had previously supported minor parties such as the Progressives and Social Credit — remained in the PC camp even after the Conservatives’ defeat.
As in the period before Diefenbaker, the PC had difficulty competing with the Liberals’ ability to bridge Québec and the other provinces. This changed in 1984 when PC leader Brian Mulroney led the party to a landslide victory. Mulroney managed to bring Québec into the PC fold and wedded that province’s support with the Conservatives’ traditional western support base. Mulroney’s pursuit of constitutional reform exposed the disagreements between western Canada and Québec over Canadian identity (see Meech Lake Accord; Charlottetown Accord). The western wing of the party largely left to form the Reform Party in 1987, while the Québec wing of the party left to form the Bloc Québécois in 1990. In the 1993 election, the Progressive Conservative party was ruined, reduced to two seats in the House of Commons.
The Progressive Conservative party languished throughout most of the 1990s, slowly increasing its support to a handful of seats scattered across the country. Meanwhile, the Reform Party (reformed as the Canadian Alliance in 2000) had difficulty expanding beyond its western support base. In 2003, the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada and chose Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper as leader in 2004. Harper led the Conservative Party of Canada to two minority governments in 2006 and 2008 and to a majority government in 2011. Harper’s careful, incremental pursuit of neo-conservative public policy led to a slow increase in support, but the party continued to struggle with gaining support in Québec. (See also Conservative Party.)
At its inception, the Liberal Party rested on a much narrower base. The Clear Grits of Canada West joined the anticlerical rouges (see Parti rouge) of what is now Québec and the reform element in the Maritimes led by Joseph Howe. Little united these factions except for a common dislike of John A. Macdonald.
The ascension of Wilfrid Laurier to the leadership in 1887 transformed the party. Elegantly bilingual and a politician of genius, Laurier neutralized the hostility of the Roman Catholic Church in Québec toward the concept of political liberalism. His election victory in 1896 set the stage for the subsequent Liberal domination of Québec and for the party's predominance in the next century (see Election of 1896). Laurier lost office, however, when he again proposed free trade with the United States in 1911 (see Reciprocity). Robert Borden, who succeeded him and led the country through the First World War, solidified the deep anti-Conservative sentiment in Québec by imposing conscription in 1917 for what many Québécois considered an English, not a Canadian, war (see Election of 1917).
When Laurier died in 1919, his successor was William Lyon Mackenzie King. King's political philosophy prepared Canada, slowly but surely, for the welfare state, and his cautious statesmanship led the country through the Great Depression and the Second World War. From the time that King became leader, it would be fair to describe Canada as a single-party dominant state. For example, since 1921, the Conservatives have won 5 majority governments; the Liberals have won 12.
Louis St-Laurent (1948–58), a stolid lawyer, succeeded King. St-Laurent’s successor, Lester B. Pearson (1958–68), laid the plan for medicare, the Canada Pension Plan and Canada’s bilingualism and biculturalism policies. When Pierre Trudeau first took office in 1968, his government seemed radical, but practised a cautious management style. When he returned to office in 1980, he introduced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In 1984, the Liberals lost much of their Québec support base to the Conservatives and the party was swept from office. Aided partly by a divided opposition, the Liberals came back to power in 1993 under Jean Chrétien. The Liberals dominated the party system with three consecutive majority governments, and their parliamentary domination rested on a steady and relatively high share of the popular vote. After the Sponsorship Scandal came to light, the Liberals were reduced to a minority government in 2004 under Paul Martin. In 2006, the Liberals lost power, went through a succession of leaders and faced a decline in voter support. In 2011, the party was reduced to third place in the House of Commons. (See also Liberal Party.)
New Democratic Party
Other parties were formed during the 20th century to challenge the dominance of the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) grew from the Progressive Party, a farm-based party led by Thomas Crerar from Manitoba and Henry Wise Wood in Alberta, radical populists who fought against the influence of the large financial interests such as banks and railways. As a national party, it survived for about 15 years, until some Progressive and United Farmers of Alberta MPs helped found the CCF in 1932.
The CCF's Regina Manifesto of 1933 defined the party as social democratic. Tommy Douglas led the party to power in Saskatchewan in 1944, where it became the first democratically elected social democratic government in North America (see Tommy Douglas: “Greatest Canadian”). It remained the leading party of the left until it faced near electoral annihilation in 1958. It then decided to ally with the recently formed Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) to form a new party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), in 1961. The NDP provided Canada with a "two-and-a-half-party" system until the 1990s, a system in which the two large parties — the Liberals and Conservatives — were joined by a smaller party. Then a combination of weak leadership, scandal at the provincial level, competition from other protest parties and trade union dissatisfaction seriously weakened the party to the point where some, including its own members, questioned its survival.
The NDP experienced a revival under the leadership of Jack Layton, who became party leader in 2003. Layton’s likeable image, combined with his efforts to professionalize the party’s electoral machinery, helped to restore the NDP’s place in the party system. In 2011, Layton led the NDP to its best ever election result, as the NDP finished second and became the Official Opposition. Much of the NDP’s breakthrough came from Québec.
The Bloc Québécois was founded as a parliamentary movement composed of Members of Parliament from Québec ridings who left the Conservative and Liberal parties after the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The parliamentary bloc was led by Lucien Bouchard, a Conservative Cabinet minister who resigned his seat and soon after formed the Bloc Québécois political party.
The Bloc runs candidates solely in the province of Québec and its principal policy is to promote Québec's interests and Québec sovereignty in the House of Commons. In the 1993 election, the Bloc received 54 seats, the second-largest number, and became the Official Opposition. The party slowly declined in support and was almost obliterated in the 2011 election when it lost all but four seats. (See also Bloc Québécois.)
The Green Party of Canada was founded in 1983 to promote environmental concerns. The party ran small numbers of candidates with little voter support until 2004. Changes to Canada’s party finance laws meant that a party that earned 2 per cent of the vote nationally would receive public funding. Under leader Jim Harris, the Greens nominated a full slate of candidates for the 2004 election and qualified for the funding. The combination of increased party resources and growing environmental consciousness among voters led to growth of the party, which received 7 per cent of the vote in 2008. Elizabeth May, who became leader of the party in 2006, won the Greens’ first ever seat in the House of Commons in 2011. (See also Green Party of Canada.)
Besides the larger parties, Canada has seen a number of very small parties that meet the criteria for registration but earn small shares of the vote and do not win seats in the House of Commons (see Electoral Systems). Some of these parties, such as the Communist, Christian Heritage or Canadian Action parties, have lasted for a long period of time, while others might only contest one or two elections before fading away. Although these parties have little success electorally, they do allow their supporters to participate in the debate over the direction of the country.
Structure of the Party System
One of the defining features of political parties is that they are organizations that seek to influence public policy by running candidates for election. Canada's electoral system is based upon single-member constituencies, and a political party tries to win a majority of seats in a general election to form a government. Political parties recruit members, organize and fund their activities to nominate candidates to win seats.
Canadian political parties function both nationally and locally. Generally, the national party organization is dominated by the party’s elected members and leader. The national party organization sets policy and election strategy. At the same time, political parties also organize at the constituency level through local associations. The associations are typically the focus of membership activity; one of their primary functions is to choose the candidate the party will run in that constituency and to deliver and adapt the party’s message to the local context.
Canadian political parties provide opportunities for Canadians to join as members. Most parties require their members to be Canadian citizens or permanent residents and not to be members of any other national parties. Members must also pay a nominal annual membership fee. Canadian parties typically provide limited opportunities for members to get involved outside of elections. During elections, by contrast, party membership lists provide a source for volunteer labour. Members can participate in choosing party officers, delegates to conventions and local candidates. Although parties do not publicize their membership numbers, relatively few Canadians join and participate in political parties.
Despite low membership numbers, political parties are important structures for representing the diversity of Canadian society. In the past, this largely centred around representing Canada’s linguistic duality, both in formal structures and in informal practices. For example, the Liberals traditionally alternate between francophone and anglophone leaders. As Canadian society has become more diverse, there have been greater demands for inclusivity in parties. Many parties have responded with efforts to recruit more candidates from traditionally underrepresented groups such as women and visible minorities. In 2015, 28 per cent of the nominated candidates were women — among the five major parties (Bloc, Conservative, Green, Liberal, NDP) 33 per cent were women.
Political party activities require financial resources — particularly media-intensive election campaigns. Political parties aggressively fundraise, seeking contributions from members and supporters to fund their activities. Canadian national parties are limited by law to fundraising only from individuals and their financial activities are heavily regulated. (See also Political Party Financing.)
Each general election involves simultaneous elections in all of Canada's 338 ridings, and in each constituency there may be candidates from registered political parties, as well as representatives of other parties without registered status, whose names appear on the ballot as "Independents." (See also Elections.) In 2015, there were 1,792 candidates, the third-highest total ever for a Canadian general election. All but two constituencies had at least four candidates running, and 48 electoral districts had 7 or more.
At the local level, the most important task of the constituency association is to choose its candidate. Although the procedures for doing so are normally loosely established by the national political party, there is considerable autonomy accorded to local parties and their practices vary. Usually the candidate is selected by a secret vote of all members resident in the constituency, although it is common for candidates to be acclaimed, particularly in areas where the party is weak and few people are interested in becoming candidates.
Although there is a tradition of the local association choosing the candidate, the party leader must approve any candidate running under the party’s name. This gives the national party a degree of control over the nomination process as the leader can refuse to approve a candidate chosen by the local association. This is sometimes used to ensure that a favoured nomination contestant becomes the party candidate or to help the party to improve the diversity of its candidate pool. Such interventions are controversial, and party leaders use them sparingly.
Once the party's candidate is chosen, the local party tries to secure his or her election. The party will choose a campaign manager, rent a campaign office and begin the process of publicizing the party and the candidate by signs and advertisements in the media. Closer to the election, it will organize door-to-door canvasses and the distribution of literature. On election day, the local party focuses its efforts on encouraging its identified supporters to get out and vote.
Party leaders are the central figures in political parties and are in effect the party's candidate for prime minister. Consequently, the selection of party leader is one of the most important tasks undertaken by parties. Normally, the selection of party leaders takes place after the resignation or death of the incumbent, although parties will also periodically call for or force a leadership review. In the first 50 years after Confederation, a party’s Members of Parliament chose one of their ranks to lead the party. This system was supplanted by the leadership convention, where delegates from the local party associations and other components of the party gathered in a central location to choose a leader. Only a few thousand of the party’s members would participate in these conventions.
In the 1990s, Canadian political parties began to switch to a system where all party members vote for their choice of party leader. All major parties now choose their leader in this way. The Conservatives and Liberals weigh the votes in each constituency equally to ensure that constituencies with large numbers of members do not dominate the process. Administering leadership votes takes significant resources and parties have used combinations of in-person, telephone, mail and Internet ballots. These systems treat all party members equally, but can create situations where the chosen leader has weak support among a party’s Members of Parliament or the party establishment.
The parties also elect a president and other executive members whose job it is to manage the party's administrative apparatus. Most parties also hold policy conventions, usually every two years. There is often debate between the MPs and participants in policy conventions as to how far elected members are bound by the resolutions established at such conventions. In a general election, it is the task of the national party to manage the overall national campaign. It plans the leader's tour, raises and spends money on advertising and campaign literature, and distributes money and other resources. At other times, the parties operate offices with a small but paid staff, whose responsibility it is to conduct party business and to co-ordinate the various constituency, provincial and national organizations. (See also Leadership Convention.)
Political parties are central to the operation of parliamentary democracy in Canada. Almost all of the Members of Parliament elected to the House of Commons are elected as parts of political parties. Similarly, appointments to the Senate may also reflect party lines. However, support for partisan appointments has changed: the Liberal Party removed its senators from caucus in 2014 and the NDP does not allow senators to sit under its banner. Party lines define political conflict in Parliament and MPs are expected to vote with their party in almost all cases. Weekly caucus meetings provide an opportunity for a party’s elected members and senators to meet together, air concerns and maintain cohesion.
Political parties are important to the health of Canadian democracy as they help to organize political competition and structure the operation of our political system. As organizations, however, there are signs that Canada’s political parties are weakening. The membership base of political parties is aging and declining, and fewer Canadians identify themselves as party supporters. Voter turnout in Canada has declined in the last two decades, raising questions about the ability of parties to connect with voters. Canadian parties are as important as ever in the operation of our political institutions, but their connection with the electorate is increasingly tenuous.