In 1844 in Coningsby, Benjamin Disraeli, future Conservative prime minister of Britain, described CONSERVATISM as "an unhappy cross-breed; the mule of politics that engenders nothing." He wrote this when "Conservative" was first appearing as a party designation, a shift intended to broaden the TORY Party's appeal. In Canada as in Britain, Toryism's mid-19th century antidemocratic values were difficult to maintain when the electoral franchise was continually expanding. The Conservative Party in Canada embraced British Tory traditions, but other strains flowed into it. Indeed, the ancestor of the modern Conservative Party can be discovered in the 1854 Liberal-Conservative COALITION GOVERNMENT of the PROVINCE OF CANADA.

The Macdonald Legacy
John A. MACDONALD entered the 1854 coalition as a moderate Conservative, and it was he who eventually shaped the Liberal-Conservative Party that was dominant at CONFEDERATION. As Canada's first prime minister, Macdonald constructed a party that emphasized the commitment to Confederation and a policy of national economic development. The party's name symbolized Macdonald's own commitment to equilibrium and moderation, to an emphasis on what Canadians held in common, and to an obscuring of those matters where they divided. He managed to combine ULTRAMONTANE Roman Catholics from Québec, Tories, Orangemen and businessmen in all 4 founding provinces. Rejecting "abstract debate," he emphasized personality, patronage and compromise; but by 1872 the many parts of the expanding nation had become too different to patch together. In 1872 he won 103 seats to 97 for the Opposition Liberals. The majority did not hold; in November 1873 his government fell.
The PACIFIC SCANDAL that brought down Macdonald's government indicated the problems of his approach. The Pacific railway was essential to his nation-building dream; however, its construction and similar development policies linked the government too closely with private interests that did not always serve the public interest. In opposition Macdonald seems to have become convinced that his party should represent something more than simply support of Canada. By then the party had largely dropped the Liberal-Conservative label in favour of Conservative. In the 1878 election campaign Macdonald committed his party to the NATIONAL POLICY, which emphasized PROTECTIONISM, expansion in the West and an assertive central government. This appealed to Ontario and Québec manufacturers and to those who feared the US following its rejection of free trade and RECIPROCITY. A strong pro-British message was added, its effectiveness proven by Macdonald's re-election in 1882, 1887 and 1891.
Macdonald complemented the National Policy with shrewd and lavish patronage and a willingness to compromise, although compromise evaded him in the case of Louis RIEL after the 1885 North-West Rebellion. Riel's execution, along with weak leadership among Québec Conservatives, led to a decline in support there from 48 seats in 1882 to 30 in 1891. Macdonald's reaction to Riel followed logically from his centralist perspective, which kept provinces and local interests in the background. The result was that the provinces became increasingly Liberal, and supported the provincial-rights stand of Liberal leader Wilfrid LAURIER. After Macdonald's death in 1891, his party could not endure attacks on so many fronts. The Conservative governments of John ABBOTT, John THOMPSON, Mackenzie BOWELL and Charles TUPPER struggled to maintain supremacy, but language and religious problems (see MANITOBA SCHOOLS QUESTION) and patronage problems in Québec were great obstacles. The Conservatives lost the 1896 election and for many years did not regain their pre-eminence.

Mandate of Robert Borden
Nova Scotia lawyer Robert BORDEN, Conservative leader 1901-20, sought to expand the Macdonald legacy. He experimented with a Québec lieutenant, flirted with American progressivism and advocated civil service reform and public ownership. He lost the elections of 1904 and 1908. To win in 1911 Borden emphasized the National Policy and the imperial connection, winning support in Ontario, BC and part of the Maritimes.
In Québec the Conservatives allied themselves with anti-Laurier nationalistes who were seduced by Borden's promise of a referendum on naval assistance to Great Britain. The Conservatives won the election, but the imperialist-nationaliste coalition collapsed. By 1913 nationalistes in his caucus were bitterly disillusioned with Borden's siding with the more numerous imperialists. WWI extended Borden's mandate, but in 1917 an election could be postponed no longer.
The December 1917 election was critical for Canadian conservatism. To ensure that his CONSCRIPTION policy was upheld, Borden made an alliance with conscriptionist Liberals. The resulting UNION GOVERNMENT triumphed, but the victory created lasting resentment among French Canadians and immigrants, especially German Canadians. Liberals soon deserted the coalition, leaving the Conservative Party with a narrower base than ever before. Moreover, nationalization of the Grand Trunk and Canadian Northern railways caused the defection of the Montréal business community, probably the party's greatest source of funds.

Brief Reign of Meighen
Arthur MEIGHEN, Borden's successor, immediately tried to shape the remnants of Unionism into Conservatism. In the 1921 election the Conservatives finished third with 50 seats, behind the PROGRESSIVE PARTY with 65 and the Liberals with 116. Meighen's support of conscription meant the loss of francophone support. In western Canada, Progressives identified more readily with Liberals since they associated Conservatives with the despised National Policy. Meighen served briefly as prime minister in 1926, but a Liberal majority soon returned (see KING-BYNG AFFAIR). Conservatives were too closely linked with Britain when Canada's Britishness was disappearing. Nor did Meighen manage to adapt the National Policy to postwar economic conditions.

The Organization Atrophies
In 1927 R.B. BENNETT, a wealthy Calgary businessman, succeeded Meighen and in 1930 won a majority, taking 25 Québec seats. The GREAT DEPRESSION created the climate for Bennett's victory; it also ensured his defeat 5 years later. Bennett's initial response to the Depression was a characteristically Conservative attempt to protect industry and to obtain imperial preference. It did not work. In 1935 he called for many social reforms, but these proposals came too late to be convincing (see BENNETT'S NEW DEAL). Many Reformist Conservatives had already left to join the Reconstruction Party founded by former Bennett minister H.H. STEVENS. Moreover, 2 new parties, SOCIAL CREDIT and the CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH FEDERATION, appealed to areas of English Canada. The 1935 election witnessed the worst Conservative defeat; they took only 40 seats against the Liberals' 173.
Thereafter the Conservatives struggled to rebuild a successful coalition. The enmity of French Canada endured, even though in 1938 the party chose Robert J. MANION, who had opposed conscription, was Catholic and had married a French Canadian. His attempts to conciliate Québec only angered numerous colleagues once WWII began. Party funds were depleted, and party organization had atrophied. In 1940 the Conservatives again won only 40 seats. Manion's defeat turned the party back towards Arthur Meighen, who shunned compromises and to many Conservatives appeared to be the Canadian Churchill. Canada, however, was not Britain, and Meighen lost a February 1942 by-election.

Emergence of the Progressive Conservative Party
Encouraged by Meighen, Manitoba Premier John BRACKEN, a Progressive with no Conservative experience, sought and won the 1942 leadership, and the party's name was changed to the Progressive Conservative Party. It was attempting to turn left in order to place itself on the path of wartime reform sentiment. But the CCF and the Liberals were also moving left. In 1944 the Conservatives were caught up again in the pro-conscription movement. Although the Liberals brought in conscription, the Conservatives' enthusiasm ensured that they would bear the blame. In the 1945 election they could not even find candidates for most Québec ridings. Elsewhere, conscription was largely forgotten when the war ended. The PCs came fourth on the Prairies, behind the CCF, Liberals and Social Credit.

Diefenbaker's Populism
The Conservatives were becoming an Ontario party, as indicated by the 1948 choice of Ontario Premier George DREW as leader. Drew was unable to escape the Ontario mantle. After 2 disastrous defeats, in 1949 and 1953, the party decided to gamble on John DIEFENBAKER, a westerner, a populist and a remarkable showman. Diefenbaker offered both fiery leadership and a visionary program. He excited Canadians, lulled as they were by 2 decades of Liberal administration. In 1957 he won a minority, and in 1958 he astonished Canadians by winning 208 out of 265 seats, including 50 from Québec. For the first time since 1911 the Conservatives were truly a national party.
The Conservative platform appeared to have more substance than it actually possessed. Despite strong Québec support, Diefenbaker could not come to terms with Canada's bicultural nature. His policy initiatives seemed eclectic rather than parts of a larger vision. In 1962 Diefenbaker lost his majority, and in 1963 his government collapsed and the Liberals won the subsequent election. Diefenbaker's populism had lost much business support and now lacked urban support generally. French Canada once again shunned the Conservatives. Diefenbaker, however, retained strong support in the West and in pockets elsewhere. His removal as leader in September 1967 damaged party unity, and his successor, Nova Scotia Premier Robert STANFIELD, felt the wounds.

Diefenbaker's Legacy
Diefenbaker's legacy was strong Conservative support in western Canada. Other successes in the 1960s and 1970s occurred provincially, especially in Ontario, where the Conservatives maintained a regime from 1943 to 1985. By 1979 Conservatives governed in Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, PEI and New Brunswick. But Stanfield was unable to lead the federal party to power, and in February 1976 Joe CLARK, an Albertan, became its leader. In May 1979 the Conservatives under Clark formed a minority government, but they were defeated in the House in December and lost the February 1980 election.
The defeat of the Conservatives in 1980 brought Joe Clark's leadership into question. In 1983 the party rejected Clark and chose the bilingual Québecer Brian MULRONEY as its leader. Although Mulroney lacked any parliamentary experience, he possessed superb organizational skills and a deep knowledge of his native province. The party, so often fractious, united behind the new leader as he faced Pierre TRUDEAU's successor, John TURNER, in the federal election of Sept 1984. Mulroney took the Western base of the party and fused it with a renewed support among Québecers who were disillusioned with Trudeau's federalism. The presence of notable Québec nationalists such as Lucien BOUCHARD was an indication that this was a perhaps uneasy coalition.
Despite being plagued by ministerial resignations and scandals, the Mulroney Conservatives implemented much of their business agenda, privatizing crown corporations and arranging a FREE TRADE deal with the United States. Nevertheless, the failure to achieve its goal of a new federalism through constitutional negotiations and an inability to reduce the public debt or to raise Canada out of a persistent recession eroded the party's support in its second term. The free trade deal did not produce the jobs and prosperity that Mulroney had promised. In Ontario the perception was widespread that the deal had cost many jobs. Western disaffection rose over the delay of the Mulroney government in scrapping the hated National Energy Policy, the decision to award a lucrative defence contract to Montréal instead of Winnipeg, and lingering animosity over the implementation of the GST. Mulroney's personal popularity fell to lower levels than any previous prime minister.
Signs of weakness in the government emerged as early as 1987 when Preston MANNING formed the REFORM PARTY under the general slogan "The West wants in" and led it to a respectable showing in Alberta in the 1988 election. It elected its first MP in a 1988 by-election. Weaknesses in Québec emerged when close friend and cabinet colleague Lucien Bouchard resigned in disagreement over proposed changes to the MEECH LAKE ACCORD. Several Conservative MPs from Québec followed him and they formed another new political party, the Bloc Québécois.
In 1993 the Mulroney coalition disintegrated under Kim CAMPBELL, who was unable to distance herself from the Mulroney regime. Québec supporters turned to Lucien Bouchard and the Bloc Québécois and Western supporters turned to the Reform Party. The election resulted in the most devastating defeat in the history of Canadian politics. The party's 154 seats evaporated. Only former leadership aspirant Jean CHAREST and Saint John, NB, mayor Elsie Wayne managed to win seats for the party. The Conservative Party lost its official status as a political party and faced a financial as well as a political crisis. Jean Charest became interim party leader in 1993 and in 1995 was confirmed as leader, the first French Canadian ever to head the Conservatives. The youthful Charest was seen as the key to rebuilding the Conservative Party, and indeed in the 1997 general federal election the Tories won 20 seats and 18% of the popular vote, regaining official party status. Despite this victory, in April 1998 Charest left the federal Conservatives to replace Daniel Johnson as leader of the Québec Liberal Party, in the hopes of usurping the ruling Parti Québécois in that year's provincial election (which he failed to do). Charest's replacement was a return to the past. Joe Clark returned to active federal politics, and in November 1998 he easily won the Tory leadership race against a challenge from a maverick nationalist outsider, David Orchard, and became federal Conservative leader once more.
In June 1999 the United Alternative, a right-wing coalition begun by the Reform Party, voted in favour of proceeding with their plan to unite the conservative parties so as to make political inroads against the federal Liberal Party. The Progressive Conservative Party officially refused to participate in the United Alternative movement. It nonetheless proceeded with the support of some of the leading members of the Ontario provincial PC Party and, just as important, with the backing of some very wealthy and right-wing Bay Street businesspeople. These defections caused yet another serious blow to the Conservatives.
The CANADIAN ALLIANCE was formed in 2000 and chose former Alberta Treasurer Stockwell DAY as its leader. Day led the party to 66 seats and 25.5% of the popular vote. Joe Clark, who waged a strong campaign and performed extremely well in the debates, barely held on to official party status with 12 seats and 12.2% of the popular vote. Most of his seats were in Atlantic Canada. He made a brave decision personally to run in Calgary, where to everyone's surprise but his own, he won. The party's campaign was hampered by lack of financial support and remained deep in debt after the election.
Stockwell Day, however, proved to be a singularly inept leader of the Canadian Alliance, and his policy decisions and leadership style quickly generated internal dissent within his party. Seven members left his caucus in 2001 and formed a loose alliance with the Conservatives under the name the Democratic Reform Caucus, led by Deborah Grey and Chuck Strahl. However, when Stephen HARPER succeeded Day as leader, all but one returned. Clark's strategy of rebuilding the Progressive Conservative Party on the base of a crumbling Canadian Alliance had failed, and he faced the difficult task of rebuilding the party against a reinvigorated Canadian Alliance with his party deeply in debt.
In May 2003 the Progressive Conservative Party held a leadership convention to choose Clark's successor. Front-runner Peter MACKAY made a deal with his nationalist rival, David Orchard, that he would not pursue a merger with the Canadian Alliance. However, by October 2003 the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance had agreed in principle to form a new political party. The Conservative Party of Canada came into existence in December 2003. It held its first leadership convention in Toronto in March 2004, and former Alliance leader Stephen Harper became the first elected leader of the new party.

The Merger
When Peter MacKay won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party in 2003, he did so in part with the support of David Orchard, a staunch traditional Tory, with promises to re-examine the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and to reject merger talks with the Canadian Alliance. Within weeks of gaining the leadership, however, MacKay began secret discussions with Harper on a merger of the two conservative parties. These talks resulted in an announcement on 16 October by the two leaders that an agreement in principle had been reached on a merger. The merger agreement was ratified overwhelmingly in December 2003 by separate votes by the memberships of both parties.
The merger was bitterly opposed in some quarters, especially among traditional conservatives. The same day as the merger was announced, 8 December 2003, Joe Clark and two other Progressive Conservative MPs left the party. Other MPs and supporters soon joined them, believing the merger was less a coming together of equals and rather a takeover by the Canadian Alliance. The decision to drop the term "Progressive" from the party name was viewed as more than symbolic; instead, it seemed an indication of a social conservative strain running through the Alliance. Indeed, the new Conservative Party seemed to many more like the American Republican Party than the traditional Tory Party.
Harper won the leadership of the Conservative Party on 20 March 2004, defeating Tony Clement, a former Ontario cabinet minister, and Belinda Stronach, head of Magna Corporation. Weeks later, Harper and his newly minted party found itself in a federal election. Despite a buoyant economy, the governing LIBERAL PARTY, headed by Paul MARTIN, was immensely unpopular in many areas of Canada, being viewed as corrupt and untrustworthy. Harper's Conservatives hoped to harness this discontent to their advantage, and for a time seemed successful. Heading into the last couple of weeks of the campaign, several polls showed the Conservatives on the verge of forming a minority government. However, the loose comments of some Conservative candidates in the last days of the campaign (compulsory abortion counselling, ending support for minority language programs, and using the notwithstanding clause to restrict Charter rights) raised concerns the party had a hidden agenda on social issues. Harper's own comments the year previous in support of the unpopular Iraq war also raised fears a Conservative government might align Canada too closely with the United States on foreign policy. Many Canadians also viewed Harper's Conservatives as wanting to allow a parallel private health care system in Canada.
The election of 28 June 2004 saw the Conservative Party take 99 seats and nearly 30% of the popular vote, enough to secure Official Opposition status to the once-more victorious Liberal Party. Some critics suggested the result fell short of expectations. They pointed out the percentage Conservative votes was considerably less than the Progressive Conservative Party and the Canadian Alliance had garnered in the 2000 election. Others, however, noted the new party had gained seats overall, especially in Ontario, and that Canada's right wing was now united for the first time in over a decade. From this perspective, it could be argued the party was well positioned for future elections.
The minority Liberal government struggled over the next year and a half, beset by a scandal involving the misuse of public funds. Finally, in November 2005, the Liberal government fell. Running on a platform that emphasized democratic reforms while otherwise abandoning or downplaying some of the party's more contentious policies, Harper's Conservatives emerged victorious in the 23 January 2006 election. The victory was tenuous, as the Conservative Party won only 124 seats within the 308 seat House of Commons. (The number of Conservative seats increased to 125 two weeks later when a former Liberal Cabinet minister cross the floor.) Nonetheless, many observers viewed the election results as significant, signalling a long-term shift in political power in Canada to the western provinces, especially the prosperous province of Alberta, Harper's electoral home. Harper was sworn in as Canada's 22nd prime minister on 6 February 2006. He immediately chose his cabinet of 27 ministers, significantly fewer than the 38 positions held by the Liberal government, and did not appoint a deputy prime minister.

Suggested Reading Charles Taylor, Radical Tories: The Conservative Tradition in Canada (1982); W. Christian and C. Campbell, Political Parties and Ideologies in Canada (1993); James Bickerton, A. Gagnon and P. Smith, Ties That Bind: Parties and Voters in Canada (1999); Preston Manning, Think Big: My Adventures In Life and Democracy (2002)


The Canadian Encyclopedia © 2007 Historica Foundation of Canada