Liberal Party of Canada

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Template:Infobox Canada Political Party

The Liberal Party of Canada (French: Parti libéral du Canada) is Canada's largest political party. It currently forms the federal government under Prime Minister Paul Martin.

The Liberal Party is often called "Canada's natural governing party" because it has been in power in Canada for most of the past century. It is one of only two parties that have alternately governed Canada since Confederation, the other being the now-defunct Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, one of the two ancestors of the modern Conservative Party of Canada. Every Liberal leader in the 20th century and since has served as Prime Minister. Recently, the Liberal Party has been plagued by party infighting.



The Liberals are descended from the mid-19th century Reformers who agitated for responsible government throughout British North America. These included George Brown, Robert Baldwin, William Lyon Mackenzie and the Clear Grits in Upper Canada, Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia, and the Patriotes and Rouges in Lower Canada led by figures such as Louis-Joseph Papineau.

See also: Rebellions of 1837


At the time of the confederation of the former British colonies of Canada (now Ontario and Quebec), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, the radical Liberals were marginalized by the more pragmatic Conservative coalition assembled under Sir John A. Macdonald. In the 29 years after Canadian confederation, the Liberals were consigned to opposition, with the exception of one stint in government. Alexander Mackenzie was able to lead the party to power in 1873 after the Macdonald government lost a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons because of the Pacific Scandal. Mackenzie subsequently won the 1874 election, but lost the government to Macdonald in 1878.


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In their early history, the Liberals were the party of continentalism (free trade with the United States), and opposition to imperialism. The Liberals also became identified with the aspirations of Quebecers as a result of the growing hostility of French-Canadians to the Conservatives. The Conservatives lost the support of Quebecers because of the role of Conservative governments in the execution of Louis Riel, the suppression of the rights of French-Canadians outside of Quebec, and their role in the Conscription crisis of 1917.

It was not until Wilfrid Laurier became leader that the Liberal Party emerged as a modern party. Laurier was able to capitalize on the Tories' alienation of French Canada by offering the Liberals as a credible alternative. Laurier was able to overcome the party's reputation for anti-clericalism that offended the still-powerful Quebec Catholic Church. In English-speaking Canada, the Liberal Party's support for free trade made it popular among farmers, and helped cement the party's hold in the growing prairie provinces.

Laurier led the Liberals to power in the 1896 election, and oversaw a government that increased immigration in order to settle Western Canada. Laurier's government created of the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta out of the North-West Territories, and promoted the development of Canadian industry. The Liberals lost power in the 1911 election due to opposition to the party's policies on reciprocity (or free trade), and the creation of a Canadian navy.

The Conscription crisis divided the party as many Liberals in English Canada supported conscription and Sir Robert Borden's Unionist government. With numerous Liberal candidates running as Unionists or Liberal-Unionists with the support of provincial Liberal parties in a number of provinces, the Laurier Liberals were reduced to a largely Quebec-based rump. The long term impact of the Conscription crisis benefited the party as the issue only added to the animosity of French-Canadians towards the Conservatives, making that party virtually unelectable in Quebec for decades.

Canadian sovereignty

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Under Laurier, and his successor William Lyon Mackenzie King, the Liberals promoted Canadian sovereignty and greater independence from the British Empire. In Imperial Conferences held throughout the 1920s, Canadian Liberal governments often took the lead in arguing that Britain and the dominions should have equal status, and against proposals for an imperial parliament that would have subsumed Canadian independence. After the King-Byng Affair of 1926, the Liberals argued that the Governor General of Canada should no longer be appointed on the recommendation of the British government. The decisions of the Imperial Conferences were formalized in the Statute of Westminster, which was actually passed in 1931, the year after the Liberals lost power.

The Liberals also promoted the idea of Canada being responsible for its own foreign and defence policy. Initially, it was Britain which determined external affairs for the dominion. In 1905, Laurier created the Department of External Affairs, and in 1909 he appointed the first Secretary of State for External Affairs to Cabinet. It was also Laurier who first proposed the creation of a Canadian Navy in 1910. Mackenzie King appointed Vincent Massey the first Canadian ambassador to Washington in 1926, marking the Liberal government's insistence on having direct relations with the United States, rather than having Britain act on Canada's behalf.

Liberals and the welfare state

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The Liberals have often been accused of, or credited with, simply advancing whatever policies would get them elected. In the period just before and after the Second World War, the party became a champion of progressive social policy.

Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King introduced several measures that led to the creation of Canada's welfare state (or social safety net). Bowing to popular pressure, Mackenzie King introduced the mother's allowance, a monthly payment to all mothers with young children. He also reluctantly introduced old age pensions when J. S. Woodsworth required it in exchange for his Cooperative Commonwealth Federation party's support of King's minority government. Later, Lester B. Pearson introduced universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, and the Canada Assistance Plan (which provided funding for provincial welfare programs).

Trudeau era

Under Pierre Trudeau, this mission evolved into the goal of creating a "just society". In recent years, however, the party has been accused of "campaigning on the left and governing from the right".

The Trudeau Liberals became the champions of official bilingualism, passing the Official Languages Act, which gave the French and English languages equal status in Canada. Trudeau hoped that the promotion of bilingualism would cement Quebec's place in confederation, and counter growing calls for an independent Quebec. This policy aimed to transform Canada into a country where English and French-Canadians could live together in comfort, and could move to any part of the country without having to lose their language. While this has not occurred, official bilingualism has helped to halt the decline of the French language outside of Quebec, and has also ensured that all federal government services (as well as radio and television services provided by the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio-Canada) are available in both languages throughout the country.

The Trudeau Liberals are also credited with support for official multiculturalism as a means of integrating immigrants into Canadian society without forcing them to shed their culture. As a result of this and a more sympathetic attitude by Liberals towards immigration policy, the party has built a base of support among recent immigrants and their children.

The most lasting effect of the Trudeau years has been the patriation of the Canadian constitution and the creation of Canada's Charter of Rights. Trudeau Liberals support the concept of a strong, central government, and fought Quebec separatism, other forms of Quebec nationalism, and the granting of "distinct society" status to Quebec.


After Trudeau's retirement in 1984, many Liberals, such as Jean Chrétien and Clyde Wells, continued to adhere to Trudeau's concept of federalism. Others, such as John Turner, supported the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown Constitutional Accords, which would have recognized Quebec as a "distinct society" and would have increased the powers of the provinces to the detriment of the federal government.

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Under the party's new leader, John Turner, the Liberals lost power in the 1984 election, and were reduced to only 40 seats in the House of Commons. The Liberals began a long process of reconstruction.

The 1988 election was notable for John Turner's strong opposition to the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement negotiated by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Although most Canadians voted for parties opposed to free trade, the Tories were returned with a majority government, and implemented the deal.

Turner resigned in 1990 due to growing discontent within the party with his leadership, and was replaced by bitter rival Jean Chrétien. Chrétien's Liberals campaigned in the 1993 election on the promise of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and of repealing the Goods and Services Tax (GST). But when Chrétien took power, his government implemented only minor changes to NAFTA, embraced the free trade concept, and broke his promise to eliminate the GST.

While the Chrétien Liberals campaigned from the left, their time in power is most marked by the cuts made to many programs in order to balance the federal budget. Chrétien continued the Trudeau Liberal approach to federalism, and opposed making major concessions to Quebec and other provincialist factions.

After a proposal for Quebec independence was narrowly defeated in the 1995 Quebec referendum, the Liberals passed the "Clarity Act" which outlines the federal government's preconditions for negotiating provincial independence. In Chrétien's final days, he supported same-sex marriage in Canada as well as decriminalizing the possession of small quantities of marijuana.

Paul Martin succeeded Chrétien in 2003. Despite the personal rivalry between the two, Martin was the architect of the Liberals' economic policies as Chrétien's Minister of Finance during the 1990s. He is expected to continue these policies, although there is speculation that he will be more flexible on the issue of federalism and possible constitutional concessions to the provinces. There is also a belief that he will formalize the role of Canada's major cities in confederation.

In the June 28th, 2004 federal election, the Martin Liberals were returned to government, despite stronger competition from the newly-united Conservative Party led by Stephen Harper. The Liberal Party was reduced from a majority to a minority government due, in part, to a Chrétien-era scandal in which advertising agencies supporting the Liberal Party received grossly inflated commissions for their services. This scandal is well known as the sponsorship scandal. It continues to be damaging to the party and serves as a threat to the Liberal's prospects of forming the government after the next federal election.

Liberal Party infighting

The period between Paul Martin's assumption of the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada on November 14, 2003, and the 2004 Canadian election being called on May 23, 2004, saw a large amount of infighting within the party.

Many pundits have dated the current split to that earlier era, arguing that there is a clear division between the socially-populist, federalist wing of the party represented by Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien, and the constitutionally flexible, economically-minded wing of John Turner and Paul Martin.

When the Liberals formed a majority government after the 1993 election with Chrétien at the helm, party unity was assured by placing Martin, whom Chrétien had defeated for the party leadership in 1990, in the crucial role of Minister of Finance.

Martin was the clear successor to Chrétien, and Martin's wide-spread support ensured that most of the institutions of the Liberal Party were controlled by his allies. The split opened wider, however, in the summer of 2003 when Chrétien moved to curtail Martin's apparent campaigning for the leadership. Martin was about to resign from Cabinet when Chrétien fired him. Martin's influence in the party forced Chrétien to announce his retirement later in the year. Martin easily beat the unpopular Minister of Canadian Heritage Sheila Copps at the Liberal leadership convention in November 2003, and in December of that year Martin formed his government as Prime Minister.

While the issue of the party leadership was settled, at the lower levels of the party considerable in-fighting began. Most of the Chrétien-era cabinet ministers were relegated to the backbenches and ministers such as John Manley, Allan Rock, Don Boudria, Sheila Copps, David Anderson, Herb Dhaliwal and Stephane Dion were moved into minor roles as Martin built his cabinet. Many of them decided to leave politics for the private sector.

Some Chrétien loyalists refused to retire, hoping to remain as backbenchers. Unlike in previous elections, however, incumbent Liberals were not backed by the party in their ridings. In many cases, Chrétien allies faced challengers who received unofficial support from the Martinites. For example, the periodic redrawing of riding boundaries resulted in a high-profile battle between former cabinet minister Sheila Copps and future Martin Minister of Transport Tony Valeri for a riding nomination.

In late 2004, Paul Martin fired former supporter and Mississauga MP Carolyn Parrish from the Liberal Caucus after she told Martin he could "go to hell." Parrish currently sits as an independent in the House of Commons, but votes with the Liberals on almost all issues. Issues have also recently arisen between the largely Chrétien-appointed Liberal Senate Caucus and the Prime Minister's Office. Martin has also faced criticism for being closer with and more rewarding to recent political additions to the Liberal Party including MPs Jean Lapierre, Scott Brison, Ujjal Dosanjh, Keith Martin and most recently Belinda Stronach, as opposed to regular Liberal MPs. In April, 2005 David Kilgour, one of the party's two MPs from Alberta announced that he was leaving the party to sit as an independent member of the House of Commons due to the damaging allegations of corruption in the Liberal Party's Quebec wing based on testimony in the Gomery Commission inquiry.

For more detailed information, See: 2004 Liberal Party of Canada infighting


Known colloquially as the "Grits" (originally "Clear Grits"), the Liberal Party has held power for a substantial majority of the past century. In fact, in the entire history of the Liberal Party, there has only been one non-interim leader, Edward Blake, who was never Prime Minister of Canada. It is also worth noting that every successive Liberal Prime Minister has been a cabinet minister in the past Liberal leader's cabinet: Martin was in Chrétien's cabinet, who was in Turner's cabinet, who was in Trudeau's cabinet, etc. (The Progressive Conservatives, conversely, often chose leaders without Cabinet experience.) The party has a reputation among members for being very united and loyal, though this is always called into question during leadership races.

The Liberal Party is a member of the Liberal International.

Leaders of the Liberal Party


1 Brown was regarded by most Liberal candidates as their leader in the 1867 election but did not officially hold the title. Had he won a seat he would have almost certainly become Leader of the Opposition and had the Liberals won enough seats to form a government Brown would almost certainly have become Prime Minister. However, he failed in his bid for a seat in the House of Commons and the Liberals had no official leader until 1873.

2 Herb Gray served as Leader of the Opposition from June 23 until Chrétien was re-elected to Parliament in December 1990, though he was never the leader or interim leader, of the Liberal party.

The Liberal Party held its first leadership convention in 1919, electing William Lyon Mackenzie King as leader. Prior to that party leaders were chosen by caucus.

See also: Liberal leadership conventions for ballot by ballot results.

Election results 1867-2004

Election # of candidates nominated # of seats won # of total votes % of popular vote
<center> 62 <center> 60,818 <center> 22.67%
1872 <center> 111 <center> 95 <center> 110,556 <center> 34.72%
1874 <center> 140 <center> 129 <center> 128,059 <center> 39.49%
1878 <center> 121 <center> 57 <center> 180,074 <center> 33.05%
1882 <center> 112 <center> 72 <center> 160,547 <center> 31.10%
1887 <center> 184 <center> 79 <center> 312,736 <center> 43.13%
1891 <center> 194 <center> 90 <center> 350,512 <center> 45.22%
1896 <center> 190 <center> 117 <center> 401,425 <center> 41.37%
1900 <center> 209 <center> 128 <center> 477,758 <center> 50.25%
1904 <center> 208 <center> 137 <center> 521,041 <center> 50.88%
1908 <center> 213 <center> 133 <center> 570,311 <center> 48.87%
1911 <center> 214 <center> 85 <center> 596,871 <center> 45.82%
1917* <center> 213 <center> 82 <center> 729,756 <center> 38.80%
1921 <center> 204 <center> 118 <center> 1,285,998 <center> 41.15%
1925 <center> 216 <center> 100 <center> 1,252,684 <center> 39.74%
1926 <center> 189 <center> 114 <center> 1,294,072 <center> 42.74%
1930 <center> 226 <center> 90 <center> 1,716,798 <center> 44.03%
1935 <center> 245 <center> 173 <center> 1,967,839 <center> 44.68%
1940 <center> 242 <center> 179 <center> 2,365,979 <center> 51.32%
1945 <center> 236 <center> 117 <center> 2,086,545 <center> 39.78%
1949 <center> 259 <center> 190 <center> 2,878,097 <center> 49.15%
1953 <center> 263 <center> 169 <center> 2,743,013 <center> 48.62%
1957 <center> 265 <center> 105 <center> 2,703,687 <center> 40.91%
1958 <center> 265 <center> 49 <center> 2,444,909 <center> 33.50%
1962 <center> 264 <center> 100 <center> 2,862,001 <center> 37.17%
1963 <center> 265 <center> 128 <center> 3,276,995 <center> 41.52%
1965 <center> 265 <center> 131 <center> 3,099,521 <center> 40.18%
1968 <center> 263 <center> 155 <center> 3,686,801 <center> 47.53%
1972 <center> 263 <center> 109 <center> 3,717,804 <center> 38.42%
1974 <center> 264 <center> 141 <center> 4,102,853 <center> 43.15%
1979 <center> 282 <center> 114 <center> 4,595,319 <center> 40.11%
1980 <center> 282 <center> 147 <center> 4,855,425 <center> 44.40%
1984 <center> 282 <center> 40 <center> 3,516,486 <center> 28.02%
1988 <center> 294 <center> 83 <center> 4,205,072 <center> 31.92%
1993 <center> 295 <center> 177 <center> 5,598,775 <center> 41.24%
1997 <center> 301 <center> 155 <center> 4,994,377 <center> 38.46%
2000 <center> 301 <center> 172 <center> 5,251,961 <center> 40.85%
2004 <center> 308 <center> 135 <center> 4,951,107 <center> 36.7%
  • 1953-1968 includes one Liberal-Labour Member of Parliament.

* In 1917, some Liberals ran under the Unionist banner, figures only count those who ran as "Laurier Liberals"

Provincial and territorial Liberal parties

Each province in Canada has its own Liberal Party.

In most provinces, they are direct organizational affiliates with the federal Liberal party, much like the provincial sections of the New Democratic Party.

These parties, and their leaders, are:

The Ontario Liberal Party (Hon. Dalton McGuinty, MPP, Premier of Ontario, leader) and Alberta Liberal Party (Kevin Taft, MLA, leader) are officially autonomous but are still closely associated with the federal Liberal Party.

The Parti libéral du Québec (Hon. Jean Charest, MNA, Premier of Quebec, leader) and the British Columbia Liberal Party (Hon. Gordon Campbell, MLA, Premier of British Columbia, leader) use the Liberal name but are completely independent of the federal party and function as coalitions of Liberal and Conservative supporters. They do not support the Liberal Party in federal elections, preferring to remain neutral. In practice, these parties, especially the B.C. Liberals, are mostly conservative in orientation, though they do have prominent supporters of the federal Liberals in their caucuses.

The Saskatchewan Party was an unofficial merger of the members of the Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan and members of the Saskatchewan Liberal Party, now contains supporters of the federal Conservatives and federal Liberals in its ranks. The Saskatchewan Party is also completely independent and officially neutral when it comes to federal politics, although its only leaders have had roots in the Reform and Progressive Conservative parties of the past.

The Northwest Territories and Nunavut have non-partisan legislatures.

See also

External link

Federal Political Parties of Canada
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Bloc Québécois
Not represented in the House of Commons
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Election - List of election results - List of political parties in the Americas - Political parties

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