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Conservative Party of Canada (historical)
The Conservative Party has been gone under a variety of names over the years. Initially known as the Liberal-Conservative Party, it dropped "Liberal" from its name in 1873. As a result of World War I and the Conscription Crisis of 1917 the party joined with pro-conscription Liberals to become the Unionist Party of Robert Borden from 1917 to 1920 (also see Conscription Crisis of 1917), and then the National Liberal and Conservative Party until 1922. It then reverted back to Liberal-Conservative Party until 1938, when it became simply the Conservative Party. However, it ran in the 1940 election as National Government even though it was in opposition. Regardless, the party had almost always been referred to as simply the Conservative Party or Tories, whatever the party's official name might be.
The roots of the party are in the pre-confederation coalition government of 1854 the parti bleu of George-Étienne Cartier (see also Quebec Conservative Party) and Ontario liberals and conservatives led by John A. MacDonald. It was out of this coalition that the Liberal-Conservative Party (generally known as the Conservative Party) was formed and it was this period that formed the basis for confederation in 1867.
MacDonald became the leader of the Conservative Party and formed the first national government in 1867. The party brought together ultramontane Quebec Catholics, pro-tariff businessmen, United Empire Loyalist Tories and Orangemen. One major accomplishment of Macdonald's first government was the creation of the Canadian Pacific Railway which also led to the Pacific Scandal that brought down the government in 1873.
The Conservatives under Macdonald returned to power in 1878 by opposing the Liberal Party's policy of free trade or reciprocity with the United States and promoting, instead, the National Policy which sought to promote business and develop industry with protectionist measures as well as settle and develop the west.
The principal difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals in this period and well into the twentieth century was that Conservatives were in favour of imperial preference (a protectionist system in which tariffs would be levied against imports from outside the British Empire) and strong political and legal links with Britain while Liberals promoted free trade and continentalism (that is closer ties to the United States) and greater independence from Britain.
Macdonald died in 1891 and, without his leadership, the Conservative coalition began to unravel under the pressure of sectarian tensions between Catholic French Canadians and British imperialists who tended to be anti-French and anti-Catholic. The Red River Rebellion (and execution of Louis Riel) and Manitoba Schools Question exacerbated tensions within the Conservative Party and fanned hostility to the Conservatives in Quebec.
Sir Robert Borden
Free trade was the major issue of the 1911 election that swept Sir Wilfrid Laurier's Liberals from power and put Robert Borden at the head of a new Tory administration which emphasised a revitalised National Policy and links to Britain. Borden had tried to rebuild a base in Quebec by allying with anti-Laurier Quebec nationalists but, in government, tensions between Quebec nationalists and English Canadian imperialists made any grand coalition untenable.
Borden and the Conservative revival
The First World War created a further strain as most Quebecers were unenthusiastic about Canadian involvement in what they saw as a foreign, and particularly British conflict while Borden's English supporters were adamant that Canada must support the war effort and enact a policy of conscription (see Conscription Crisis of 1917).
Borden's government was unable to enact conscription on its own and attempted to form a coalition but when Laurier rejected this Borden formed a Union government with pro-conscription English Canadian Liberals. Borden thus created the Unionist Party through which he ultimately tried to create a permanent coalition of Conservatives and anti-Laurier Liberals.
The Unionist Party, 1917-1922
See separate Unionist Party (Canada) article
National Liberal and Conservative Party
The attempt to turn the Conservatives into a hegemonic party by merging with Liberal-Unionists failed as most Liberals either joined the new Progressive Party of Canada or rejoined the Liberals under its new leader William Lyon Mackenzie King. One critical issue in this split was free trade - farmers were particularly hostile to Tory tariff policy and free trade was a key issue in the creation of the Progressives while the Conscription Crisis destroyed any remaining Conservative base in Quebec for generations leaving the Tories with even less support than they had before the Union government.
Borden's successor, Arthur Meighen and his renamed National Liberal and Conservative Party were defeated by the Liberals in the election of 1921 coming in third behind the Progressives. The Liberals were reduced to a minority government in the 1925 election the Conservatives managed to win a plurality of seats in the House of Commons but King was able to stay in power with the support of the Progressives and form a minority government. King's government and were defeated in a vote in the House of Commons within months and Prime Minister King asked Governor-General Byng to call a new election but Byng refused and asked Meighen to form a government. Meighen's government was soon defeated by a vote in the Commons leaving no choice but a new election which returned a landslide Liberal government. The King-Byng Affair inflamed Canadian nationalist sentiment since it was felt the Governor General, a British government appointee, had overstepped his bounds and that this was a sign of excessive British influence in Canadian politics. The Tories not only benefitted from this influence but their pro-imperialist policies were opposed to the concept of Canadian independence.
Bennett and the Great Depression
Meighen was replaced as Tory leader by R.B. Bennett, a millionaire Calgary businessman in 1927. He led the Conservatives to power in the 1930 election as a result with the inability of the Liberal government (or any government in the western world) to deal with the Great Depression. Bennett promised to end the economic crisis in three days by implementing the old Conservative policy of high tariffs and imperial preference.
When this policy failed to generate the desired result Bennett's government had no alternative plan. The party's pro-business, pro-bank inclinations provided no relief to the millions of unemployed who were now becoming increasingly desperate and agitated. The Conservatives seemed indecisive and unable to cope and rapidly lost the confidence of Canadians becoming a focus of hatred, ridicule and contempt. Car owners who could no longer afford gasoline reverted to having their vehicles pulled by horses and dubbed them Bennett buggies.
R. B. Bennett faced pressure for radical reforms from within and without the party. The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, formed in 1932, prepared to fight its first election on a socialist program; the Social Credit movement was gaining supporters in the west and shocked the country by winning the Alberta provincial election and forming government in September, 1935; Bennett's own government suffered a defection as his Trade minister, Henry Herbert Stevens, left the Conservatives to form the Reconstruction Party of Canada when Bennett refused to enact Stevens' plans for drastic economic reform and government intervention in the economy to deal with the crisis.
Bennett attempted to prevent social disorder by evacuating the unemployed to relief camps far away from the cities but this only exacerbated social tensions leading to the On to Ottawa Trek of unemployed protesters who intended to ride the rails from Vancouver to Ottawa (gathering new members along the way) in order to bring their demands for relief to Bennett personally. The trek ended in Regina on July 1, 1935 when the RCMP, on orders from the Prime Minister, attacked a public meeting of 3,000 strikers leaving one dead and dozens injured.
Bennett had in desperation attempted to save his government by reversing its laissez-faire policies and, belatedly, implementing Bennett's New Deal based on the New Deal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Bennett proposed progressive income taxation, a minimum wage, a maximum for work week hours, unemployment insurance, health insurance, an expanded pension program and grants to farmers but the Conservative's conversion to the concept of a welfare state was too little too late and the Tories were routed in the October 1935 election winning only 40 seats to 173 for Mackenzie King's Liberals.
The Bennett years left the Conservatives in the worst shape they had ever been - not only did enmity towards the Tories continue in Quebec as a legacy of the Conscription Crisis of 1917, - but they were now reviled in the west for their perceived insensitivity to the needs of farmers in the Dust Bowl and westerners turned to Social Credit or the CCF making the Tories their fourth choice. The Conservatives would have to wait twenty years before their fortunes in western Canada revived.
Decline and Reinvention as Progressive Conservatives
The Tories fought the 1940 election under Robert J. Manion but, despite running under a new name - National Government (the Tories were advocating a wartime coalition government, an attempt to repeat Borden's 'Union government') they again won only 40 seats. (see National Government (Canada))
In desperation, the Tories again turned to Arthur Meighen for leadership but Meighen was trounced by the CCF when he attempted to enter the House of Commons in a February 1942 by-election in York South and his party's agitation for a re-enactment of conscription in World War II only further alienated Quebec from the Conservatives.
Later that year, the Tories attempted to broaden their base by electing Manitoba Progressive Premier John Bracken as their new leader and changing their name to the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.
Conservative Leaders (1867-1942)
- Sir John A. Macdonald (July 1, 1867 - June 6, 1891)
- Sir John Abbott (June 16, 1891 - November 24, 1892)
- Sir John Sparrow David Thompson (December 5, 1892 - December 12, 1894)
- Sir Mackenzie Bowell (December 21, 1894 - April 27, 1896)
- Sir Charles Tupper (May 1, 1896 - February 5, 1901)
- Sir Robert Laird Borden (February 6, 1901 - July 9, 1920)
- Arthur Meighen (July 10, 1920 - September 24, 1926)
- Hugh Guthrie (October 11, 1926 - October 11, 1927 interim)
- R. B. Bennett (October 12, 1927 - July 6, 1938)
- Robert Manion (July 7, 1938 - May 13, 1940)
- Richard Hanson (May 14, 1940 - November 11, 1941 interim)
- Arthur Meighen (November 12, 1941 - December 9, 1942)
Election results 1867-1940
|Election||# of candidates nominated||# of seats won||# of total votes||% of popular vote|
*Combined with Liberal-Conservatives
**Combined with Liberal-Conservatives and one Conservative Labour
***Combined with Liberal-Conservatives and Nationalist Conservatives
****Known as the Unionist Party
*****Combined with National Government
- List of Canadian federal elections
- List of political parties in Canada
- Prime Minister of Canada
- Official Opposition (Canada)
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