Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

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The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (PC) was a Canadian centre-right conservative political party that existed from 1867 to 2003. Although the party officially ceased to exist after 2003, several members of the unelected Canadian Senate continued to sit as members of the Progressive Conservative caucus, and the conservative parties in most Canadian provinces still use the Progressive Conservative name. Progressive Conservatives were colloquially known as Tories.

Though Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, was a Tory, the party spent the majority of its history in opposition as the nation's number two federal party, behind the Liberals. The party suffered a decade-long decline following the 1993 federal election, and was formally dissolved on December 8, 2003, when it merged with the Canadian Alliance to form the new Conservative Party.

Between the party's founding in 1867, and its adoption of the "Progressive Conservative" name in 1942, the party changed its name several times. It was most commonly known as the Conservative Party. (This party is not to be confused with the new Conservative Party, into which the Progressive Conservative Party merged.)

Several loosely-associated provincial Progressive Conservative parties continue to exist in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador. As well, a small rump of Senators and party loyalists opposed to the merger, continue to sit in Parliament as independent Progressive Conservatives.

The party adopted the "Progressive Conservative" party name in 1942 when Manitoba Premier John Bracken, a long-time leader of that province's Progressive Party, agreed to become leader of the Conservatives on condition that the party add Progressive to its name. Despite the name change, most former Progressive supporters continued to support the Liberals or the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, and Bracken's leadership of the Conservative Party soon came to an end.

A major weakness of the party through much of its history was its inability to win support in Quebec. This problem had its origin in the Conscription Crisis of 1917. Even though the Quebec Conservative Party dominated politics in that province for the first thirty years of Confederation at both the federal and provincial levels, in the 20th century the party was never able to be a force in provincial politics, and ultimately dissolved into the Union Nationale in 1935.

In 20th century federal politics, the Conservatives were often seen as insensitive to French-Canadian ambitions and interests and were never able to win more than a handful of seats in Quebec with a few notable exceptions:

  • the 1958 election, in which John Diefenbaker led the party to a landslide victory with the assistance of the Union Nationale's electoral machine; and
  • the elections of 1984 and 1988, when the party leader Brian Mulroney, a fluently bilingual Quebecker, was able to build an electoral coalition that included Quebec nationalists.

It never fully recovered from the fragmentation of Brian Mulroney's broad coalition in the mid-1980s. Immediately prior to its merger with the Canadian Alliance, it held only 15 of 301 seats in the Canadian House of Commons and never held more than 20 seats in Parliament between 1994 and 2003.



The Progressive Conservative Party was generally centre-right in its political ideology.

Canadian conservatism has historically more closely resembled that which is practised in the United Kingdom and Europe than in the United States. As was common amongst 19th century conservative movements, Canadian Tories opposed the rollback of government intervention in social and economic matters advocated by the liberals of the era. In contrast to their American conservative counterparts, however, they did not undertake as dramatic an ideological turnaround in the first half of the 20th century by not rejecting mercantilism and nascent notions of the welfare state.

Like their Liberal rivals, the party defined itself as a "big tent", welcoming a broad variety of members who supported relatively loosely-defined goals. Unlike the Liberal Party, there was a long history of ongoing factionalism within this tent. This factionalism arose from the party's lack of electoral success, and because the party often reached out to particular political groups in order to garner enough support to topple the Liberals. These groups usually remained semiautonomous blocs within the party, such as Quebec nationalists and Western Canadian Reformers in the 1980s. In later years, observers generally grouped the PC Party's core membership into two camps, "Red Tories" and "Blue Tories".

Red Tories tended to be relatively liberal in their social policy, placing a high value on the principle of noblesse oblige, but conservative in their economic policy. Historically they comprised the largest bloc of the original Canadian Conservative party. Notable Red Tories include Sir John A. Macdonald, John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, Dalton Camp, W.L. Morton, William Davis, Joe Clark, and Flora MacDonald.

Blue Tories were conservative in both social and economic policy. From 1957 to 2003, Red Tories dominated the highest rungs of the party and its leadership. Blue Tories were significantly reduced in numbers in the party by the late 1980s and many disaffected Blue Tories drifted towards neoconservatism (as epitomized by the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) and more right-wing alternatives. When the party held power at the federal level, it never truly embraced Reaganomics and its crusade against "big government" as vociferously as was done outside of Canada. Neoconservatives lean towards social conservatism and economic liberalism. Support for the Canadian Alliance and its predecessor the Reform Party of Canada derived principally from this group, and that support carried forward into the new Conservative Party of Canada. The success of the neoconservative movement in appropriating the label "Conservative" has brought into debate the very definition of conservatism in Canada today. Although adhering to economic philosophies similar to those originally advanced by 19th-century liberals (known confusingly as both neoliberalism and neoconservatism), the need to soften their social conservatism led the Canadian Alliance to agree to the name "Conservative Party of Canada" for the new party, to market themselves better to the electorate.


In the early days of the Canadian confederation, the party supported a mercantilist approach to economic development: export-led growth with high import barriers to protect local industry. The party was stanchly monarchist and supported playing a large role within the British Empire. It was seen by some French Canadians as supporting a policy of cultural assimilation.

The Conservative Party dominated Canadian politics for the nation's first 30 years of existence. In general, Canada's political history has consisted of Tories alternating power with the Liberals, albeit often in minority governments supported by smaller parties.

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After a long period of Liberal dominance, John Diefenbaker won a massive electoral victory for the Tories in 1958. Diefenbaker was able to win most of the parliamentary seats in Western Canada, much of those in Ontario, and, with the support of the Union Nationale provincial government, a large number in Quebec. Diefenbaker attempted to pursue a policy of distancing Canada from the United States. His cabinet split over Diefenbaker's refusal of American demands that Canada accept nuclear warheads for Bomarc missiles based in North Bay, Ontario, and La Macaza, Quebec. This split contributed to the Tory government's defeat at the hands of Lester Pearson's Liberals in the 1963 election.

Diefenbaker remained Progressive Conservative leader until 1967, when increasing unease at his reactionary policies, authoritarian leadership, and perceived unelectability led to the 1967 leadership convention where Nova Scotia Premier Robert Stanfield was elected out of a field of eleven candidates that included Diefenbaker and Manitoba Premier Duff Roblin.

By the late 1960s, following Quebec's Quiet Revolution, the Progressive Conservatives recognized the need to increase their appeal to Canada's francophone population. At the same time, the Tories finally began their move away from mercantilism towards a neoliberal platform of free trade. Both movements culminated with Brian Mulroney becoming prime minister after the election of 1984.

Mulroney had declared himself an opponent to free trade with the United States during the 1983 leadership campaign. But a growing continentalist sentiment among Canadian business leaders and the impact of the "Reagan Revolution" on Canadian conservative thought led Mulroney to embrace free trade. His government endorsed the recommendation of the 1985 Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada that Canada pursue a free trade deal with the United States.

Traditionally, it had been the Liberal Party that held a continentalist position and the Conservatives who opposed free trade with the United States in favour of economic links with Britain. With the dissolution of the British Empire and the economic nationalism of the Liberals under Pierre Trudeau, the traditional positions of the two parties became reversed.

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It was with this background that Mulroney fought and won the 1988 election on the issue of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

A number of economic issues contributed to the fall of the Progressive Conservative party at the federal level in the 1993 federal election:

  • Canada suffered its worst recession since the Second World War,
  • unemployment rose to the highest levels since the Great Depression,
  • the federal government faced high and persistent deficits, and
  • the Tories had introduced a much-hated new tax, the GST.

The second major factor leading to the Mulroney government's demise was that the party's base in Quebec came from Quebec nationalists, who withdrew their support after the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Constitutional Accords. Many Quebec Tories, including a number of MPs, left the party to form the Bloc Québécois with like-minded Liberals.

The third major factor was the rise of western alienation in the four provinces of western Canada as a result of attempts by both Tories and Liberals to woo Quebec. Western Canadians turned their support to the Reform Party of Canada and its successor, the Canadian Alliance.

Following Mulroney's resignation, his successor as Tory leader and as prime minister was Kim Campbell, who led the party into the disastrous election of 1993. The steep decline in the party's popular support and the impact of the first past the post (FPTP) system used in Canada resulted in the collapse of the Conservative parliamentary caucus: the Conservatives went from being the majority party to holding only two seats in the House of Commons, which was not enough to maintain official party status despite garnering 16% of the popular vote. The party regained official status under the leadership of Jean Charest in the 1997 election with roughly 20% of the support of the Canadian electorate, but the PCs never surpassed 20 seats in the House of Commons (FPTP) from 1994 to 2003.

The rise of the Canadian Alliance was doubtlessly damaging to the Tories, though there remains some debate as to the precise degree. Many observers argue that from 1993 to 2003 the "conservative" vote was split between the two parties, allowing Liberal candidates to win ridings formerly considered to be Tory strongholds. This assessment led to the growth of the United Alternative movements of the late 1990s. Others insisted that a legitimate ideological gulf existed between the more ideological Alliance and the more moderate Red Tory-influenced PC Party, pointing to surveys that indicated many Tory voters would rather select the Liberals as their second choice rather than the Alliance.

Following the departure of Jean Charest to become leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec, Joe Clark returned to the party's leadership, and prevented the expected obliteration of the Progressive Conservatives in the 2000 election. The party won the 12 seats necessary to be treated as a party in the House of Commons, but no more. However in 2002, the caucus increased to 15 members, and fourth-place party status in the House, with two byelection wins and the admission to caucus of Democratic Representative Caucus MP Inky Mark.

Clark's successor, Peter MacKay negotiated a merger with the Canadian Alliance, that was announced on October 15, 2003. The two parties united to form a new party called the Conservative Party of Canada. The union was ratified on December 5 and December 6 by both parties, and the new Conservative Party was formally registered on December 8. On March 20, 2004, former Alliance leader Stephen Harper was elected leader of the new party.

Rump PC caucus

Following the merger, a rump Progressive Conservative caucus remained in Parliament, consisting of individuals who declined to join the new Conservative Party. In the House of Commons, Joe Clark, André Bachand and John Herron sat as PC members.

In the 2004 election, Bachand and Clark did not to run for re-election, and Herron ran as a Liberal, losing to Rob Moore in his riding of Fundy-Royal. Scott Brison, who had joined the Liberal caucus immediately upon departing the Conservative Party, was reelected as a Liberal in the 2004 election.

In the Senate, William Doody, Lowell Murray and Norman Atkins also declined to join the new party, and continue to sit as Progressive Conservative senators. On March 24, 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin appointed nine new senators, two of whom, Nancy Ruth and Elaine McCoy, were designated as Progressive Conservatives. Thus there may be Progressive Conservative senators until 2021 when McCoy, the youngest of the five, attains the mandatory retirement age of 75, or later if subsequent senators designate themselves Progressive Conservatives.

Progressive Canadian Party

On January 9, 2004, a group claiming to be loyal to the Progressive Conservative Party and opposed to the merger, which they characterized as an Alliance takeover, filed application with the Chief Electoral Officer to register a party called the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. The application was refused on the grounds that the name could no longer be utilized. They group resubmitted with the name Progressive Canadian Party, and a new "PC Party" was recognized by Elections Canada on March 26. It secured sufficient backing to be registered as an official party on May 29.

The Progressive Canadian party aims to be perceived as the successor party to the Progressive Conservatives. However, it is not clear how broad its support is among former Progressive Conservatives. In particular, no prominent anti-merger Progressive Conservatives such as Joe Clark or David Orchard are associated with the Progressive Canadian party, nor are any sitting MPs or senators.

Progressive Conservative Prime Ministers of Canada

Tory leaders since Confederation:

(Liberal-) Conservative Party of Canada

Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

1 On this occasion, Meighen failed in his attempts to win re-election to the House of Commons, so Hanson remained Leader of the Opposition throughout Meighen's term

2 Bracken did not win election to the House of Commons until 1945, so Hanson remained Leader of the Opposition until January 1943, when he was replaced by Gordon Graydon

3 On two occasions when Drew was too ill to perform his duties, William Earl Rowe served as Leader of the Opposition

4 Michael Starr served as Leader of the Opposition until November 5, 1967, when Stanfield, who had previously been premier of Nova Scotia, won election to Parliament

Election results 1945-2000

Election # of candidates nominated # of seats won # of total votes % of popular vote
<center> 65 <center> 1,448,744 <center> 27.62%
1949 <center> 249 <center> 41 <center> 1,734,261 <center> 29.62%
1953 <center> 248 <center> 50 <center> 1,749,579 <center> 31.01%
1957 <center> 256 <center> 109 <center> 2,564,732 <center> 38.81%
1958 <center> 265 <center> 206 <center> 3,908,633 <center> 53.56%
1962 <center> 265 <center> 114 <center> 2,865,542 <center> 37.22%
1963 <center> 265 <center> 93 <center> 2,582,322 <center> 32.72%
1965 <center> 265 <center> 95 <center> 2,500,113 <center> 32.41%
1968 <center> 262 <center> 72 <center> 2,548,949 <center> 31.36%
1972 <center> 265 <center> 107 <center> 3,388,980 <center> 35.02%
1974 <center> 264 <center> 95 <center> 3,371,319 <center> 35.46%
1979 <center> 282 <center> 136 <center> 4,111,606 <center> 35.89%
1980 <center> 282 <center> 103 <center> 3,552,994 <center> 32.49%
1984 <center> 282 <center> 211 <center> 6,278,818 <center> 50.03%
1988 <center> 295 <center> 169 <center> 5,667,543 <center> 43.02%
1993 <center> 295 <center> 2 <center> 2,178,303 <center> 16.04%
1997 <center> 301 <center> 20 <center> 2,446,705 <center> 18.84%
2000 <center> 291 <center> 12 <center> 1,566,994 <center> 12.19%

See also

Progressive Conservative leadership conventions

Provincial Progressive Conservative parties:

See also


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