The End of the Two-Party System in Canada and the Rise of the Third Party

Canadian politics is greatly influenced by its "third parties," like the NDP or the Bloc Quebecois.  Third party options have been present to Canadians for the majority of our history. No Canadian today can remember a time in Canadian politics when third parties did not have some sort of influence, but for the first half century of Canadian political history, Canada was essentially a two-party system.  All of that changed in 1919 after the First World War.

First we should talk a bit about the political system that elects Canadian politicians. Unlike the United States’ eternal deadlock between Democrats and Republicans, Canada’s parliamentary democracy encourages a multi-party system where third parties can have enduring success. The Canadian political system allows for regional political parties to gain enough votes for representation in the House of Commons, or even to form the Official Opposition.  In the “first past the post” system, a candidate only has to gain the most votes in a specific riding for victory.  That means that if a party and its candidates can offer a compelling campaign on a local or regional level (for instance, one that sways Quebec voters which does not work in Alberta, or vice versa), third parties can win enough ridings to become an influence in the House of Commons. 

Often the first past the post system is criticized for misrepresenting their popular vote versus House of Commons seats.  For instance, only a handful of governments have ever received more than 50% of the popular vote, thus most Canadian governments are elected while being technically opposed by the majority of Canadians.  The system also allows for the creation of a sectional political voice.  Nationally a party might only have 4% of the vote, but they possess 10% of House of Commons seats after the election.  Their regional support takes those 4% of national electors and translates them into a large share of the vote within a single region of ridings.

We've seen the results of this in the last quarter of a century, as Canadian politics has seen a revival of regionally based parties. “Third parties” like the New Democratic Party, the Reform Party, and the Bloc Quebecois have all formed the Official Opposition in the House of Commons in the previous twenty-five years, often from victories focused in one region.  The Reform movement was based in the Western provinces, the Bloc in Quebec, and the NDP became the Official Opposition in 2011 because of Quebec support (though they did not run a regional campaign like the other examples). None have yet been able to claim Sussex Drive from the Liberal and Conservatives, but it’s clear that Canadian politics is fluctuating.  

Before the First World War however, third parties were almost unheard of in Canadian federal politics. One reason for this is that party politics were highly partisan to extreme levels. Today we would call most of what politicians did then corruption, though it was accepted in late 19th and early 20th century Canadian political life. When the Conservatives won office, they granted patronage appointments to their supporters and preferential funding to their ridings, and the Liberals did the same. It was an established part of Canadian political life. Charismatic long-reigning party leaders, like John A. MacDonald for the Conservatives (party leader from 1867-1891) and Wilfrid Laurier for the Liberals (party leader from 1887-1919), also contributed to an extremely loyal party base.  As a result, you were either a Conservative or Liberal with the hopes that your party might win and provide a job, or funding, or some sort of political support. Third-parties had nothing to offer.

Robert Borden, the Conservative Prime Minister from 1911-1920, did not like this party system.  He wanted to reform it, and began moving in that direction before and during the First World War – which we’ve discussed previously on this blog. The war allowed Borden to institute reforms that may have been rejected in peace time. At the same time, Borden forged a coalition government for the 1917 federal election called the Unionist Party.  This partnership between Conservatives and Liberals in favour of conscription seemed to reinforce the idea of a two-party system. For a brief period from 1917-1921, Liberals and Conservatives were running the country together.

The seeds of its downfall were planted in 1918 among Canada’s rural voters.  The imposition of conscription had been passed the year before, and weeks before the December election, Borden had promised farmers an exemption from conscription.  Their sons, who were needed for planting, would not be sent off to war.  It was a gambit to gain their votes, but one that seemed reasonable at the time.  Unfortunately, in the spring of 1918, a renewed German offensive seemingly pushed the Allies to the brink of defeat.  Borden cancelled the farmer’s exemptions and thousands of farmer sons were sent to war just as planting season began.

The farmers, who had significant political influence in many rural ridings from Ontario to Alberta, had never been fans of Ottawa. Canadian farmers had readily defended their interests for several decades. They had established conventions and organized themselves politically to defend farmer interests against the “new feudalism” coming from Canadian urban centres.  They refused to be subservient to the cities or industrial centres and their populist rhetoric influenced many rural voters. This is not the populism of Rob Ford, think the people-power of John Diefenbaker instead.

The war itself was an incredibly transformative experience for Canadians.  It both intensified and initiated political change.  Some issues before the war, like the French-English divide, became much worse during wartime.  Others, like the farmer movement, had its roots in the pre-war, but it was only after increased centralization from Ottawa that their political discontent was channeled into political successes.

In 1918, the farmers were dissatisfied with their two options politically: the Unionists, which did not enact favourable policies for them, or the Laurier Liberals, which they saw as dominated by Quebec. The grassroots believed that the big political parties were controlled by financial and industrial interests.  It was increasingly clear that more direct political action was necessary to combat the two parties that dominated Canadian legislatures.  They saw little difference between them and new farmer-based parties were formed or strengthened.  One of the most well-known was the United Farmers, which had formed in 1907 out of the fusion of several other farmer organizations.

The United Farmers of Ontario (UFO) began winning by-elections in 1918 after the cancellation of exemptions as rural voters expressed their discontent with federal and provincial political establishment.  In the spring of 1919, the UFO leader E.C. Drury declared that “the United Farmers of Ontario form the nucleus of a new party which is going to sweep the two old parties into a single organization, which they really are, a new party that will stand for wisdom, justice and honesty in public affairs; a party untainted by campaign funds contributed by selfish interest, that will cleanse the whole public life of Canada.”  Their message rode a wave of postwar discontent among rural voters and combined with grassroots organization, the UFO won the provincial election in October 1919.  The UFO took 43 seats, the Liberals won 28, and the Conservatives took 26, alongside 12 Labour MPPs and two independents.  The two-party system cracked.

The United Farmers were also successful in the provinces of Alberta and Manitoba, and by New Year’s Day a new federal party was declared.  The National Progressive Party, led by former Unionist Cabinet Minister T.A. Crerar, introduced Canadians across the country to a third option.  A new era of Canadian politics had begun. In the 1921 election, Crerar ran a national campaign, though perhaps one which struggled to present the Progressive Party as something other than a sectional or class movement.  The results demonstrated the deep divisions within Canadian society.  Farmers across the country (well, mostly west of Ottawa) voted for the Progressives or United Farmer candidates.  Sixty-five seats were won by non-Liberals or Conservatives.  The Progressives won 58 seats, 34 of which came from the Prairies, three in British Columbia, one in New Brunswick, and 20 from Ontario.  The Liberals had won with 118 seats, but the Conservatives had only garnered 49 seats – so for the first time in Canadian history, a third party was the Official Opposition.  From 1921 onward, Canadians would have a viable third option in federal politics.

The destruction of the two-party system is an oft understated consequence of the First World War.  It reveals just how much Canadian society fragmented during the war years as Canadian farmers felt so unrepresented that they rejected Canada’s ruling parties.  It’s clear that they could no longer support the “financial and political” interests of the wealthy men who ruled Canada’s political parties from Toronto or Ottawa. The farmer movement and the Progressive Party ultimately helped form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in the 1930s, which was the predecessor of today’s NDP. As their 2011 victory shows, the NDP remain a viable third choice for Canadians, and perhaps one day Canada will see a third party leader at Sussex Drive.