by Geoff Keelan
This week we are beginning a series at Clio’s Current to coincide with the 2015 Canadian election. For the next ten weeks, we will be writing about various aspects of Canadian political history. For our non-Canadian readers, we hope that you enjoy this extended foray and maybe learn a bit about Canada’s fascinating political history (well, we think it is!). If you want a primer on recent events leading up to the 2015 election, you should check out Paul Wells’ excellent overview in Maclean’s before plunging into the past.
As one of the longest campaigns in history at 78 days (only the 1867 and 1872 elections were longer because of staggered voting across the country), the 2015 election gives us plenty of time to talk about Canada’s political history. There are several likely outcomes this October, each a historic one in its own way. Will Stephen Harper become the first Conservative since John A. Macdonald to win four terms as Prime Minister? Will we see a Liberal-NDP coalition form against a Conservative minority government? Will the NDP win for the first time in their history? Or can the Liberals regain their lost position as Canada’s “natural governing party”? One way or another, the 2015 election will be a significant one.
During this historic campaign, we want to spend the next ten weeks looking back rather than what everyone else is doing, looking to the uncertain future. We will have nine brief histories based on a simple premise: what questions might a voter ask of Canada’s political history during an election campaign? There are many possibilities, but here’s our pick of topics:
- 12 August - Introduction
- 19 August - The Liberal Party
- 26 August - The Conservatives
- 2 September - The NDP
- 9 September - Historical Election Ads
- 16 September - Fringe Parties (“Fourth Parties”)
- 23 September - The Power of Party Leaders
- 30 September - Important Moments in Canadian Political History
- 7 October - Canada before Prime Minister Stephen Harper (1993-2006)
- 14 October - The Canadian Electorate
- 21 October - Conclusion
The series begins with an exploration of the history of each of the three major parties. For most of its existence, Canada has effectively had a two-party system, as Liberals and Conservatives traded places at 24 Sussex Drive. Since the 1920s, third parties have gained enough parliamentary seats to have some influence over this duopoly. In the age of “virtual parties,” we explore the history of the three major parties. Will you recognize the historical versions of them?
Liberals, Conservatives and the NDP have each had their share of historic moments. The Liberals’ are one of Canada’s (and the world’s) longest governing party, but their recent defeats have led to a renewal under Justin Trudeau. Is Trudeau’s party different from past Liberal governments? On the other side of the political divide, Canadian history has often seen the rises and falls of the Conservative party. Three times, in 1930, 1957, and 1985 (and technically 1979), they have been ushered into power before relinquishing the mantle back to a succession of Liberal leaders. Is the party’s new amalgamation of Progressive Conservative and Reform going to be a different story in 2015? Or perhaps the now-surging historical third party, the NDP, will seize power. They have traditionally been a small seat at the table as they tried to influence what policy they could during successive Liberal or Conservative governments. How could their first chance at governance change the once-radical left wing party?
Next, we look at some historical election ads from the last several decades. How have parties navigated the turbulent waters of election advertising? We follow that post by exploring some important fringe parties and their influence on Canada’s political history. From farmers, to communists, to environmentalists, Canada has had a handful of “fourth parties” throw their hats into the electoral ring over the last 150 years. A few were able to leverage their power, but most have disappeared into historical obscurity. Have fringe parties affected politics? Then we will look at the role of the party leader and political ideology in Canadian politics. Our parliamentary system places a lot of emphasis on MPs, but it has been transforming since its origins in the 19th century. How much do party leaders and their beliefs influence our party system?
In our final posts, we widen our scope to present some of the most pivotal moments in Canadian political history. We will tell you about elections that turned on a single debate, the longest parliamentary debate in Canadian history, and other strange tales from the House of Commons. We wonder how does 2015 compare to Canada’s storied political past? In our second last post, we will turn to our younger readers and offer some recent political history. There are thousands of Canadian voters who have no real sense of Canadian politics before the current government. What was politics like ten or twenty years ago, in the time before Stephen Harper became Prime Minister in 2006? For our final post, we explore the expansion, and at times contraction, of the Canadian electorate. Some Canadians have always had the right to vote, but many more had to fight for it! We will outline who got it when, why they got it when they did, and some historic alternatives. In the final post before the election on October 19th, we will remind our readers of the importance of participating in democracy.
In the age of the “Forever Campaign” it easy to become disillusioned with politics and, more importantly, political action. Yet Canada has a rich political history, one with so many examples of positive change from one individual or group that was determined to improve the world. Remember that these histories, while unavoidably becoming the history of those in power, is ultimately the history of Canadian choices and what decision makers did with that power.
We hope that this history will help Canadians make a more informed decision this October, or at least enjoy the election period a little bit more. If you like what you read, please share! And, as always, we hope to hear comments from you about the series. Reply in the comments below, or tweet us, or send us an email. Next week, we will begin with a history of the Liberal Party.