Path: ICPP > ICPP 1980 > List of Countries --> Canada
Kenneth Janda
Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey
New York: The Free Press, 1980: pp. 236-237
CANADA: The Party System in 1950-1956 and 1957-1962
(Text as published in 1980 citation above)

During our time period, Canada, the second largest country in the world in land area, had a population of only 20 million inhabitants. This combination of great size and relatively small population kept alive a frontier spirit in Canadian life and politics long after it had dimmed in the United States. One consequence was a pronounced localism or regionalism in government that was fed by cultural differences among its British and French settlers and its many later immigrants from other countries. Political union of the British and former French colonies into a confederation was not achieved until 1867 under the British North America Act, which joined four provinces into a dominion government. The number of provinces grew to nine by the time Canada won autonomous status within the British Commonwealth in 1931. Its present boundaries were not finalized until 1949, when Newfoundland entered the confederation to increase the provinces to ten.

As the growth of this vigorous nation could not be contained within the original confederation, its national politics could not be contained within its early party system, consisting of the Conservatives, who organized the first government in 1867, and their Liberal opposition, which held the government as early as 1873. Amid stirrings and threats from minor parties, the Conservatives and Liberals alternated in control of national politics since the beginning of the confederation. In the provinces, however, third parties were much more successful, often dominating their provincial governments as firmly as the two major parties held sway in national politics. The western provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta in particular gave rise to two parties in the 1930s (the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Social Credit Party, respectively) that won enough seats in the House of Commons to earn consideration in this study as national parties. Quebec, the seat of French culture in Canada, also departed from the national two-party pattern in its provincial politics, strongly supporting local parties, such as the Union Nationals and the Parti Quebecois. Throughout Canada generally, provincial and national politics are kept distinct to varying degrees, with some provincial claimants of a national party label operating separate, and occasionally antagonistic, organizations. At the national level, how party politics has approximated the familiar two-party pattern of Anglo American democracies, with the Liberals and Conservatives alternating in power even if forced to form minority governments because of the modest but disruptive success of minor parties in given federal elections.

Our time period for the study of national party politics opens with the Liberals in control of the federal government after the 1949 elections-continuing a chain of Liberal government that had begun in 1935, first under W. L. MacKenzie King and since 1948 under Louis St. Laurent. Holding in excess of 60 percent of the seats, the Liberals easily stood off the Conservatives, with less than 20 percent, and the much smaller Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Social Credit Party. The Liberals were reelected in 1953, continuing their string of victories and their control of the dominion government.

With the beginning of the second half of our period, '. the situation changed abruptly. The Conservative Party, under the new leadership of John Diefenbaker, won a plurality of votes in the 1957 elections and formed a minority government to end more than twenty years of Liberal control. Diefenbaker called for new elections in 1958 and emerged with a stunning victory. The Conservatives won nearly 80 percent of the seats, leaving the Liberals in a distinct minority and virtually decimating the ranks of the CCF and the Social Credit Party, which in fact won no seats at all. By the close of our period, however, the electorate's enthusiasm for Diefenbaker had waned considerably. In the 1962 elections, the Conservatives were just barely able to form a minority government, as all three of the other parties (the CCF was reorganized as the New Democratic Party in 1961) at least doubled their representation. Indeed, Social Credit, showing heretofore unprecedented strength in Quebec province, jumped from 0 to 11 percent of the seats. The shaky Conservative government clung to power through the end of our time period, but the 1963 elections brought a Liberal plurality and a Liberal government.

Continuity and Change since 1962

As the chart of party representation in the House of Commons makes clear, Canadian parties have had their ups and downs, but there is a basic pattern of continuity n party politics at the federal level. All four of our original parties continued through 1978, and no new parties Were strong enough at the federal level to qualify for study.

Original Parties, Continuing

041 Progressive-Conservative Party. Under John Diefenbaker as prime minister, the Conservatives held the government from 1957 to 1963, but it merely served as the largest opposition party from 1963 through 1978. The party came close to winning in 1972 but failed to regain the government until May 1979, when it won a plurality of seats and formed a minority government under Joe Clarke.

042 Liberal Party. In power continuously for over fifteen years since 1963, the Liberals governed as a minority of the House under Lester Pearson. Pierre Trudeau succeeded him in 1968 and won a majority in elections the same year. Trudeau's government was returned in 1972 without a majority but recaptured a majority of seats in 1974. One way or another, then, the Liberals governed Canada without interruption from 1963 until they lost power in early 1979

043 New Democratic Party. The New Democratic Party was formed in 1961 out of the former Cooperative Commonwealth Federation and the Canadian Labour Congress. The NDP usually held between 5 percent and 10 percent of the seats in the House of Commons and was always in the opposition.

044 Social Credit Party. Originally a regional party with strength in Alberta and British Columbia, Social Credit later became popular in Quebec. By the 1970s the federal party was dominated by the Quebec wing. Social Credit was the smallest of the four parties and fluctuated greatly in legislative strength, declining to only six seats in 1979.


At the federal level, Canada has had something of a two-plus-two party system, with the Conservatives and Liberals trading off each other's fortunes and the New Democratic and Social Credit parties being less engaged in the competition for governing power. In recent years, however, both major parties have slipped in status as national parties. The Conservatives emerged in 1979 as a western/Anglo party virtually moribund in Quebec while the Liberals became concentrated in Quebec and were decimated in the west. As the enormous swings of support for the two major parties demonstrate, the Canadian system is capable of great change on slight provocation. Its stability will be duly tested when the Quebec separatist issue comes to a head.

[For party politics since 1962, see the essay by Christina Orsini]

1. Canada was not included in the original random sample of 50 countries in the project. Therefore, no special information base was created on microfilm for the four Canadian parties in our study. The Conservative, Liberal, and CCF/NDP parties were coded by Paul Scott as an activity of Northwestern University's Canadian Studies Program. The Social Credit Party was coded by Kenneth Janda. R. Barry Farrell and Mildred A. Schwartz served as consultants in our study.