Path: ICPP > ICPP 1980 > List of Countries --> Canada since 1963
Canada: The Party System from 1963 to 2000, By Christina Orsini*

For the majority of the time period since 1963 the Canadian party system has experienced very few changes. For over twenty years just one party, the Liberals, controlled the government. For an even longer duration than that it functioned as a two and a half party system. The two largest parties, the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives (PCP), generally receive at least seventy-five percent of the popular vote, while the New Democratic Party (NDP) consistently secured the remainder of the seats in the legislature. In 1984 this system experienced its first change when the PCP won control of the government. It was further transformed by the 1993 election when support for the PCP all but disappeared and two new parties entered the political scene, thus turning Canada's two and a half party system into a multiparty system.

From 1963 to 1984 politics in Canada were incredibly stable. The Liberals had control of the government for this entire period with only one year's interruption by the PCP in 1979. In every election the Progressive Conservative Party obtained the second highest amount of seats in the legislature, making them the official Opposition Party over the full period, (again with the exception of 1979). The NDP consistently won twenty percent of the popular vote. And, the Social Credit Party, which participated in virtually every election during this period, never received enough votes to have a significant impact on Canadian politics. To many it seemed as though this stability would last forever, but the 1984 election showed that it could not.

In 1984 the Liberal's virtually undisturbed 22-year rule was put to an end when the Progressive Conservatives won the second largest parliamentary majority in Canadian history. Much of the PCP's victory is attributed to the selection of Brian Mulroney as their leader. Many saw him as a "strong and effective performer on television" who brought unity to the party (Thorburn, 1996: 306). More importantly, though, he promised to address Quebec's constitutional grievances. Further ensuring the PCP's extraordinary victory was the fact that much of the population was dissatisfied with the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, which had let the country fall into a deep recession from 1981-82. Although by a much smaller margin, the PCP retained control of the government in the 1988 election. In this election their success was attributed to the negotiation of a package of amendments to the Canadian Constitution, known as the Meech Lake Accord, and the US-Canada Free Trade Agreement.

While the 1984 election victory of the Progressive Conservative Party significantly changed Canadian politics, it did not fundamentally change the country's party system. The 1993 general election, on the other hand, redefined the Canadian party system. The Liberals regained control of the government in 1993, but the stable two and a half party system they had controlled only a decade before did not return with them, instead it was replaced by a new multiparty system. The Liberals main opposition party, the PCP, experienced a dramatic decline in support in this election. They went from being the governing party for nine straight years to winning only two seats in the legislature. Their defeat is attributed to the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Agreement (a second attempt at reforming the Canadian constitution) and the inexperience of their new leader, Kim Campbell. This election also marked the emergence of two new equally strong parties, the Reform Party and Bloc Quebec. The formation of these two parties transformed the Canadian party system into a multiparty system. The 1997 election served to reinforce the new system that emerged in 1993, which still exists today.

A study of only federal parties in Canada does not provide a complete picture of the Canadian party system; in order to fully understand it one must also look at the provincial parties. Each of the ten provinces in Canada has its own distinct party system. Some of them are very similar to the federal system. In Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, for example, just the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives contest most electoral races. In other provinces, though, parties that have little success on a national level have great provincial power. This is the case in Alberta where the Social Credit Party, which has never received more than twelve percent of the popular vote in a national election, was in control of the government for 36 consecutive years. Further, in some provinces parties emerge that do not even compete on a national level. Quebec, with the Union National Party, is the best example of this.

The Canadian Party system went unchanged for many years. In 1984 it experienced its first substantial change, when the PCP took control of the government from the Liberals. It was not until 1993, though, that the system was fundamentally altered and went from a two and a half party system to a multiparty system.

Continuity and Change since 1963

Original Parties from 1950-62, still continuing to 2000

041 Progressive Conservative Party. Established in 1854, the PCP, originally called the Conservative Party, began as a coalition between business-professional and Anglican Church elites who had considerable influence in Ontario and French Catholic and Anglo-Scottish business and financial oligarchies in Quebec (Ameringer, 1992: 161). Until the early 1900s the party experienced great success and was often in control of the government. By 1935, though, their support in Quebec had almost completely disappeared, as had their electoral victories. So, in order to gain new support the party changed its name to the Progressive Conservative Party. This change was not big enough to renew their status as the leading party in Canada. But, it was sufficient to allow them to consistently get the second highest amount of votes, making them the official Opposition Party to the Liberals. In 1984 this all changed when the PCP won the second largest parliamentary victory in Canadian history. Their triumph was only temporary though. Because of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Agreement and the inexperience of their new leader Kim Campbell the PCP suffered a devastating defeat in 1993 which they still have not recovered from.

042 Liberal Party. Since Canada was founded in 1867 its government has been controlled by either the Progressive Conservative Party or the Liberals. From 1867 to 1896 the PCP consistently dominated federal politics. During the period between 1896 and 1921 these two rival parties seemed to be equally matched. More recently, though, and specifically during the time period of our study, the Liberals have had clear control of the government. With the exception of one year, 1979, the Liberals had undisrupted control of the Canadian government from 1963 to 1984. In 1984 the PCP had a decisive victory over the Liberals, but their victory was short lived as the Liberals returned to power in 1993 and continue to have it today. For the majority of the period since 1963 the Liberal Party has been lead by Pierre Trudeau. During his time as leader of the party Trudeau supported many Liberal programs and ideals including the Official Language Act, the Multiculturalism Act, and the development of relations with Europe and Japan in order to diminish the United States' influence in Canada. Currently, the Liberal party advocates a strong central government, decreased trade with the US and constitutional and economic reform.

043 New Democratic Party. A left leaning, social democratic party, the NDP was formed in 1932 as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation. Original support for the party came from western farmers, the urban working class and university intellectuals. In 1961, after a series of electoral defeats at the national level, the party was restructured. It merged with the Labor Movement and was renamed the New Democratic Party. For the next thirty years it enjoyed third party status in the House of Commons. It also experienced substantial success at the provincial level, especially in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Ontario. The 1993 election showed a sharp decline in the party's popularity, they won only nine seats in the legislature. The NDP did only slightly better in the 1997 general election. With financial troubles and weak electoral success the future of this party is unclear.

044 Social Credit Party. The Social Credit Party formed in 1933 as a result of the political protests arising from the depression. The party advocates the right wing economic theories of CH Douglas. Its doctrine emphasizes "the fundamental flaws of modern capitalism and the ineptitude of parliamentary government" (Ameringer, 1992: 163). Most of the Social Credit Party's success has occurred at the provincial level, specifically in Alberta, British Columbia and Quebec. They have not done as well on the national level where they have never attained more than twelve percent of the popular vote. Although the party has not held a single seat in the House of Commons since 1978 it still continues to sponsor candidates today.


New parties forming after 1962 and continuing to 2000

045 Reform Party. A right wing protest movement formed in 1987 by Preston Manning, the Reform Party experienced its first electoral success in 1993 where it received nineteen percent of the popular vote. By the 1997 election support for the party had grown significantly, allowing the Reform Party to secure the second highest amount of seats in the House of Commons. Since its formation this party has wanted to play a large role in the Canadian Federation and, thus, seeks to advance its political agenda at the national level, rather than the provincial. The Reform Party's agenda includes "[reducing] government expenditure, [increasing] government accountability, and [fostering] free enterprise, individual equality, and regional fairness through Senate reform" (Ameringer, 1992: 162).

046 Bloc Quebecois. Lucien Bouchard founded Bloc Quebecois in 1990 after he left the Progressive Conservative Party because of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The party advocates the national recognition of Quebec as a "distinct society" (Council for Canadian Unity, 2000: 1), and ultimately supports Quebec separatism. In the 1993 election Bloc Quebecois became Canada's official Opposition Party. While it still had a considerable amount of support in the 1997 election, it fell from this position, receiving only the third highest amount of seats in the House of Commons. The success of Bloc Quebecois is surprising considering that they only field candidates in the providence of Quebec.


Ameringer, Charles D. (ed.) 1992. Political Parties of Americas, 1980s to 1990s:

Canada, Latin America, and the West Indies (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press).

Council for Canadian Unity. 2000.

Kurian, George T. 1998. World Encyclopedia of Parliaments and Legislatures (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc.).

Robin, Martin. 1972. Canadian Provincial Politics: The Party Systems of the Ten Provinces (Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall).

Thorburn, Hugh. 1996. Party Politics in Canada. (Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall Canada Inc).

*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000