Canada has a long and complicated, some would even say abusive, relationship with her political parties. Many political parties have come and gone, others have hung around and rotted on the vine, while others seem to renew themselves after every disastrous election.
Make no doubts about it; Canada is a democracy based on the British parliamentary model. Queen Elizabeth II is Canada’s head of state, although she is represented in Ottawa by the Governor-General. The Governor-General, or GG, in turn, is appointed by the Prime-Minister, and really holds no power except to rubber stamp everything Parliament comes up with and to hold expensive awards ceremonies.
Canada’s Parliament itself is divided into two houses, the “upper” house, called the Senate, is made up of rich old people who are also appointed by the Prime-Minister to serve for life. The Canadian Senate is modeled after the British House of Lords, and far from being a body of sober second thought, is really a fat retirement pension for old rich people, most of whom barely show up to work.
Which leaves Canada’s main legislative body, the “lower” house or “House of Commons” with pretty much all the power in the country. There are currently 308 seats in the Commons, with the number set to rise to 338 by 2015 due to electoral boundary changes and booming population growth. And in those seats sit the derrieres of 306 elected members of 5 different political parties and two independents.
In the Parliamentary system, whichever collective group of Members of Parliament (or MPs) enjoys the confidence of the House (aka majority support) is called “The Government”. The leader of that group (which manifest themselves as political parties sharing the same set of ideals and vision), chosen by its members, is made Prime-Minister. In the Canadian Parliament, MPs do not have a free vote; that is, they must always vote in line with their party leader. Because of this simple fact the Prime-Minister, or the leader of the party that enjoys the majority in seats in Parliament, wields immense power. US President L.B. Johnson once quipped to a CBC reporter “If I had as much political power as your Prime-Minister, Vietnam would be a parking lot by now.”
Politics in Canada are rarely civil, and people hold on to their political convictions quite fanatically. Political parties in Canada enjoy a lot of grassroots support and the power that the Prime-Minister holds creates heated political debate among Canadians of all stripes. Here are those political convictions manifested into party form:
The Conservative Party of Canada, or CPC, is Canada’s newest political party and is currently the governing party with a majority of seats in the Commons. Its leader, Stephen Harper, is Prime-Minister of Canada.
The CPC came about as a merger between two right-of-center parties, the old Progressive Conservative Party (also called “Tories”) and a western neo-conservative party, the Canadian Alliance. The conservative split in Canadian politics meant that the left-leaning Liberal Party won elections and governed the country for 14 years straight. Stephen Harper, an economics specialist and devout conservative from Calgary (actually originally from Toronto, but he moved west as a youth and studied economics at the conservative University of Calgary), became leader of the Canadian Alliance and drove a campaign to “Unite the Right”. In 2003 his dream came true when the Tory party and the Canadian Alliance merged into the Conservative Party of Canada. Harper was elected leader of the new CPC.
In 2004 the CPC captured enough votes to force the Liberals into a minority government situation (where the opposition parties hold more combined seats than the governing party), and in 2006 won a minority government themselves, making Stephen Harper Prime-Minister of Canada. In 2008 the CPC retained minority status but still governed, and in 2011, following a botched attempt by the Liberals to topple Harper’s minority, won a majority government.
The New Democratic Party of Canada, simply known as the NDP, is Canada’s leftist, democratic-socialist party of labour unions, minority rights and progressive values. The NDP originally sprang from a Saskatchewan-based protest party called the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (or CCF), which morphed into the New Democratic Party when they went national in 1971. The NDP maintained enough popularity during the 1970’s to keep a few seats in Parliament, but it wasn’t until the Joe Clark minority government of 1979 that the NDP found itself holding the balance of power in the Commons and started to attract real political attention among voters.
The NDP were crucial in the fall of Joe Clarks government 9 months later, and in the 1983 elections won 30 seats. In 1988 they were up to 43 seats, but then the rebirth of the Liberal Party started to decimate the leftist NDP throughout the 1990’s, getting cut down to just 7 seats by 2000. However, once the right united under the Conservative Party, left-leaning voters found themselves splitting ranks, and votes, between the Liberals and NPD, and in the 2011 elections the NDP were swept to Official Opposition status with a record 103 seats. Their hard-working and popular leader, Jack Layton, had managed to reign in the more activist members of his party and steered the NDP closer to the center, where most Canadian voters are found. Unfortunately, Jack Layton (or just “Jack”, as the media and public called the likeable fella’) was ill with prostate cancer and succumbed in August of 2011. His death was mourned by millions and his body lay in state in the Parliamentary foyer for two days.
The NDP held a leadership contest a year later and a scrappy and tough union-organizer and former member of the Quebec provincial Liberal party, Thomas Mulcair, was elected leader. He has worked hard to bring the NDP back towards its left-leaning, union-backed roots, and only the 2015 elections will tell how voters respond to the new social-democrat leader.
The Liberal Party of Canada (or LPC) has the distinct honour of being Canada’s longest-reigning, and currently the oldest, political party in history. Indeed, the Liberal Party of Canada is the most successful political party in world history, being government for 78 of the past 100 years! Formed in 1861 as a group of free-market liberals (today’s libertarians), the Liberal Party of Canada went on to form government in 1873 under Prime-Minister Alexander MacKenzie. It wasn’t until 1896, however, when the first of the Liberals long-serving Prime-Ministers came to power. Wilfrid Laurier is considered the grandfather of Canada’s modern Liberal movement, and more historic names were to serve as Prime-Ministers under the Liberal banner for most of the 20th Century.
Names like Mackenzie-King (Prime-Minister from 1921-1947), Louis St-Laurent (1948-1953), Lester Pearson (1962-1968), Pierre Trudeau (1969-1984) and Jean Chretien (1993-2003) are household in Canada. The Liberal Party was in power for so long that arrogance began to seep in, and Liberals began to call themselves “Canada’s natural governing party”. This term has been used a lot and is a point of deep resentment for the Conservative Party. Indeed, this line has made Stephen Harper swear to destroy the Liberal brand and make the 21st Century a Conservative one in Canada. So far he has been successful.
In 2003 a leadership battle in the Liberal Party between Prime-Minister Jean Chretien and his Finance Minister, Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” Paul Martin, resulted in a split among Liberal supporters. Chretien stepped down and Martin called a snap election. In 2004, with a newly-united right under Stephen Harper, Martin was forced into a minority government. In 2005 Harper managed to pass a no-confidence motion and a new election was called, resulting in a Conservative win. The Liberals were relegated to opposition status for the first time in 14 years. Their luck was running out. Martin stepped down and a series of ineffective leaders took over the party. Stephane Dion was hardly able to speak English and lost votes in 2008. Micheal Ignatieff, an Oxford-educated, Rhodes-scholar professor at Harvard who hadn’t lived in Canada for 25 years, was brought in and had his backside soundly handed to him by vicious Conservative attack ads and surging NDP popularity under Jack Layton.
The 2011 elections were the worst in Liberal Party history, relegating Canada’s natural governing party to third-place status with just 37 seats. Leaderless and unable to appeal to either right-wing or left-wing voters, the future looks dim for the once proud behemoth. A new leadership election for the party is scheduled for April 2013, with Justin Trudeau, Pierre Trudeau’s son, looking ready to be crowned, but whether he can take on both Harper and Mulcair remains to be seen.
Canada’s most hated party (unless you are a French seperatist) is the Bloc Quebecois. A branch of Quebec’s nationalist Parti Quebecois chosen to represent Quebec interests in the federal Parliament, the “bloc” has as its main goal the dissolution of Canada and full statehood for Quebec.
After the FLQ crisis during the early 1970’s, when French seperatists engaged in a terror war in the Quebec and Ottawa, the nationalists realized that the only way they could get their long-dreamed for nationhood was through political means. The Parti Quebecois and its federal offshoot, the Bloc Quebecois, was born. The Bloc has managed at some points since its birth to hold all of Canada hostage to Quebec’s interests, for instance forcing John Turner’s minority government to increase funding to French language supremacists in Quebec, or holding referendums on seccession in 1980 and 1994. In 2008 the Bloc held the balance of power again when the NDP and Liberals attempted to form a coalition to unseat the Harper minority government. They needed the Bloc’s support to gain the majority of seats, and English Canadians were enraged that two federal parties would make any deal with the separatists. Harper’s Conservatives had a field day with this, throwing out many well-funded attack ads about deals with the devil and such. The Coalition idea died.
In the historic 2011 elections, the Bloc had their backsides handed to them in their Quebec ridings. Voters were tired of separatist antics and the NDP was on a popularity surge in Quebec. The Bloc was reduced to just a couple of seats in Parliament, and their leader, Gilles Duceppe, was forced to step down after he lost his seat to an NDP upstart.
Another reason the 2011 election was historic was the Green Party’s break into Parliament. Green Party leader Elizabeth May won her Saanich/Gulf-Islands riding in the election and became the first ever Green to sit at the federal level in North America. Her historic win came as much of a shock as the Liberal Party’s historic defeat!
May had been campaigning for years to get the Green Party taken seriously by the major media and the other parties. The Greens were a bit of a laughing stock, viewed as a bunch of hippies, pot-smokers and tree-huggers. During the televised election debates in 2008 and 2011, May had been barred from debating as her party wasn’t considered an “official” party. Her win in 2011 not only showed that the Green Party was very official, but also embarrassed both CBC and CTV, Canada’s two largest networks.
Since 2011 May has shown herself to be a true Parliamentarian. She is known to spend countless hours in the Parliamentary Library, researching motions and vague orders in council. Her ability to jab and spar with the powerful Conservatives and NDP has become legendary, and her representation of her constituents back in British Columbia is grassroots and personal. She has a good shot of retaining her seat in 2015.
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