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August 2010 - Nr. 8
The Liberal Party dates back to political struggles in Great Britain’s North American colonies in the 1820s and 1830s. The term Liberal originally applied to opponents of authoritarian royal government in Europe, and the opponents (reformers) of the British-appointed colonial governments easily adopted it. When democratic government was finally achieved in the colonies in the 1840s, Reformers or Liberals favoured measures that promoted equality of opportunity and opposed what they saw as special privileges for vested interests. In Lower Canada (later Quebec) this put them at odds with the Catholic Church, a considerable electoral handicap. Quebec apart, the Liberal issues of the 1840s became the political consensus of the 1860s, and as a result the actual differences between Liberals and their Conservative opponents were relatively minor. Politics tended to become a contest between “ins” and “outs”, with each party searching for issues that would distinguish it from the other.

After Confederation, the Liberals enjoyed a brief period in government in the 1870s, but were regularly outclassed by the talented Conservative John A. Macdonald. Happily, the Liberals in 1887 chose an eloquent and charismatic Quebec politician, Wilfrid Laurier — a daring choice because Canada’s English-Canadian majority was still inclined to fear and distrust its French fellow-citizens and their Catholic religion.

The Liberals under Laurier handily won the election of 1896, and remained in power until 1911. They adopted and expanded most of the Conservatives’ financial policies, but thanks to good economic times, they could also embark on a program of railway building and greatly expanded immigration. Laurier would have preferred to stay away from foreign relations, but circumstances made him the first prime minister to send Canadian troops abroad, to fight in the British cause in the South African War (1899-1902). But Laurier was not pro-British enough for many English Canadians; ironically, he was thought to be entirely too British by  many French Canadians. He lost the 1911 election, heavily in English Canada, and not quite as heavily in Quebec, where he and the Liberals remained the most powerful and credible political force.

Although Laurier supported Canada’s participation in the First World War, he would not support the government’s policy of conscription for the army, forcing an election in 1917. The Liberals split, lost heavily in English Canada, but in Quebec won overwhelmingly, keeping both the Conservatives and French-Canadian nationalists at bay. When Laurier died in 1919, the Liberals chose one of his former ministers, William Lyon Mackenzie King, who had remained loyal in 1917, to succeed him.

King proved to be the most successful politician in Canadian history. Prime minister for 22 years between 1921 and 1948, he survived the Great Depression and the Second World War, winning six out of seven elections in that time. King recruited exceptionally strong and usually very competent ministers, and left the Liberals in very good shape for his successor, Louis St. Laurent. Though not a skilled politician, St. Laurent benefited, like King, from a strong government and a prosperous economy. Eventually, in 1957, he lost, but the inability of the Conservatives to maintain a stable government brought the Liberals under Lester B. Pearson back to power in 1963.

Pearson’s Liberal government relied on Canada’s prosperity to create and fund a comprehensive system of social welfare, most notably Medicare, while attempting to deal with the first stages of a 30 year crisis in Canadian relations with a separatist movement in Quebec. Pearson recruited strong ministers from Quebec to fight separatism, especially Pierre Elliott Trudeau, a Montreal intellectual.

Trudeau narrowly won the Liberal leadership in a convention in 1968. Though relatively inexperienced as a politician, he proved to be a charismatic leader, winning elections in 1968, 1972, 1974 and 1980, losing only once in 1979. When a separatist government was elected in Quebec in 1976, Trudeau led the federal response, defeating the separatists in a provincial referendum in 1980. He reformed the constitution, creating for the first time a method for amending it in Canada and rammed through a Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the teeth of provincial resistance. But Trudeau’s energy policies did not help the Liberals in the West, and his confrontational style eventually created so many enemies that the Liberals were overwhelmingly defeated under his successor, John Turner, in 1984.

Although the Liberals opposed free trade with the United States in the 1988 election, which they lost, they accepted it when they returned to government under Jean Chrétien in 1993. Chrétien’s government was fiscally conservative and relatively unadventurous in foreign policy. He sent troops to Afghanistan, but resisted pressure to join in the unpopular war in Iraq. By the end of his time in office Chrétien’s Liberals were bitterly divided into competing factions, and his successor, Paul Martin, lost the 2006 election. The Liberals have since experimented with two leaders, without finding the magic formula that would return them to office.

Next Instalment: The CCF and NDP

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