A Brief Conservative History


By E.P. Whinters

Sometimes, in the quest to find your answer, it is good to look back on the roots and beginning of what we have now. If a party gives themselves a name, it is likely that their stand today is influenced by the traits they hold in common with their political ancestors. For this first review, let’s take a look at our Conservative Party in Canada and who they are.


Conservatism is defined as promoting the retaining of traditional social institutions; however, what is ‘traditional’ depends on the time and place. Canadian Conservatism developed out of the right-wing British Tories, who opposed the idea that sovereignty (supreme authority) derived only from the people and rejected the authority of parliament and freedom of religion. British Tory reform, which can still be seen in aspects of Canadian politics today, established that sovereignty was vested in the three estates – Crown, Lords and Commons – rather than solely on any one of the three. The Conservative Party of Canada started here, but her journey to what she is today is a history of opposition leaders, of coalitions, of near failures and close misses and slight changes with a multitude of names, along with the occasional minority government and even less often a soaring majority, but always woven throughout a legacy of a desire for Canadian solidarity, business support and family values.

Beginning as the Liberal-Conservatives in 1854, led by Founding Father John A. Macdonald and first Prime Minister, it was not until the Liberals came into power seven years later that the “Liberal” part of the Conservative name was dropped. The Conservative presence was due to Macdonald’s moderate conservatism, his commitment to Confederation, equilibrium and moderation and emphasis on what we have in common with other Canadians. However, it was our differences that he could not patch. Right in the beginning, Macdonald seemed to have a whole Canadian vision – the Pacific railway, promoting private interests, something more than the support of Canada, leading into National Policy, western expansion and a strong central government.

At the start of World War I, the Conservative party was pro-conscription and in order to keep this policy, the Conservative leader, Robert Bordon teamed up with pro-conscription liberals to form the Unionist party. This was the only 4 years in our history (to date) when neither a Conservative nor a Liberal party led the country.

Canada went into the Great Depression of the 1930s under the Conservative leadership of R. B. Bennett, a Calgarian lawyer. His response to the Depression was to protect industry and obtain free trade agreements between Canada and the British Empire. This did not work, and his call for social reforms came too late. The effect of the Depression on Canada was severe – we were economically dependent on raw materials and farm exports and when the stock market crashed in 1929, when the commodity prices dropped world-wide creating a decline in economic demand and credit, the burden was unequally distributed between the classes due to a poor social-welfare system and misguided government policy, causing unemployment to rise to scary heights. (In 1933, 30% of the labour force was unemployed.) Add to that, environmental problems of insect plagues, drought and hailstorms, and you have the perfect ‘storm’ for a huge problem.

To be clear, both Bennett and W.L. Mackenzie King (the Liberal successor) did a poor job, including providing work for the unemployed as they insisted this care be in a local and provincial responsibility. King, at the start, even refused to acknowledge there was a crisis. In the end, much good came out of the Depression, as government intervention, regulated monitory policies, the Canadian Wheat Board, unemployment insurance and expansion of state responsibility (all of which did not include a ‘balanced budget’) led to money in the hands of the people which helped to begin to generate the economy. The final nudge out of the Depression was the start of WW2.

At this time of Depression, it is interesting to note that new parties started to emerge – the Social Credit and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (forerunner to the NDP) began during this difficult time in Canadian and world history. There was a change in the wind, a desire for something new and different.

The Conservatives continued to struggle to keep their head above water until John Diefenbaker came on the scene. Here was a man with a vision, a man with exceptional leadership and he excited Canadians, who had become complacent with two decades of Liberal leadership. Under his Conservative leadership, now in 1957, since 1911, he created and established a truly national party. He came in with the strongest majority vote to date. As time went on, however, he seemed to lose his focus, lose his business support and lose the general urban support. The fracturing of the nation into the ethnic groups (particularly French Canada), and his inability to come to terms with the bi-cultural nature of Canada led to another Conservative end.

It wasn’t until Brian Mulroney (a bilingual Quebecer) came on the scene in 1983 as the new leader of the Conservatives (after Joe Clark got rejected) that the Conservatives rose again to prominence. He was able to bring the West and Quebec together, privatizing crown corporations and arranging a free trade deal with the States. Sadly, it did not produce the jobs they promised and Canada became disillusioned and went back to Liberal leadership.

The Conservative Party was to go through a range of variables – out of the Conservative party came the Reform party, out of which came the United Alternative and then the Canadian Alliance and finally the Democratic Reform, all of which were variations on a theme. Sometimes there was more right-wing backing, sometimes with strong intentions to make inroads into Liberal territory. Finally, the Canadian Alliance merged with the Progressive Conservative Party to form the Conservative Party of Canada in 2004, and Stephen Harper was the first elected leader of this new party.

This “new” party, the one now leading Canada, has come over rocky roads. Beginning with two minority governments in 2006, (picking up after the fall of the Liberals and a huge scandal involving the misuse of public funds, among other things), through their own scandals and contentious policies, it began a shift in Canadian politics that had been inundated in Liberal policies.

This new government started with doing what they campaigned on: reducing the GST from 7% to 5%, reducing the cabinet members, allowing the Liberal’s Gun Control Registry to die, remove support for the Kyoto protocol on global warming and cancel the Kelowna Accord, and begin Senate reform. While the rest of the world entered very difficult times with the Global Economic Crash of 2008, we were able to avoid the worst due to the Economic Stimulus Action Plan from Conservative Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. (Notice the difference between our results here after 2008 and what happened in the 1930s.) Yes, these 8 years of Conservative leadership have seen both ups and downs: we all learned the meaning of prorogue, twice; we saw MPs get caught and charged with a variety of offenses; but we also saw “tough on crime” measures, increased military expenditures; targeted tax breaks, and what the world experienced economically, we barely felt at all.

In the end, a disconnect has become noticed by many, between the policies (which are generally accepted) and the manner of governance (which is not). At the same time, it is interesting to note that since 1867, the point of Confederation and our first Prime Minister, we have been under 89 years of Liberal rule as compared to 56 of Conservative, of which 8 years (and a bit) have been the last years with Prime Minister Harper. In these 8 years, the world has seen the Economic Crash of 2008 and the oil and gas disintegration we are currently experiencing today, and globally, we have not yet recovered from 2008. This is not a fault or consequence of the Harper administration.

The Conservative Governments have given us family benefits, stood for the betterment of all the people of this country as a whole, have given us the Canadian Pacific Railway and free trade with many countries, and promoted a country, from coast to coast. One Land for All Canadians. Have they won on every corner? No … But they have far from lost every corner as well. If there was an award for perseverance and rising from the ashes like a Phoenix, the Conservative Party of Canada would be a strong contender!