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Political Parties

What are political parties?

Political parties are public organizations that seek to gain political power and to elect public officeholders. In Canadian democracy, political parties have several functions including recruiting candidates for elections, influencing public policy, educating the public about policy issues, identifying and balancing the varied interests of the public and representing those perspectives in Parliament.

Source: Countdown to a Better BC Rally (2017)

Parties have been able to register with Elections Canada since 1974, which allows the party in question to receive certain benefits, such as allowing financial contributors to the party to receive tax credits, to claim electoral expenses, to access lists of electors, etc. To register as a federal political party, a party must identify (among other things) their name, leader, purpose, accompanied by the written support of at least 250 members.

Note that although Canadian political parties have the same names at the federal and provincial levels, they are not necessarily related. For example, the NDP in British Columbia, and the federal NDP may have similar values and logos, but they are separate entities. Further, the federal Conservative party does not have a relationship with the provincial Progressive Conservatives Party, but the Liberal Party of Canada has relationships with some of the provincial Liberal Parties.

What are Canada’s main political parties?

Throughout all of Canadian history, only two parties have governed at the federal level—the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party. However, there are a number of other parties that have served as the Official Opposition or have otherwise been represented in the House of Commons, putting pressure on the governing party to make policy and legislative change.

  • The Liberal Party of Canada has a long track-record of electoral success. The Liberals were one of Canada’s original political parties , and its history can be traced back to the mid-19th Century with the emergence of reformist groups in Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and Nova Scotia. Liberal Alexander Mackenzie was Canada’s second Prime Minister, although his administration “was undisciplined and lacked policy coherence.” Subsequent Liberal governments, however, including the highly successful Liberal government under Wilfrid Laurier paved the way for the party’s continued electoral successes, bridging social democracy and support for business. Between 1945 and 2000, the Liberal Party received more votes than any other party in thirteen of seventeen elections. In more than half of those elections, they obtained more seats than all other parties taken together. Following Brooke Jeffrey, “the Liberal Party’s dominance has been linked to its ability to position itself as the party of national unity. Liberals were long seen by Canadians as the party best able to manage the country’s cultural and regional diversity, through a combination of nation-building social programs and commitment to strong central government.”
  • The Conservative Party of Canada (often referred to as “The Tories”) are a federal political party and were the first governing party following Confederation. The historical Conservative Party of Canada has changed names several times (and has incorporated other conservative political parties), starting as the Liberal-Conservative Party, and becoming the Progressive Conservative Party in the mid-twentieth century. Although not as successful as the Liberals, the Conservative Party has won numerous elections, and Canada has had thirteen Conservative Prime Ministers since Confederation. In the 1990s, the Progressive Conservatives lost a great deal of support following the negotiation of free trade agreements, and the rise of the Reform Party of Canada, a Western-based socially conservative party. Subsequently, following the Reform Party’s own shift to becoming the Canadian Alliance, the Progressive Conservatives and the Canadian Alliance merged to become the contemporary Conservative Party of Canada. The new Conservative Party of Canada describes itself as a party that favours low taxes, smaller government control, “traditional values,” and has a high regard for law and order.
  • The New Democratic Party, also called the NDP, was founded in Ottawa in 1961 when the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation joined with the Canadian Labour Congress. Tommy Douglas was elected the party’s first leader. Although the party has never won a federal election, and was only once the official opposition, it has played a central role in Canadian politics by acting as a “balance of power” in a number of minority governments. Despite never forming a federal government, the party is partially credited with supporting social programs such as public healthcare, and old age pensions, as well as a current campaign for nationalized childcare and pharmacare.
  • The Bloc Québécois is a federal party that emerged out of the Quebec sovereignty movement, and was formed by Conservative and Liberal MPs in Quebec following the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. It is a federal counterpart to the provincial Parti Quebecois, representing Quebecois interests in the House of Commons. Its electoral success has been contingent on support for Quebecois nationalism as well as support (or lack thereof) for Liberals in Quebec. Bloc policies focus on issues such as environmental sovereignty, fiscal sovereignty, and the upholding of all bills passed in Québec’s Provincial legislature. The party also supports policies in favour of protecting the French language outside the province, such as forming a French-language university within Ontario.

Additional Resources:

  • Vote Compass, “a tool developed by political scientists for exploring how your views align with those of the parties.”
  • Canada Votes 2019, “How do the main parties compare on these issues?”. An in-depth look at each party’s policies regarding everything from Carbon Tax and Indigenous issues to Small Businesses taxes.
  • Canada 101: Just Political Parties: A short video introduction to Canada’s political parties and their basic ideologies.
  • Useful Charts: Canadian Political Parties. A look at where each Canadian Political Party sits across the left-right spectrum, as of October 2019.

Contributors:    Shukri Adbulle, Hayley Anderson, Navneet Brar, Luana Costa, Oreoluwa Dada-Phillips, Sali Moieldin, Matthew Olsen, Anna Palalon, Abigail Pot, Matthew Rowat, Michelle Rupnarain, Jasmin Sooch