From Riel to Reform (and a Little Beyond): Politics in Western Canada

Article excerpt

The most interesting aspect of politics in western Canada is its tendency to generate new political parties. This has been going on for over a century and shows no signs of stopping, as illustrated by the success of the Saskatchewan Party in that province's election of September 1999. Formed only in 1998, the Saskatchewan Party won twenty-five seats as compared to twenty-nine for the New Democrats, thus reducing Roy Romanow's party to the expedient of forming a coalition with the Liberals. Indeed, the Saskatchewan Party got more popular votes than did the NDP.

The NDP is the heir of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, founded in Calgary in 1932. The CCF/NDP has always aspired to be a national party, but it still bears the marks of its western origins. After the 1999 Manitoba election, the NDP until very recently governed three of the four western provinces. And yet, in the 1997 federal election, voters in the same region filled sixty of their eighty-eight seats in the House of Commons with members of the Reform Party, which stood at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum from the NDP; and in the 2000 federal election, western voters elected sixty-four representatives of the Canadian Alliance, the successor to the Reform Party. What can one make of this except to say that, while western voters may swing either left or right, they like to support parties rooted in their own region?

Without claiming to be complete, Table 1 lists some of the most important parties founded in western Canada. Several, such as the CCF, Social Credit, and Reform, have also operated outside the West; but all were founded in the West and had their main base of support in that region. The parties are designated F, P, or F+P, depending on whether they were purely federal, purely provincial, or operated at both levels. Some of the dates may be debatable because the founding of a political party is not always a clear-cut event. The list would be considerably longer if it included the instances in which a Liberal or Conservative party was reborn after a long period of dormancy in one province or another.

Not surprisingly, Quebec, the other region of Canada in which many voters are fundamentally dissatisfied with the terms of Confederation, has demonstrated a similar proclivity for creating new political parties, as shown in Table 2. Again, the list does not claim to be complete but only to identify some of the most important cases.

The parallelism between Quebec and the West is nicely illustrated by the fact that in 1993 a new party from Quebec--the Bloc Quebecois--was elected the Official Opposition in the House of Commons and was then replaced in that role in 1997 by a new party from the West--the Reform Party of Canada. Meanwhile, the Liberals continue to govern through their overwhelming domination of Ontario. The federal politics of the 1990s were an exaggerated version of a tableau that has often reappeared in modern Canadian history, in which political forces based in Ontario fight off challenges arising from Quebec and/or the West. Attempts to bring Quebec and the West into coalition with each other met with only infrequent and short-lived success under Robert Borden (1911-17), John Diefenbaker (1958-62), and Brian Mulroney (1934-93).

The repeated emergence of new parties in the West is the most obvious manifestation of the special character of politics in that region of Canada. Historians and political scientists have identified three major features of western politics that seem to perpetuate themselves across the generations in the various new parties as they arise. (1) I would describe these three characteristics as suspicion of external control, rejection of Canada's federal parliamentary system, and a thirst for fundamental solutions. Let me expand on these three characteristics as they apply to western politics and parties, particularly the Reform Party of Canada, with which I had some personal familiarity. …