Further to my last post, knowing the early history of Canada well and returning to it as a journalist puts our work in perspective.
Tommy Douglas created universal health care in Canada because he saw people destitute from the Great Depression too poor to afford socks in the dead of the Saskatchewan winter. Some of them died in small, uninsulated shacks, of treatable diseases.
It’s rare we tell that story when we talk about today’s current health care problems. In 2009, I wrote an essay for my university history class, I titled “The Lasting Legacy of the Progressive Party in Canada.” The progressive movement in Canada really only lasted between 1912 and 1930, but my professor wanted us to discuss if small social movements had any lasting impacts on our lives today.
I argued they did leave a legacy – you can agree with me or not, but what I really took away from that class, and studying Canadian history in general, is that problems have political solutions. Almost always. Social issues have political solutions. Here’s how early Canadians advanced political solutions to create our now long-established institutions.
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At the end of the First World War, prairie farmers in Western Canada were frustrated with the two dominant political parties. In 1912, the prairies were in dire financial trouble. Provincial and municipal governments had borrowed heavily during a boom (what had been a sparsely populated vastness of unsettled prairie in the late 1800’s, had by the turn of the century seen a new trend in increased immigration).
In fact, the population in the prairie provinces was over four and a half times greater in 1921 than in 1901.
However, provinces had restricted means of earning revenue because the federal government still had control over the provinces’ natural resources and mineral rights. Now these governments found themselves unable to bear their debt.
W.L. Morton, a Manitoba historian notes that this issue had “become an established and embittered grievance” of the provinces, but neither the Conservative Party, nor the Liberal Party seemed to be concerned with the interests of rural people.
Farmers called for the nationalization of the railways, so that transportation costs for shipping their grain east would be lower, but their concerns were not being heard in Ottawa.
“Politically the farmers had been underrepresented in Parliament. The West had been the stepping stone of nation-building, and stood on the sidelines of the federal power structure,” Richard Allen wrote in his essay “The Social Gospel as the Religion of the Agrarian Revolt” (The Prairie West: Historical Readings, ed. Douglas R. Francis and Howard Palmer).
By the end of the war many of the promises by Robert Borden’s union government in their 1917 platform were only half-hearted reforms. The prohibition bill was only a wartime prohibition, in effect until just one year after the war. The women’s suffrage bill was incomplete and needed to be amended in 1919 to allow women to run for office as well as vote in federal elections. Few of the platforms laid out in the updated 1916 Farmer’s Platform were implemented. The Crow Rate, which was removed as a wartime measure, was never reinstated.
Many of the Members of Parliament who had been representing the prairie West resigned. The Union government quickly disintegrated and Westerners were left disillusioned and angry.
By 1917, an inspired farm movement, reinvigorated after the war, organized to form a new political party. They were adamant that changes, which included implementing income and corporate taxes and nationalizing the railways, would need to take place at the federal level. In its first election, the Progressive Party of Canada elected more representatives to the House of Commons than the out-going Conservative government.
Their triumph marks the end of the two-party system in Canada.
The National Progressive Party of Canada was formally declared as a third political party on February 26, 1920 after they elected eleven representatives, including leader Thomas A. Crerar, a former Liberal and cabinet minister in the Union government. The two established political parties soon launched counter-attacks against the Progressives, who were seen as a growing threat, but the new party was about to transform Canada’s political system.
In the 1921 election, the Progressive Party made a major break-through in Canadian politics. They won sixty-five seats, compared to the Conservatives’ fifty, an unprecedented achievement. It was also the first minority government in the country’s history (Mackenzie’s Liberals were short a majority by one seat).
Although an impressive success, the Progressives only elected one representative east of Ottawa. It was evident that they were an agrarian party.
At first, an attempt was made to form a coalition government between the Progressives and the Liberals. After several rounds of negotiations, no coalition was formed. Furthermore, Progressives refused to form the official opposition because most of their elected MP’s lacked prior parliamentary experience.
There was another important reason for this decision, however, and that was the Progressives’ disdain of the party system itself. They resented party discipline and the party whip. Rather than caucus controlling the decision-making, MP’s voted with their constituencies. Many Progressives also were in favour of more direct legislation, such as the referendum and the recall, a signed resignation in which the member would be forced to step down if he did not vote in favour with the electors in his riding.
In the 1922 session, the Progressives were able to accomplish with agrarian unity, several important things in Parliament. They reinstated the Crow’s Rate and voted to re-establish the Canadian Wheat Board. They also challenged rules in parliamentary proceeding that had evolved from a two-party system and thus, disadvantaged a third party.
Despite these accomplishments, a great rift was appearing in the party among regional lines; the Manitoba progressives, whose politics aligned with that of Thomas Crerar and the Alberta progressives, who held extremely populist attitudes and to this effect, wanted to revolutionize the party system. They believed that party discipline was undemocratic. This rift led to Crerar’s resignation in 1922.
W.L. Morton notes that it was this divide within the party that would ultimately lead to its demise: “The existing lack of organization…would be disastrous, for the Progressives lacked a programme, a central organization, a properly elected national leader.”
After only winning twelve seats in the 1930 election, it was evident that “the national Progressive Party was on life support and would be swept away entirely by the Great Depression”(Conrad and Finkel, History of the Canadian Peoples, p. 195).
Although they did not last long on the political scene, the Progressive movement made some real accomplishments in economic and social reform. Future parties finished what the Progressives began, but the Progressive Party was in no way a political failure: they provided a voice for the West and paved the path for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), later the New Democratic Party (NDP).
In 1932, former Progressive members met with Labour members to form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and in 1933, elected J.S. Woodsworth as their national leader.
The CCF adopted a more socialistic approach. The Regina Manifesto defined the mission of the party and their goals: “A federation of organizations whose purpose is the establishment in Canada of a Co-operative Commonwealth in which the basic principle regulating production, distribution and exchange, will be the supplying of human needs, instead of making profits” (Morton, The Progressive Party in Canada, p. 282).
The Progressive Party was the last attempt by farmers to organize as an political party on the federal level. The CCF and other parties that formed after the 1930’s came to represent a more industrialized, and thus urban Canada. There continues to be struggle for adequate representation of farmers’ interests, as well as the interests of Western Canada as a whole in Canadian politics today.
The Reform Party under Preston Manning, who garnered most of its support east of Ontario, was another manifestation of a Western populist protest party. The “tradition” of reform and progressivism of the prairie West never truly vanished from Canadian politics. Although tension sometimes still exists between the West and Central Canada, between the rural and the urban, the Progressive Party in Canada won significant reforms and allowed for a fairer, more democratic party system.
- Allen, Richard. “The Social Gospel as the Religion of the Agrarian Revolt.” The Prairie West: Historical Readings, ed. Douglas R. Francis and Howard Palmer. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1985
- Conrad, Margaret and Alvin Finkel. History of the Canadian Peoples, Vol. 2 1867 to the Present. 5th Edition. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada, 2009.
- Francis, Douglas R. and Howard Palmer. The Prairie West: Historical Readings. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1985.
- Grain Growers’ Guide, XIV. Oct. 19, 1921.
- Irvine, William. The Farmers in Politics. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1920.
- Jackson, Robert J. and Doreen Jackson. Politics in Canada: Culture, Institutions, Behaviour and Public Policy. Seventh Edition. Toronto: Pearson, 2009.
- Mann, Arthur. The Progressive Era: Liberal Renaissance or Liberal Failure? Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.
- McGovern, Marcia. “The Farmers’ Movement.” Campion College, University of Regina. 20 May 2009.
- McGovern, Marcia. “The 1920’s: Post-World War I.” Campion College, University of Regina. 10 June 2009.
- Morton, W.L. The Progressive Party in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1967.
- Spafford, D. S. “The Origin of the Farmer’s Union of Canada.” Historical Essays on the Prairie Provinces, ed. Donald Swainson. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970: 254 – 266.
- Statistics Canada. “Table A2-14 Population of Canada, by province, census dates, 1851 to 1976” Available: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/11-516-x/sectiona/A2_14-eng.csv
- Waiser, Bill. All Hell Can’t Stop Us: the On-to-Ottawa Trek and Regina Riot. Calgary: Fifth House Ltd, 2003.