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Progressive Party of Canada

The Progressive Party of Canada was a political party in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s. It was linked with the provincial United Farmers parties in several provinces and, in Manitoba, ran candidates and formed governments as the Progressive Party of Manitoba.




The origins of the Progressive Party can, in many ways, be traced to the politics of compromise under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The most important issue to farmers in western Canada at the time was free trade with the United States. The National Policy implemented by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald in the 1890s forced farmers to pay higher prices for equipment, and to sell their produce for less. After World War I, however, neither of the major political parties supported free trade.

Western Canada at the turn of the century began to receive an influx of radical political ideas. From the United States, came Progressivism and the Non-Partisan League. From Britain, the new immigrants brought Fabian socialism. This mix of ideology and discontent led to much discussion of forming an independent party, especially in the "Grain Growers Guide", a magazine of the day. The first organizations of agricultural protest were the farmersí organizations such as the Manitoba Grain Growers Association and the United Farmers of Alberta.

The Progressive Party was founded in 1920 by Thomas Crerar, a former Minister of Agriculture in the Unionist government of Robert Borden. Crerar quit the Borden cabinet in 1919 because Minister of Finance Thomas White introduced a budget that did not pay sufficient attention to farmers' issues. Crerar became the first leader of the Progressive Party, and led it to win 65 seats in the 1921 general election.

Elected to Office

Traditionally, the Progressive Party has been viewed as a western protest party, but some now contest this. It is certain that its core of support was western. But as the 1921 election shows, the Progressives began life as a truly national movement. The Progressives won 24 of the 81 House of Commons seats in Ontario. At the time, the party viewed this as a disappointing result. The Progressives received significant support in the Maritimes provinces as well, but only one seat in New Brunswick. At the provincial level, farmers' parties became significant presences in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

By taking a very decentralized approach, the Progressive Party copied the method used in the United States to build a national party in the U.S. Congress. Crerar was not the national leader of the party, but only the parliamentary leader. The media regarded him as the leading spokesman of the party, although he had no official position outside of parliament. The party also had no national organization relying instead on the Canadian Council of Agriculture to provide some degree of national structure. Each candidate was free to promote any policies they desired. Support for reforming the National Policy was a common denominator, but even this was not universal within the party. The Progressives can barely even be called a party, and many have argued that the term "Progressive Movement" is perhaps more apt.

In the 1921 election, the Liberal Party of Canada won the largest number of seats, and formed a minority government. The Progressives were divided over what to do, however. A significant group of ex-Liberals, including Crerar, supported forming a coalition government with the Liberals. This was resisted both by Montreal interests in the Liberal Party and the radical Progressives. The radical Progressives, who were followers of Henry Wise Wood of the UFA, supported a very different strategy. They wished to remain a decentralized party with each member simply representing his constituents. The two groups agreed to refuse the position of Official Opposition, normally accorded to the party with the second largest number of seats , and this was passed on to the third-largest party, the Conservative Party.


Crerar attempted to introduce certain attributes of a standard party to the Progressives, including Parliamentary Whips and a national party organization. These efforts were resisted, however, and in 1922, Crerar resigned as leader. He was replaced by Robert Forke, another ex-Liberal who agreed with Crerar on most issues. The Progressives proved unsuccessful in Parliament, and lost much of their moderate support in eastern Canada. While in the 1921 election Crerar had toured the entire nation, Forke abandoned everything east of Manitoba. In the 1925 election, the Progressives lost almost all of their Ontario members, but were still moderately successful in the west.

This left the party dominated by the radical Alberta wing. Moderates like Forke returned to the Liberal party (as Liberal-Progressives), and the remaining Progressives reconstituted themselves as parliamentary representatives of the United Farmers of Alberta. Some of them continued to sit in Parliament until they were routed by the Social Credit Party of Canada in the election of 1935.


In Ontario, the United Farmers of Ontario formed government as a result of the 1919 provincial election with E.C. Drury as Premier. After the government's defeat in 1923 and the formal decision of the UFO to withdraw from electoral politics, most remaining UFO MPPs took to calling themselves "Progressives". In the 1934 provincial election the remaining Progressive MPPs under Harry Nixon ran as Liberal-Progressives in an alliance with the Ontario Liberal Party led by former UFO member Mitch Hepburn. The Liberal-Progressives subsequently joined the Liberal Party.


The Progressive Party of Manitoba had merged with the Manitoba Liberal Party in the 1920s to form a Liberal-Progressive party there. Despite this, in 1942, Manitoba Premier John Bracken, a Progressive, was persuaded to become the leader of the national Conservative Party. As a condition of his accepting the leadership, the party's name was changed to Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. The Progressive Party of Canada, however, refused to disband, and ran its own candidates in the subsequent federal election against Bracken's Tories. The party's electoral fortunes continued to decline, and most Progressives ended up joining either the Liberal Party or the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), rather than the renamed Progressive Conservatives.


After the collapse of the party, most Progressive voters returned to the Liberal Party. The Liberals had always viewed the Progressives as simply 'Liberals in a hurry', and for a large group of the party's supporters, this was true. The most important example of this return to the Liberals is T.A. Crerar, who served with the Liberals for decades, first as a cabinet minister and then as a Senator.

The more radical of the progressives split two ways. The Ginger Group split off in Parliament, and joined with the two sitting Labour MPs, eventually forming the CCF (the fore-runner of the modern New Democratic Party).

Other Progressives, especially the radical populists, would later turn towards Social Credit ideology, forming a definite line of western protest that continued to run through the Reform Party of Canada and the Canadian Alliance party. Both the CCF and Social Credit had its roots in the United Farmers movement, from which a large number of MLAs were elected in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Manitoba, and which formed governments in Alberta, Ontario and Manitoba. in Manitoba, the United Farmers of Manitoba changed their name to the Progressive Party of Manitoba after coming to power in 1922.

It could be argued that the United Farmers parties were provincial wings of the federal Progressive Party. The Conservative Party received the least of the Progressive's spoils, inheriting only the name. More important than these effects on individual parties, the Progressive Party also had a great effect on Canada's governmental system -- it was the first successful example of a third party in Canada. Despite the Duverger's Law of political science, the Canadian Parliament has always had a third party present ever since. The Progressives served as both a model and a cautionary tale for those that followed after.

Party leaders


The study of the Progressive Party is almost wholly dominated by one author, W.L. Morton, whose 1950 book The Progressive Party in Canada won a Governor General's Award, and had been the principal text on the Progressive Party ever since. A great number of more recently published works on western politics cite only Mortonís book in their discussion of the Progressive Party. Morton, a Red Tory, wrote in the context of a seemingly spreading Social Credit movement. Mortonís book was the first in a series exploring the origins of the Social Credit movement.

See also

External link

Last updated: 05-15-2005 15:24:39
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04