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George Grant’s vision of Canada increasingly attenuated (Part Three)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted March 9, 2020

In 1983, a fascinating leadership contest in the P.C. party set the ineffectual Joe Clark aside, and selected Brian Mulroney as leader. At this time, Mulroney allowed the aura of a “right-winger” to settle over him, as he perceived it would be to his advantage in the upcoming election.

Trudeau finally retired, and John Turner was chosen leader of the Liberal Party, immediately becoming Prime Minister for a few months before the election. John Turner had been one of the many somewhat more right-leaning Liberals that Trudeau had increasingly shunted aside from major roles in the party. Indeed, it is sometimes argued that Trudeau had “hijacked” a far more centrist Liberal Party, and turned it into a personal instrument for revolutionary change.

Brian Mulroney, with his huge P.C. majorities of 1984 and 1988, actually mostly continued in the footsteps of Trudeau. The 1988 federal election was fought and won on the issue of Free Trade with the U.S. Traditionally, the Tories had opposed Free Trade with the U.S., whereas the Liberals had promoted it. In 1988, the roles were reversed. The Liberal leader John Turner, who was patriotically arguing against the Free Trade Agreement, could be seen in many ways as more conservative than Mulroney.

Western Canadian and “small-c conservative” alienation from Mulroney led to the founding of the Reform Party of Canada in 1987. Its main founder and leader was Preston Manning, the son of a long-time Alberta Premier, who had represented a smaller, centre-right, protest party (Social Credit). Indeed, the Reform Party were sometimes snidely called “re-tread Socreds”. The Reform Party was initially a Western Canadian regional party, but, by 1991, had become a Canada-wide party.

In the 1993 federal election, the Reform Party won 52 seats, while the Bloc Quebecois, which had arisen after the failure to ratify the Meech Lake Accord and Charlottetown Agreements (two constitutional attempts to conciliate Quebec) won 54, thus becoming the Official Opposition. Since 1982, the province of Quebec had refused to accede to the Charter, because it claimed that it undermined the “collective rights” of the Quebecois. In 1993, the Liberals under Jean Chretien won a majority, while the P.C.s were reduced to two seats.

Having won a majority in the provincial parliament of Quebec in 1994, the Parti Quebecois launched a referendum to separate from Canada in 1995, which came very close to success.
This was already a second attempt to secede. In 1980, the Parti Quebecois had undertaken a referendum, although the question was ambiguously phrased as “sovereignty-association”, and was defeated by a ratio of about 60-40.

Because of the “vote-splitting” between Reform and the P.C.s – as well as the continual climate of derision against the Reform Party in the Canadian “main stream media” – the Liberals were able to easily win parliamentary majorities in the federal elections of 1997 and 2000. In 1997, the Reform Party won 60 seats (all of them from Western Canada) and became the Official Opposition. In that election, the Liberals, who won 38% of the popular vote, won a comfortable majority in the federal Parliament, while Reform and the P.C.s each had received 19% of the popular vote. The Liberal result was largely the consequence of the “first-past-the-post” voting system. (I.e., the country is divided into geographical areas called ridings where each electoral race is separately tallied. The winning candidate is the one who receives the largest number of votes, which could in many cases – with three-way or four-way races -- be far less than a majority of votes cast in the riding.) The combined vote totals of Reform and the P.C.s in 1997 would have perhaps put such a hypothetical united party within striking distance of winning a majority in the federal Parliament.

The 2000 campaign was waged by the Liberals against the Canadian Alliance, which had been an attempt to broaden the Reform Party, arising out of the “United Alternative” initiative in 1998-2000. (The full official name of the Canadian Alliance was the Canadian Reform-Conservative Alliance.) The Canadian Alliance’s hopes were sunk when its leader, Stockwell Day (a former Treasurer of Alberta) became widely characterized as a “fundamentalist Christian extremist”. Preston Manning had run against Stockwell Day in 2000 for the leadership of the CA, but had lost, when Stockwell Day had massively organized social conservatives on his behalf.

Although the CA had improved its seat total slightly (to 66) (and remained the Official Opposition) there occurred, in 2001, a revolt in caucus against Day’s leadership, which at one time attracted thirteen CA M.P.s. As a result, Day was forced into a leadership contest, which he lost to Stephen Harper. Harper had been elected as Reform M.P. in 1993, but chose not to run in 1997, instead becoming for several years, the head of the National Citizens’ Coalition (NCC), one of the most prominent of Canada’s few right-wing lobby organizations.

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is Canadian writer and historical researcher.




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