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Progressive Conservative Party of Canada

Progressive Conservative Party of Canada
Dissolved:December 7, 2003
Colours:Blue (usu. w/ Red detailing)

The Progressive Conservative Party of Canada (PC) was a Canadian political party. Historically a powerful force in Canadian federal politics, following a decade-long decline the party ceased to exist on December 8, 2003 when it merged with the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance (Alliance) to form the Conservative Party of Canada. Several loosely-associated provincial Progressive Conservative parties continue to exist in some provinces, as does a small splinter group of self-described party loyalists who opposed the merger. The latter group recently applied to reconstitute the party, but Elections Canada has not yet announced a decision on the application.

The party underwent a number of name changes over the years. Initially known as the Liberal-Conservative Party, it dropped the Liberal from its name in 1873, became the Union Government of Robert Borden from 1917 to 1920, and the National Liberal and Conservative Party until 1922. It then reverted back to Liberal-Conservative Party until 1938, when it became simply the Conservative Party. (The party had almost always been referred to as simply the Conservative Party, even when that was not its official name.) In 1942 the party added the word Progressive to its name, in an attempt to win support from the supporters of the defunct Progressive Party, a western protest party.

Like their British Conservative Party counterparts, the party's supporters are called "Tories" in slang.

Though Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. MacDonald, was a Tory, the party spent the majority of its history in opposition as the nation's number two party, behind the Liberals. It has never fully recovered from the fragmentation of Brian Mulroney's broad coalition in the mid-1980s, and during the most recent Parliament held only 15 of 301 seats in the House of Commons. At the provincial level, however, the Progressive Conservatives continue to enjoy strong support, with active organizations in 7 of Canada's 10 provinces. They no longer exist in Quebec, and provincial parties in British Columbia and Saskatchewan have been all but abandoned.


The Progressive Conservative Party was generally described as centre-right in political terms. Like their Liberal rivals, the party defined itself as a "big tent," welcoming a broad variety of members who supported relatively-loosely defined goals. Unlike the Liberals, there was a long history of ongoing factionalization within this tent--owing to its second-place status, the party frequently reached out to particular political groups in order to garner enough support to topple the liberals. These groups usually remained semiautonomous blocks within the party, such as Quebec nationalists in the 1980s. In recent years, observers have generally grouped the PC Party's core membership into three camps, "Red Tories," "Blue Tories," and "Neoconservatives."

Red Tories have tended to be relatively liberal in their social policy, placing a high value on the principle of noblesse oblige, but conservative in their economic policy. Historically they comprised the largest bloc of the Canadian Conservative party. Notable Red Tories include Sir John A. MacDonald, John Diefenbaker, Dalton Camp, W.L. Morton, William Davis, Joe Clark, and Flora MacDonald.

Blue Tories are conservative in both social and economic policy. The Blue Tories were significantly reduced in numbers during the late seventies and early eighties as many drifted towards neoconservatism (as epitomised by the rise of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) but in federal office never truly embraced Reaganomics and its anathema to "big government" as vociferously as was done outside of Canada.

Neoconservatives lean towards social conservatism and economic liberalism. Presently, they comprise the largest bloc of the Canadian Conservative party. Support for the Canadian Alliance and its predecessor, the Reform Party of Canada derived principally from this group, and that support has carried forward into the new Conservative Party of Canada.

The success of the neoconservative movement in appropriating the label "Conservative" has brought into debate the very definition of conservatism in Canada today. Although adhering to economic philosophies similar to those originally advanced by 19th century liberals (known confusingly as both neoliberalism and neoconservatism), the need to emphasize their social conservatism has led the Canadian Alliance to adopt the brand "Conservative Party of Canada" to market themselves to the electorate.

Canadian conservatism has historically more closely resembled that which is practised in the UK and Europe than in the United States. As was common amongst 19th century conservative movements, Canadian Tories opposed the rollback of Crown intervention in social and economic matters advocated by the liberals of the era. In contrast to their American conservative counterparts, however, they did not undertake as dramatic an ideological turnaround in the first half of the 20th century in rejecting mercantilism and nascent notions of the welfare state.


In the early days of the Canadian confederation, the party supported a mercantilist approach to economic development: export-led growth with high import barriers to protect local industry. On the foreign relations front, the party was pro-monarchy, pro-empire, and, following World War II, increasingly pro-US. Although it was seen by some French Canadians as supporting a policy of assimilation, it nonetheless dominated Canadian politics for the nation's first 30 years of existence. In general, Canada's political history has consisted of Tories alternating power with their arch-rivals, the Liberals, albeit often in minority governments supported by smaller parties. During the early years the divide was often religious with the Conservative party being the party of Protestantism while the Liberals represented the Catholics.

After a long period of Liberal dominance, John Diefenbaker won a shocking electoral victory for the Tories in 1958. Capturing most of the West and much of Ontario, Diefenbaker attempted to pursue a policy of distancing Canada from the United States and asserting traditional values. With the collapse of the Diefenbaker government the party split between those who wanted to adopt a more neoliberal platform.

By the late 1960s, with Quebec's Quiet Revolution in full swing, Canada's main political parties attempted to lure more support from Canada's Francophone population. At the same time, the Tories finally began their move away from mercantilism towards a neoliberal platform of free trade. Both movements culminated with the election of Brian Mulroney as prime minister in 1984.

During Mulroney's tenure as Canadian prime minister, a number of elements together contributed to the fall of the Progressive Conservative party at the federal level. First, economic issues dogged the party toward the end of Mulroney's term as prime minister: Canada suffered its worst recession since the Second World War, unemployment rose to the highest levels since the Great Depression, the federal government faced high and persistent deficits, and a much-hated new tax, the GST, was introduced. Second, under Mulroney, the party's base in Quebec came from Francophone nationalists, who withdrew their support after the failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, forming the Bloc Québécois.

Finally, attempts from both Tories and Liberals to woo Quebec drew the ire of western Canadians, who turned their support to the Reform Party of Canada and its successor, the Canadian Alliance. These two factors and the first past the post system used in Canada led to the disastrous election of 1993, when the Conservatives went from being the majority party to holding only two seats, losing official party status. They regained official status in the 1997 election, but never surpassed 20 seats in the House of Commons.

The rise of the Canadian Alliance was doubtlessly damaging to the Tories, though there remains some debate as to the precise degree. Many observers alleged that from 1993 to 2003 the "conservative" vote was split between the two parties, allowing Liberal candidates to win ridings formerly considered to be Tory strongholds. Others insisted that a legitimate ideological gulf existed between the more ideological Alliance and the more moderate Red Tory-influenced PC Party, pointing to surveys that indicated most Tory voters would rather select the Liberals as their second choice rather than the Alliance.

On October 15, 2003, it was announced that the Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Party would unite to form a new party called the Conservative Party of Canada. The union was ratified on December 5 and December 6, 2003 by both parties, and the new Conservative Party was formally registered on December 8.

Finally, on January 9, 2004 a group loyal to the Progressive Conservative Party and opposed to the merger (which they viewed as an Alliance takeover) filed application with the Chief Electoral Officer to register a party called the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

Tory Leaders since Confederation:

(Liberal-)Conservative Party of Canada:

Progressive Conservative Party of Canada:


1 On this occasion, Meighen failed in his attempts to win re-election to the House of Commons, so Hanson remained Leader of the Opposition throughout Meighen's term

2 Bracken did not win election to the House of Commons until 1945, so Hanson remained Leader of the Opposition until January 1943, when he was replaced by Gordon Graydon

3 On two occasions when Drew was too ill to perform his duties, William Earl Rowe served as Leader of the Opposition

4 Michael Starr served as Leader of the Opposition until November 5, 1967, when Stanfield, who had previously been premier of Nova Scotia, won election to Parliament