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Progressive Party of Canada

The Progressive Party of Canada was a political party in Canada in the 1920s and 1930s.

Table of contents
1 History
2 Legacy
3 Historiography



The origins of the Progressive Party can, in many ways, be traced to the politics of compromise under Laurier. The number one issue to western farmers was free trade. Because of John A. Macdonald's National Policy the farmers had to pay higher prices for equipment and had to sell the produce for less. But neither of the major parties supported free trade. The west 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. The main venue for this was the Grain Growers Guide and the first organizations of agricultural protest were the farmersí organizations such as the Manitoba Grain Growers Association and the United Farmers of Alberta.

They were founded in 1920 by Thomas Crerar, a former Minister of Agriculture in the Unionist government of Robert Borden, who quit the cabinet in 1919 because the budget of Thomas White did not pay sufficient attention to farmers' issues. Crerar became the first leader of the Progressives, and led them to win 65 seats in the 1921 general election.

Elected to Office

Traditionally the Progressive Party has been viewed as a western protests party, but some now contest thus. It is certain that its core of support was western. The main progressive publication was the Grain Growers Guide and the first organizations of protest were the farmersí organizations such as the Grain Growers of Manitoba and the United Farmers of Alberta. But as the 1921 election shows the progressives began life as a truly national movement. Of the 81 seats in Ontario the Progressives won 24 of them, and at the time this was viewed as a dissapointment. Today one can certainly think of a current western based party that would be overwhelmingly delighted to have won 24 seas in Ontario. In the Maritimes as well the Progressives received significant support. This lead to only one seat in New Brunswick, but on the provincial level in both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick farmers parties became significant presences.

Traditionally in Canadian politics the way to win a national mandate is to be the party that offends the fewest regions. By taking a very decentrilized approach the Progressive Party copied the method used in the United States to build a national party in congress. Crerar was not the national leader of the party, rather, he was only the parliamentary leader. His Canada wide speaking tour was very leaderly, and the media regarded him as the leading spokesman of the party he had no official position out side parliament. His role was very much like that of Tom Daschle in the 2002 American election or Newt Gingrich in 1994 in the United States. 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 any planks they desired. Support for the new national policy was one common denominator, but even this wasnít universal. The progressives can barely even be called a party, and many have argued that the term progressive movement is perhaps far more apt.

After the election the Liberals 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 their constituents. What both groups agreed upon was refusing the position of Official Opposition and this was passed on to the Tories.


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 Albertan wing. Moderates like Forke and returned to the Liberal party and the Progressives reconstituted themselves as parliamentary representatives of the UFA and some of them continued to sit in parliament until they were routed by Social Credit in the election of 1935.

In 1942, the remaining rump of the Progressive party merged with the Conservative party under the leadership of John Bracken, the former leader of the provincial Progressive party in Manitoba. As a condition of his accepting the leadership, the party's name was changed to Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.


After the collapse of the party, it was the Liberalss to whom most voters returned. 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 Grits 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 siting Labour MPs, eventually going on to form the CCF and the NDP. 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 and then Canadian Alliance parties. The conservative party in many received the least of the progressives spoils, inheriting only the name. Later on, however, the western voters that would help propel Diefenbaker and Mulroney to power were an important part of the progressive tradition. More importantly than these effects on individual parties, the progressives also had a great effect on Canada's governmental system -- they were the first successful example of a third party in Canada, and despite the laws 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.


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 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. The red tory Morton was writing 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.