The party was formed in 1987 as the coalition of western populists, Quebec nationalists and Ontario business leaders that had propelled Brian Mulroney's Progressive Conservatives to power began to fracture.
The party was the brainchild of a group of Calgary businessmen who were upset with the Tory government and felt the West needed its own party if it was to be heard. The main complaints were over the Mulroney government's generosity to Quebec and the failure of Mulroney to strongly support concepts such as Senate reform. This discontent mainly stemmed from the failures of the Meech Lake Accord to meet the needs of westerners.
In 1987 the party had its first meeting and Preston Manning, son of former Alberta premier Ernest Manning, was proclaimed leader. The party fought in the 1998 election but was never considered more than a fringe element.
In 1992 the Conservative government made another attempt at rewriting the constitution. The Charlottetown Accord was even more ambitious than the Meech Lake Accord, but it failed to support in a nation-wide referendum. The Reform Party was one of the only groups to fight against the accord and they saw the accord defeat as a great victory.
After the constitutional debacle and other popularity sappers such as the Goods and Services Tax (GST) and a series of high-profile scandals the Conservative coalition imploded. The Quebec nationalists moved to the Bloc Québécois, the Ontario business leaders supported the Liberals, and looking for a new voice the people of Alberta and portions of other western provinces moved to support the Reform Party.
In the 1993 federal election the Reform Party swept most of Alberta and won strong support in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. While running candidates in almost all ridings outside Quebec, Reform elected only one MP in Ontario and none in the Maritimes. It was still a western protest party, but it won 54 seats, the third most in parliament.
The arrival of the Reformers in Ottawa followed a long progression of western protest parties like the Progressives and Social Credit, and Reform ran into the same problems these parties had. The eastern provinces had very different views on issues such as homosexuality, gun control, and abortion than did the West. Reform's growth stalled. In the 1997 Canadian election Reform captured only six more seats. It moved up to become the Official Opposition but it failed to make any headway east of the Manitoba–Ontario border.
The party thus launched a major rebranding effort. They changed few of their policies, but hoped a newer look would convince Ontarians to vote for them. Preston Manning got contact lenses and a haircut, and conversations began about launching a new western party.
This new party eventually became the Canadian Alliance and on March 25, 2000 the Reform party was disbanded and its members moved to this new entity. Soon after, long-time leader Preston Manning was also replaced by Alberta treasurer Stockwell Day.