Today, the Liberal Party of Canada is nothing more than a center-left catch-all party made of up of progressives and their ilk. But this is a significant departure from its beginnings as a party of radicals committed to a classically liberal ideal.
The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario) was comprised of Canadian reformers who were fed up with the aristocratic elite which had come to rule the colony known as the Family Compact. The rebels were led by the radical republican William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto. After their eventual loss in the final months of 1837, Mackenzie fled to the Niagara River where he established the short-lived Republic of Canada on Navy Island.
After the dust of the rebellion settled, the radical left wing of the Reform movement founded a new political party in Upper Canada, the Clear Grits. The economic leftism of the party was a continuation of what the original Reformers had sought to bring to Canada. Taking inspiration from the English Chartists, the Reformers were Owenists, hoping to form a utopian socialist society in the New World. But this did not preclude them from radically liberal policy positions. The party quickly published a list of its policy demands, which included numerous classical liberal ideas such as free trade with the United States, austerity in public expenditures, repeal of usury laws, the abolition of public housing for Anglican clergy, repeal of publicly funded pensions for judges, localization of government, and even the abolition of the copyright.
The party was originally led by Whitby businessman Peter Perry but quickly fell under the control of Globe founder George Brown. Prior to his tenure as leader of the Clear Grits, Brown was a staunch critic of American slavery after witnessing its horrors while living in New York and was a founding member of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada. For the most part, Brown helped the Clear Grits maintain its radical course. He was most vocal about the fight for the secularization of the clergy reserves and the removal of French Canadian influence upon English Canadian politics in Upper Canada.
In 1857, under the leadership of Brown, the radical Clear Grits joined forces with the left-wing of the Reform Party (a party first dedicated to republicanism and then to responsible government) to form the Liberal Party of Upper Canada, which split into provincial and federal parties, respectively the Liberal Party of Ontario and the Liberal Party of Canada, in 1861. It is here where the liberalism which defined the Clear Grits party would finally lose its radical vigor. The first sign was a rejection of their previous preference for localism in favor of federalism. Along with the Conservatives, the party sought the complete political union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada (modern-day Quebec). In 1840, the Act of Union eliminated the legislatures of both Upper and Lower Canada to form the unified Province of Canada. However, as journalist John Lewis wrote, “in matters affecting Upper Canada alone, Upper Canadian members claimed and usually exercised, exclusive power, and so with Lower Canada.” For the Tory federalists, this was not enough. John A. MacDonald, the eventual first prime minister of Canada, argued in an 1864 session of the legislative assembly that “to be successful, a union with the Lower provinces must be a complete one…it must not merely be a federal one. Instead of having a federal one, we should have a Legislative Union in fact, in principle, and in practice.” The Liberal Party would help MacDonald get his wish, and in 1867 the British North America Act was passed, uniting Upper Canada, Lower Canada, and the eastern colonies of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in a political confederation, the Dominion of Canada.
After Confederation, the Liberal Party would fall to the role of the official opposition to MacDonald’s Conservative Party. It wouldn’t be until 1873, after the Conservatives were caught up in the Pacific Scandal, that the Liberals would return to power under Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie. While no longer a party of radicals, the spirit of classical liberalism had not yet died within the party. In his tenure as prime minster, Mackenzie attempted a number of failed liberal policies. In 1874 he drafted a free trade agreement with the US called the Brown-Thornton-Fish Convention, but it was eventually rejected by the US. He also attempted build the Canadian Pacific Railway through self-financing, which gained little public support. As a classical liberal, Mackenzie found little success, and after his lackluster tenure as prime minister, MacDonald reclaimed the prime ministership in 1878.
It would be another eighteen years before the Liberals could wrest control of the government back. Wilfrid Laurier, Canada’s first French Canadian prime minister, led the Liberal Party to victory in 1896 and would serve four terms (until 1911). Laurier’s greatest challenges arose in foreign affairs. In the Second Boer was, Laurier faced favor from English Canadians to provide support while French Canadians opposed support, declaring it an “English war.” Laurier compromised with the English and French by sending one thousand volunteers on the condition that the British pay for their costs. The Liberals lost power to the Robert Borden–led Conservatives in 1911. It was in 1917, when Laurier sought to be reelected as prime minister, that the question of Canada’s involvement in foreign wars would once again come to the political forefront. As the First World War broke out, the all-volunteer Canadian military saw massive causalities and sought reinforcement via conscription. Laurier, sympathizing with French Canadians, who once again saw this as an attempt to force them to fight in English wars, was opposed to conscription. Borden enacted conscription in August of that year with the Military Service Act, which led to approximately ninety-eight thousand Canadians being conscripted. Prior to the 1917 election, Borden leaned on the women’s suffrage movement and passed the Wartime Elections Act, which gave voting rights to wives, widows, sisters, and daughters of enlisted men. With the support of women hoping to support their loved ones abroad, Borden was reelected in 1917 on a proconscription platform. Once again, it appeared that when the Liberals supported classically liberal causes such as anticonscription, they could not find electoral success.
The Liberals’ next prime minister would not follow Laurier’s lead when it came to conscription. William Lyon Mackenzie King (grandson of the aforementioned William Lyon Mackenzie of the 1837 rebellion) was elected as prime minister on three separate occasions, in 1921, 1926, and 1935, losing the office twice to the Conservatives before retiring in 1948. His final three terms spanned the entirety of the Second World War. In 1940 King passed the National Resources Mobilization Act which conscripted men to home defense within Canada. In 1944 King announced that these conscripted men would be sent to fight overseas, and 12,908 conscripts were sent overseas to fight before Germany’s surrender in May 1945. King is also responsible for the Japanese internment camps, which forced approximately twelve thousand Japanese Canadians into captivity during the war. After the war, King oversaw Canada’s entry into the United Nations in 1945, another step away from localism, and now toward globalism.
King’s illiberalism was not only apparent in his foreign policy. During his tenure King enacted several interventionist policies which spanned multiple facets of Canadian life. In media, King founded the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) and the Film Board of Canada, a publicly funded broadcast service and a publicly funded media producer, respectively. In industry, King nationalized the Bank of Canada and gave Trans-Canada Airlines (now Air Canada) a monopoly on cross-Canada flights. In labor, King introduced national unemployment insurance, which funneled tax dollars from those who worked to those who didn’t.
Only two generations after the 1837 rebellion, the Canadian left looked nothing like its origin. They traded austerity for extravagance, free competition for monopoly, and localism for globalism. The Liberal Party has not looked back since King. Liberal prime minister Pierre-Elliott Trudeau suspended habeas corpus, the right to a trial, during the October Crisis in 1970, instituted the National Energy Program, which fixed the prices of Canadian oil, and entered into the international environmental treaty, the Montreal Protocol. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien, campaigned against the secession of Quebec, invaded Afghanistan, and signed the Kyoto Agreement.
Now, Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau, leads the Liberal Party and the country down the same big government path that was laid out for him by his predecessors. He’s suffocated western industry with the cancellation of the Northern Gateway Pipeline and a proposed ban on single-use plastics and bound Canada to the Paris Agreement, the international environmental compact. If Canadians want a return to the radical classical liberalism of the Clear Grits, they aren’t likely to find it in the Liberal Party.