Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Liberal Party is a usually left-of-center Canadian political party that has formed the government at various times at the provincial level in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and it was the governing party of the whole country for the majority of the twentieth century.

Manitoba was the first new province to join the original four in Confederation in 1867, and it did so in part because of pressure from a Métis provisional government headed by Louis Riel and in part to fulfill Ontario's dreams of western expansion. Its early years are therefore characterized by a latent sense of resentment against the central government and attempts to fashion the province in the image of Ontario. Manitoba's first Liberal premier, Thomas Greenway, for example, was an ardent promoter of Ontario emigration, and during his administration from 1887 to 1899 he reshaped the frontier landscape into a mini-Ontario. This included, most importantly, putting an end to the system of provincially run Catholic schools that had served the early francophone and Metis population of Manitoba and replacing it with a virtual monopoly for the Protestant school system. The Liberal Party in Manitoba failed to have much success after Greenway's government. Liberals fused with the more left-wing Progressives in 1932 and formed a coalition government first under John Bracken and then under Stuart Garson in 1943. With the end of the coalition, Douglas Campbell, an erstwhile Liberal, held the premier's offoce from 1948 until 1958, but he was criticized for his conservative policies that were not in line with traditional Liberal ideals. Politics in Manitoba tend to be dominated by either the far left or the right, so the Liberal party of the center has generally failed to attract much support.

Political parties were relatively slow to come to the Great Plains of Canada. Before being divided into provinces in 1905, the area known as the Northwest Territories had a territorial government at Regina that was strictly nonpartisan. Influenced by such organizations as the Nonpartisan League in the United States, territorial officials had refused to divide themselves into the Liberals and Conservatives that were the accepted political parties in the rest of the country. The transition to provincial status, however, forced political parties upon the new governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan and ensured the early preeminence of the Liberal Party.

In carving provinces out of territories, a number of structural changes had to be made that affected the political development of the two provinces. Two of the key appointments, made by prime minister of Canada Wilfrid Laurier, were the positions of lieutenant governor for the two provinces. These men would then be responsible for appointing the first premiers of the provinces prior to the establishment of the appropriate electoral machinery. In appointing as lieutenant governors people with known Liberal Party sympathies, Laurier effectively ensured that the new governments of the provinces would also be Liberal. Thus began the early period of Liberal dominance in provinces previously committed to the principles of nonpartisanship.

In Alberta, the Liberal Party remained in power from 1905 until 1921, when it was replaced by a group of loosely organized farmers who were upset with the growing corruption within the Liberal Party and the government's inability to deal with the agricultural recession in the wake of World War I. With a strong sense of nonpartisanship and close ties to agricultural associations in the United States, the United Farmers of Alberta established a government that was in many ways reminiscent of the territorial period. Other similar organizations called United Farmers appeared elsewhere in the country in the 1920s and formed the government in a number of provinces. In Saskatchewan, however, the Liberal Party continued to hold power through the 1920s, in part by appointing the chief proponent of the United Farmer movement, William Motherwell, as minister of agriculture in the Liberal government, effectively silencing the opposition of farmers. The era of Liberal dominance in Saskatchewan ended briefly in 1929 with the election of a Conservative government, but the party returned to power for another decade in 1934. By 1944, however, the Liberal Party in Saskatchewan was increasingly regarded as too conservative, and it was replaced with North America's first socialist government under the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

The Liberal Party in Alberta and Saskatchewan has never matched the success of its period in office immediately following the provinces' entry into Confederation. Alberta has not elected a Liberal government since World War I, although the party continues to attract some support and has formed the Official Opposition. In Saskatchewan, Liberals were again elected to form the government in 1964, although the party under Ross Thatcher was regarded as more conservative in its position on government intervention in the economy than is normal for the Liberals.

In addition to being a provincial political party, the Liberal Party is also a national party, although there is often no organizational relationship between Liberals at these two levels of government. Voters in Alberta and Saskatchewan were originally strong supporters of the Liberal Party at the national level, even after the party was no longer in power at the provincial level. The west gave solid support to Laurier at the beginning of the century, continued to vote for the national Liberals under Mackenzie King in the 1920s and between 1935 and 1948, and supported the party through the Louis St. Laurent administration of the 1950s. This support was rewarded: a number of Liberal politicians from the region, such as James Gardiner and Charles Dunning, subsequently found key positions within the national Liberal governments of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. By 1957, however, westerners were disillusioned with the national Liberal party, finding it dominated by the people and the needs of Central Canada and neglecting issues that would have particular resonance in the Great Plains. The Liberal agricultural policy was regarded as especially weak, a problem the party seems curiously unable to rectify. Thus, the Liberals have found little support in the Prairie Provinces since the 1960s, rarely electing more than one or two politicians from all of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

P. E. Bryden Mount Allison University

Smith, David E. Prairie Liberalism: The Liberal Party in Saskatchewan, 1905–1971. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1975.

Smith, David E. The Regional Decline of a National Party: Liberals on the Prairies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1981.

Thomas, Lewis G. The Liberal Party in Alberta: A History of Politics in the Province of Alberta, 1905–1921. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1959.

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