Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The National Progressive Party of Canada was born of frustration and expired in futility. At bottom it was an attempt to achieve regional economic goals at the national level through third-party political action in a traditionally two-party context. The grain growers of the Canadian Plains and their rural allies in Ontario participated in provincial politics as well and with much greater success.

The first small shipment of wheat for export left the Prairies in 1876. But it was not until the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the mid-1880s that the agricultural potential of the area began to be realized. It was capable of producing, in extraordinary quantities, the best hard wheat in the world. For the individual producer, however, it was a costly progress from farm gate to final sale. Along the way lurked predators of many kinds taking their profits from the value of the farmer's wheat. First were the bankers who provided his credit. Then came the local elevator or storage companies, the grain dealers on the Winnipeg Exchange, the railways, the terminal elevators, the shipping lines, the insurance brokers, the importers, and the millers. The international price of the farmer's bushel of wheat had to satisfy them all. To the individual grain grower, the most vulnerable link in this chain, the game seemed loaded against him.

It was the impotence of the individual farmer that drove them together. In 1902 they formed the Territorial Grain Growers Association, and, after Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces in 1905, they as well as Manitoba created provincial organizations. For most farmers the critical question was control of production costs. They had to sell their wheat in an uncontrollable world market and buy all their necessities from protected industries in Central Canada. Effective cost control would depend, ultimately, on political action on the tariff.

With the protectionist Conservatives in power in Ottawa after 1911, the western farmers could expect little relief from that direction. When the Nonpartisan League won North Dakota in 1916, Canadian farmers began to dream of a third-party assault on Ottawa. That same year, the Canadian Council of Agriculture, a lobby group, issued the Farmers' Platform demanding lower tariffs, tax reform, and public ownership of transportation and communication facilities.

The move toward independent political action was stalled by the exigencies of the World War I and the disruption of the world wheat market. With Argentina and Australia out of the game because of shipping shortages and submarine threats, Canada and the United States had little choice but to negotiate with Britain a fixed price for wheat and compel all their producers to participate in a regulated market. As it turned out, the price was well above prewar prices. A coalition government was formed by the ruling Conservatives and most Liberals in Canada to prosecute the war vigorously on a nonpartisan basis. The western grain growers gave their support, and their most prominent leader, T. A. Crerar, president of United Grain Growers, a successful farmer-owned cooperative, entered the cabinet as minister of agriculture.

Crerar had not abandoned his low-tariff principles. He made it clear to the prime minister, Sir Robert Borden, that if the government maintained high-tariff policies after the war, he could no longer remain in the cabinet. When the Union government introduced its budget in the late spring of 1919, it contained no provisions for lower tariffs. Crerar promptly resigned and was immediately joined by ten others. They began calling themselves Progressives and were in the unusual position of having a parliamentary delegation before any such party was organized in the country.

The following year the National Progressive Party was formally organized, Crerar was confirmed as leader, and a refurbished Farmers' Platform was their banner. Across the Prairies and in rural Ontario they seemed to carry all before them. When the Union government called a federal election in late 1921, the Progressives permanently disrupted Canadian politics. For the first time since Confederation in 1867 there was a credible third party on the national scene. The Liberals, with a plurality of seats in the House of Commons, formed the country's first minority government. The Progressives had won sixty-five seats and thus became the second-largest group in the House. They declined the role of Official Opposition, to which they were entitled, because they were hamstrung by their own rather confused ideology. Crerar could never enforce party discipline on this "restless and unreliable band."

Largely because they were unwilling and unable to exploit their balance of power position, the Progressives were not successful in national affairs. Prime Minister Mackenzie King quickly realized that the Progressives would never support the high-tariff Conservatives and thus he had little to fear from them. His position, though tenuous, was nevertheless secure. There were inconclusive negotiations about an arrangement between Liberals and Progressives, but King would not commit himself to lower tariffs and risk his Montreal support for undependable assurances from Crerar. The latter, for his part, could not organize his followers into a disciplined political force. So on their major issue of tariff reform, the Progressives gained little. They were able to secure the restoration of favorable freight rates on grain shipments, known as the Crow's Nest Pass rates. It was their only significant achievement.

A year after the election, Crerar resigned the leadership of the Progressive Party. There were personal reasons for his decision, but it was also evident that he had grown discouraged by the internal divisions of the party. As the Progressives disintegrated, the grain growers of the Prairies were turning once again to economic action to serve their needs. The new pooling movement swept them in a new direction. In the election of 1925 they were reduced to twenty-four seats. Most of them drifted into the Liberal Party until only a small group of less than a dozen, known as the "Ginger Group," remained in the House.

What had these angry farmers accomplished? They formed a minority government briefly in Ontario and they came to dominate the politics of the Prairie Provinces, ensuring attention to their demands. On the national level, they ended the two-party system in Canada and forced the restoration of favorable freight rates. Western dissent became an enduring factor in Canadian politics.

J. E. Rea University of Manitoba

Laycock, David. Populism and Democratic Thought in the Canadian Prairies, 1910 to 1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990.

Morton, William Lewis. The Progressive Party in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1950.

Rea, J. E. T. A. Crerar, A Political Life. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1997.

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