Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The name of this party will strike many as an oxymoron. Yet it unintentionally catches something of the party's essence. It has been a coalition of ardent supporters of the free market system and minimal government, and of those (the so-called Red Tories) who have an organic view of society and believe that the state has an obligation to preserve social harmony and to take care of those who cannot easily fend for themselves.

The party came into being in 1854 and was known subsequently as the Conservative Party, until it added the "Progressive" in 1943. Their new federal leader, John Bracken, who for twenty years was premier of Manitoba, insisted on the change. He had been a Progressive, but never a Conservative, until he assumed the party's leadership. Also commonly known as the Tories or the PCs, the party is closest in ideology to the Republican Party in the United States and the British Conservatives (the terms PC, Conservative, and Tory are used interchangeably here). The party was the dominant player in national politics from 1867 to 1896 and spent thirty years in power in the twentieth century. The Progressive Conservatives have been, until recently, the chief rival to the Liberals.

In the Prairie Provinces the party has generally been laissez-faire in economics, socially conservative, skeptical of the ability of government to bring about positive change, and strongly supportive of free trade. (It was a Progressive Conservative national government that negotiated the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States which came into effect in 1989.) However, the Red Tory element has not been absent, and the party has often been infused with a streak of populism. One example of the former would be Duff Roblin, premier of Manitoba from 1958 to 1967, and of the latter, John Diefenbaker from Saskatchewan, prime minister of Canada from 1957 to 1963.

The Conservative Party in Manitoba was in existence from 1883, being favored by many settlers from Ontario. The party was in power from 1900 to 1915 under the leadership of Sir Rodmond Roblin, a relatively progressive Conservative for his day. However, his government fell in 1915, the result of a financial scandal involving the construction of the legislative building in Winnipeg. Although the party survived, and served in a coalition government during World War II and its aftermath, not until 1958 did it again form a government on its own. Ironically, it was Sir Rodmond Roblin's grandson, Duff Roblin, who came to power in that year. He is widely regarded as perhaps the greatest of all Manitoba premiers. He is credited with breaking the province's Depression mentality and in expanding access to education and other services. Perhaps his most enduring monument is the Floodway, a huge dike around Winnipeg, which has several times saved the city from flooding. The pcs have held office on a number of occasions since Roblin left office. Their premiers have been Walter Weir (1967-69), Sterling Lyon (1977-81), and Gary Filmon (1988-99). Filmon was regarded as a more moderate figure than his two predecessors.

The party has been much less successful in Saskatchewan at the provincial level, though the unique personality and appeal of John Diefenbaker at the federal level made the province for a while the most loyal source of Tory support. In fact, only three times since the province entered Canadian Confederation in 1905 has the party formed the provincial government. J. T. Anderson had the misfortune to win power in 1929. Saskatchewan was hit as badly as any jurisdiction in North America by the Depression, a situation compounded by several years of drought. So, after Anderson's defeat in 1934, the Conservative Party was virtually moribund for years while the Liberals and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (later, the New Democratic Party) took turns in office.

In 1982, however, the general Prairie dislike of the federal Liberals undermined support for that party at both levels of government and, after eleven years of New Democratic Party rule, Saskatchewan voters concluded that it was time for a change. So, Grant Devine became the first Tory premier in forty-eight years. Devine's was a generally centrist government. It combined laissez-faire policies (such as the privatization of some public enterprises) with activism (an expansion of the rural hospital system). Devine was defeated by the New Democratic Party in 1991. Since then, the party's reputation has suffered from revelations that several of its cabinet and caucus members, while in office, enriched themselves by illegal means. Thus, there is a rather grim joke in the province that the headquarters of the Saskatchewan PC Party are to be found in the local penitentiary.

Alberta is a profoundly conservative province, where dedication to free enterprise and limited government is stronger than elsewhere. Indeed, Alberta is regarded as the most "American" of provinces. Though the Conservatives did not form a government there until 1971, sixty-six years after the province's entry into Confederation, ideologically conservative parties have been triumphant. The United Farmers of Alberta formed the government from 1921 to 1935, and Social Credit from 1935 to 1971. In the latter year, the old-fashioned image of the government and the widespread desire for change resulted in the election of the Progressive Conservatives under the leadership of Peter Lougheed (1971–85), one of the most charismatic figures in Prairie politics in the last half-century.

Under Lougheed, Alberta's vast economic resources were fully tapped, an equitable pricing agreement for oil and natural gas reached with the federal government, the province's standing in the country enhanced, a Heritage Fund (money set aside for future contingencies) established, and Alberta transformed into a modern economy and society. Frequently at odds with the federal government, Lougheed won repeated reelection with huge majorities. The pcs were still in office in 2001. Lougheed's successors were Don Getty (to 1992) and Ralph Klein since Getty's departure.

Alberta and Manitoba provide a good comparison of the varieties of Canadian and Prairie conservatism. In Alberta, the politics of the Progressive Conservative Party have often been reminiscent of the more radical elements of the Republican Party in the United States. Manitoba's Progressive Conservatives have tended to be more moderate and centrist.


Geoffrey Lambert University of Manitoba

Campbell, Colin, and William Christian. Parties, Leaders and Ideologies in Canada. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1995: 25–65.

Friesen, Gerald. The Canadian Prairies: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

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