The Reform Party of Canada was founded in 1987 by Preston Manning, son of a former Alberta premier, as a right-wing populist party with strong regional support in western Canada, especially Alberta and British Columbia. Over the next few years the party steadily grew, reaching its zenith in the Canadian election of June 1997, when it won sixty seats (out of a total of 301), thus making it Her Majesty's Official Opposition to the victorious Liberal Party.
The Reform Party's immediate rise stemmed from disgruntlement on the part of a number of prominent western conservatives with the policies of the governing federal Progressive Conservative Party. Reform's cultural and ideological roots, however, were much older. Reform espoused populist notions of direct democracy (referendums, initiatives, and recall), brought to the Canadian West in the early part of the twentieth century by farmers' parties from the American Midwest. Like these parties, much of Reform's appeal arose out of a sense of regional economic and political alienation. Reform's populism, however, was also textured by other, later contacts with the American Great Plains. Particularly influential were American oil companies and their personnel from the states of Texas, Oklahoma, California, and Louisiana who developed Alberta's oil industry after 1947 and who infused that province's local political culture with beliefs supportive of free enterprise, low taxes, and minimal government. Reform was the vehicle for this right-populist and moral conservative tradition in Canada, much as the Republican Party is in the United States.
At the same time, Reform's appeal can only be understood in the specific context of social and political changes that occurred in Canada after the 1960s, including a series of wrenching federal-provincial constitutional conflicts. The Reform Party was particularly opposed to Canada's official policies of bilingualism and multiculturalism, continued high levels of immigration, and "special interest" groups. It was Reform's staunch opposition to the granting of special constitutional status to Quebec, however, that garnered the party its greatest political support.
Reform failed to win a seat in the 1988 Canadian election. Between 1990 and 1992, however, a series of failures to ratify changes to Canada's constitution threatened a political crisis. Quebec separatism was on the rise; public anger and anxiety outside of Quebec escalated. In this highly charged emotional context, Reform support rose dramatically.
In the 1993 Canadian election, Reform won fifty-two seats. All but one of Reform's victories were in the West: twenty-two seats of twenty-six in Alberta, twenty-four of thirty in British Columbia, four in Saskatchewan, and one in Manitoba. Reform's lone "nonwestern" seat was in Ontario. The results left Reform as Canada's third party, behind the governing Liberals and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, who formed Canada's Official Opposition party.
After 1993 Reform attempted to broaden its national appeal. While the party remained fiscally conservative, it toned down its regionalist rhetoric and attempted to soften its image as intolerant of minorities. These efforts brought mixed results in the election of 1997. Though the party garnered Official Opposition status, it seemed more than ever trapped in its western base. In this context, Manning and others renewed efforts to unite Canada's right wing and create a national alternative to the governing Liberals. In the spring of 2000 Reform Party members voted to transform the party into the Canadian Alliance Party. Subsequently, a new leader was chosen, Stockwell Day, a former Conservative politician in Alberta. Later that same year, Day's Alliance Party won sixty-six seats, repeating Reform's success in becoming the Official Opposition to the victorious Liberals. Again, however, the party's support was largely confined to its western bastion. Moreover, its success was short-lived, as Day and the party quickly fell in the polls amid infighting and widespread perceptions of ineptitude. Alliance's public humiliation made many yearn for a resurrection of its Reform predecessor.
Trevor Harrison University of Alberta
Flanagan, Tom. Waiting for the Wave: The Reform Party and Preston Manning. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Company Ltd., 1995.
Harrison, Trevor. Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995.