Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The three Prairie Provinces are often regarded as a single entity. In fact, their political histories and voting patterns are quite different.

When Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870, its population was mainly Métis. By the turn of the century the dominant group was of Ontario British stock. Later waves of immigration from eastern Europe (especially the Ukraine) and, more recently, from South and Southeast Asia and parts of Latin America added diversity to the social fabric and political culture of the province. It was, however, the Ontario immigration that had the most profound effect on Manitoba politics.

Manitoba is the most politically competitive of the three provinces and arguably the least likely to support radical new parties. In common with other provinces, Farmer and progressive parties did well in the period between the two world wars. However, since the late 1950s the major trends have been the habitual weakness of the Liberals (who last won a Manitoba provincial election in 1953) and the regular alternation in office of the New Democrats and the Progressive Conservatives. In the eight elections between 1969 and 1995, only twice was a government granted a majority of more than five seats in the fifty-seven-member legislature. The New Democrats and Progressive Conservatives have each formed the government after four of those elections. On only one occasion have the Liberals done well enough even to form the Official Opposition.

It has been argued that a diagonal line can be drawn across Manitoba, cutting right through the capital city and dividing the province into two political regions. The Progressive Conservatives' loyal base has been among the largely Anglo-Saxon and Mennonite farmers of the province's southwest and the business and professional communities of the south end of Winnipeg. North of the line are the descendants of the later-arriving ethnic communities who settled on the less-productive land and who tend to vote center-left. Parties win or lose elections depending on their ability to win seats straddling the line.

Saskatchewan has been described as "social democratic." It felt the Ontario influence less than did Manitoba and has had a larger measure of British, eastern European, and American immigration. Its "left-wing" tendencies are demonstrated by the fact that the New Democratic Party and its predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, have held power most of the time since 1944. In a province of small cities and towns, the New Democratic Party, as in Manitoba, does best in the larger communities, but here it also does well in rural areas. Saskatchewan was probably the province worst hit by the Depression, and it has a long history of cooperatives and other collective action in the farming community. The major challenger has been the Liberals. The Progressive Conservatives have formed only two governments since the Depression.

Alberta is commonly regarded as the most "American" of Canadian provinces. Its early settlers (many of them indeed midwestern Americans) brought with them more individualism (and evangelicalism) than was to be found in the other two provinces. The prosperity brought by the oil, gas, and agricultural sectors (Alberta is the wealthiest and lowesttaxed Canadian province) has bred an American-style distaste for government, and as a result basic conservatism is more acceptable there. By contrast, the other Prairie Provinces are less vibrant economically and more dependent on federal government largess.

Alberta has a history of electing parties to power for long periods and with huge majorities. The Liberals held office from the province's entry into Confederation in 1905 until 1921. The United Farmers of Alberta then held office until 1935. Social Credit (a mix of social conservatism, populism, free enterprise, and unorthodox monetary doctrine) then held office for thirty-six years, sustained in power by the booming oil industry. The old-fashioned image of the party and a desire for change led to their replacement by the Progressive Conservatives in 1971. They still held office in 1998. Social Credit has disappeared, the New Democratic Party is weak outside Edmonton and the north, and the Liberals have only recently revived as a viable alternative.

What the three provinces have in common is the greater strength of the right-of-center in the rural areas, the left-of-center in urban core areas, and a relatively high level of competition in the suburbs. Ethnicity is also a factor. Further, the substantial First Nations vote, if mobilized, has tended to go center-left in all three provinces. Where the provinces differ most is in the relative strength of the left-right forces and in the particular parties that have served as a mouthpiece for different interests.

There is perhaps greater affinity among them when one examines voting for the federal House of Commons. All three provinces, to a greater or lesser extent, share the belief that the West has been badly treated by governments dominated by Central Canada (Ontario and Quebec). There have been disputes over resource policy, government discretionary spending, tariff policy, boundaries, and the status of Quebec and the French language, among others. For the last forty years the Liberals (who have been in power nationally most of the time) have enjoyed only occasional support on the Prairies, Alberta being especially resistant to Liberal allures. Even at the height of Liberal popularity elsewhere, the Prairies have remained unimpressed. Both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democratic Party have had strong representation (though the latter has been weak in Alberta). The long-simmering aftermath of the ill-fated CF-18 decision in 1986 (a highly controversial aircraft maintenance decision) manifested itself in the dramatic rise of the Reform Party in the elections of 1993 and 1997. Reform, founded in 1987, favors neoconservative economics and social conservatism. The long-dominant Progressive Conservatives won no seats in the region in 1993, and only one in 1997. The New Democratic Party won a small number of seats, while the Liberals did best in Manitoba.

Geoffrey Lambert University of Manitoba

Dyck, Rand. Politics in Canada: Towards the Turn of the Century. 3rd ed. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1995.

Wiseman, Nelson. "The Pattern of Prairie Politics." In Party Politics in Canada, 5th ed., edited by Hugh G. Thorburn. Scarborough, Ontario: Prentice-Hall, 1985: 242–59.

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