07 June 2004

Top 5 Canadian federal elections

Mapleleafweb polled 37 political scientists and historians to try to ascertain which were the 5 most important federal elections in Canada's history. Number 5 was the 1921 federal election, which saw the rise of the first regional party and the first minority government. The countdown continues over the next weeks until election day.

I don't know what the next four will be, but I would judge the elections of 1896, 1926, 1993 and 1980 to be contenders for these spots:

1896 - This election saw the end of the generation-long Conservative dominance that began with Confederation in 1867. It saw Québec move into the Liberal camp for the first time, as well as the first French Canadian prime minister, Sir Wilfred Laurier. It also began the long period of Liberal Party dominance which has yet to run its course.

1926 - This was the election that followed the King-Byng constitutional crisis. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King requested the Governor General, Lord Byng, to dissolve parliament, but Byng refused because a motion of censure against King's government was under debate in the Commons. King thereupon resigned. Byng appointed Conservative leader Arthur Meighen as prime minister, but without enough votes to sustain his minority government, it was soon defeated. King was returned to power in the ensuing election, thus vindicating his government against the Governor General, who at the time represented not only His Majesty the King, but the British government itself.

The Imperial Conference that convened the same year changed the status of the Governor General. Five years later the conference's decisions were ratified in the Statute of Westminster, which saw the transition from Empire to Commonwealth, and effective independence for Canada and the other British dominions.

1993 - This watershed election saw the near decimation of the Progressive Conservative Party under the ill-fated Prime Minister Kim Campbell, who had been Brian Mulroney's successor. In 1984 the Progressive Conservatives had won the largest majority government in Canadian history, but nine years later it was reduced to 2 members in the House of Commons. The separatist Bloc québécois, under its popular leader, Lucien Bouchard, became the Official Opposition, a bizarre position for a party dedicated to the dismemberment of Canada. The Reform Party, the latest western protest party, made its mark for the first time. In the meantime, the Liberal Party, dominant since 1896, looked set to become the only party capable of winning a federal election, thereby eroding the competitiveness of Canada's democracy.

1980 - This was the famous winter election, called after the early defeat of Joe Clark's Progressive Conservative minority government. Liberal leader, Pierre Trudeau, who had announced his retirement the year before, came back with a majority government based almost entirely in central Canada. Trudeau implemented his National Energy Programme, with detrimental effects on the west. This contributed to the rise of the Reform Party. After the first Québec referendum in that year, Trudeau redoubled his efforts to patriate Canada's constitution. He succeeded in 1982, but without the approval of Québec's separatist government. Among the features of the new constitutional package was an entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which empowered the courts at the expense of Parliament. We are living with the consequences of this now.

These are my choices. We'll see what mapleleafweb has in the coming weeks.

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