Liberalism in Canada

Liberalism has been a major trend in Canadian politics since the late 18th century. Canada has the same features of other liberal democracies in the Western democratic political tradition. This article gives an overview of liberalism in Canada. It includes a brief history of liberal parties with substantial representation in parliament. Canadian liberalism is different from the American use of the term, as it contains ideas such as support for economic liberalism.

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Liberalism in Canadian history

Historically, Canada has had two liberal phases. Prior to the 1960s, Canadian politics were classically liberal, i.e., there was a focus on individual liberty, representative government, and free markets. This brand of liberalism can be traced to the arrival in Canada of the United Empire Loyalists and the enactment of the Constitutional Act of 1791. The Constitutional Act established representative government through the elected assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada. While the Loyalists were faithful to British institutions and opposed to American republicanism, they were committed to North American ideals of individual liberty and representative government. This brand of liberalism was prominent through the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, which advocated such policies as free trade with the United States, and beyond.

The second liberalism began, roughly, in the 1960s with the election of Lester B. Pearson as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and can be traced through the politics of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin. This liberalism is what is properly called in a global context social liberalism, or what contemporary North American use of the word signifies as liberalism: liberal democracy, social justice, social progressivism, Third Way, multiculturalism, diplomacy in foreign policy, and a regulated free market economy (during the Trudeau era the Liberals arguably supported a mixed economy). In this second sense, the Liberal Party of Canada is presently one of the more liberal political parties in the Americas. By contrast, prior to the 1960s, the Liberal Party was one of the most liberal parties in the world in the first sense.

There is argued to be a third phase of liberalism emerging that is centred on a more sustainable form of politics. The argument is that action is needed to ensure that the environment, economy, and social elements of society will function not only in the short term, but long term as well. If action is not taken on all of these pressing issues then it can cause a direct threat to our freedoms. This emerging new liberalism is centred on an ideal of 'timeless freedom' which seeks to preserve the freedom of future generations through proactive action today. This would extend both positive and negative rights and responsibilities to future generations.

Liberal parties

Liberal parties developed in both the French and English speaking parts of Canada, and led to the formation of the Liberal Party of Canada. Liberal parties exist on a provincial level, but while they mostly share similar ideologies, not all provincial parties are officially affiliated with the federal party.

In Canada, a "capital-L" liberal refers to the policies and ideas of the Liberal Party of Canada/Parti Libéral du Canada (member LI), the most frequent governing party of Canada for the last century and one of the largest liberal parties around the world. The Quebec Liberal Party (Parti libéral du Québec) combines liberalism with more conservative ideas. Only federal parties are included in the following timeline. For inclusion in this scheme, it isn't necessary for parties to have explicitly labelled themselves as a liberal party.


Canadian Party / Patriot Party / Red Party

  • 1806: Liberals in the Francophone part of Canada formed the Canadian Party (Parti Canadien)
  • 1826: The party is renamed Patriot Party (Parti Patriote) and is led by Louis-Joseph Papineau
  • 1848: The party is further reorganised into the Red Party (Parti rouge)
  • 1867: The PR merged into the present-day Liberal Party of Canada

Reform Party

  • 1841: The Upper Canada Reform Party is formed
  • 1855: Radical members formed the Clear Grits.
  • 1867: The Reform Party merged into Liberal Party of Canada

Clear Grits / Liberal Party of Canada

  • 1855: Radical members of the Reform Party formed the Clear Grits
  • 1867: The Clear Grits merged with the Reform Party, the Red Party and provincial liberal parties into the present-day Liberal Party of Canada

Current status

In addition to the federal party, each province and the Yukon territory has its own Liberal Party; however, those in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec are no longer affiliated with the federal party. The British Columbia Liberal Party is notably centre-right and often described as a "free enterprise coalition", with supporters from both the federal Liberal and Conservative parties.[1] Under their system of consensus government, political parties are not recognized in the territories of Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

Federal, provincial and territorial Liberal Parties
Federal party Last election Seats/Total Status Leader
Liberal Party of Canada 2019 157/338 (House)
9/105 (Senate)
Governing Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada
Affiliated parties Last election Seats/Total Status Leader
New Brunswick Liberal Association 2018 21/49 Official Opposition Kevin Vickers
Liberal Party of Newfoundland and Labrador 2019 20/40 Governing Dwight Ball, Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador
Nova Scotia Liberal Party 2017 27/51 Governing Stephen McNeil, Premier of Nova Scotia
Prince Edward Island Liberal Party 2019 6/27 Third Party Robert Mitchell (interim)
Unaffiliated parties Last election Seats/Total Status Leader
Alberta Liberal Party 2019 0/87 No seats David Khan
British Columbia Liberal Party 2017 42/87 Official Opposition Andrew Wilkinson, Leader of the Opposition
Manitoba Liberal Party 2016 3/57 Third party Dougald Lamont
Ontario Liberal Party 2018 5/124 Third party John Fraser (interim)
Quebec Liberal Party 2018 29/125 Official Opposition Pierre Arcand (interim), Leader of the Opposition
Saskatchewan Liberal Party 2016 0/61 No seats Naveed Anwar
Yukon Liberal Party 2016 11/19 Governing Sandy Silver, Premier of Yukon
Former party Details
Northwest Territories Liberal Party No longer any recognized political parties due to consensus government.

Liberal leaders

Parti Patriote

Clear Grits

Parti Rouge

Liberal Party of Canada

Prominent Liberals



Governor General of Canada

Liberal thinkers

  • Mario Bunge - Argentinian-Canadian professor of philosophy.
  • Matthew Kalkman - author of New Liberalism.
  • Michael Ignatieff - political philosopher and former leader of the federal Liberal Party.
  • Will Kymlicka - Canadian liberal thinker included in Contributions to liberal theory
  • Jan Narveson - Canadian political philosopher and defender of libertarianism, or classical liberalism, currently Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Waterloo


  1. McElroy, Justin (May 6, 2017). "Why the B.C. Liberals are sometimes liberal and sometimes not". CBC News. Retrieved August 13, 2019.

See also

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