Goin' Down the Coalition Road
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Goin’ Down the Coalition Road

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Why is Bob Rae so happy? The Globe and Mail, June 19, 1985.

Throughout the current election campaign, Conservative leader Stephen Harper has blasted the opposition parties for conspiring to form a “reckless” coalition government that would ruin the nation’s stability, despite his own participation in talks to form an alliance in 2004 with horrifying socialists in the NDP and unholy separatists in the Bloc Québécois. While the long-term results of Harper’s fear-mongering and of other candidates’ denials regarding their willingness to form governing alliances are yet to be determined, it is not necessarily true that a coalition would result in disaster. Heck, if it wasn’t for a coalition, Harper might not be campaigning to retain his role as Canadian prime minister.
Since the colonies that formed Canada gained responsible government in the mid-19th century, coalitions, or written accords between parties, occasionally dotted the political landscape. The following three examples show the benefits and pitfalls of forming ruling alliances: one formed a nation, one nearly tore it apart, and one broke four decades of uninterrupted rule by the same party.


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Three figures of the Grand Coalition: Sir John A. Macdonald, George Brown, and Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché. Library and Archives Canada.


Government: The Great Coalition
When: 1864 to 1867
Where: The United Province of Canada, composed of Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Quebec)
Parties involved: Pretty much everyone—Clear Grits, Liberal-Conservatives, Bleus, and some Rouges
Leaders: Premiers John A. Macdonald (Canada West), Étienne-Paschal Taché, followed by Narcisse-Fortunat Belleau (Canada East)
Why: Deadlock. The government of the United Province was designed so that, instead of dividing seats by population, each half had equal representation. Unfortunately, like a relationship on the rocks, one half frequently disagreed with the other. By the dawn of the 1860s, the double majority that was effectively required to pass legislation rarely occurred, which led to a succession of short-lived governments. Frustration grew in English-dominated Canada West over its proportion of seats, as its population surpassed that of French-dominated Canada East. When the movement toward uniting the British North American colonies gained steam, a committee headed by Clear Grit leader George Brown looked into the constitutional difficulties the United Province faced. A crisis point was reached when a government headed by Liberal-Conservatives Macdonald and Taché fell by two votes on June 14, 1864. Rather than grant a dissolution of the legislature, Governor General Lord Monck suggested that the fallen government leaders talk to Brown. Despite his deep enmity toward Brown, Macdonald insisted that he be brought into any new government. When Macdonald announced the proposed coalition a few days later, the legislators, as historian W.L. Morton described in his book The Critical Years, reacted with joy:

The House, wearied of piecemeal and sterile politics, wearied of a prolonged crisis, rose cheering, and leaders and backbenchers alike stumbled into the aisles and poured onto the floor. The leaders shook hands and clapped shoulders; with a spring the little Bleu member for Montcalm, Joseph Dufresne, embraced the tall Brown and hung from the neck of the embarrassed giant. The tension of years of frustration broke in the frantic rejoicing.

Results: Within a few months, the coalition organized conferences in Charlottetown and Quebec City to woo the Maritime colonies into a permanent union. Under the new government framework, seats in the House of Commons were roughly divided by population. Once confederation was achieved in 1867, the coalition dissolved to fight for seats in the Dominion of Canada’s first federal election.

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A typical cartoon from the Unionist camp during the 1917 election campaign. The Telegram, December 14, 1917.

Government: The Union Government
When: 1917 to 1921
Where: Dominion of Canada
Parties involved: Conservatives, pro-conscription Liberals, a few independents
Leaders: Prime Ministers Robert Borden (1917 to 1920) and Arthur Meighen (1920 to 1921)
Why: As the First World War entered its fourth year, casualties among Canadian troops outpaced the number of fresh volunteers. Under pressure from Great Britain (which experienced two coalition governments during the war) to provide more manpower, Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden determined that, despite the objections he knew would arise from farmers bemoaning the loss of family labour and Quebec voters who despised military officials who refused to create French-only battalions, conscription was required. Borden hoped for support from all parties when a conscription bill was introduced in May 1917 and began coalition talks with Liberal leader Wilfrid Laurier. A sticking point was Laurier’s wish to hold an overdue election as a referendum on the issue (Canadians should have voted in 1916, but Borden received a year’s reprieve from the governor general due to the conflict), which Borden felt would be a waste of energy better expended for the war effort.

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Harsh words directed at the “quitters” in Quebec, along with the extension of the federal vote to women for the first time (under certain conditions), are among the highlights of this Unionist ad. The Telegram, December 10, 1917.

By the end of August 1917, conscription was law. Despite objections from some highly partisan members of the Tory caucus (whom Borden felt lacked “the spirit which prompted our young men to cross the sea and go over the parapet. All of them are backward and cowardly”), Borden assembled a cabinet in mid-October that included a handful of pro-conscription Liberals and independent MPs. When an election was called, Borden’s coalition ran under the Unionist banner against Liberals still loyal to Laurier. During the campaign, Unionist propaganda demonized Quebec and anyone else who didn’t support conscription, and tarred Laurier for forcing an election the country didn’t need. To warp the vote their way, the government enfranchised female relatives of soldiers and disenfranchised anyone who emigrated to Canada after 1902 from certain so-called enemy nations. After the votes were cast on December 17, the Unionists won 153 seats. The Liberals won all but three of the 65 seats in Quebec, but only captured 20 outside of la belle province.
Results: Conscription proved problematic, as most conscripts sought exemptions to service (which led the government to cancel all exemptions in April 1918), and riots broke out in Quebec. After the war ended, the government continued to wield a heavy hand as it attempted to crush postwar outbreaks of labour unrest such as the Winnipeg General Strike. After Borden’s retirement in 1920, new Prime Minister Meighen hoped to forge the coalition into a new permanent party and campaigned during the following year’s election under the banner of the National Liberal and Conservative party. It wasn’t to be, as Meighen finished third behind William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberals and the new Progressive party. Long term, Quebec proved its capacity for a long memory by refusing to provide the majority of its federal seats to the Tories until John Diefenbaker’s landslide victory in 1958. During the Second World War, the Conservatives again proposed a coalition government, but King refused to go along.

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David Peterson and Bob Rae sign the accord under which they soon governed Ontario. The Toronto Sun, May 29, 1985.

Government: Liberal-NDP Accord
When: 1985 to 1987
Where: Ontario
Parties involved: Liberals, New Democrats
Leaders: Premier David Peterson, NDP leader Bob Rae
Why: After 42 years in power, the wheels fell off the Big Blue Machine. Whether it was due to the Progressive Conservative party’s rightward shift under new leader Frank Miller, outrage from the party base over outgoing Premier William Davis’s announcement of full funding for Catholic schools to grade 13, or general fatigue with the party having been in power for so long, May 2, 1985, was not a good night for Ontario Tories. Though the Tories wound up with the most seats, the seat numbers (52 PC, 48 Liberal, 25 NDP) made it all but impossible for Miller to provide a functional government. With Bob Rae in a kingmaking position, talks began between the NDP and the other parties. Though the progressive party traditionally found the Liberals more odious than the Tories, the rightward tilt of the government-in-waiting Miller was assembling (which included fresh-faced ministers Ernie Eves, Mike Harris, and Bob Runciman) made Liberal leader David Peterson a more attractive partner. Key NDP officials were nervous about forming a proper coalition, worried that the party would be subsumed into the Liberal fold or experience heavy losses in the following election as the federal NDP had after it propped up Pierre Trudeau’s government from 1972 to 1974. An accord was reached whereby for two years Peterson would be premier, the NDP would not trigger any non-confidence votes, and both parties would support legislation for programs ranging from reforming rent regulations to pay equity for women.
On June 18, 1985, the Miller government was defeated on a non-confidence vote over its throne speech. After his defeat, Miller launched a vicious attack on the opposition, suggesting that Peterson and Rae were engaged in unnatural acts to kill his government, and that Ontario would be “held economic hostage by a Liberal and NDP lynch mob.” He also noted that the NDP had “prostituted themselves for power” and warned that the accord would be the party’s death warrant. The next day, Miller advised Lieutenant-Governor John Black Aird to ask Peterson to form a government instead of dissolving the legislature for another election.
Results: As per the accord, legislation for pay equity and other issues of shared importance to the Liberals and the NDP passed, and Ontarians were spared an election for two years. Peterson reaped the benefits of the accord, as he led the Liberals to a landslide victory in 1987. Though the NDP lost four seats, Bob Rae became leader of the opposition thanks to a total collapse of the Tories under Miller’s successor Larry Grossman.
Additional material from The Critical Years: The Union of British North America 1857-1873 by W.L. Morton (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1964), Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter, 2009), Rae Days by Thomas Walkom (Toronto: Key Porter, 1994), and the June 19, 1985 editions of the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star.

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