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Conservative Party of Saskatchewan

The Conservative Party has played a significant role in Saskatchewan politics since the beginning, although it has rarely been successful electorally; in fact, it has won only three of twenty-four elections since 1905, has suffered through decades as a “third” party in a competitive two-party province, and has changed its name several times in an attempt to broaden its appeal. Quite often it has been leaderless, without enough candidates or money to provide credible competition to its rivals, and today is one short step from oblivion. The history of the party falls into three distinct eras, which describe not only its electoral competitiveness but also the major changes in its philosophy and policies. The first of these, from 1905 to 1934, was the party’s “traditional” period, during which it focused its attention on issues of major concern to conservatives all across the west: immigration, Education, and natural resources. Indeed, those three sections of the federal legislation which brought Saskatchewan into Confederation so upset the first Conservative leader, Frederick Haultain, that he changed the name of the party to “Provincial Rights,” and fought the 1905 and 1908 elections promising to rewrite these sections more in Saskatchewan’s interests. Although the party reverted to the name “Conservative” for the 1912 election, Haultain and the two men who followed him as leader—Wellington Willoughby and Donald Maclean—continued to campaign for greater provincial control over immigration as well as the province’s resources and education system. However, neither these issues nor any others could shake the Liberal Party’s grip on power and the Conservatives’ share of seats in the Legislature dwindled from 32% to 5% over the five elections held between 1905 and 1921.

It was not until the party chose J.T.M. Anderson as its leader in 1924 that Conservative fortunes began to brighten. Anderson was prepared to co-operate with anyone opposed to the Liberals, and by the election of 1929 had united the most important of these groups behind single candidates in several constituencies. At the same time he was also able to use the racial and religious animosity created by the Ku Klux Klan to bring the customary Conservative issues of immigration and education to the forefront of the campaign, as well as attack the Liberals for their continued failure to gain control of the province’s resources. The Conservatives did not win the most seats in 1929, but they won enough to defeat the Liberals in the Legislature with the help of the Progressive and Independent MLAs. Once Premier, Anderson negotiated within a year a transfer of the province’s resources from Ottawa to Regina, and also altered the School Act to ensure the predominance of English and the non-sectarian nature of Saskatchewan’s public schools. Unfortunately for the Conservative party, Anderson’s “Co-operative government” took office just as the Great Depression began: when they faced the electorate in 1934, not a single Conservative nor any supporter of the government won a seat.

Thus began the second period in the history of the Conservative party of Saskatchewan—one of frustration, decline, and unremitting electoral defeat. In the nine elections held between 1938 and 1971, the Conservatives elected only one member (in 1964) and the party sank as low as 2% of the popular vote. Nevertheless, this also proved to be the most “progressive” era in the party’s history. Forced to meet the growing threat from the new CCF, the Conservatives adopted in the late 1930s a radical platform which called for state intervention in a host of areas ranging from protection of the family farm to the provision of medicare. Anderson’s successor, John Diefenbaker, first used the new platform in the 1938 election; it continued to be used, adapted to changing circumstances, by all the leaders who followed him until the end of the period: Rupert Ramsay, Alvin Hamilton, Martin Pederson, and Ed Nasserden. During this time, however, despite changing its name to “Progressive” Conservative, the provincial party was no longer a viable contender for power: it had been supplanted by the CCF, and elections were now fought between the Liberals and the CCF (later the NDP). The Conservative party was no longer seen as a realistic alternative to either of its rivals.

Several factors led to a resurgence of the Conservative Party in the 1970s—the beginning of the third period in its history. The success of the national party in the 1950s and 1960s finally spilled over into provincial politics, and Saskatchewan Liberals suffered from their links to the Trudeau government in Ottawa, which showed itself unresponsive to western concerns. Internationally, the philosophy of less government and more private enterprise achieved some success in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and Ronald Reagan’s America; and two new, dynamic leaders of the provincial party—Dick Collver and Grant Devine—adopted this “neo-conservatism” wholeheartedly. Collver rejuvenated the party and made it the major alternative to the ruling NDP by the late 1970s. Devine built on this success, led the party to an overwhelming victory in 1982, winning over four-fifths of the seats in the Legislature, and held on to power, albeit with a reduced majority, in 1986. By 1991, however, a steady diet of Privatization and cuts to social programs, together with an ever-increasing provincial debt, alarmed sufficient voters to defeat the government. Shortly thereafter, many former Ministers and Conservative MLAs were charged with fraud and misuse of public funds, and several were convicted. Neither of Devine’s successors, Rick Swenson or William Boyd, could convince voters that the Conservative party deserved another chance at power, and at the 1995 election only five of fifty-eight Conservatives won seats. Two years later, a party conference decided to cease all activities for the next two provincial elections, after which time a further judgment would be made as to whether the party should be revived. In these circumstances, Boyd and the remaining Conservative MLAs joined with a like number of disaffected Liberal members to form the Saskatchewan Party. The success or failure of this experiment will most probably determine the fate of the Conservative party in Saskatchewan in the foreseeable future.

Patrick Kyba

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Further Reading

Pitsula, J.M. and K. Rasmussen. 1990. Privatizing a Province: The New Right in Saskatchewan. Vancouver: New Star Books.
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provided by Western Economic Diversification Canada and the Government of Saskatchewan.
University of Regina Government of Canada Government of Saskatchewan Canadian Plains Research Center
Ce site Web a été conçu grâce à l'aide financière de
Diversification de l'économie de l'Ouest Canada et le gouvernement de la Saskatchewan.