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Progressive Party

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Canada underwent a period of social reform during which various groups offered their own sets of solutions to address the many problems that attended the rise of an increasingly urban and industrial society. Amongst these reform efforts was the so-called Progressive Movement, which sought to protect agrarian interests by challenging national economic policies which they believed supported the commercial and financial interests of central Canada at their expense. Although farmers had openly talked of creating a third party after the defeat of the Liberals and their policy of reciprocity in 1911, they remained loyal to the traditional parties as part of their support for the war effort on the understanding that conditions would improve for them. However, when the Union Government failed to implement legislation favourable to farmers, including removal of the national tariff, the movement took concrete political expression with the formation of the Progressive Party in 1920. Led by Thomas A. Crerar, who had earlier resigned from the federal Cabinet in 1919 as Minister of Agriculture, the Progressive Party united dissident Liberals in Ontario and prairie farmers to promote free trade, nationalization of the railways, and direct democracy. Under Crerar, the Progressives broke the two-party pattern of federal politics in the 1921 federal election by winning 65 seats and forming the second largest party in Parliament. Yet despite this initial success, the Progressives were unable to overcome deep internal divisions, and by 1930 they had all but disappeared as an effective national political force; remnants from the party joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932, and others linked with the federal Conservatives to form the Progressive Conservative Party in 1942.

The Progressives’ inability to remain viable at the national level mirrored developments in Saskatchewan. Since 1905, the Saskatchewan Liberal Party had cultivated farmers’ support—thereby dampening farmers’ demands for independent political action—by appointing prominent members from the Saskatchewan Grain Growers Association (SGGA) to the provincial Cabinet, and by consulting with the SGGA before implementing legislation affecting the province’s farmers. Provincial Liberal efforts to mollify the farmers’ political movement were further reinforced by Premier W.M. Martin’s decision to sever all ties with the federal Liberals in 1920, and by his appointment of J.A. Maharg, a Progressive MP and prominent farm leader, to the provincial Cabinet in 1921 just months before the provincial election, which the Liberals won handily in June. Nevertheless, the Progressives managed to elect six members to the Legislature, a considerable achievement given the absence of a provincial organization. However, during the course of the 1921 federal election, held in December, Martin angered the SGGA when he supported a federal Liberal candidate rather than a Progressive candidate in the Regina riding. Charging Martin with bad faith, Maharg subsequently resigned, and the SGGA—which had long resisted direct political activity—soon authorized the creation of a committee to assist provincial constituencies in organizing for political action. But while Saskatchewan Progressives took 15 of 16 seats in the 1921 federal election, the Progressives were never able to build upon their initial success in 1921, electing just six members in the 1925 provincial election, and only five members in 1929.

The Progressives’ failure to form a government in Saskatchewan can be attributed to a number of factors, including amongst other things the SGGA’s decision to withdraw from active political participation in 1924, which undermined the Progressives’ organizing capabilities, as well as the return of agricultural prosperity in the late 1920s, which in turn undercut the appeal to farmers of a third party protest movement. The Progressives’ inability to take power in the province may also be attributed to the emergence of Charles Avery Dunning, who had the necessary credentials to remind Saskatchewan farmers that the provincial Liberal Party was in fact a farmers’ party. Dunning, elected leader of the Liberal Party and Premier of Saskatchewan in 1922 following Martin’s resignation, and himself a successful farmer, had earlier served as vice-president of the SGGA as well as general manager of the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company, which provided farmers with loans and grants to establish their own Grain Elevators. Given this background, Dunning could present himself as one of the Grain Grower’s own, a declaration made all the more credible when, shortly after being elected, he asked the SGGA for copies of all resolutions passed at their annual conventions since 1918, presumably as a guide for future government policies and in order to buttress his argument that the welfare of the farmers rested not upon the creation of a third party, but on their ability to influence existing political organizations. In effect, then, Dunning sought to discredit the farmers’ political movement without seeming to discredit the SGGA itself, a strategy that appears to have worked given the SGGA’s subsequent decision to withdraw from politics. With the SGGA now adopting a neutral political stance, and with the Progressives in disarray, Dunning’s appeal to an agrarian electorate appeared unassailable as he led the Liberals to a series of successive by-election victories before winning the 1925 provincial election with a solid majority. However, Dunning soon accepted a portfolio in Mackenzie King’s federal Cabinet, and J.G. Gardiner was subsequently sworn in as Premier.

In the 1929 provincial election that followed, the Liberals were relegated to minority government status, with the largest opposition party formed not by the Progressives, but by a newly revived Conservative Party headed by J.T.M. Anderson. Given their failure to achieve electoral gains, the Progressives soon allied themselves with Anderson and forced the Liberals from office on September 6, 1929, leaving the government in the hands of the Conservatives and cementing a Progressive-Conservative alliance in the province that lasted until 1934. Yet the demise of the Saskatchewan Progressives was not sealed until February 1930, when the United Farmers of Canada, Saskatchewan Section—the result of an amalgamation of the SGGA and the Farmers Union of Canada in 1926 and from which the Progressives hoped to draw support— decided that a new political party should be created to represent the interests of farmers. In the wake of this decision, the Progressive Party in Saskatchewan ceased all activities, and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation eventually came into being.

Damian Coneghan

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Further Reading

Archer, J. 1980. Saskatchewan: A History. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books; Barnhart, Gordon (ed.). 2004. Saskatchewan Premiers of the Twentieth Century. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center; Brennan, J.W. 1969. “Charles Dunning and the Challenge of the Progressives: 1922–1925,” Saskatchewan History 22 (1): 1–12; Calderwood, W. 1968. “The Decline of the Progressive Party in Saskatchewan, 1925–1930,” Saskatchewan History 21 (3): 81–99.
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