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Liberal Party

For the first thirty-nine years of its history, the Liberal Party dominated Saskatchewan politics. After 1944 and the coming to power of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the Liberal Party entered a slow electoral decline, reversed only between 1964 and 1971, when it returned to power under Ross Thatcher, a former Moose Jaw CCF member of Parliament turned free-enterprise convert. In the era of its greatest victories - between 1905 and 1944 it won 74% of all constituency contests - Saskatchewan's Liberal Party presented itself as a friend of the farmer and the “non-English” settler. As opposed to the conservative Liberals of central Canada, and especially Quebec, or the “statist” provincial governments of Alberta and Manitoba, the Saskatchewan Liberals promoted co-operative, self-help policies, most famously in the government's financial support for the Saskatchewan Co-operative Elevator Company: by World War I, the elevator company had become the world's largest grain handling facility, a success for which the province's Liberals took credit, but for whose operation they refused direct responsibility.

By 1921 the sweep of Saskatchewan's settlement and its burgeoning population had made the province the third largest in Canada and thus a political prize in national politics. Through its mastery of organizational detail, the Liberal Party delivered crucial seats to federal Liberals, who might count on Quebec loyalists to repeatedly win that province's seats but who faced a divided electorate in Ontario. The Saskatchewan Liberal organization became well known for its machine-like operation - patronage-based and leadership-focused. Saskatchewan's first two Premiers, Walter Scott and William Martin, sat in Parliament before entering provincial politics; the next Premiers, Charles Dunning and J.T. Gardiner, reversed the process, leaving Regina for Ottawa and senior Cabinet portfolios. In these decades Saskatchewan offered the best illustration of the textbook theory that national parties through their provincial wings helped unify Canada.

The world changed for the Saskatchewan Liberals when they were removed from power in 1929 by a coalition of political forces helped by the newly arrived Ku Klux Klan, which attacked the governing party for policies it termed insufficiently patriotic. While the Liberals were in opposition, economic depression undermined world grain prices and Drought destroyed the assumptions that sustained the original settler society. These calamities eventually passed; more ominous for the Liberals was the entrenchment of the CCF, which had arisen (initially under the name Farmer-Labour) as a protest against the injustices of capitalism and the existing party system. Unlike the Liberals, who had no other doctrine than economic prosperity and their own political perpetuity, the CCF assumed office with an economic and social program that guided their actions (and those of their successor, the NDP) for the rest of the century. They also believed in planning, and to this end transformed the largely patronage-based public service into Canada's first provincial professional service.

In this new commonwealth, the Liberals found themselves cast as conservatives. As if conforming to the role thrust upon them, they distrusted the new, expert bureaucracy and advocated less government and more private enterprise. While opinion was never monolithic in caucus or among supporters, its direction became clear by the late 1940s and never altered. Ross Thatcher's government reinforced the hostility to CCF policies, and at the same time distanced the provincial from the federal Liberals, who were themselves promoting national Medicare.

Disillusionment with federal Agricultural Policy under Pierre Trudeau and loss of public confidence in the provincial party's ability to replace the governing NDP directed voter discontent toward a new alternative governing party: the Progressive Conservatives (PC). The return of the NDP to power in 1991 and the collapse of the PCs in scandal provided a momentary revival for the Liberals; but subsequent internal discord split the caucus, with disaffected Liberals joining a rump of Tories to form the Saskatchewan Party. Following the 1999 election, the legislative remnant of Liberals coalesced for a time with the NDP; in the 2003 election, no Liberal candidates won a seat. From being the party that dominated government and then the opposition, the Liberal Party of Saskatchewan entered the province's second century excluded from the Legislature.

David E. Smith

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Further Reading

Smith, D.E. 1981. The Regional Decline of a National Party: Liberals on the Prairies. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
This web site was produced with financial assistance
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.