The Conservative Party's Dramatic History - Dundurn
Nov 24, 2022

The Conservative Party's Dramatic History

Canadians can be forgiven for struggling to keep track of who’s leading the Conservative Party of Canada. Between 2015 and 2022, Andrew Scheer, Erin O’Toole, and Pierre Poilievre each fought internal dissent, duplicity and high palace intrigue in efforts to succeed Stephen Harper and lead the party to electoral victory.

This is not, however, the first time the federal Conservative party has provided Canadians with prime-time-worthy drama.

Just three months after leading his Conservative party to a fourth-straight general election victory in March 1891, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald died in office. Religious intolerance, however, prevented the Old Man’s most capable heir, the Roman Catholic justice minister John Thompson, from succeeding him, and forced a reluctant compromise candidate, Senator John Abbott, to assume the reins of office from the Red Chamber while Thompson led the government in the Commons.

Abbott and Thompson were a good team. They cleaned up several scandals inherited from Macdonald and forced the resignation of two senior ministers caught up therein — Hector Langevin and Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau. Voters were impressed. In a remarkable string of by-elections that began in December 1891, nineteen Conservatives wrestled seats away from Liberal incumbents and twenty-one of twenty-three Conservatives retained their ridings. The victories proved to Protestant Conservatives that Thompson could win elections regardless of his religion. Not surprisingly, when poor health forced Abbott to resign in November 1892, no one opposed Thompson’s ascension to office.

Two years later, Thompson died – dramatically, of a heart attack whilst lunching in the Octagon Room in Windsor Castle. By that point in the beleaguered life of Canada’s Seventh Parliament, the Governor General Lord Aberdeen thought it best to appoint a caretaker administration until a general election could be held in the spring of 1895 and voters could provide a fresh mandate to either a reconstructed Conservative party or Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals. Aberdeen’s choice to lead Canada’s 6th Ministry was another senator, seventy-one-year-old Mackenzie Bowell.

Plans for a quiet caretakership were dashed in January 1895 when the courts ruled that the Manitoba government had violated Roman Catholics’ constitutional rights by abolishing the province’s separate school system. Catholics in Quebec demanded that Bowell force Manitoba to restore the schools; Ontario Protestants warned him to keep his hands off.

Backed into a corner, Bowell tried three times to negotiate a solution to the Manitoba schools question over the course of 1895, but in the end chose to introduce remedial legislation to force a resolution. It was a divisive and costly decision. By January 1896, seven of Bowell’s cabinet ministers had become convinced that Bowell had tarnished the Conservative brand and they set in motion a plan to force Canada’s fifth prime minister to resign and make way for a new leader who they believed could revive party fortunes in time for the coming election—the old Warhorse of Cumberland, Sir Charles Tupper.

Is there anything present-day Conservative party leader Pierre Poilievre should learn from this tumultuous period? Perhaps. Like Mackenzie Bowell, Mr. Poilievre is inclined to take hard, principled stands on controversial issues. If he hopes to avoid the kind of very Canadian coup which unseated Mackenzie Bowell, though, he must not to let these positions divide his caucus, estrange aspirant cabinet colleagues, or alienate voters in the lead-up to the next general election.  Pay heed, Mr. Poilievre. The politics of leading the Conservative Party of Canada continues to be fickle business.

Ted Glenn is a professor at Humber College and writes about Canadian government and history. He divides his time between Grey County and Toronto. Learn more about A Very Canadian Coup here.