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This article covers the history of the New Democratic Party of Canadamarker.

20th century

Origins and early history

In 1956, after the birth of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) by a merger of two previous labour congresses, negotiations began between the CLC and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) to bring about an alliance between organized labour and the political left in Canada. In 1958 a joint CCF-CLC committee, the National Committee for the New Party (NCNP), was formed to create a "new" social democratic political party, with ten members from each group. The NCNP spent the next three years laying down the foundations of the New Party. During this process, a large number of New Party Clubs were established to allow like-minded Canadians to join in its founding, and six representatives from New Party Clubs were added to the National Committee. In 1961, at the end of a five-day long Founding Convention which established its principles, policies and structures, the New Democratic Party was born and Tommy Douglas, the long-time CCF Premier of Saskatchewan, was elected its first leader. In 1960, before the NDP was founded, one candidate, Walter Pitman, won a by-election under the New Party banner.

The influence of organized labour on the party is still reflected in the party's conventions as affiliated unions send delegates on a formula based on their number of members. Since approximately one-quarter of the convention delegates have recently been from affiliated labour groups, after the party changed to an Every Member Vote method of electing leaders in leadership races, labour delegate votes are scaled to 25% of the total number of ballots cast for leader.

Trudeau minority

Under the leadership of David Lewis (1971-1975), the NDP supported the minority government formed by Pierre Trudeau's Liberals from 1972 to 1974, although the two parties never entered into a coalition. Together they succeeded in passing several socially progressive initiatives into law such as pension indexing and the creation of the crown corporation Petro-Canada.

In 1974, the NDP worked with the Progressive Conservatives to pass a motion of non-confidence, forcing an election. However, it backfired as Trudeau's Liberals regained a majority government, mostly at the expense of the NDP, which lost half its seats. Lewis lost his own riding and resigned as leader.

Height of popularity

Under the leadership of Ed Broadbent (1975-1989), the NDP played a critical role during Joe Clark's minority government of 1979-1980, moving the non-confidence motion on John Crosbie's budget that brought down the Progressive Conservative (PC) government, and forced the election that brought Trudeau's Liberal Party back to power.

In the 1984 election, which saw the Conservatives win the most seats in Canadian history, the NDP won 30 seats, only one behind the 31 it won in 1972. The governing Liberals were decimated, falling to 40 seats in what was at the time the worst defeat of a sitting government at the federal level. The NDP fared far better than expected, considering the Tories won the biggest majority government in Canadian history. Third parties historically do not do well in landslide election contests. More importantly, they were only 10 seats behind the Liberals--the closest before or since the party and its predecessors ever got to one of the two major parties, and the best performance for a third party in almost 60 years. This led to some talk that Canada was headed for a UK-style Tory-Labour division, with the NDP pushing the Liberals into oblivion. Afterwards, Broadbent himself consistently out-polled Liberal leader John Turner and even Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.

On July 20, 1987, the NDP swept three by-elections in Newfoundland, Ontario, and the Yukon, picking up two formerly Conservative seats and holding one NDP seat. These by-elections brought Audrey McLaughlin to the House of Commons as the MP for Yukon.

The NDP elected a record 43 Members of Parliament (MPs) in the election of 1988. The Liberals, however, had reaped most of the benefits of opposing free trade to emerge as the dominant alternative to the ruling government. The Conservatives' barrage of attacks on the Liberals, as well as vote-splitting between the NDP and Liberals, helped them win a second consecutive majority. In 1989, Broadbent stepped down after 14 years as federal leader of the NDP.


At the party's leadership convention, former B.C. Premier Dave Barrett and Audrey McLaughlin were the main contenders for the leadership. During the campaign, Barrett argued that the party should be concerned with western alienation, rather than focusing its attention on Quebecmarker. The Quebec wing of the NDP strongly opposed Barrett's candidacy, with Phil Edmonston, the party's main spokesman in Quebec, threatening to resign from the party if Barrett won. Barrett's campaign was also hurt when his back-room negotiations with leadership rival Simon De Jong were inadvertently recorded by the latter's CBC microphone. In these discussions, De Jong apparently agreed to support Barrett in exchange for being named House Leader, but he changed his mind at the last minute and supported McLaughlin instead, announcing his endorsement of her before the vote. In the course of his discussion with Barrett, De Jong explained "It's a head and heart thing," i.e., that his head told him to go with Dave while his heart told him to go with Audrey. McLaughlin won the leadership on the fourth ballot, becoming the first woman in Canada to lead a political party.

Although enjoying strong support among organized labour and rural voters in the Prairies, McLaughlin tried to expand their support into Quebec without much success. In 1989, the Quebec New Democratic Party adopted a sovereigntist platform and severed its ties with the federal NDP. Under McLaughlin, the party did manage to win an election in Quebec for the first time when Edmonston won a 1990 by-election. The party had briefly picked up its first Quebec MP in 1986, when Robert Toupin crossed the floor from the Tories after briefly sitting as an independent. However, he left the party in October 1987 after claiming Communists had infiltrated the party.

The NDP chose to align itself with the Conservatives and Liberals on the "yes" side of the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992. Barrett reluctantly endorsed it to comply with party policy (he opposed the Meech Lake Accord in 1987), but later referred to the NDP's support for the Accord as a mistake. Edmonston, a Quebec nationalist, frequently clashed with his own party over this position on Canadian federalism, and did not run for re-election.

The NDP was routed in the 1993 election. It won only nine seats, three seats short of official party status in the House of Commons. Several factors contributed to this dramatic collapse just one election after winning a record number of seats and after being first in opinion polling at one point during the previous Parliament. One was the massive unpopularity of NDP provincial governments under Bob Rae in Ontario and Mike Harcourt in British Columbia. Not coincidentally, the NDP was routed in these provinces; it lost all 10 of its Ontario MPs and 17 of its 19 British Columbia MPs--more than half of its caucus. The Ontario NDP would be soundly defeated in 1995, while the British Columbia NDP recovered and won reelection in 1996.

The NDP was also indirectly hampered by the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives, who were cut down to only two seats. Exit polls showed that 17% to 27% of NDP supporters from 1988 voted Liberal in 1993. It was obvious by the beginning of October that Liberal leader Jean Chrétien would be the next prime minister. However, the memory of 1988's vote splitting combined with the tremendous antipathy toward the PCs caused NDP supporters to vote Liberal to ensure the Conservatives would be defeated. Many voters in the NDP's traditional Western heartland also switched to the right-wing Reform Party of Canada. Despite sharp ideological differences, Reform's populism struck a chord with many western NDP supporters. In Ontario, fear of the Reform Party and anger at Rae helped cause NDP supporters to vote Liberal. Barrett's warnings about Western alienation proved to be prophetic, as the rise of the Reform Party replaced the NDP as the protest voice west of Ontario.

Into the 21st century


The party recovered somewhat under new leader Alexa McDonough, electing 21 New Democrats in the 1997 election. The NDP made a breakthrough in Atlantic Canada, unseating Liberal ministers David Dingwall and Doug Young. The party was able to harness the discontent of Maritime voters, who were upset over cuts to employment insurance and other programs.

Afterwards, McDonough was widely perceived as trying to move the party toward the centre of the political spectrum, in the Third Way mode of Tony Blair. Union leaders were lukewarm in their support, often threatening to break away from the NDP, while Canadian Auto Workers head Buzz Hargrove called for her resignation. MPs Rick Laliberté and Angela Vautour crossed the floor to other parties during this term, reducing the NDP caucus to 19 seats.

In the November 2000 election, the NDP campaigned on the issue of Medicare but lost significant support. The governing Liberals ran an effective campaign on their economic record and managed to recapture some of the Atlantic ridings lost to the NDP in the 1997 election. The initial high electoral prospects of the Canadian Alliance under new leader Stockwell Day also hurt the NDP as many supporters strategically voted Liberal to keep the Alliance from winning. The NDP finished with 13 MPs — just barely over the threshold for official party status.

The party embarked on a renewal process starting in 2000. A general convention in Winnipegmarker in November 2001 made significant alterations to party structures, and reaffirmed its commitment to the left. In the May 2002 by-elections, Brian Masse won the riding of Windsor West in Windsormarker, Ontariomarker, previously held for decades by a Liberal, former Deputy Prime Minister Herb Gray.

Jack Layton elected leader

McDonough announced her resignation as party leader for family reasons in June 2002, and was succeeded by Jack Layton. A Toronto city councillor and recent President of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, Layton was elected at the party's leadership election in Toronto on January 5, 2003, defeating his nearest rival, longtime Winnipeg-area MP Bill Blaikie, on the first ballot with 53.5% of the vote.

Layton had run unsuccessfully for the Commons three times in Toronto-area ridings. In contrast to traditional but diminishing Canadian practice, where an MP for a safe seat stands down to allow a newly elected leader a chance to enter Parliament, Layton did not contest a seat in Parliament until the 2004 election. In the interim, he appointed Blaikie as deputy leader and made him parliamentary leader of the NDP.

2004 election

The 2004 election produced mixed results for the NDP. It increased its total vote by more than a million votes; however, despite Layton's optimistic predictions of reaching 40 seats, the NDP only gained five seats in the election, for a total of 19. The party was disappointed to see its two Saskatchewanmarker incumbents defeated by the Conservatives, both in close races, perhaps due to the unpopularity of the NDP provincial government. Those losses caused the federal NDP to be shut out in Saskatchewan for the first time since the 1965 election, despite obtaining 23% of the vote in the province.

Exit polls indicated that many NDP supporters voted Liberal to keep the new Conservative Party from winning. The Liberals had recruited several prominent NDP members, most notably former British Columbiamarker premier Ujjal Dosanjh, to run as Liberals as part of a drive to convince NDP voters that a reunited Conservative Party could sneak up the middle in the event of a split in the centre-left vote.

The NDP campaign also experienced controversy after Layton suggested the removal of the Clarity Act, considered by some to be vital to keeping Quebec in Canada and by others as undemocratic, and promised to recognize any declaration of independence by Quebecmarker after a referendum. Although this position was consistent with NDP policy, some high-profile party members, such as NDP House Leader Bill Blaikie, publicly indicated that they did not share this view. (Layton would later reverse his position and support the Act in 2006.)

The Liberals were re-elected, though this time as a minority government. Combined, the Liberals and NDP had 154 seats--one short of the total needed for the balance of power. As has been the case with Liberal minority governments in the past, the NDP were in a position to make gains on the party's priorities, such as fighting health care privatization, fulfilling Canada's obligation to the Kyoto Protocol, and electoral reform.

The party used Prime Minister Paul Martin's politically precarious position caused by the sponsorship scandal to force investment in multiple federal programs, agreeing not to help topple the government provided that some major concessions in the federal budget were ceded to. The governing Liberals agreed to support the changes in exchange for NDP support on confidence votes. On May 19, 2005, by Speaker Peter Milliken's tie-breaking vote, the House of Commons voted for second reading on major NDP amendments to the federal budget, preempting about $4.5 billion in corporate tax cuts and funding social, educational and environmental programs instead. Both NDP supporters and Conservative opponents of the measures branded it Canada's first "NDP budget". In late June, the amendments passed final reading and many political pundits concluded that the NDP had gained credibility and clout on the national scene.

2006 election

Jack Layton is the current leader of the NDP.

On November 9, 2005, after the findings of the Gomery Inquiry were released, Layton notified the Liberal government that continued NDP support would require a ban on private health care. When the Liberals refused, Layton announced that he would introduce a motion on November 24 that would ask Martin to call a federal election in February to allow for several pieces of legislation to be passed. The Liberals turned down this offer. On November 28, 2005, Conservative leader Stephen Harper's motion of no confidence was seconded by Layton and it was passed by all three opposition parties, forcing an election. Columnist Andrew Coyne has suggested that the NDP was unlikely to receive much credit for continuing to further prop up the Liberals, so they ended their support for the Martin government.

During the election, the NDP focused their attacks on the Liberal party, in order to counter Liberal appeals for strategic voting. A key point in the campaign was when Judy Wasylycia-Leis had asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Policemarker (RCMP) to launch a criminal investigation into the leaking of the income trust announcement. The criminal probe seriously damaged the Liberal campaign and prevented them from making their key policy announcements, as well as bringing Liberal corruption back into the spotlight. After the election, the RCMP announced the conclusion of the income trust investigation and laid a charge of 'Breach of Trust' against Serge Nadeau, an official in the Department of Finance, while Liberal Finance Minister Ralph Goodale was cleared of wrongdoing.

The NDP campaign strategy put them at odds with Canadian Auto Workers, which had supported an NDP-backed Liberal minority government and which was only backing NDP candidates that had a chance of winning. After the campaign, the Ontario NDP expelled CAW leader Buzz Hargrove from the party (which has a common membership both federally and provincially) for his support of the Liberals.

On January 23, the NDP won 29 seats, a significant increase of 10 seats from the 19 won in 2004. It was the fourth-best performance in party history, approaching the level of popular support enjoyed in the 1980s. The NDP kept all of the 18 seats it held at the dissolution of Parliament (Paul Dewar retained the riding of Ottawa Centre vacated by Broadbent). Bev Desjarlais, an NDP MP since 1997, unsuccessfully ran as an independent in her Churchill riding after losing the NDP nomination. While the party gained no seats in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, or the Prairie Provinces, it gained five seats in British Columbia, five more in Ontario and the Western Arctic riding of the Northwest Territoriesmarker.

Conservative minority

The Conservative Party won a minority government in the 2006 election, and initially the NDP was the only party that would not be able to pass legislation with the Conservatives. However, following a series of floor crossings, the NDP also came to hold the balance of power.

There have been four confidence votes in the current parliament, and the NDP is the only party to have voted against the Conservatives on all of them. These were votes on the United States-Canada softwood lumber dispute, extending the mission to Afghanistanmarker, the 2006 Canadian federal budget and 2007 federal budget. On other issues the NDP has worked with the Conservatives. After forcing the Conservatives to agree to certain revisions, the NDP helped pass the Accountability Act. After the NDP fiercely criticized the initial Conservative attempt at a Clean Air Act, the Conservatives agreed to work with the NDP and other parties to revise the legislation. The NDP also supported the government in introducing regulations on income trust, fearing that trends toward mass trust conversions by large corporations to avoid Canadian income taxes would cause the loss of billions of dollars in budget revenue to support health care, pensions and other federal programs. At the same time, the NDP was also weary of the threat of investor losses from income trusts’ exaggerated performance expectations.

Since that election, the NDP caucus rose to 30 members following the victory of NDP candidate Thomas Mulcair in a by-election in Outremont. This marked the second time ever (and first time in seventeen years) that the NDP won a riding in Quebec. The party won 37 seats in the 2008 federal election, the second most seats won, since the 1988 federal election record of 43.


  1. The evolution of CCF into NDP: 1961 and after
  2. David Lewis - Federal NDP Leader 1971-75 - Biography of David Lewis
  3. History of Federal Ridings since 1867
  4. CBC News Indepth: Ed Broadbent
  5. Barrett, David
  6. CBC News - Indepth Backgrounder: NDP Leadership Race
  7. The New Democratic Party
  8. CBC News Indepth: Budget 2005
  9. | Income trust a major campaign turning point
  10. Canada News Centre - Centre des nouvelles du Canada
  11. Goodale cleared in trust case
  12. Harper agrees to send Clean Air Act to committee

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