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The Curious Case of Centrism in the Maritimes: A History of Progressive Conservatism in the East

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

By: Luke Montalbano

John Crosbie was one of many beloved Maritime Progressive Conservative politicians. Like most other politicians from this distinctive region of Canada, John Crosbie was a moderate who believed strongly in social liberalism and fiscal conservatism. Photo Credit: The CBC.

It is not too far from the truth to say that the Maritimes have always had a different political dynamic than the rest of Canada. For centuries, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and Newfoundland and Labrador have been reliant on fisheries for their economic development and as a result, each province is made up predominantly of small villages and towns scattered around the coastline and the surrounding islands. Of course, the communal dynamic such a population distribution creates is wholly different from what can be found in Ontario, the Prairies, or in British Columbia, which has historically been either urban centres or farming communities. This certainly is a generalization of the developments these provinces and regions have seen, but it is safe to say that such a generalization is certainly accurate, particularly in the historical context of this discussion.

Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were two of the founding members of what was the Dominion of Canada, having already established a long history in the historical region of British North America. Although the Anti-Confederationists led by Joseph Howe swept Nova Scotia in the first Canadian election in 1867, this bloc dissolved soon after, with the majority of the elected Members of Parliament joining the MacDonald government or the Liberal opposition. From 1871 onward, the Maritimes (P.E.I., New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia until 1949) would flip between Liberal and Conservative by relatively narrow margins. However, by 1949 and upon Newfoundland and Labrador joining the Dominion of Canada (the province was formerly a dependent territory of the U.K.), the Liberals had been able to assert control over the Maritimes by, in many cases, upwards of 15-point margins in the popular vote. At the time, the Liberal Party of Canada was viewed as the most viable centrist option in Confederation, as the Conservatives (then, the Progressive Conservatives) had shifted their policies more to the right in an attempt to appeal to farmers and religious voters who had moved to the relatively right-wing Social Credit Party.

This trend persisted until John Diefenbaker, a centrist Progressive Conservative (P.C.), came to power in 1957, sweeping each Maritime province with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador (his financial policies of loosening monetary policy also appealed widely to the fisheries-based Maritime workers). A year later, the minority government fell and another election was called. Diefenbaker continued his campaign as a centrist Progressive Conservative which ultimately resulted in the largest majority government in Canadian history up to that point and a sweep of Nova Scotia, P.E.I., and a strong showing in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador. Although just over five years later, Diefenbaker’s centrist government would fall, the Maritimes would remain in play for the Progressive Conservatives, as they shifted more to the centre. In 1967, the Progressive Conservatives elected Robert Stanfield, a Member of Parliament from Nova Scotia, as leader all but ensuring the Maritimes would fall solidly into the hands of the P.C.’s; they did. In the 1968 election, despite Stanfield losing by a substantial margin in the general election, he was able to sweep the popular vote of each province in the Maritimes, once more tapping into centrist attitudes to shore up support in the region.

In the 1984 election, the same story repeated itself but under a new leader. Federal P.C. leader Brian Mulroney swept the Maritimes (as he did with every province and territory in this election) but the Progressive Conservative Party’s time with this region was running out. In 1988, the Maritimes swung back in favour of the Liberal Party in spite of the fact that Mulroney won a majority government. Indeed, the final nail in the coffin in the lead-up to the 1993 federal election seems to be the cod moratorium put in place by the federal government. In that next election, the Progressive Conservative Party was reduced to a mere 2 seats nationwide and was only able to hang onto one seat in the Maritimes and one seat in Quebec as a result of two very popular candidates. Although the Progressive Conservatives would bounce back in the Maritimes in the 1997 election under the leadership of Jean Charest, their support would once more begin to wane as the party became less and less of an impactful entity on the federal level.

Since the merger of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Reform/Alliance Party at a federal level, the Conservative Party has not been able to re-assert a strong presence in the Maritimes (with the sole exception of the 2011 federal election). Throughout the three elections between 2015 and the time of the publication of this article, the Conservative Party has been unable to win the popular vote in a single province in the Maritimes at a federal level. However, in the same period, provincial Conservative parties have successfully won majority governments (in many cases, by blistering margins) in all provinces but Newfoundland and Labrador. I attest this to a unique mix of a strong sense of Progressive Conservative/centrist conservative policy at a provincial level and a level of ignorance by the federal Conservatives toward the needs of the Maritimes at a federal level. Indeed, when P.C. Premier Tim Houston came to power, it was only a month in advance of the Canadian federal election–one in which the Conservative Party was unable to break through in the province.

My Personal Thoughts: General Knowledge and Societal Awareness sets the Maritimes Apart.

The politics of the Maritimes feel nostalgic in the sense that the form of policies that they are generally most supportive of are reminiscent of the centrist policies that encompassed much of Canadian politics in the latter half of the 20th century; elsewhere in the country, these types of policies are not vocally appreciated to nearly the same extent. In my travels in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, I noticed that these beliefs came from a profound sense of groundedness amongst those inhabiting these provinces–each person I had the opportunity to meet fully understood the history, economy, and political climate of the province regardless of their background. It seems to me that this way of life is being lost as our country pushes the need for each individual to specialise in one particular sector or industry, rather than understand the background of the region in which they live. No longer does it seem that governments, educational institutions, or workplaces regard well-roundedness or general knowledge as an asset; many seem to believe that a venture to obtain an expansive understanding of one’s society simply distracts from the work needed to be done to achieve the weekly quota of hours, production, or profit. Of course, this is simply my perspective on some challenges facing Canadians outside of the Maritimes and I do not intend in any way to generalise. However, I do criticise the institutions that have bred the specialisation of intellect. Yet, somehow, the Maritimes have managed to overcome such faults, which has bred a highly unique political climate.

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