Liberalism in Canada

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Liberalism has been a major trend in Canadian politics since the late 18th century. Canada has the same features of other liberal democracies in the Western democratic political tradition. This article gives an overview of liberalism in Canada. It includes a brief history of liberal parties with substantial representation in parliament. Canadian liberalism is different from the American use of the term, as it contains ideas such as support for economic liberalism.

Liberalism in Canadian history

Historically, Canada has had two liberal phases. Prior to the 1960s, Canadian politics were classically liberal, i.e., there was a focus on individual liberty, representative government, and free markets. This brand of liberalism can be traced to the arrival in Canada of the United Empire Loyalists and the enactment of the Constitutional Act of 1791. The Constitutional Act established representative government through the elected assemblies of Upper and Lower Canada. While the Loyalists were faithful to British institutions and opposed to American republicanism, they were committed to North American ideals of individual liberty and representative government. This brand of liberalism was prominent through the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier, which advocated such policies as free trade with the United States, and beyond.

The second liberalism began, roughly, in the 1960s with the election of Lester B. Pearson as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and can be traced through the politics of Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chrétien, and Paul Martin. This liberalism is what is properly called in a global context social liberalism, or what contemporary North American use of the word signifies as liberalism: liberal democracy, social justice, social progressivism, Third Way, multiculturalism, diplomacy in foreign policy, and a regulated free market economy (during the Trudeau era the Liberals arguably supported a mixed economy). In this second sense, the Liberal Party of Canada is presently one of the more liberal political parties in the Americas. By contrast, prior to the 1960s, the Liberal Party was one of the most liberal parties in the world in the first sense.

There is argued to be a third phase of liberalism emerging that is centred on a more sustainable form of politics. The argument is that action is needed to ensure that the environment, economy, and social elements of society will function not only in the short term, but long term as well. If action is not taken on all of these pressing issues then it can cause a direct threat to our freedoms. This emerging new liberalism is centred on an ideal of 'timeless freedom' which seeks to preserve the freedom of future generations through proactive action today. This would extend both positive and negative rights and responsibilities to future generations.