Leadership Conventions

You may have noticed over the past few months (as of this posting) that there has been many news stories about leadership races. There is a federal leadership campaign underway with the Liberal party, there is a provincial leadership campaign for the Liberals in Ontario, one for the NDP in Saskatchewan, and Liberals in Manitoba.

As such, I thought that a primer on leadership conventions would make a good post…

The party system in Canada has evolved since Confederation from a two-party system to a three party system to the multi-party system we know today.

The evolution of parties themselves in Canada is an interesting history. The methods of party-leader selection and party conventions are much different today than in the time of Sir John A. Macdonald.

In fact, while we are used leadership conventions to select leaders today, back in 1891 when Macdonald died while in office, there was no ‘race’ to replace him: Sir John Abbott was chosen from among his colleagues in the Conservative party to lead the party and become prime minister. Then, when Abbott retired due to ill health, Sir John Thompson was chosen by his caucus colleagues. And when he died while having lunch with Queen Victoria, Mackenzie Bowell was chosen to replace him. There was no convention, no race in the sense of the word that we know it today.

Interestingly, there have been only two times in our history where a party leader has been senator. They are also the only two senators in Canadian history to have become Prime Minister: Sir John Abbott and Sir Mackenzie Bowell

Prior to 1919, political parties (and more specifically, the caucuses of MPs and Senators sitting in Parliament) decided who would be their party leader, chosen from among their ranks. Sir Wilfrid Laurier would change this.


Laurier instituted the precursor to the national party conventions we have today (Historica-Dominion Institute, n.d.). As a man whose work in public service was so dedicated to Canadian nationality and unity that he is often considered the First Canadian, one can assume that this move was an attempt to bring new ideas, policy and organization to his Liberal party, unifying members from across the country.

However, before the delegates could assemble, Laurier passed away, and so the party secretariat decided to use the opportunity and the newly-minted forum, to select a new party leader. William Lyon Mackenzie King would go on to become the first party leader in Canada to be selected by delegates at a convention (Ibid).

Leadership (and other) party conventions are more democratic and unifying, a way to get ordinary party members involved in the decision-making process of their party. As such, membership rates increased with this new mechanism.

At its most basic, each constituency is given a number of delegates-who are elected by the local riding association- to be sent to the convention. Each delegate votes by secret ballot. Often, a leader cannot be identified after the first vote if there are several candidates. After each successive round (or ballot), the candidate with the least amount of votes is dropped from the ballot. Candidates can choose to either a.) endorse another candidate and ask their pledged delegates to vote for that person; or b.) release their pledged delegates to vote for whomever the delegate wants. The candidate who receives a clear majority (usually 50% +1) of the votes becomes leader. this is known as a multi-ballot convention (Ibid.)


Unlike American leadership conventions which are held every 4 years even if the leadership choice is known ahead of time (as in the case of a sitting president who faces no challenge from another party member), Canadian leadership conventions are not regularly held. Mackenzie King, for example, was leader of the Liberals for thirty years (22 of which as Prime Minister)! However, by common practice, party leaders (particularly successful ones i.e. those who have been elected as prime minister or premier) stay on for 8-10 years with certain exceptions.

Moreover, like the period up until the 1960s where it was difficult to remove a leader (an in Canada it is particularly difficult to remove a PM or premier), there are periodic leadership reviews, procedures for which differ from party to party (Makarenko, 2010).


Courtney, J. (2012). Leadership conventions. Retrieved from http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/articles/leadership-convention

Makarenko, J. (2010, June 01).Political parties and the party system in Canada: History, operation and issues. Retrieved from http://www.mapleleafweb.com/features/political-parties-and-party-system-canada-history-operation-and-issues


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