Clark Is Elected Canada’s Prime Minister

With the election of Joe Clark to the office of prime minister, Canada’s Conservative Party made a temporary dent in Liberal Party control.

Summary of Event

In 1979, Pierre Trudeau had been prime minister of Canada for eleven consecutive years. During those years, he had achieved much in terms of social and economic programs. He was prominent in international circles, having become the most widely known Canadian prime minister up to that time. His popularity at home was beginning to flag, however. In 1976, Trudeau had received a huge boost in the polls when the sovereignist Parti Québécois Parti Québécois came to power in Trudeau’s native province of Quebec. The English Canadian population, especially, hoped that Trudeau, a French Canadian, could convince his fellow Quebecers that it was in their best interest to stay within Canada and that his own status as prime minister was evidence of the lengths to which French Canadians could rise in a united Canada. Several years had passed since the Parti Québécois had come to power, and there was no immediate sign that Quebec planned to investigate sovereignty seriously. In the meantime, Canada’s economy, along with that of the entire Western world, was sluggish, a victim of “stagflation,” in which high inflation and increasing unemployment coexisted. Prime ministers;Canada
[kw]Clark Is Elected Canada’s Prime Minister (May 23, 1979)
[kw]Elected Canada’s Prime Minister, Clark Is (May 23, 1979)
[kw]Canada’s Prime Minister, Clark Is Elected (May 23, 1979)
[kw]Prime Minister, Clark Is Elected Canada’s (May 23, 1979)
Prime ministers;Canada
[g]North America;May 23, 1979: Clark Is Elected Canada’s Prime Minister[03600]
[g]Canada;May 23, 1979: Clark Is Elected Canada’s Prime Minister[03600]
[c]Government and politics;May 23, 1979: Clark Is Elected Canada’s Prime Minister[03600]
Clark, Joe
Trudeau, Pierre
[p]Trudeau, Pierre;parliamentary elections
Broadbent, John Edward
Crosbie, John
MacDonald, Flora (b. 1926)

Trudeau’s Liberal Party faced an invigorated opposition in the Progressive Conservatives (or Tories) in 1979. The Tories’ previous leader, Robert Stanfield, Stanfield, Robert was affable and well respected, but party members thought that Stanfield was perhaps a bit too content to be the number two man—that is, to be leader of the opposition rather than prime minister. His replacement was the young Charles Joseph Clark, known universally as Joe, a vigorous, hard-hitting politician who did not shrink from taking on Trudeau personally during question time in Parliament. Clark was less than forty years old when he led the party into the election—unusually young for a politician in the Western world. Many observers believed that Clark’s youth was just what the Tories needed.

Trudeau, somewhat in the manner of John F. Kennedy in the United States, was unusually charming, charismatic, and debonair for a Canadian politician, and he had tended to make his Tory opponents look old-fashioned and dowdy by comparison. Although Clark looked a bit stiff and unimaginative when compared with Trudeau, he gave the impression of being sharper and more defined. He gave the Progressive Conservatives a good position in the personality battle for the first time since Trudeau’s ascendancy.

Although a fiscal conservative, Clark was socially liberal on some issues, which made him more attractive to undecided voters than his predecessors had been; he put renewed emphasis on the word “progressive” in the name Progressive Conservative. Clark hoped to attract more of the women’s vote than the Progressive Conservatives had in the past. Clark’s wife, Maureen McTeer, had kept her maiden name and was a professional woman of repute. Clark’s shadow cabinet (a list of people who would be ministers if he won the election and was asked to form a government) included as foreign minister Flora MacDonald, one of the most prominent women in Canadian politics.

Trudeau suffered from some family problems in the late 1970’s. His young, attractive wife, Margaret, had grown tired of the political lifestyle, and the couple separated. Margaret Trudeau Trudeau, Margaret was a fixture in Canadian and international gossip columns and was reputed to be romantically involved with other men. Although this did not cause a major diminution in Trudeau’s levels of popular support, it certainly did not enhance his image. Trudeau also fell behind on the issues. This was particularly true in the case of economic issues, as many Canadians came to believe that Clark’s free market policies, ably promoted by John Crosbie of Newfoundland, Clark’s shadow finance minister, were likely to revitalize the Canadian economy. Aware of his problems when it came to economic issues, Trudeau conjured up the idea of an “Economic Olympics” (an image fashioned to appeal to the Canadian public, as the 1976 Summer Olympic Games had been held in Montreal) in which Canada’s economic performance was compared with that of other industrial nations. Many people believed that Trudeau was merely manipulating statistics, however; he was not taking into account the economic malaise felt by Canadians in general.

Foreign policy, seldom an issue in Canadian elections, was also terrain on which Clark seemed to have the advantage. Trudeau had stood for a lessening in Cold War Cold War;Canada tensions with the Soviet Union, to the point where some considered him a neutralist. Clark, in contrast, spoke of a pattern of increasing Soviet aggression around the world. This made him popular among certain constituencies, particularly Ukrainian Canadians in the Prairie Provinces.

Trudeau stressed a less immediate, more abstract issue: the need for constitutional reform in Canada. Although Canada had been independent in fact for decades, the nation’s constitution still was subject to amendment by the British parliament. Trudeau wanted to change this and to develop a constitution that would ensure French Canadians equal rights within Canada, thus solving the country’s linguistic problem as well. Most voters agreed with Trudeau’s ideals, but they were more inclined to vote on the basis of the bread-and-butter issues stressed by Clark.

Canada’s third party, the New Democratic Party, aspired to play an enlarged role in the campaign, but despite the best efforts of the party’s dedicated leader, John Edward Broadbent, the electorate’s attention remained on the two major parties. Although Clark seemed better positioned on the issues, many observers thought that Trudeau could still ride the advantages of incumbency to victory. On May 23, 1979, they were proven wrong, as the Progressive Conservatives took the most seats in the House of Commons and Clark became prime minister. The Progressive Conservatives were particularly helped by Clark’s popularity in the western provinces, which were alienated from Trudeau and his perceived preoccupation with a Quebec-Ontario axis.


Clark’s victory was by no means total. For one thing, Clark did not receive a majority of seats in the House of Commons. The rest of the chamber was divided among several different parties and so did not rally to oppose the Progressive Conservatives as a bloc. As the leader of a minority government, Clark could fall by losing a vote of confidence in which all the other parties opposed him, as happened seven months later.

That Clark and the Progressive Conservatives gained only a minority in the 1979 elections can be attributed to regional divisions. Overall, the Progressive Conservatives won 136 seats; the Liberals, 114; the New Democrats, 26; and minor parties, 7. The strength of the Tories was concentrated in Ontario and the West. In Ontario, the Progressive Conservatives won 57 seats, compared with 32 for the Liberals and 6 for the New Democrats. In the West, the Progressive Conservative success was even more sweeping, with 57 seats compared with 3 for the Liberals (traditionally weak in the West) and 17 for the New Democrats. It was these provinces that were most responsive to Clark’s free market message. In the Atlantic Provinces, the Progressive Conservatives won 18 of a possible 30 seats. In Quebec, they failed miserably, garnering only 2 seats. The westerner, Clark, had no appeal for Quebecers when running against the native, bilingual Trudeau; it would take a Quebec native to win the province for the Tories, as Brian Mulroney did in 1984.

For all the success of his campaign against Trudeau, Clark entered office with only a partial mandate. It soon turned out that the Canadian populace was more excited by the rhetoric of privatization and free market economics than by the actuality. This contributed to the brief tenure of the Clark government and Trudeau’s return to office. Prime ministers;Canada

Further Reading

  • Fotheringham, Allen. Look Ma—No Hands: An Affectionate Look at Our Wonderful Tories. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1983. Entertaining and irreverent look at the party Clark led to power in 1979.
  • Kelly, Fraser. The Canadian Voter’s Guide: Election ’79. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1979. Provides a convenient summary of the primary issues at stake in the 1979 parliamentary campaign.
  • McMenemy, John. The Language of Canadian Politics: A Guide to Important Terms and Concepts. 3d ed. Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2001. Collection of more than five hundred brief essays on a wide range of topics related to the Canadian system of government, Canadian political history, and Canadian laws and legal history.
  • Nolan, Michael. Joe Clark, the Emerging Leader. Toronto: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1978. Campaign biography of Clark.
  • Penniman, Howard, ed. Canada at the Polls, 1979 and 1980: A Study of the General Elections. Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, 1981. Collection of scholarly essays provides analysis of the campaign.
  • Troyer, Warner. Two Hundred Days: Joe Clark in Power—The Anatomy of the Rise and Fall of the Twenty-First Government. Toronto: Personal Library, 1980. Examines the policies of the Canadian government elected in 1979.
  • Trudeau, Pierre Elliott. Memoirs. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1993. Presents the Liberal leader’s perspective on the campaign. Gives a surprisingly high estimate of Clark.

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