The 2000 fight over the use of the word 'conservative'

Could just anyone use the word "conservative" in the name of their Canadian political party? It was a matter of opinion as two right-leaning parties jostled for position in the spring of 2000.

PC House leader Peter MacKay told Reformers to 'get your own party'

Sign and logo for Elections Canada office.
The offices of Elections Canada were busy hearing arguments for and against the name "Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance" for the party formerly known as Reform. (The National/CBC Archives)

Could just anyone use the word "conservative" in the name of their Canadian political party?

The Progressive Conservatives, who'd been using the "Conservative" part since Confederation in 1867 and the "Progressive" adjective since 1942, figured they had a monopoly on it.

But when the former Reform Party chose a new name in early 2000 during the United Alternative convention with some card-carrying PCs aiming to unite Canada's two right-leaning parties, the PC leadership had a strong reaction.

The new formulation was largely referred to as the Canadian Alliance.

But its formal adopted name was the Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance, and that's what set off a "nasty feud" between the two parties on March 31, 2000.

'Back off'

A fight over the word "conservative"

23 years ago
Duration 2:24
The Progressive Conservatives are unhappy with the Reform Party's new choice of name in 2000.

"A political spat between two bitter rivals has landed on this doorstep," said CBC reporter Eric Sorensen, as the CBC camera took viewers inside the office of Canada's Chief Electoral Officer in Ottawa.

At issue was the word "conservative," and PC House Leader Peter MacKay was armed with legal opinions to support the 25-page contention by the Progressive Conservative Party that it was theirs alone to use.

"Back off. Get your own party," said MacKay at a press conference, his hands in a combative pose. He may have been referencing a then-popular TV commercial for sandwich meat.

It was going to be up to Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the chief electoral officer, to rule whether the word "conservative" was likely to "confuse voters," which Sorensen said was the PCs' contention.   

"This is an attempt ... to wipe us out and assume our position on the political landscape," said MacKay.

Conservative battle

Man in suit smiling in front of window
Progressive Conservative Leader Joe Clark charged the former Reform party with attempting to sow confusion in the minds of Canadians. (The National/CBC Archives)

Sorensen explained that the Reform Party had begun a "quest" two years earlier to fuse the parties.

He said PC Leader Joe Clark, who had retaken the reins of the party in 199815 years after stepping down as leader, had "said 'no thanks,'" but Reformers persisted.

They joined with like-minded "card-carrying" PCs to create an alliance anyway.

"This particular name ... would give us the opportunity to launch ... a national debate about who really does represent small-c conservatives," said Tom Long, an organizer of the unite-the-right convention, in January 2000.

The order of the words would eventually change to put "reform" before "conservative."

"They're trying to cause people to forget who they are, and think they're us," said Clark. "Well, they're not us."

'Name game'

Woman in pink jacket smiling
Interim leader Deborah Grey had no problem with the word "conservative" becoming part of the name for the party formerly known as Reform. (The National/CBC Archives)

Deborah Grey, the interim leader of the erstwhile Reform Party by then known as the Canadian Alliance, seemed amused that the PCs wanted to keep the word "conservative" for themselves. 

"Do they?" she asked a reporter upon being informed that the PCs "want their name back." 

"Maybe they should act like small-c conservatives," she said. 

Kingsley was said to be sorting out the "name game" very shortly, and he did.

Two days after this report aired, he ruled that the name Canadian Reform Conservative Alliance was acceptable.

The party is now known as the Conservative Party of Canada. It won a minority in the 2006 election under its first leader, Stephen Harper

Ballot blown up large on screen in convention hall
Delegates of the United Alternative convention vote to adopt an official name for the new party on Jan. 29, 2000 at the Ottawa Congress Centre. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

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