Could the Patrick Brown debacle birth another Canadian political dynasty?

Canada, no less than the U.S., has a long tradition of enthroning political dynasties. All parties have them, and so do most provinces. The urge to replace Patrick Brown with a household name reflects a belief that people are more likely to vote for someone if they know the family. It's probably true.

PC instinct to draft Caroline Mulroney follows a tradition of choosing famous names

Former prime minister Brian Mulroney arrives for a charity event in Toronto in 2010, with his son Mark, left, and daughter Caroline, right. Caroline Mulroney hasn't rejected the idea of running to replace Patrick Brown as leader of the Ontario PCs. Mark also has been touted as a potential federal Conservative leader some day. (Darren Calabrese/Canadian Press)

Caroline Mulroney was quick to reject any attempt to anoint anyone as the Ontario Progressive Conservatives' new leader without a vote, tweeting out this response after the party found itself unexpectedly orphaned this week, just months away from an election.

But the urge of a suddenly leaderless party to turn to a woman who has never held elected office is a reminder that the tribal instinct to pick leaders from a ruling dynasty remains alive in the third century of Western democracy. And Canada is no exception.

Caroline Mulroney ran unopposed for the PC nomination in the Toronto-area riding of York-Simcoe. She has a solid resumé in the private sector and philanthropy, but it's hard to believe that being the daughter of former prime minister Brian Mulroney wasn't a factor in the minds of Tories who urged her to run.

On Friday, the PC caucus voted to appoint MPP Vic Fedeli interim leader ahead of a leadership vote. The party executive later decided to hold that vote no later than March 24.

Mulroney will now hear calls to join the list of candidates. And if she does, she'd be the latest in a long tradition of Canadian political dynasties.

Family firms

The New York Times has calculated that the male offspring of U.S. senators are 6,000 times more likely to hold a senate seat themselves than their regular U.S. male peers. (One senator, Republican Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, was actually appointed to the Senate directly by her dad Frank when he stepped down to become governor; she later won re-election on her own.)

When Canadians think of political dynasties, they often think of prominent U.S. families such as the Kennedys and the Rockefellers. The 19th century saw the Adams and the Harrison families each seize the White House twice in separate generations, a feat the Roosevelts and the Bushes would repeat in the 20th century.

In this 1963 photo, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, centre, poses with his brothers, U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy, left, and president John F. Kennedy, at the White House. The Kennedys are perhaps the archetypal U.S. political dynasty. (The Associated Press)

The Trudeaus are the first family in Canada to send both a father and son to Sussex Drive. But dynastic politics have been a part of Canadian political life ever since John A. Macdonald's son Hugh John became a federal cabinet minister, as well as Manitoba's premier.

Today, California and New York are both governed by men, Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo, whose fathers (Pat and Mario) governed the same states. (And Andrew Cuomo has, of course, married a Kennedy).

But then, Alberta's NDP Premier Rachel Notley is the daughter of Grant Notley, who led the same party for 16 years before his death in a plane crash.

Quebec has seen three premiers from one family: Daniel Johnson, Sr. (1966-68), his son Pierre-Marc Johnson (1985), and then his other son Daniel Johnson Jr. (1994). One son ran the province for the separatist Parti Québécois, and one for the federal Liberal Party, but either way, it stayed in the family.

Ties sprawl across party lines

The Johnsons are not the only family that has sought office under different banners, sprawling across federal, provincial and municipal lines. The Crosbie dynasty of Newfoundland began with John Chalker Crosbie who served as acting prime minister of Newfoundland during the First World War. His son Chesley, and his grandson John, would jump across party lines during their political careers.

The NDP counts the Layton family, a rare four-generation dynasty, as its own. It all began with Jack Layton's grandfather Gilbert, who served as a cabinet minister in Quebec's conservative Duplessis government. His son, Bob Layton, was a federal cabinet minister in the Conservative government of Brian Mulroney. After Bob, the family turned from blue to orange, and today the family standard is carried on by former NDP leader Jack Layton's son, Mike, a Toronto city councillor.

Late NDP leader Jack Layton, left, hands out homemade turkey sandwiches to staff and the press with his son Mike Layton, centre, and daughter, Sarah Layton, second from right, during the 2008 election campaign. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Indeed, for a working-class party, the New Democrats have quite a dynastic tradition. David Lewis ran the federal NDP; his son Stephen ran its Ontario counterpart. Current MP Niki Ashton is the daughter of NDP stalwart Steve Ashton, who held seven Manitoba cabinet posts for the party and the provincial riding of Thompson, next door to his daughter's federal riding of Churchill-Keewatinook Aski.

The Trudeaus are hardly the only political family in the Liberal Party. The McGuinty clan have feudal hold on Ottawa South at both federal and provincial levels. Former prime minister Paul Martin and current House speaker Geoff Regan are both sons of prominent Liberal cabinet ministers.

On the Conservative side, former leader and cabinet minister Peter MacKay is the son of former cabinet minister Elmer MacKay. Former Reform leader Preston Manning is the son of former Alberta premier Ernest Manning (later appointed to the Senate by the father of our current prime minister).

If Caroline Mulroney were to run for PC leader and win, she'd face a daunting task for a political rookie: putting a campaign back on track mere months before election day. One might wonder about the appeal of that. Perhaps it's worth recalling the words of another scion of a former Canadian prime minister, in his 2014 memoir Common Ground:

"The association with my father was never a reason for me to get into politics. It was, rather, a reason for me to avoid entering the political arena," Justin Trudeau wrote.

But minds can change, and the pull of the old family business often wins out in the end.

The Trudeau, Layton and Mulroney families have featured prominently in Canadian politics. (CBC)

About the Author

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.