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Liberal Party of Canada leadership election, 1968

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Title: Liberal Party of Canada leadership election, 1968  
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Subject: Pierre Trudeau, Liberal Party of Canada leadership election, 2006, John Turner, Lester B. Pearson, Jean Marchand
Collection: 1968 Elections in Canada, Liberal Party of Canada Leadership Elections, Pierre Trudeau
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Liberal Party of Canada leadership election, 1968

A picture from April 1967 showing then-Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson and three other members of his cabinet. From left to right, with Pearson: Pierre Trudeau, John Turner and Jean Chrétien. All three would become Prime Ministers of Canada.
Liberal leadership election, 1968
Date April 6, 1968
Convention Ottawa Civic Centre
Resigning leader Lester Pearson
Won by Pierre Trudeau
Ballots 4
Candidates 9
Entrance Fee none
Spending limit none

The Liberal Party of Canada leadership election of 1968 elected Pierre Elliott Trudeau as the new leader of the Liberal Party. He was the unexpected winner in what was one of the most important leadership conventions in party history. The Globe and Mail newspaper report the next day called it "the most chaotic, confusing, and emotionally draining convention in Canadian political history."[1]

The convention was held following the announced retirement of Lester B. Pearson, who was a much respected party leader and Prime Minister of Canada, but who had failed to win a majority government in two attempts. Eight high profile cabinet ministers entered the race, but by the time the convention began on April 3 the charismatic Trudeau had emerged as the front runner. He was strongly opposed by the party's right wing, but this faction was divided between former Minister of Trade and Commerce Robert Winters and Minister of Transport Paul Hellyer, and failed to mount a united opposition. Trudeau won the leadership with the support of 51% delegates on the fourth ballot of the convention.


  • Pearson retires 1
  • The campaign 2
    • Trudeau campaign 2.1
    • Other candidates 2.2
  • The convention 3
    • First ballot 3.1
    • Second ballot 3.2
    • Third ballot 3.3
    • Final ballot 3.4
  • Trudeau victorious 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6

Pearson retires

Liberal leader and Prime Minister Lester Pearson announced on December 14, 1967 that he would be retiring in April 1968.[2] Pearson had been Liberal leader since 1958 and Prime Minister since 1963. He was still much liked by the party and by the Canadian people in general, but he had failed in two attempts to win a majority government. The Liberals were also trailing in the polls behind the Progressive Conservatives, whose popular new leader Robert Stanfield had been selected in September 1967.[3]

Long before the actual convention a vigorous leadership contest had begun. At the outset the leading candidates were believed to be Secretary of State for External Affairs Paul Martin, Minister of Transport Paul Hellyer, and Minister of Finance Mitchell Sharp. The unofficial Liberal Party tradition was to alternate between francophone and anglophone leaders, and Jean Marchand was considered a possible candidate.[4] Martin was a highly respected veteran minister who had finished second to Pearson in the 1958 convention, and his ambitions to try again for the top job were well-known.[5] Hellyer was a former Minister of National Defence who had unified the Royal Canadian Navy, Canadian Army, and Royal Canadian Air Force into the Canadian Forces.[6]

Marchand declined to run, however, not being interested and suggesting that his English and health were not good enough to be a national leader. It was seen as necessary for national unity and the health of the party to have a strong Quebec candidate. Marchand and Gérard Pelletier united behind Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau. Trudeau had little experience and was not well known nationally, but had earned some renown for his wit and charisma. He had received plaudits for a wide-ranging overhaul of the criminal code that removed many of the morality laws, such as those against sodomy. Trudeau also had the strong support of top Pearson advisor Marc Lalonde as well as the tacit backing of Pearson himself, who felt it was important that a Francophone finish in at least second in the race.

The campaign

The campaign consisted of trying to win over the almost twenty-four hundred delegates who would go to the April convention. These consisted of prominent Liberals from across the country and also ordinary party members elected by each riding association. The campaign lasted from after the Christmas recess up to the convention. Parliament was in session during this period and since all the major candidates were important cabinet ministers finding time to campaign was difficult. Thus it mostly consisted of the candidates taking short trips to various parts of the country to try to win over delegates.

Trudeau campaign

As Trudeau gained more public exposure, his popularity grew. Trudeau is believed to have decided he would run while on holiday in Joey Smallwood, whom Trudeau sufficiently impressed to earn Smallwood's lasting support. At the constitutional convention itself Trudeau made a strong impression by outmanoeuvring and outdebating Quebec Premier Daniel Johnson, Sr on national television. Johnson, and many others, felt that French Canadian disaffection could only be addressed by giving Quebec more autonomy. Trudeau rejected this approach arguing that the best way to protect the interests of French Canadians was to guarantee their rights across Canada. On February 17, only days after this success, Trudeau declared himself as an official candidate for the Liberal leadership.

To the surprise of many, Trudeau became one of the prime contenders. Marchand played a leading role in Trudeau's campaign and brought in many supporters, especially in Quebec. Trudeau received endorsements from three cabinet ministers, and two provincial premiers with Louis Robichaud of New Brunswick joining Smallwood. Trudeau's charisma and attention-grabbing behaviour earned him far more media coverage than any other candidate. A Université Laval study found that from January 1 to March 20 Trudeau had received 26% percent of the media coverage devoted to the nine candidates running. Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp was a distant second with only 16%.[7] Trudeau also received attention outside Canada being profiled in both the British and American media.

By the end of the campaign, Trudeau was unquestionably the most popular figure among the Canadian public. A public opinion poll gave Trudeau 32% support, Martin 14%, and Winters 10%, with the other candidates in single digits.[8] Many within the Liberal Party still had deep doubts about him, however. He was a recent convert, having joined the party only in 1965, and was still considered an outsider. Many saw him as too radical and outspoken a figure. A significant portion of the party was bitterly opposed to his views on divorce, abortion, and homosexuality. A number of minor scandals also broke out as articles he wrote that were deeply critical of Pearson, especially of the decision to accept nuclear weapons in Canada, were republished. He was also forced to explain why he had been blacklisted by the United States in the 1950s.[9] Trudeau's campaign was not run by professional political consultants. Rather the campaign was directed by a group of young, extremely well educated amateurs such as Gordon Gibson and Jim Davey. The team impressed many, but it also made a number of errors.

Other candidates

The race was by no means a sure thing for Trudeau and a number of potent candidates remained in the contest. Finance Minister Mitchell Sharp was one of the highest profile cabinet ministers and represented the same liberal wing of the party as Trudeau. His campaign was badly hurt, however, when on February 19 the government was unexpectedly defeated on a tax bill, almost forcing a snap election. Pearson was out of the country, and as senior minister and finance minister getting the bill passed was Sharp's responsibility. After this debacle Sharp was prevented from campaigning through much of March by a collapse in the world gold market that he had to deal with. Despite intensive campaigning in the last few days, internal polling found that Sharp had fewer than 150 delegates and was unlikely to even be able to play kingmaker. Thus the day before the convention, Sharp dropped out of the race and endorsed Trudeau. Sharp brought a number of other ministers with him into the Trudeau camp, including Jean Chrétien, and at least a hundred delegates.[10] The endorsement of the respected elder statesman also reassured many who liked Trudeau but were worried about his radical image.

Trudeau and Mitchell Sharp converse at the convention

A number of potent candidates remained in the race, including much of the inner cabinet. Paul Hellyer ran one of the most skilled campaigns directed by Bill Lee, who was widely regarded as one of the Liberal's best campaign managers. The campaign received much attention for using a computer to keep track of delegates. By the convention Hellyer was widely viewed as having the greatest chance to defeat Trudeau. He had several prominent backers including Defence Minister Leo Cadieux and Secretary of State Judy LaMarsh. He drew support from a wide part of the political spectrum and from across the country, but was generally seen as somewhat to the right of Trudeau.

Robert Winters entered the race late, but won strong support representing the right-wing of the party. He promised to privatize crown corporations if elected and also was highly critical of Pearson's fiscal policy, arguing that the new social programs would damage the Canadian economy. The faction of the party that was deeply worried about Trudeau's insurgency hoped for one of Hellyer or Winters to drop out and support the other, but neither would compromise.

Several other prominent ministers remained in the campaign, but were seen as having little chance of victory. The campaign of elder statesman Paul Martin, who had first run for the Liberal leadership in 1958, had slowly faded. Canada seemed in a mood to reject elder statesmen with few new ideas in favour of the fresh new faces. Martin remained in the race, however. Health Minister Allan MacEachen was also floundering and being pressured to drop out in favour of Trudeau, but he, too, remained. He had a firm base of support in his native Nova Scotia, but was expected to swing his votes to Trudeau after the first ballot. MacEachen ran on a strongly left wing platform defending Canada's new Medicare system. Agriculture minister Joe Greene was also still in the race and had support in Eastern and Northern Ontario, but was seen as a dark horse. Besides Trudeau, the candidate to garner the most attention for his charisma and oratory was the young junior minister John Turner. He gathered a following, but was viewed as too young and inexperienced to win.

Former Quebec provincial cabinet minister Eric Kierans ran a solid campaign with minimal resources and developed a small following but never having been a federal cabinet minister and without a seat in the House of Commons he remained an outsider.

Two fringe candidates ran: Reverend Lloyd Henderson, a former mayor of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba had received one vote when he ran in the 1958 Liberal leadership convention and had also run unsuccessfully for parliament as an independent in the 1960s. He was not a delegate himself at the 1968 convention and would famously receive no votes even though his wife was a delegate. Ernst Zündel, not yet known publicly as a Holocaust denier, was also a candidate but dropped out before the first ballot but not before delivering a speech to the convention decrying what he alleged was discrimination against German-Canadians. [11]

The convention

The Ottawa Civic Centre where the convention was held

The convention, held at Ottawa's Civic Centre, took place in the shadow of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the riots that followed in the United States. The opening day of the convention was dedicated to giving tribute to Pearson, still a much-respected and popular figure, and he gave his parting address to the delegates. The following day consisted of a series of policy workshops. These were based around three halls named Our Life, Our Country, and Our Economy. Each candidate had twenty-five minutes to discuss the topic of the room with delegates. The other candidates noted in alarm that Trudeau drew by far the largest crowds to these events. Friday consisted of speeches by each of the candidates. It was marked by strong speeches by Trudeau, Turner, and surprisingly, Greene. Greene's speech focused on his service in the air force during the Second World War and reportedly moved some in the audience to tears. Hellyer's address, which was described as more the reading of a treatise, was very poorly received. Hellyer's campaign manager Bill Lee later reported that the speeches had caused at least a hundred votes to move from Hellyer to Greene.[12]

Outside the convention itself each candidate's team worked to woo delegates. Most of the candidates set up conventional hospitality suites with food and drink for the delegates. Trudeau had nine set up in the various Ottawa hotels, though he did not provide any alcohol. Joe Greene did not have enough money for this so he instead gave each delegate Laura Secord chocolates. Allan MacEachen had his own television station, AJM-TV, which broadcast to all the hotels where the delegates were staying. Delegates could call in with questions and MacEachen would answer them. The system was plagued with technical difficulties and the system was not a great success. Hellyer and Trudeau were more successful with publishing a newspaper on each day of the convention reporting on upcoming events and selling the candidate. Each candidate also had a team of "convention hostesses" these were young women dressed in matching uniforms who would accompany the candidate, hand out buttons, and generally try to build enthusiasm for their candidate.

As with the other conventions of the time the new leader was decided by runoff voting. Multiple votes were held, and each round, the candidate with the fewest votes was removed from the ballot. This continued until a single candidate won a majority of the votes. In the 1968 convention, this process took four ballots and seven-and-a-half hours. The delay was blamed on the new IBM punched card machines that were used to count the votes. Despite instructions not to, a good number of the delegates would insist on folding their punched card as they would a normal ballot. These folded ballots caused the machines to repeatedly jam.

The weather was surprisingly warm for that time of year, and, as the convention centre was not well air conditioned, the delegates were left sweltering. The food stands also ran out of supplies early, leaving many delegates hungry. Crowd control was reported as "non-existent", and even the candidates had to battle their way through the throng to get anywhere. Asked the next day what his first thought was after being elected, Trudeau quipped that it was "how am I ever going to reach the podium".[13] Outside, there were several protests, the largest was against the Vietnam War and demanded that Canada stop selling materiel to the United States.

First ballot

First ballot
Trudeau 752 31.5%
Hellyer 330 13.8%
Winters 293 12.3%
Martin 277 11.6%
Turner 277 11.6%
Greene 169 7.1%
MacEachen 163 6.8%
Kierans 103 4.3%
Henderson 0 0.0%
Spoiled ballots 24 1.0%
Total votes cast 2388

Trudeau was in first place on the first ballot with about as many votes as expected. Winters and Greene did surprisingly well, creating an unexpected four-way split in the anti-Trudeau vote with Turner and Hellyer. The result was especially disappointing to Hellyer, who had expected to get two hundred more votes than he had.

After the first ballot, Martin, MacEachen, and Kierans withdrew, knowing they could not win. Henderson, who did not get a single vote, was automatically eliminated. Kierans, despite being courted, did not endorse another candidate. Martin's tie for fourth ended any chance of victory, or even of playing kingmaker. After speaking with advisors and his son (future Prime Minister Paul Martin), Martin delivered an emotional withdrawal address that marked the end of his career in politics. Despite earlier discussions with the Hellyer camp, he did not endorse another candidate. Several of Martin's supporters, including Herb Gray, moved to support Trudeau. MacEachen withdrew and, as was expected, quickly endorsed Trudeau. However, he did not withdraw in time, and therefore remained listed on the second ballot.

Throughout the voting Trudeau projected an image of what Radwanski referred to as "supreme detachment." In his booth Trudeau played with the flower in his lapel and ate grapes by tossing them up in the air and catching them in his mouth.[14]

Second ballot

Second ballot
Trudeau 964 40.5%
Winters 473 19.9%
Hellyer 465 19.5%
Turner 347 14.6%
Greene 104 4.4%
MacEachen 11 0.5%
Spoiled ballots 15 0.6%
Total votes cast 2379

Trudeau's vote increased on the second ballot. The greatest surprise was Winters, who seemed to be drawing the largest share of the stop-Trudeau votes, with Hellyer unexpectedly falling into third place. Great pressure was exerted on Hellyer, and Turner and Greene, to unite behind Winters. Cabinet minister Judy LaMarsh was famously caught on tape telling Hellyer that "you've got to go to Winters. Don't let that bastard win it, Paul—he isn't even a Liberal." Only eight votes behind Winters, and still seeing a chance of victory, Hellyer refused to quit. Turner also stayed unexpectedly and he resolutely refused to deal. Greene was saved from elimination by MacEachen remaining on the ballot, but he promised to endorse Trudeau after the next round. Belatedly, Hellyer and Winters agreed that whoever finished third on the next ballot would withdraw and back the other against Trudeau, but most observers felt the time to block Trudeau had passed. Peacock states that it is "fascinating to speculate" what would have happened if Hellyer and Winters had reached an agreement after the second ballot, but he feels that Trudeau most likely would still have won.

Third ballot

Third ballot
Trudeau 1051 44.2%
Winters 621 26.1%
Hellyer 377 15.9%
Turner 279 11.7%
Greene 29 1.2%
Spoiled ballots 19 0.8%
Total votes cast 2376

The third ballot was a close repeat of the second, but Trudeau and Winters began to draw off a substantial number of votes from the candidates who no longer were seen to have had a chance of victory. As per earlier agreements Hellyer and Greene withdrew after this ballot, with Hellyer backing Winters and Greene endorsing Trudeau. To the surprise of many, Turner insisted on remaining on the ballot.

Final ballot

Fourth ballot
Trudeau 1203 50.9%
Winters 954 40.3%
Turner 195 8.2%
Spoiled ballots 13 0.5%
Total votes cast 2365

Trudeau and Winters won additional support on the final ballot, while Turner, despite having no hope of victory, won almost two hundred votes. Turner's delegates would later form the "195 Club," which would become fundamental in his 1984 run. Trudeau placed 249 votes ahead of Winters on this last ballot with 51% of the vote. With this majority, Trudeau was declared the winner.

Trudeau victorious

Trudeau about to make his victory speech. Lined up behind him are the other leadership candidates.View Clip

Trudeau won the leadership on the fourth and final ballot, and all the remaining candidates endorsed him. This included both Winters and Hellyer, but observers noted that neither man did so with much enthusiasm. The subsequent Trudeau victory party at the Skyline Hotel swelled to massive proportions as over 5,000 revellers attended and the celebration spilled out into nearby streets.

Trudeau was sworn in as Liberal leader and prime minister two weeks later on April 20. That summer he led the Liberals to victory in the 1968 federal election. Canadians were quickly caught up in the excitement created by this youthful and dynamic leader. His popularity following the convention and through the general election was dubbed "Trudeaumania" by the media; Trudeau was often mobbed by fans, as if he were a rock star.

While Winters announced his support for Trudeau at the convention, he quit politics soon afterward returning to the private sector. He died only a year later. Hellyer briefly became a cabinet minister in the Trudeau government before leaving in 1969, eventually to form his own fringe party, and then seek the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. Turner served in Trudeau's cabinet, becoming one of the most powerful MPs until quitting in 1975. He eventually returned to politics and succeeded Trudeau in the 1984 Liberal leadership convention. Greene and MacEachen both served Trudeau ably as ministers before being elevated to the Canadian Senate.

The 1968 leadership convention did more than choose a single leader of the Liberal party: it did a great deal to set the history of the party, and of Canada, for the next four decades. Four future prime ministers were at the convention. Trudeau remained leader of the Liberal Party until 1984, and was prime minister for all of that time except during Joe Clark's short-lived Conservative government of 1979–1980.

His replacement by Turner in 1984 was largely a product of Turner's showing at the 1968 convention. After Winters' death, Turner's third-place showing made him the leading runner-up. Turner's political and organizational skills were much lauded in 1968, establishing him as one of the highest-profile Liberals. Turner was succeeded by Jean Chrétien in 1990. Chrétien had originally backed the leadership bid of his mentor, Mitchell Sharp, but joined Trudeau's campaign when Sharp withdrew in favour of Trudeau. At the convention, Chrétien became one of the Trudeau team's leading figures, playing a crucial role in recruiting a number of other cabinet ministers to the Trudeau fold. Chrétien continued to be Trudeau's loyal deputy until Trudeau's retirement in 1984. Chrétien won the Liberal leadership in 1990, in part by claiming to be the heir to Trudeau's vision and policies. Paul Martin, who would himself become Prime Minister (2003–2006) was also at the convention, not as a Liberal operative, but as a close advisor to his father Paul Martin Sr. His father's poor showing, permanently ending his long dream of becoming Prime Minister, has long been cited by biographers as the source of the ceaseless ambition by Martin Jr. to win Canada's top job.


  1. ^ Anthony Westell and Geoffrey Stevens. "Seven and a half hours of chaos, and an enigma chosen next PM." The Globe and Mail. April 8, 1968, p. A9.
  2. ^ Newman 434
  3. ^ Newman 433
  4. ^ Newman 444
  5. ^ Newman 440
  6. ^ Newman 436
  7. ^ George Radwanski. Trudeau. pg. 104.
  8. ^ Richard Gwyn. Northern Magus. pg. 68.
  9. ^ The blacklisting was due to a 1952 visit to a conference in Moscow (where he was briefly arrested for throwing a snowball at a statue of Stalin) and as he subscribed to a number of leftist publications. When he found out about the ban Trudeau appealed and it was lifted.
  10. ^ Donald Peacock. Journey to Power. pg. 279.
  11. ^ "Ernst Zündel". The Coordination Forum for Countering Antisemitism. Retrieved 2007-11-01. 
  12. ^ The quality of the various speeches is agreed upon by a number of sources. Lee's statement is from Sullivan. Newman is especially harsh on Hellyer's speech.
  13. ^ Geoffrey Stevens. "Trudeau Promises to work as PM for 'a just society.'" The Globe and Mail, April 8, 1968, p. A1.
  14. ^ Radwanski. Trudeau. pg. 105.



  • Somerville, David (1978). Trudeau Revealed.  


  • "Sharp, Smallwood support Trudeau; Turner attacks backroom deals." The Globe and Mail, April 4, 1968, p. A1
  • Stevens, Geoffrey. "Trudeau Promises to work as PM for 'a just society.'" The Globe and Mail, April 8, 1968, p. A1
  • Sullivan, Martin. Mandate '68. Toronto: Doubleday, 1968.
  • Westell, Anthony. "Candidates fail to make decisive impact on delegates." The Globe and Mail, April 5, 1968, p. A1
  • Westell, Anthony and Geoffrey Stevens. "Favored Trudeau gets big ovation." The Globe and Mail. April 6, 1968, p. A1
  • Westell, Anthony and Geoffrey Stevens. "Seven and a half hours of chaos, and an enigma chosen next PM." The Globe and Mail. April 8, 1968, p. A9
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