The province of British Columbia has a majority New Democratic Party government, formed on 24 October 2020. The premier of the province is John Horgan and the lieutenant-governor is Janet Austin. Its first premier, John Foster McCreight, was elected in 1871, after the province joined Confederation. Prior to Confederation, BC was a British colony, administered by a governor and a legislative assembly.
British Columbia's parliament is located in Victoria.
Provincial Government Structure
There are 87 seats in British Columbia’s provincial government. Each seat is held by a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA). MLAs are elected by eligible voters in their electoral district. Provincial elections are usually held every four years, on the third Saturday of October. However, an election may be called before this date. This sometimes happens when the party in power thinks it may help them win re-election. Elections may also occur before four years have passed in cases where the government no longer has the confidence of the Legislative Assembly (see Minority Government).
As with the other provinces and territories in Canada, British Columbia uses a first-past-the-post electoral system, meaning the candidate with the most votes in each electoral district wins. Typically, the party with the most seats forms the government, and the leader of this party becomes premier. However, a party with fewer seats may also form a coalition with members of another party or parties in order to form the government. Technically, as the Queen’s representative, the lieutenant-governor holds the highest provincial office, though in reality this role is largely symbolic. (See also British Columbia Premiers: Table; British Columbia Lieutenant-Governors: Table.)
The premier typically appoints members of the Cabinet from among the MLAs who belong to the party in power. Cabinet members are referred to as ministers and oversee specific portfolios. Typical portfolios include finance, health and education.
The colony of Vancouver Island was established by Britain in 1849. Initially a colonial government, the island formed its first representative government in 1856. Representative government meant that members of a legislative assembly were elected by some residents of the island, while the governor and his council were appointed by Britain. However, in order to vote, residents had to own at least 20 acres of land. In 1856, these requirements meant that only 43 European men were able to vote in the colony’s first election.
In 1858, following the Fraser River gold rush, Britain established a mainland colony called British Columbia. The two colonies shared a governor; however, the mainland was ruled by the governor alone, while the island maintained its representative government.
In 1866, Vancouver Island and British Columbia combined to form a single colony. The legislative assembly was established in Victoria, where it remains today.
Confederation and Early Governments: 1871-1903
British Columbia joined Confederation in 1871. As part of the terms of the union, Canada insisted that BC establish responsible government. Responsible government meant that the premier and their executive would be selected from the party with the most members elected to the legislative assembly. In addition, the executive needed the support of the majority of members of the assembly in order to govern.
In the years between 1871 and 1903, the political parties that are familiar today (e.g. Liberal, Conservative, New Democratic) didn’t exist in BC. Instead, candidates identified themselves as in support of the premier, in support of the opposition, or as independent. In the 32 years between Confederation and the introduction of party lines, BC had 15 premiers. The province’s first premier was John Foster McCreight.
Did you know?
In 1917, women received the right to vote in British Columbia elections. However, there were still a number of people, male and female, who couldn’t vote in BC elections for some time: Chinese and South Asian people received the right to vote in 1947, and Japanese people and Status Indians received it in 1949.Today, anyone can vote in a BC election, provided that they are 18 years of age, a Canadian citizen and have lived in BC for at least 6 months.
McBride, Bowser, Brewster, Oliver and MacLean: 1903-28
Premier Richard McBride cheers after driving the last spike of the B.C. Electric Railway's Fraser Valley line to Chilliwack, BC, in 1910.
(courtesy City of Vancouver Archives/LGN 952)
In 1903, Conservative Richard McBride was the first premier to win an election fought along party lines. He served as premier for 12 years. When McBride resigned in 1915, William John Bowser briefly filled the role of premier. In 1916, Bowser was defeated and the Liberal Party formed its first government, led by Harlan Carey Brewster. Two additional Liberal governments were elected following Brewster: John Oliver served as premier for nine years, from 1918 to 1927, and John Duncan MacLean held power from 1927 to 1928. The Conservatives regained power in 1928 under Simon Tolmie.
Tolmie, Pattullo, Hart and Johnson: 1928-52
Premier Simon Fraser Tolmie addresses a crowd on Flag Day at the Vancouver Exhibition, 1929.
(courtesy City of Vancouver Archives/CVA 99-1940)
Many labour leaders came from Britain in the early 20th century and brought their experience as organizers with them. They gained early success in British Columbia when legislation for improved working conditions and social services was introduced. The Labour Party elected members in 1920, 1924, 1928 and 1933.
Progressive and socialist parties emerged with the serious economic difficulties of the Great Depression. Simon Fraser Tolmie and his Conservative Party were nearly wiped out in the 1933 election. They finished behind the new Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation(CCF), which won seven seats and 31 per cent of the vote, and the Liberals led by Premier Thomas Dufferin Pattullo. Pattullo served as premier for the next eight years. In the following years, Premiers John Hart (1941–47) and Byron I. Johnson (1947–52), both Liberals, were called upon to lead coalition governments with the Conservative Party.
W.A.C. Bennett and Barrett: 1952-72
William Andrew Cecil Bennett was premier of British Columbia from 1952 to 1972.
In 1952, a new party led by William Andrew Cecil Bennett broke away from the Conservative Party. The new party called itself Social Credit, after a similar party in Alberta. Social Credit won a minority government in 1952 and then governed the province, under the leadership of W.A.C. Bennett, for the next 20 years. Social Credit’s reign covered a period of enormous resource development and growth in British Columbia. This was particularly true in the interior of the province, which was being better connected to the southwest coast by road-building programs and the northern extension of the British Columbia Railway to the Peace River area.
The New Democratic Party(formerly the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation) became the official opposition in the 1960s with the virtual disappearance of the provincial Liberal and Conservative parties. In 1972, W.A.C. Bennett and the Social Credit party were defeated. The NDP formed a government for the first time, led by David Barrett. During this time period, the electorate tended to polarize in roughly equal numbers around the two parties. Social Credit advocated for free enterprise and government restraint, while the NDP advocated moderate socialism and government economic and social involvement.
W.R. Bennett, Vander Zalm, Johnston and Harcourt: 1975-91
In 1991, Rita Johnson became premier of British Columbia and the first female premier in Canadian history.
Social Credit regained power in 1975, led by William Richards Bennett, son of W.A.C. Bennett. Bennett and his government were re-elected in 1979 and 1983. Social Credit was elected again in 1986, but this time under a new leader, William Vander Zalm. In 1991, Vander Zalm stepped down amid a conflict of interest scandal. Of primary concern was the fact that he had given the purchaser of his theme park, Fantasy Gardens, special access to government resources and services. When Rita Johnston succeeded him as leader of the party, she became Canada's first female premier.
Johnston and her party were defeated at the polls later that year by the New Democratic Party, led by former mayor of Vancouver Michael Harcourt. That election marked the end of Social Credit’s power, after the party had governed the province for 36 of the previous 39 years. The Liberals returned as a major force in British Columbia provincial politics, forming the official opposition for the first time in 40 years.
Glen Clark, Miller, Dosanjh, Campbell and Christy Clark: 1996-2013
Christy Clark was premier of British Columbia from 2011 to 2017.
In 1996, the New Democratic Party won their second consecutive mandate, under Glen Clark. In August 1999, the public became aware that Clark was being investigated for accepting free home renovations from businessman Dimitrios Pilarinos, in exchange for possibly helping to get Pilarinos’s casino application approved. While the Supreme Court acquitted Clark in 2002, the allegations were significant enough to force his 1999 resignation. Two men served as interim leader prior to the next general election: Dan Miller (1999-2000) and Ujjal Dosanjh (2000-01).
In 2001, Liberal Gordon Campbell came to power, and was re-elected with majorities in 2005 and 2009. In 2010, suffering from low popularity linked mostly to his imposition of the harmonized sales tax (HST), Campbell stepped down as premier. He was succeeded by former deputy premier Christy Clark, who led the Liberals to a surprise majority in 2013. Although Clark didn’t win her seat in the May election, she won a by-election in Westside-Kelowna in July 2013.
In the May 2017 election, Christy Clark narrowly hung on to power, forming a minority government with 43 seats (one shy of a majority). The New Democratic Party won 41 and the Green Party won 3. The small riding of Courtenay-Comox, located on the east shore of Vancouver Island, played a large role in the outcome. There, the NDP candidate initially won by just nine votes, triggering a recount that meant the results of the 9 May election weren’t official until 24 May. While the overall results remained the same as election night, the Liberals won more of the popular vote than the NDP by just 1,566 ballots, making it the closest result in British Columbia history.
On 29 May, the narrative took another twist when Green Party leader Andrew Weaver and NDP leader John Horgan jointly announced that the Greens would support the NDP on motion. The combined total of each party’s seats, 44, would create a majority in the legislature. On 29 June, the Liberals lost a confidence motion put forward by the NDP, and Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon asked the NDP to form a government under the leadership of Horgan.
On 21 September 2020, about seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Horgan abruptly ended his coalition with the Green Party and called an election. The announcement came one year before the province’s fixed election date. Horgan’s rationale for holding an early election was the possibility of a majority government. A majority government, he argued, would provide the province with better stability during the pandemic. A month before the election call, Horgan had the highest personal approval rating of any premier in Canada.
On 24 October 2020, British Columbia held the second general election in Canada since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (New Brunswick held an election under similar circumstances a month earlier). Voters elected a majority NDP government. Horgan became the first NDP premier in British Columbia’s history to win two terms. His party won 57 seats, the Liberals 28 and the Green Party two.