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Canada's socialist movement is believed to have originated in Western Canada. The Socialist Party of Canada was the first Canadian based left-wing party, founded in 1904. Later, the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and Great Depression (1929–1939) are considered to have fuelled socialism in Canada.
During the Great Depression, the Communist Party of Canada experienced a brief surge in popularity, becoming influential in various labour unions and electing a single Member of Parliament, Fred Rose. The Communist Party of Canada was created in Guelph, Ontario in 1921 by a group of Marxist activists led by William Moriarty. During the early years of their existence the party's membership faced persecution and arrest for their political activities. In 1935 the Communists gained notoriety by organizing a massive march of unemployed workers known as the On-to-Ottawa Trek and before that organized the young inmates of the relief camps into the Relief Camp Workers' Union to resist the poor conditions of the camps. The On-to-Ottawa Trek never made it to Ottawa, instead it ended with the Regina Riot of July 1, 1935. The trek and the living conditions in the government's "relief camps" helped to discredit Conservative Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, leading to his defeat at the hands of the Liberals in 1935. After the trek the communists were instrumental in organizing over 1,448 Canadians to fight in the Spanish Civil War.
Joined by volunteers of other political stripes, the Canadian contingent known as the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion joined the International Brigades (a coalition of volunteers from many countries) to fight for the elected leftwing government of the Second Spanish Republic against the fascist supported insurgency of General Francisco Franco. The "Mac-Paps" fought bravely in many battles but were forced to leave Spain in 1938 by Prime Minister Juan Negrín López along with the other foreign volunteers as it became clear that the war was lost. Of the nearly 1,500 Canadians known to have fought in Spain, 721 were verified as having lost their lives. The most famous Canadian to serve in the Mackenzie–Papineau Battalion was Dr. Norman Bethune, a surgeon who would invent the world's first mobile medical unit. Dr. Bethune would later be killed during the Second Sino-Japanese War, while aiding the Communist Party of China. Today he is a national hero in the People's Republic of China and is remembered as being a friend of Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
By the end of the Second World War, the Communist Party began to lose its momentum. Its only elected federal representative, Fred Rose, was accused of being a Soviet spy. Rose was expelled from parliament, arrested for four years, and then followed at every job site by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). He eventually left for Poland with the intention of returning to clear his name, but had his Canadian citizenship revoked in 1957.
By a wide margin, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a democratic socialist political party from the Prairies with its origins in the Christian left and the social gospel, became the most influential socialist party in Canada.
The CCF gained support in the Prairies as well as from many labour unions. Led by Tommy Douglas, the CCF was elected to power during the 1944 Saskatchewan election. Douglas governed Saskatchewan until 1961. Today his party remains an important force in the politics of the province. The CCF also emerged as the official opposition in British Columbia during the election of 1941 and in Ontario during the province's 1943 election. At the federal level, opinion polls initially indicated a dramatic surge in support for the CCF prior to the 1945 federal election. Although in the end it only translated into modest gains for the party, it is widely believed to have influenced the early steps taken by Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King in introducing the welfare state.
The CCF and the early democratic socialist movement is seen, by some political scientists (such as Gad Horowitz), as mainly a Christian and European Canadian movement.
In 1961, the CCF joined with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP is more moderate and social-democratic than its predecessor, the CCF. The Regina Manifesto of the CCF called for abolishing capitalism, while the NDP merely wants to reform capitalism. They are generally perceived as being responsible for the creation of universal healthcare, pensions, a human rights code and for the development of Canada's social safety net in general. In the past the NDP has formed provincial governments in British Columbia, Yukon Territory, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia. At present Manitoba and Nova Scotia have New Democratic governments, while the NDP is the second largest party in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. At the federal level the NDP has held strong influence over various minority governments, in particular a Liberal minority led by Pierre Trudeau from 1972-1974. During this period the NDP was successful in forcing the government to create a state-owned oil company, called Petro Canada.
The NDP has also held influence over other Liberal-led minority governments during the Lester B. Pearson government (1963-1968) and the Paul Martin government (2004-2006). Their self stated goal is to one day form a federal government on their own and introduce social-democratic policies.
In the province of Quebec the NDP has been considerably less popular, but recently, in the May 2nd, 2011 election, elected a record number of Members of Parliament for a total of 59 of the 75 elected members coming from Quebec. The party is now the Official Opposition.
For most of the late 20th century the strongest social-democratic party in Quebec has been the sovereigntist Parti Québécois. Like the NDP, the Parti Québécois officially considers itself to be "social democratic".
Many socialists in Canada have attempted to organize outside of the framework of parliamentary politics, to pursue conceptions of socialism that are more radical than the social-democratic politics of either the CCF or the NDP.
Some of the radical socialist organizations operating in Canada today include the International Socialists (Canada), the New Socialist Group, the Communist League (Canada), Autonomy & Solidarity, and the London Project for a Participatory Society, among others.
Parties that have held seats in the Canadian House of Commons and provincial legislatures.