In December 2003 the Progressive Conservative Party merged with the Canadian Alliance (formerly the Reform Party) to become the Conservative Party of Canada. The “progressive” disappeared in both name and philosophy under the leadership of Stephen Harper.

Last Tuesday one of the last truly progressive Conservatives was also lost to national politics. Erin O’Toole, former leader of the party, retired from the House of Commons. He was treated to a standing ovation and kind words from members of the other parties.

The Progressive Conservatives were progressive, from John Diefenbaker to Brian Mulroney.

Diefenbaker’s Canadian Bill of Rights, groundbreaking at the time, was the country’s first federal law to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms. And his minister of labour, Michael Starr, was one of the most progressive, a true friend of labour who developed a solid rapport with unions.

Mulroney formed perhaps the most environmentally-committed government we’ve ever had. He was named the “greenest” prime minister in Canadian history by prominent environmentalists for such achievements as initiating the acid rain accord with the Americans and for introducing measures to fight ozone depletion. He, like Diefenbaker, was a staunch defender of human rights who clashed with fellow conservative Margaret Thatcher over sanctions against South Africa.

O’Toole seems to be a man in that mould. As leader he often left his followers angry and frustrated with his attitudes toward climate policy and labour unions, attitudes that might have been quite at home in the old Progressive Conservative Party.

He departed the House with some good advice for the chamber. In his final speech, commenting on the divisiveness besetting the country, he observed, “If we ever want to change this and begin to have respectful and serious discussions again … that change needs to start right here in Canada’s House of Commons.”

One hopes that the new leader of his party, a very divisive conservative, was listening.

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