The Prime Minister of Ontario Was Also a Member of Provincial Parliament


Ontario has paradoxically always held itself as superior to the other provinces yet also as the quintessential representation of Canada itself: Ontarians are the most likely of all Canadians to refer to and think of themselves as Canadian only, as opposed to Canadian first and provincial demonym second, or in terms of their provincial identity alone. But for what Ontarians lack in provincial nationalism and identity, they make up for in pretentious, federal-sounding titles ironically shorn of secessionist sentiment. The pomp alone remains, signifying the arrogance that lies beneath.

Ontario has established the approach of layering fancy, national- or federal-sounding titles onto its provincial political institutions informally on top of the pedestrian formal names for these same institutions as set out in provincial legislation. And this informal layering of fancy titles designed to impart unearned prestige flow from informal means, like resolutions of the Legislative Assembly or simple executive decree. These informal practices have proven most enduring, and this is why Members elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario are called “Members of Provincial Parliament” (MPPs) instead of as Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) like in eight of the ten other provinces. Some Premiers of Ontario also insisted that they be addressed and referred to as the “Prime Minister of Ontario,” too, well after the two styles had stopped being regarded as interchangeable elsewhere in Canada.

“Member of Provincial Parliament” (MPP) vs Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA)

Part V of the British North America Act, 1867 set up the framework for Ontario’s provincial political institutions; section 58 provides for its Lieutenant Governor, and section 69 says: “There shall be one Legislature for Ontario consisting of the Lieutenant Governor and of One House, styled the Legislative Assembly of Ontario.”[1] The provincial legislatures remained free from Confederation to 1982 to amend every aspect of their provincial constitutions – save for the Office of Lieutenant Governor – by provincial statute law alone, so the operative provisions of Ontario’s constitution now reside in statutes the Legislative Assembly Act and the Executive Council Act.[2] And since 1982, provincial legislatures have retained most of that authority; under the Section 45 Amending Procedure, “Subject to section 41, the legislature of each province may exclusively make laws amending the constitution of the province.”[3] The restrictions under section 41 of the Constitution Act, 1982 still include the Office of Lieutenant Governor as well as some other classes of subjects over which the provinces are not competent to legislate anyway.

Ontario started to move toward the pretentious nomenclature in 1930s during the doldrums of the Great Depression and simmering tensions between the King government in Ottawa and the Hepburn government in Toronto. Liberal Member for St. Patrick, Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Fraser Hunter, had originally introduced a bill to make the title “Member of Provincial Parliament” legally binding, but the house decided not to adopt it. He had to settle for the resolution instead, which has nevertheless proved enduring and made the informal change the new de facto norm. On 7 April 1938, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario passed a resolution – not a statute – elevating the mere Members of the Legislative Assembly to Members of Provincial Parliament. It said:

Resolved, That in all matters of address, titular distinction, formal correspondence, official proceedings and all similar matters having to do with and coming under the jurisdiction of the Legislature of Ontario, the members of the Legislative Assembly shall be entitled to the designation “Member of Provincial Parliament” and its abbreviation “M.P.P.”[4]

Rand Dyck, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Laurentian University, summarised this development: “In 1938, Ontario officially adopted the name ‘Provincial Parliament,’ with members called MPPs, reflecting that the province had become quite important after all.”[5] However, it seems that Ontario never adopted the moniker “Provincial Parliament” per se but rather only alluded to this by opting for the style for Members elected to the Legislative Assembly within the Legislature of Ontario as “Member of Provincial Parliament.” The Legislative Assembly did so by resolution, which remains informal and non-binding in law; the title has only become the accepted practice. Yet, strangely, referring to the Legislature of Ontario as “the Parliament of Ontario” has not become an accepted practice, and this name does not appear on official documents. One would think that it is difficult to be a “Member of Provincial Parliament” when no one purports to change the name of the Legislature of Ontario to the Parliament of Ontario.

Some elected members have tried to put an end to all this confusion by introducing legislation to make their customary style official. According to an older (and, frankly, far superior) version of the website of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, New Democratic MPP Melvin Leroy Swart introduced a series of private members’ bills in the 1980s which would have officially established the title as “Member of the Legislative Assembly,” abbreviated as “MLA” because “Member of Provincial Parliament” stood offside from eight of the other ten provinces and sounded ridiculous and pompous.[6] In contrast, Conservative MPP Norm Stirling introduced a private members’ bill in 1986 which would have accomplished what Hunter first attempted in 1938: to make “Member of Provincial Parliament” the official title in statute law. All these bills died on the Order Paper, and the website did not mention the oddity of referring to members of an elected assembly of a legislature as members of parliament.

The bipolarity of the statutory titles versus the informal de facto titles continues to produce confusing, ambivalent results. For instance, the Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario refer to individual legislatures as “Parliaments” instead of “Legislatures.” Ontarians therefore elected the 42nd Parliament in 2018 instead of the 42nd Legislature, even though their elected representatives style themselves as “Members of Provincial Parliament” with no statutory basis.

The website as of September 2019 also contains this amusing image, which encourages readers to learn more “About Ontario’s Parliament” – even though the image above shows the crest of the “Legislative Assembly of Ontario.” Parliaments call their legislative bodies Houses, not Assemblies. And, of course, section 69 of the Constitution Act, 1867 says that Ontario has a Legislature, not a Parliament.

Gaston Deschenes and Gary Levy wrote in 1983 how the battle over the title “Member of Provincial Parliament” versus “Member of the Legislative Assembly” flowed from broader debates over the division of powers under the British North America Act and over non-centralised classical federalism, where the federal and provincial orders of government remain co-equal and co-sovereign within their respective spheres of jurisdiction, versus a centralising federalism that subordinated the provinces to Ottawa:

In Ontario before Confederation, members of the assembly of the United Province of Canada were designated by the initials M.P.P. (Member of the Provincial Parliament). After 1867 a battle developed between federal and provincial politicians as to whether Ontario had a “parliament” or a legislature”. A side effect was the insistence by Ontario members of continuing to call themselves M.P.P.s. This title was eventually made official by the legislature on April 7, 1938. Thus while Ontario has a Legislative Assembly Act and official documents such as Hansard and the Journals refer to the Legislative Assembly, individual members still call themselves M.P.P.s.[7]

The older and better version of the website of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, mercifully recoverable from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, offers a similar summary:

The debate over how provincial parliamentarians should be recognized soon flared up again, in the form of a debate between Arthur Beauchesne, the distinguished Clerk of the House of Commons, and Louis Philippe Pigeon, the Law Clerk of the Quebec Legislature. Beauchesne argued that the BNA Act clearly stated that “there shall be one Parliament for Canada” – such that provincial legislatures were of an inferior order of being, while Pigeon countered with a scholarly defence of the autonomy of provincial legislatures which is still cited by scholars in this field.

The terms of this engagement recalled an earlier intellectual donnybrook shortly after Confederation, when Fennings Taylor, the Clerk Assistant of the Senate, wrote a book contending that only the Canadian Parliament, and not the newly minted provincial legislatures, properly inherited the privileges and stature of the British House of Commons. He was opposed by S.J. Watson, the Parliamentary Librarian for Ontario, who argued that the new provincial legislatures could legitimately lay claim to the title of provincial parliament. Such debates echoed the political battles between the centralist Sir John A. Macdonald and Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat, the champion of the provincial rights school, which raged on throughout the late decades of the nineteenth century until the constitutional issues at stake were finally resolved in the provinces’ favour by the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.[8]

All of this puts Ontario in a strange position. The elected members of the Legislative Assembly style themselves – purely by custom flowing from a non-binding resolution from 1938 – as “Members of Provincial Parliament,” but they take their seats in a body called the Legislative Assembly of Ontario within the Legislature of Ontario, not in the House of Commons or Representatives of Ontario within the Parliament of Ontario. Yet Ontarians also elected in 2018 members to the “42nd Parliament” and not the 42nd Legislature.

Ultimately, the wording of the Constitution of Canada should prevail irrespective of the dictionary definitions of “parliament” and “legislature” and whatever subordinate connotation “legislature” might still demonstrate. Currently, section 69 of the Constitution Act, 1867 says that “There shall be a Legislature for Ontario” – not a “Parliament” for Ontario. However, nothing prevents the Legislature of Ontario from passing a statute and constitutional amendment under the Section 45 Amending Procedure contained in the Constitution Act, 1982 and officially amending this section and from changing its name to “The Parliament of Ontario.” This constitutional amendment would probably then become operative as an amendment to the Legislative Assembly Act, which could also be re-named.

Premier ministre = Prime Minister, Premier, First Minister, and Chief Minister

In the English language, the titles have now proliferated into at least four variants, with First Minister and Chief Minister rounding out Prime Minister and Premier as titles for head of government within a parliamentary system. Today, the heads of the federal government in Australia and Canada are Prime Ministers, while those in the Australian states and Canadian provinces are Premiers. The head of government in Australia’s Northern Territory, however, goes by Chief Minister. Unitary New Zealand has only a Prime Minister. Under the premiership of Tony Blair, the Westminster Parliament established devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales and re-established one in Northern Ireland, and these provinces certainly could not gain Prime Ministers as well, so they now are led by First Ministers instead. Narendra Modi is currently the Prime Minister of the Republic of India, but he previously served as the Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat, “Chief Minister” being the title of choice in Indian states.

In contrast, the French language only includes one title that covers all four of its English equivalents, premier ministre. In French, the premiers of all provinces and the prime minister of Canada are all premiers ministres; the title has no secessionist or nationalist connotation whatsoever. But some English-speaking Canadians have incorrectly and unfairly linked a normal French-language title to nationalism and secessionist in Quebec, Sujit Choudhry amongst them:

Quebec’s political elites have long referred to the province, its institutions, its symbols and its collective goals in national terms. The provincial legislature is the National Assembly, its head of government the Prime Minister as opposed to a mere Premier […].[9]

In the French language, the title premier ministre applies to all 10 premiers in Canada, not just to the premier of Quebec, because of a fundamental fact of the French language that has nothing to do with nationalist or secessionist politics in Quebec. The “Premier of Ontario” is le premier ministre de l’Ontario – and no one would suggest that this French-language title would amount to an aggrandizement of the office. In fact, the door to the office of the Premier of Ontario at Queen’s Park itself says “Premier ministre de l’Ontario” under Doug Ford and said “Première ministre de l’Ontario” under Kathleen Wynne.

Choudhry probably made this mistake by conflating how Quebec refers to its legislature and other political institutions with how the French language generically refers to heads of government in parliamentary systems. Unlike Ontario, Quebec has properly rationalised in statute, in a very Cartesian way, the terminology of its political institutions. Section 70 of the British North America Act, 1867 defined the Legislature of Quebec as consisting the Lieutenant Governor, Legislative Council, and Legislative Assembly. In 1955, the Duplessis government introduced legislation that changed the official title of Members of the Legislative Assembly to Membres du parlement provincial (MPP) – Members of Provincial Parliament.[10] In other words, the Legislature of Quebec did officially in 1955 what Ontario’s Legislative Assembly did non-bindingly in 1938. In 1968 – and this gets into the territory to which Choudhry alluded – the Legislature of Quebec abolished the Legislative Council, renamed the Legislative Assembly the National Assembly and re-styled members of the newly unicameral body as Membres du Parlement du Québec. In 1971, new legislation changed the title to Membres de l’assemblée national (MANs) or “Members of the National Assembly” and MNAs in English.[11]

“Prime Minister of Ontario” vs “Premier of Ontario”

From the achievement of Responsible Government in the 1840s to after the Second World War a century later, “Prime Minister” and Premier” were often used interchangeably within British North America in reference to Canadian first ministers of the Crown. Various historical and legal texts from this period show no hint of rank between the terms. The Province of Canada (1841-1867) came to be led by two “Premiers”, one English and one French; Canadian historian and Parliamentary Librarian Alpheus Todd carried over that title and referred to Sir John A. Macdonald in the 1880s as the “Premier” of the Dominion of Canada: “Upon the confederation of the British North American provinces in 1867, Sir John A. Macdonald was appointed Premier (his ministry having already been in existence in the Province of Canada for three years) […].[12] The Supreme Court of Canada issued a ruling in 1898 which refers “The Prime Minister of Ontario” and “the Prime Minister of Quebec” and to the “Premier of Ontario” and “Premier of Quebec” in the same document, which suggests that the titles were seen as entirely equivalent at the time.[13] Oliver Mowat was thus at one point both the Premier of Ontario and the Prime Minister of Ontario, so the Legislative Assembly of Ontario’s Scavenger Hunt for schoolchildren is only half-right when it says that Oliver Mowat “was back then called the Prime Minister of Ontario.”[14] Similarly, Pierre Burton wrote a piece in Maclean’s in 1948 in which he variously describes George Drew as both “Premier of Ontario” and “Prime Minister of Ontario” – entirely interchangeably.[15]

The Cambridge History of the British Empire: Volume VI – Canada and Newfoundland from 1930 also contains four references to the “Prime Minister of Ontario.”[16] But this usage extends far beyond Ontario. Talking of Governor General Lord Aberdeen’s appointment of Sir Wilfrid Laurier as Prime Minister of the Dominion of Canada in 1896, the esteemed editors say, “No less [sic] than three Liberal Prime Ministers in the provinces were persuaded to join the new Administration: Oliver Mowat, the veteran Prime Minister of Ontario, because Minister of Justice; W.S. Fielding, the Prime Minister of Nova Scotia, became Minister of Finance; and A.G. Blair, Prime Minister of New Brunswick, became Minister of Railways and Canals.”[17] (Frankly, I am appalled that a book published by Cambridge would use “less” when it should have opted for “fewer.”) A Google search within the book also yields results for “Premier of Ontario”, “Premier of Quebec,” and “Premier of British Columbia,” thus supporting the interchangeability of the two titles before the Second World War. Chester Martin’s history on the “Dominion Lands” Policy from 1938 refers to “the first exchange between the Prime Minister of Manitoba and the Prime Minister of the Dominion on December 16, 1920.”[18]

Steve Paikin comes to a similar conclusion in his biography of Bill Davis, Premier of Ontario from 1971 to 1985, stating that heads of government of Ontario used “premier” and “prime minister” interchangeably from 1867 to 1905 but that Sir James P. Whitney insisted on the style “Prime Minister of Ontario” in 1905.[19] Susanne Hynes, a Research Librarian with the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, dutifully refers to Sir James as the “Prime Minister of Ontario” in an account of the fire which gutted the west wing of Queen’s Park in 1909.[20] From 1914 to 1951, the two styles applied interchangeably to Whitney’s successors, though the grandiosity of “Prime Minister” appealed to the mercurial Mitch Hepburn.[21] But here Paikin goes too far in speculating that “Prime Minister of Ontario” had something to do with Premier ministre du Quebec when neither the historical evidence nor the linguistic facts support this claim:

Again, for no particular reason that anyone can remember, George Drew preferred to be known only as “prime minister.” […] Part of the thinking might have related to Quebec where the first minister is called premier ministre. So perhaps Drew thought that if it was good enough for Quebec, it ought to be good enough for Ontario as well.[22]

When the Governor General invested George Drew as a Companion to the Order of Canada in 1968, his citation noted that he had served as “Prime Minister of Ontario, Leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, and High Commissioner in the United Kingdom.”[23]

The distinction between “Prime Minister” and “Premier” seemed to gain more political resonance and connotations of ranking and prestige – with “Prime Minister” becoming more prominent and important – by the 1950s, and uniquely in Ontario amongst the English-speaking provinces. At least three of the first four first ministers of Ontario, let’s say, from the Progressive Conservative dynasty (1943-1985) insisted on styling themselves as “Prime Minister of Ontario” on all official documentation and correspondence: George Drew, from 1943 to 1948, Leslie Frost, who occupied the office from 1949 to 1961, and his successor, John Robarts, who served from 1961 to 1971. During this era, the door to the Premier’s Office in Queen’s Park also said “Office of the Prime Minister,” and Leslie Frost even restyled the head of the Cabinet Office as the “Deputy Minister to the Prime Minister and Secretary to Cabinet.”[24] In 1962, John Robarts divided the two and created the “Department of the Prime Minister,” the equivalent of the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa.[25]

The evidence of their pretense remains literally etched in stone in some places, such as these commemorative plaques dedicated by Leslie Frost, “Prime Minister of Ontario,” in Toronto and Ottawa in the late 1950s.

Leslie Frost, Prime Minister of Ontario, commemorates a building in downtown Toronto

Leslie Frost, Prime Minister of Ontario, commemorates the Tory Building

More recently, I came upon this commemorative plaque now adorning the new ON Route reststop along the westbound 401 in Mallorytown, the last before the 416 exit to Ottawa. Here John Robarts, “Prime Minister of Ontario,” dedicated the final phases of the construction of the 401, one of the longest highways in North America operated by a single jurisdiction.

The Honourable John P. Robarts, Prime Minister of Ontario

Bill Davis, who served as first minister from 1971 to 1985, entered office styled as “Prime Minister of Ontario” and left to his successor the mere title of Premier of Ontario; perhaps not coincidentally, the Progressive Conservative dynasty collapsed after Frank Miller’s minority government lost the Address-in-Reply in 1985. In 1972, Davis renamed “The Office of the Prime Minister” the “Premier’s Office” and in 1975 to “The Office of the Premier and Cabinet Office.”[26] Paikin goes into even more detail. Bill Davis went so far as to commission Canadian historian J.M.S. Careless to study the issue, and on 28 February 1972, his office made the switch; but, according to Paikin, “it wasn’t until 1983 that the actual law was changed.”[27] The Executive Council Act of Ontario currently defines the Premier as the President of the Executive Council of Ontario.[28]


As the Executive Council Act now defines the title and role of the Premier of Ontario, the Legislative Assembly Act should likewise be amended to make official the title of members of the Legislative Assembly. But perhaps such a proposal would prove too rational and logical for Ontario, with its tradition of Tory-touched liberalism and muddling through. And the notion of amending section 69 of the Constitution Act, 1867 to change the name of the Legislature of Ontario to the Parliament of Ontario would seem downright radical.

Since first writing on this topic in 2013, I have found some much new material and gained such valuable feedback and new information from readers that I have decided to do a second edition of my old post on “The Prime Minister of Ontario.”

Similar Post:


[1] Canada, Department of Justice, A Consolidation of the Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982 (Ottawa: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 1 January 2001), page 23.

[2] Legislative Assembly Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. L.10; Executive Council Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.25.

[3] Canada, Department of Justice, A Consolidation of the Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982 (Ottawa: Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, 1 January 2001), page 74.

[4]Member of Provincial Parliament (Canada),” Wikipedia, accessed 10 September 2019; Ontario, Journals of the Legislative Assembly, 20th Parliament of Ontario, 7 April 1936.

[5] Rand Dyck, Provincial Politics in Canada: Toward the Turn of the Century. 3rd Ed. (Scarborough, ON: Prentice-Hall of Canada, 1996), 327.

[6] Ontario, Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Speaker, “Origins of ‘MPP,’ 11 June 2009.

[7] Gaston Deschenes and Gary Levy, “What’s In a Name: Titles of Federal and Provincial Legislators,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 6, no. 2 (1983): 27.

[8] Ontario, Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Speaker, “Origins of ‘MPP,’ 11 June 2009.

[9] Sujit Choudhry, “Bills of Rights as Instruments of Nation-Building in Multinational States: The Canadian Charter and Quebec Nationalism”, University of Toronto Legal Studies Series, Research Paper 1006905 (August 2007): 1.

[10] Gaston Deschenes and Gary Levy, “What’s In a Name: Titles of Federal and Provincial Legislators,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 6, no. 2 (1983): 27.

[11] Gaston Deschenes and Gary Levy, “What’s In a Name: Titles of Federal and Provincial Legislators,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 6, no. 2 (1983): 27.

[12] Alpheus Todd, Parliamentary Government in the British Colonies, 2nd Edition (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1894), 62-63. In that case, Todd used 1864, and not 1867, as his point of reference, since 1891 minus 27 years is 1864.

[13] Province of Ontario & Province of Quebec v. Dominion of Canada. In re common School Fund & Lands (1898) 28 SCR 609.

[14] Ontario, Legislative Assembly, “Scavenger Hunt at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario,” accessed 10 September 2019.

[15] Pierre Burton, “George Drew,” Maclean’s, 1 October 1948.

[16] J. Holland Rose et al., editor, Cambridge History of the British Empire: Volume VI – Canada and Newfoundland (Cambridge University Press, 1930), 486, 510, 511.

[17] J. Holland Rose et al., editor, Cambridge History of the British Empire: Volume VI – Canada and Newfoundland (Cambridge University Press, 1930), 511.

[18] Chester Martin, Dominion Lands” Policy (Toronto: McClelland-Stewart, 1937), 222.

[19] Steve Paikin, “Transition,” Chapter 6 in Bill Davis: Nation-Building, and Not So Bland After All (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2016), no page numbers in this electronic format.

[20] Susanne Hynes, “From Ashes to Steel: Rebuilding the Legislative Library of Ontario,” Canadian Parliamentary Review 33, no.1 (2010): 26.

[21] Steve Paikin, “Transition,” Chapter 6 in Bill Davis: Nation-Building, and Not So Bland After All (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2016), no page numbers in this electronic format.

[22] Steve Paikin, “Transition,” Chapter 6 in Bill Davis: Nation-Building, and Not So Bland After All (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2016), no page numbers in this electronic format.

[23] Canada, Office of the Governor General, Chancellery of Honours, “George A. Drew, PC, CC,” accessed 10 September 2019.

[24] Patrice Dutil and Peter P. Constantinou, “The Office of Premier of Ontario, 1945-2010: Who Really Advises?” Canadian Parliamentary Review 36, no. 1 (2013): 44.

[25] Patrice Dutil and Peter P. Constantinou, “The Office of Premier of Ontario, 1945-2010: Who Really Advises?” Canadian Parliamentary Review 36, no. 1 (2013): 45.

[26] Patrice Dutil and Peter P. Constantinou, “The Office of Premier of Ontario, 1945-2010: Who Really Advises?” Canadian Parliamentary Review 36, no. 1 (2013): 46.

[27] Steve Paikin, “Transition,” Chapter 6 in Bill Davis: Nation-Building, and Not So Bland After All (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2016), no page numbers in this electronic format.

[28] Executive Council Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. E.25, section 3(2).


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
This entry was posted in Crown (Powers and Office), Prime Minister's Powers. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Prime Minister of Ontario Was Also a Member of Provincial Parliament

  1. Dr. Rand Dyck says:

    OH, James, another wonderful piece of scholarship!


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