Capsules on Canada's federal elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about federal elections and leadership races.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1874 Canadian federal election
John A.’s only defeat
January 22, 1874
For nearly all of the last half of the 19th century, John A. Macdonald dominated Canadian politics. With the exception of a brief interlude, Macdonald was prime minister from Confederation in 1867 to his death in 1891.
But that brief exception nearly ended his career prematurely.
After winning Canada’s first election, Macdonald had a rougher go in 1872. He was facing opposition in Ontario over his handling of the economy and relations with the United States, and discontent in the West with the slow development of the transcontinental railway.
His desperation was such that he could not turn down a huge influx of cash from Hugh Allan, who just happened to be negotiating with the government for the rights to build the Pacific railway.
Facing a stiff fight in his Kingston riding, Macdonald needed money. In an act of political self-destruction, he sent off and signed a telegram to Allan’s lawyer:
“Immediate private. I must have another ten thousand. Will be the last time of calling. Do not fail me. Answer today.”
Three days later, the reply came back in the affirmative.
In all, Allan would contribute $350,000 to the Conservatives’ re-election efforts, an enormous sum by the standards of the day (and enough to turn heads even now). That money was sprinkled across the country in ways that violated election laws at the time.
With Allan’s help, Macdonald narrowly secured re-election, but it wasn’t long before the nitty-gritty details of what would become the Pacific Scandal started leaking out. By the end of 1873, the telegram (and others) had been re-printed in the press and Macdonald’s premiership was over. He resigned. His replacement was the Liberal leader, Alexander Mackenzie.
Like Macdonald, Mackenzie was a Scottish immigrant. A solid, uncharismatic, morally upright and rigid stonemason from Sarnia, Mackenzie was determined to run a clean administration. After setting up his government, he dissolved parliament and called an election for January 22, 1874.
Though it wasn’t written into law yet, Mackenzie went ahead with one of the reforms he meant to enact to clean up politics by holding elections across the country on the same day. That wasn’t the practice in 1867 or 1872. Macdonald had used this to his advantage, scheduling elections in safe ridings earlier in order to build up some momentum for more difficult contests later. By the time Mackenzie’s time in office was over, he’d bring in other election reforms like a secret ballot and an expanded franchise.
Mackenzie didn’t need to abuse the electoral system to win in 1874. The Pacific Scandal was enough to tar Macdonald’s Conservatives and make them unelectable.
It’s hard to pin down accurate results in 19th century elections, as candidates ran under different affiliations and the records are inconsistent — I can find multiple sources with different results for the 1874 election.
But according to the (now-defunct) Parliament of Canada results website, the Liberals captured 133 seats and 54% of the vote, with the Conservatives taking only 73 seats and 45% of the vote. Compared to the 1872 election, these results represented a swing of some 30 seats between the two parties.
The Liberals did very well in the Maritimes and won more than two-thirds of the seats up for grabs in Ontario. The Liberals even won a slight majority of seats in Quebec, a province that was normally far friendlier to the Catholic Church-backed bleus than the rouges in the 19th century.
In a note to one of his newly-elected Liberal MPs, Mackenzie was exultant. “What a slaughter,” he wrote. “The old corruptionists are fairly stupefied by our success.”
The Conservatives still held on to some of their seats in Ontario and Quebec and won in British Columbia, in part because Mackenzie had criticized the “impossible terms of union” that brought B.C. into Confederation. He wasn’t keen on Macdonald’s expensive railway policy, hoping to use waterways as much as possible between Georgian Bay and the Rockies to save money instead.
Mackenzie’s administration would prove to be short-lived, as it struggled through a global economic depression in the 1870s. Mackenzie was a micro-manager, taking on the huge public works portfolio himself in order to ensure it was kept clean. He wasn’t willing to play the same patronage game that Macdonald had mastered, meaning no Liberal network of grateful office-holders was established.
Macdonald considered retirement, but instead embarked on a new campaign with renewed energy, pushing the protectionist National Policy that would become the keystone policy of the Conservative Party for the next few decades. Like Mackenzie King, who was in opposition from 1930-35 and is the only prime minister to serve longer than him, Macdonald would benefit by being out-of-office for the worst of a depression. He’d be re-elected in 1878 and would never lose an election again.
1904 Canadian federal election
Laurier wins his third consecutive election
November 3, 1904
Already eight years into his time as prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier was at the height of his power when he called the 1904 federal election. He had already beaten Charles Tupper twice (in 1896 and 1900) and the 1904 election marked what would be the first of four contests Laurier would fight against Conservative leader Robert Borden.
The turn of the century was a time of rapid economic growth in Canada and a boom in immigration that settled the West. Tensions between English and French Canadians had died down under Laurier and all seemed well in the land to the (white, male) voters eligible to cast a ballot.
The Liberals were rewarded with what would be their biggest victory under Laurier and, with the exception of the 1940 election, the last time the party would capture a majority of ballots cast. The Liberals took just under 51% of the vote and won 137 of the 214 seats up for grabs, the equivalent of winning about 216 seats in today’s 338-seat House of Commons. They swept Nova Scotia, Borden’s home province, and dominated both Quebec and Western Canada.
Only in Ontario and P.E.I. did the Liberals fail to win the most seats.
The Conservatives captured around 46% of the vote and won 75 seats. But, despite the defeat, they’d stick with Borden. And they’d stick with him again even after he lost a second time in 1908. That patience would pay off when he would finally bring the Conservatives back to power in 1911.
1938 Conservative leadership
A job looking for a man
July 7, 1938
Poor Robert Manion.
The Conservatives, through their various iterations, have had a number of leaders who never became prime minister. The last few might one day be forgotten, but that hasn’t happened just yet. Robert Stanfield has an airport named after him and John Bracken, in addition to being premier of Manitoba for decades, was responsible for bolting the word “Progressive” to “Conservative”, a legacy that still echoes in premiers’ offices from Winnipeg to Halifax.
But Robert Manion? If any past Conservative leader elicits a shrug, it’s him.
Manion’s rise to the leadership of the Conservative Party (known as the National Conservative Party at the time) occurred in 1938 in the shadow of another looming world war and that of an outgoing giant in the party.
R.B. Bennett had led the Conservatives since 1927, leading them to victory in 1930 and having the misfortune of governing Canada through the toughest days of the Great Depression. Accordingly, Bennett’s government was defeated in 1935 and, by 1938, it was time for Bennett to step aside and retire to an estate in England.
The Conservatives held their convention between July 5 and 7, 1938 in Ottawa. It would feature a few final speeches by Bennett, who was still seriously considering staying on as leader. Former Ontario premier Howard Ferguson was one of the big proponents for a Bennett comeback, but it was only when former prime minister Arthur Meighen, who also speechified at the convention, talked him out of it that Bennett finally admitted his political career was over.
“To have declared myself a candidate to succeed myself, at the eleventh hour,” he wrote in a letter after the convention, “would have been rather dishonourable.”
It would have been unfair to those candidates who had declared themselves under the assumption that R.B. was leaving. First among these, and the odds-on favourite to win, was Robert Manion.
A physician, Irish Roman Catholic and MP for the northern Ontario riding of Fort William until his defeat in 1935, Manion had been a cabinet minister in both Meighen’s and Bennett’s governments and had finished fourth in the 1927 convention. A veteran of the First World War who was liked within the party, the “white-haired, clean-cut” Manion had his biggest support base in Quebec. He was a Roman Catholic married to a French Canadian, qualities that promised success for Conservatives in Quebec and discomfort for elements within the party that weren’t too friendly to Roman Catholics or French Canadians, particularly when it came to their questionable attachment to the British Empire.
Among those opposed to Manion was Meighen, who still held influence within the party. Meighen was instead backing Murdoch MacPherson of Saskatchewan.
MacPherson, “a youngish man of force and vigour from the Prairies”, had been a cabinet minister in Saskatchewan’s one-term Conservative government. He was seen as a serious underdog until he gave a good speech at the convention, catapulting himself into contention.
Also backing MacPherson was John Diefenbaker, then the leader of the seatless Saskatchewan Conservative Party. Diefenbaker would eventually have designs on the national leadership himself, but for now he was complaining about the national party’s lack of support for his recent provincial campaign, guilting the chairman of the convention to send him $125 to cover his travel expenses to Ottawa. Diefenbaker also talked a Regina supporter into paying for his railway tickets for him and his wife, something Diefenbaker declined to mention when he accepted the $125.
In addition to Manion and MacPherson, there were three other candidates, all Toronto-area MPs: Joe Harris, Earl Lawson and Denton Massey. They were considered long-shots and fell out of contention as soon as MacPherson had taken the stage.
It was a tumultuous convention, as the Quebec delegates (flush with victory after Maurice Duplessis’s win in 1936) challenged the party’s position on defense that put it lockstep behind the British. There were also divisions between the left and right wings of the party.
“God help you because of the reaction of this party,” said W.D. Herridge on stage, after he was booed and heckled for putting forward progressive economic policies that the convention rejected. He warned that without adopting this approach, “the pages of history will record this as the day of [the party’s] funeral.”
When the voting was finally held, Bennett, Meighen and Ferguson were nowhere to be seen. Douglas R. Oliver of The Globe and Mail put it thusly: “the big guns which boomed in convention and outside convention, yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that, but never a boom today.”
Though MacPherson had tightened the betting odds, on the first ballot it was Manion who emerged as the eventual choice of the party. He had 726 votes, just 60 short of what was needed for an outright victory. MacPherson trailed with 475 and the three southern Ontarians were further back.
Lawson was eliminated and threw his weight behind MacPherson. Neither Harris nor Massey stepped aside, but the bulk of their delegates went elsewhere. MacPherson gained the most votes on the second ballot, pushing his share up 173 votes to 648, but Manion earned enough new support (104) to win with 830.
He had been the favourite all along, even if no one seemed all that excited about the prospect. Oliver called the convention “the tale of a job that went looking for a man”, and the Conservatives had their man in Manion.
Manion had no seat in the House of Commons, but would contest and win a byelection in November 1938. He would eventually lead the Conservatives into the wartime 1940 federal election, pitching himself and his party as a National Government to mimic Robert Borden’s Union Government that had attracted Manion to the party in the first place.
It didn’t work. The Conservatives did no better than the trouncing they had received in 1935. Manion went down to personal defeat in his riding. Mackenzie King won the greatest victory he would as prime minister. By the next election, the war was (all but) over, Manion was dead and the National Conservatives had become the Progressive Conservatives. Not until 1957 and the leadership of John Diefenbaker, his $125 long spent, would the party be back in power.
1976 Progressive Conservative leadership
Joe Clark becomes PC leader
February 22, 1976
After three fruitless elections as federal Progressive Conservative leader, Robert Stanfield stepped aside in 1976 and kicked off a leadership race. With Pierre Trudeau’s government now into its third term — and the Liberals in office for over a decade — the prospects looked good for whoever could replace Stanfield in the official opposition leader’s chair.
On February 22, 1976, 5,000 PC delegates made their way to the Ottawa Civic Centre to decide who would take the party forward.
The frontrunner was widely seen as Claude Wagner, a former Quebec Liberal cabinet minister. He had a rival from Quebec in Brian Mulroney, who had loads of experience behind the scenes within the PC Party but none as an elected official.
Less flashy was Joe Clark, an MP from Alberta first elected in 1972. He had worked closely with Stanfield and was seen as coming from the Stanfield wing of the party, which made him one of John Diefenbaker’s enemies. Despite having been removed as leader a decade earlier, Diefenbaker still had sway, representing the stout, “One Nation” brand of conservatism in contrast to Stanfield’s more moderate and open-to-Quebec style.
Like Mulroney, Clark was young and had little experience outside of politics. But he was bilingual and a potential compromise candidate for those who did not want to choose between Wagner or Mulroney.
Another big player was PC MP Flora MacDonald, a trailblazer as the first woman viewed as a serious contender for one of the top two political jobs in the country.
Also on the packed ballot was Alberta MP Jack Horner, former Liberal Paul Hellyer, Ontario MP Sinclair Stevens and four other lesser-known MPs.
When the first round ballots were counted, Wagner was indeed on top with 22.5% of the vote, followed by Mulroney with 15%. Clark managed 12%, while Horner and Hellyer were tied at 10% apiece. MacDonald finished with just 9%, well below expectations, and Stevens with 8%.
Along with a couple of lower-placed finishers, Stevens withdrew at this point to put his support behind Clark, who jumped to 23% on the second ballot, just 5.5 points behind Wagner. Mulroney was now third with 18%, Horner in fourth with 12%, MacDonald in fifth with 10% and Hellyer in sixth, dropping to just 5%.
Only three names would remain on the third ballot. MacDonald endorsed Clark, while Horner and Hellyer (as well as Diefenbaker) threw their vote behind Wagner. The camps were splitting up into the moderates behind Clark and the right-wingers backing Wagner.
On that third ballot, Wagner had 43% to 41% for Clark, as Mulroney lost delegates and dropped to 16%. He was eliminated, but unlike all the other contestants would not give an endorsement to either Clark or Wagner.
By a nearly 2:1 margin, Clark picked up the liberated delegates on the fourth and final ballot, capturing 1,187 votes to Wagner’s 1,122 — a margin of just under three percentage points.
Clark, seen as a “darkhorse”, had pulled off the come-from-behind, compromise-candidate victory that would be a path followed by other future leaders like Dalton McGuinty in Ontario or Stéphane Dion for the federal Liberals.
But Clark remained largely unknown, prompting the Toronto Star to headline the next morning’s paper “Joe Who?”
Three years later, though, Clark would eke out a minority victory over Trudeau’s Liberals in the 1979 federal election. His time in office would be short, as he subsequently lost the 1980 election and would face off against Mulroney again in the 1983 leadership race But this time it would be Mulroney who would come from behind — and finish on top.
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