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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.
1911 Canadian federal election
The reciprocity election that defeated Wilfrid Laurier
September 21, 1911
Wilfrid Laurier was the giant of Canadian politics during the first decade of the 20th century, easily winning re-election three times after coming to power in 1896. The country was prosperous and growing, becoming more urban and industrialized and attracting immigrants who helped boost Canada’s population from 5.4 million to 7.2 million between 1901 and 1911 — a rate of growth the country has never since matched.
Nearing 70 years old in 1911 but still carrying himself with the dignity and sense of fairness that earned him respect from both English and French Canadians, Laurier had governed the country for 15 years and had led the Liberal Party for more than two decades. He had lost his first election as leader in 1891 on the issue of freer trade with the United States. John A. Macdonald, in his last campaign before his death, wrapped himself in the Union Jack and his long-standing National Policy of protective tariffs and carried the country one last time on the slogan of “The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader.”
Twenty years later, though, Laurier thought the time was ripe for his Liberals to finally achieve their goal of free trade with the U.S., especially since President William Howard Taft seemed amenable to a deal. Envoys were sent to Washington, D.C. and came back with an agreement.
When W.S. Fielding, Laurier’s finance minister, announced its details in the House of Commons, the Conservatives on the opposition benches were gob smacked. While they expected something had been worked out between Fielding and the Americans, they had no idea of its scope: free trade for agricultural products and protective tariffs for most manufactured goods. It would open up the huge U.S. market for Canadian farmers in the West while protecting the industrial interests of Central Canada.
Robert Borden, leader of the Conservative opposition since 1901, initially thought this meant another defeat was on the horizon. Contrary to modern practice, the Conservatives had stuck with Borden despite two consecutive elections defeats under him in 1904 and 1908. His hold on the party was shaky, but he had survived. This deal would sink him, perhaps for the last time.
Fellow Conservatives around the country, however, weren’t so pessimistic. Reciprocity had defeated the Liberals in 1891 and it could do so again. Manufacturers and financiers in Toronto and Montreal were ready to fight to protect their interests, and would fund a nationwide campaign to denounce reciprocity with the United States. Conservative premiers in British Columbia, Manitoba and Ontario were ready to go to bat for Borden to finally defeat the Liberals.
For opponents to freer trade, which included a ‘Toronto 18’ of business leaders and Liberals who publicly spoke out against the deal, Laurier’s gamble had given them a golden opportunity. Cheaper goods and bigger markets might seem appealing, they claimed, but they would destroy Canadian producers. Worse, a closer relationship with the United States would inevitably lead to political union and annexation. Reciprocity meant turning away from the British Empire when it most needed Canada.
War clouds were gathering over Europe as an increasingly belligerent Germany threw its weight around international affairs. Wanting its own place in the sun and greater dominance on the Continent, Germany had embarked on a naval arms race with Great Britain, then the world’s foremost naval power. Britain needed to keep its advantage — and maybe Canada could help.
Borden and other imperialists wanted Canada to make a direct contribution to the British treasury, sending money to build warships for the Royal Navy. But Laurier wanted Canada to maintain some level of independence and proposed instead his Naval Service Act, which called for the construction of a small Canadian force (dubbed a ‘tin-pot navy’ by opponents) instead. The Conservatives believed when the Empire called Canada should only say “ready, aye, ready”. What Laurier proposed smacked of anti-British treason.
For French-Canadian nationalists in Quebec, however, it was just the opposite. Henri Bourassa, nationalist firebrand and editor of Le Devoir, argued that the creation of a navy was only the first step toward conscription to fight in British wars. While Laurier would be accused of being a traitor to the Empire in English Canada, he would also be accused of being a traitor to his ‘race’ in French Canada.
Suddenly, things were looking up for Borden and the Conservatives. They had the backing of powerful, well-funded interests and a patriotic appeal to make to the people. Borden also gave his acquiescence to a parallel campaign in Quebec, led by his Quebec lieutenant Frederick Monk and Bourassa, against the Liberals over the naval issue.
Laurier denounced the ‘unholy alliance’ between Borden and Bourassa. Frustrated that he couldn’t get his reciprocity legislation through the House of Commons (the closure mechanism that can shut down debate in the House today didn’t exist at the time), he decided to take the question to the people and called an election for September 21, 1911 — less than three years after the previous election of 1908.
Laurier had some reason to be confident. He had seen off the Conservatives four times before. He was still widely respected, even revered, and the slogan of “Laurier and Larger Markets”, though perhaps lacking an emotional appeal, would speak to voters’ logic. If that wasn’t enough, Laurier had the assistance of provincial Liberal governments in most provinces and the assured support of voters in the Prairies, whose farmers had always clamoured for access to the American market.
But Laurier’s old charm was starting to wear off by 1911 and he and his Liberal government were showing their age. The cabinet had hardly changed since 1896 and Laurier’s old-style, classic liberalism was starting to appear out of date as Canada modernized and government intervention, even by Conservative governments, was becoming more popular.
Against his atrophying political machine, particularly in Ontario, Laurier faced skilled Conservative premiers in Richard McBride in British Columbia, Rodmond Roblin in Manitoba and James Whitney in Ontario, who all put their political organizations (and some times their civil servants) to work to elect Borden. Even Laurier’s Quebec base was threated by Bourassa and Monk, and Borden accordingly kept a wide berth of the province, visiting only once on his way to tour the Maritimes.
The election, which Laurier hoped to have decided on the issue of an expanding economy thanks to access to the huge American market, became an emotional appeal to patriotism. Even Rudyard Kipling was drafted to aid the anti-reciprocity campaign, writing in Conservative-friendly newspapers that “it is her own soul that Canada risks today.”
The Liberals weren’t helped when the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Champ Clark, stated that he longed to see the day “when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions, clear to the North Pole,” but the claims of Laurier’s limited free trade leading, first, to complete free trade and, second, to annexation by the United States were dishonest at best, outright lies at worst. At a time when pro-Empire and anti-American sentiment was high, they were used to devastating political effect and casted Laurier’s plan as a betrayal of the British and a surrender to the Americans.
The Conservatives emerged with 135 seats, an increase of 49 over their performance in the 1908 election. Laurier and the Liberals were defeated.
The Conservatives made inroads in the Maritimes with 16 of 35 seats and a breakthrough in Quebec with 28 seats, up from just 12 in the previous election, thanks to the efforts of Bourassa and Monk. Sealing the Liberals’ fate was Ontario. Whitney’s political machine helped deliver 73 of 86 seats to the Conservatives (a gain of 25), while Roblin secured eight of 10 seats in Manitoba and McBride swept all six of B.C.’s seats for Borden.
(Conservative figures here include Independent Conservatives, Liberal-Conservatives and Nationalists who ran with the blessing or acquiescence of the Conservatives. The lone Labour MP was trade unionist Alphonse Verville, who supported the Liberals and ran without opposition from that party. However, he was initially elected to the House by defeating a Liberal candidate in a Montreal byelection in 1906.)
The Conservatives won just over 50% of the vote as Liberal support fell 3.5 points to 45.8%. Laurier captured just 85 seats, a loss of 48 from 1908. The party had lost ground in Quebec but still held on to 36 seats in the province, while reciprocity helped the Liberals carry 15 of 17 seats in Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Among the defeated were Fielding and Mackenzie King, a future prime minister. Among the elected were future Conservative prime ministers R.B. Bennett in Alberta and Arthur Meighen in Manitoba.
It was a soaring victory for Borden and the Conservatives and a painful defeat for Laurier. He had gauged his political future on a long-cherished dream of free trade was was accused of betraying both his own countrymen and Canada’s British connection.
“I am branded in Quebec as a traitor to the French,” he said while on the hustings, “and in Ontario as a traitor to the English. In Quebec, I am branded as a jingo and in Ontario as a separatist. In Quebec, I am attacked as an imperialist and in Ontario as an anti-imperialist. I am neither. I am Canadian.”
Borden’s calculated move to sidle up to Quebec nationalists proved short-sighted. Not needing them after winning such an enormous majority, he sidelined them and quickly lost their support. In short order, Bourassa and his nationalists would turn on Borden. As with John Diefenbaker and Brian Mulroney in later years, Borden’s attempt to draw Quebec nationalists into his coalition would eventually collapse.
His spurning of free trade also angered Western farmers, who felt disrespected and unrepresented by Central Canada. They would find that voice in the rise of the Progressive Party which, along with Quebec’s fierce opposition to the Conservatives after they brought in conscription during the First World War, led to the party’s catastrophic defeat in 1921.
But in 1911, that was all in the future. Borden’s victory would spell the end of reciprocity for nearly another eight decades and would give him the burden of leading the country through the First World War. That next election, perhaps Canada’s ugliest, would prove to be the last showdown between Borden and Laurier.
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.
1956 Progressive Conservative leadership
Dief becomes the Chief
December 14, 1956
The Progressive Conservatives were starting to feel like maybe they had a little wind in their sails.
After two decades on the opposition benches, they had staggered the Liberals with a bruising fight over C.D. Howe’s controversial TransCanada pipeline project. With an election just a year away, the PCs’ prospects were suddenly looking up in 1956.
They still faced serious challenges, however. The Liberals had been in office since 1935. Louis St-Laurent, who had taken over from Mackenzie King in 1948, seemed to be in cruise control as a benevolent chairman of the board. After leading the country out of the Great Depression, through the Second World War and into its postwar economic boom, the Liberals were more of a Canadian institution than a mere political party.
When Canadians had last gone to the polls in 1953, they had rubber-stamped St-Laurent’s government by awarding the Liberals 48% of the vote and 169 seats. The PCs under former Ontario premier George Drew managed just 51 seats and 31% of the vote. Even if the Tories were smelling a little blood in the water in 1956, defeating the Liberals still seemed unlikely with Gallup awarding the governing party between 47% and 54% in polls conducted that year, compared to just 28% to 34% for the PCs.
Plans for the final sprint toward the election expected to be called in 1957 had to be put on hold, however, when Drew resigned the leadership. His health had deteriorated and he had no choice but to step aside.
Everyone knew who his replacement would probably be: John Diefenbaker, 61, the bombastic and theatrical partisan performer who had assailed the Liberals in the House of Commons since being first elected in 1940. A former leader of the Saskatchewan Conservatives, Diefenbaker was, by now, a perennial candidate with a national profile. He had finished a distant second to Drew in the 1948 leadership contest. He had finished an even more distant third to John Bracken back in 1942. It would finally be Diefenbaker’s time.
That is, unless his determined opponents within the party could stop him.
An “Old Guard” of Tories who had run the party for decades didn’t quite like Diefenbaker, a somewhat awkward, unpredictable and grudge-holding Prairie populist. Diefenbaker was a proponent of “One Canada” and of unhyphenated Canadians, a position that was at odds with the PCs’ traditional nationalist allies in Quebec. Someone needed to run as the anti-Diefenbaker candidate.
But it was hard to find someone willing to do it. The Old Guard was looking increasingly old and and out-of-touch with the modern PC Party. Diefenbaker had allies in provincial capitals in Winnipeg, Toronto, Fredericton and Halifax — important establishment figures like Leslie Frost and Hugh John Flemming and future stars like Duff Roblin and Robert Stanfield. Diefenbaker had the backing of nearly all of the PC caucus (save a few of the front-benchers). Potential rivals were approached but they declined, leaving the unenviable task to Donald Fleming.
Fleming, a bilingual Toronto MP who had finished third in the 1948 leadership contest, emerged as Diefenbaker’s chief rival. While Diefenbaker had the support of the West, Fleming had the backing of Quebec. But he had little more than that.
Also throwing his hat into the ring was Davie Fulton, the youngest candidate of the three at just 40 years old. Fulton represented a riding in British Columbia and was a supporter of Diefenbaker. He was just hoping to make a name for himself for a future run. Plus, he was a Roman Catholic — and some elements within the party believed a Catholic leader would tank them in parts of Ontario and the Maritimes.
Fulton recognized he wouldn’t win this race. Political observers, the press gallery and most of the PC Party agreed that Fulton wouldn’t win — and neither would Fleming. A Gallup poll of PC voters showed 55% support for Diefenbaker. Fleming had just 14%.
Diefenbaker’s position as the likely winner was further solidified with his performance during the international crises that distracted Canadians throughout the fall of 1956: the Soviet Union’s brutal repression of an uprising in Hungary and the attack on Egypt by Great Britain, France and Israel. While Lester Pearson would earn most of the praise for his involvement in brokering a solution to the Suez Crisis, Diefenbaker used the opportunity to present himself as a responsible national leader of the opposition.
Nevertheless, Diefenbaker’s campaign took no chances. The paranoid vindictiveness that would soon become apparent when Diefenbaker became prime minister in 1957 was reflected in his campaign, which went hard after Fleming despite the inevitable victory.
Attacked as the candidate of the establishment, Fleming found it difficult to garner support. “It became obvious that even those who were not ready to support Diefenbaker were reluctant to show their colours against him,” Fleming later said. “This was based in some cases on the belief that he was bound to win, in others on fear of his reputed vindictiveness. I doubt if they gained anything from their abstention.”
Dalton Camp, a brilliant political strategist who would eventually become Diefenbaker’s nemesis, observed in the Diefenbaker campaign “an undercurrent of malice, a sense of an impending blood-letting, in which the victorious would all avenge the past.”
It wasn’t the only omen of what would come. When PC delegates gathered in Ottawa for the leadership vote, Diefenbaker was sharply criticized by his few Quebec supporters for his decision to have his two nominators be English-speakers from the West and East. Diefenbaker refused to back down. While both Fulton and Fleming made one of their nominators a Quebecer, Diefenbaker didn’t.
It wouldn’t be the last time Diefenbaker would reveal an insensitivity to Quebec — one that would eventually hurt him in the future.
But December 14, 1956 was a day of vindication for Diefenbaker, who had been rejected and spurned so often before.
As expected, Diefenbaker won an emphatic first ballot victory with the support of 774 delegates, or about 60% of ballots cast. Diefenbaker didn’t do well among the Quebec delegates (many of whom walked out of the convention when the results were announced), but those in the West and in Ontario carried the day for him.
Fleming finished with 393 votes (31%), while Fulton came third with 117 (9%).
The polls didn’t improve for the PCs after Diefenbaker’s victory and he would remain an underdog right up until election day, when he scored an upset minority win in 1957 over St-Laurent’s Liberals.
Though Drew won the leadership of the PCs with a little more of the vote in 1948 than Diefenbaker did in 1956, no subsequent candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservatives, Canadian Alliance or the modern Conservative Party ever matched Diefenbaker’s big first ballot win — until Pierre Poilievre beat it in 2022.
It isn’t the only parallel that can be drawn between the political careers of these two Conservative leaders, whose take-no-prisoners, partisan street-fighter approaches had their strengths, as well as their weaknesses.
1961 New Democratic Party leadership
Tommy Douglas takes over the new NDP
August 3, 1961
When about 1,800 delegates headed to the Ottawa Coliseum in early August 1961, their task was not only to found a new party but to determine who should lead it.
This new party would be the successor to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, originally founded in the 1932. The CCF was steeped in the Prairie socialism and social gospel that emerged between the world wars, but by the 1960s it was seen as a little dated.
The results of the 1958 election made that clear.
Though the CCF once enjoyed a surge in the polls during the Second World War and had managed to form government in Saskatchewan since 1944, it was unable to make a breakthrough at the federal level. In its last election under M.J. Coldwell, the CCF was reduced to just eight seats when John Diefenbaker’s Progressive Conservatives won their landslide victory in 1958.
Saskatchewan, the heartland of the CCF, elected only a single CCF MP — and it was Hazen Argue, not M.J. Coldwell.
It punctuated what was already a lively discussion within CCF circles: it was time to create a new party that would unite the western, farmer base of the CCF with the urban energy (and financial resources) of the labour movement. The CCF and the Canadian Labour Congress decided to get the ball rolling in that direction to create this new party of the left for the modern age.
But who would lead it? Some thought it should be David Lewis, an influential behind-the-scenes figure within the CCF. But to prevent the traditionalists in the CCF from believing they were being swamped and taken over by the labour movement in Central and Eastern Canada, Lewis felt it couldn’t be him. It had to be T.C. Douglas, Saskatchewan premier and the CCF’s most successful politician in the country.
Tommy Douglas wasn’t so sure, though. The Saskatchewan CCF had done just fine without close affiliations with the labour movement. Linking itself with unions could cost the CCF its rural support in his home province. Douglas thought the national CCF and the CLC were moving a little too quickly for his taste.
But plans to create the new party — candidates were already starting to contest byelections under the “New Party” banner — went ahead. Coldwell, seatless and aging, couldn’t lead this new party. Hazen Argue had taken over the small rump CCF caucus in the House of Commons and with its backing (but against the wishes of the party organizers) was named the national CCF leader.
So, Douglas had to throw his hat into the ring if it meant blocking Argue who, according to Carl Hamilton, the CCF’s national secretary, “was a totally conscienceless man.”
Writing for The Globe and Mail, Walter Gray called Argue “a restless, aggressive man, [he] always seems to be in a hurry, either on the platform or in a quiet conversation. His suits are rumpled, his thick, black hair brushed carelessly back, his black moustache short and bristled.”
Douglas waited only a month before the founding convention of the new party to announce his intentions to run after he received letters of advice from his Saskatchewan cabinet. All but two had suggested he make the jump to federal politics.
It wasn’t much of a fair fight. At the convention — which narrowly settled on the name “New Democratic Party” over the “New Party”, while “Social Democratic Party” and “Canadian Democratic Party” were less popular — Douglas was the conquering hero from Saskatchewan who had put the CCF into power and proven it could govern responsibly. Argue had his small caucus behind him, but not much else.
When the voting was finished, Douglas had the support of 1,391 delegates to just 380 for Argue, representing 78.5% of ballots cast.
Argue was crushed, but said that “no matter what my role in the years ahead, I shall speak for you, I shall work for you, I shall never let you down.” Six months later, Argue crossed the floor to the Liberals.
While Douglas would not bring the New Democrats to new heights — he never won more than 22 seats, while Coldwell had beaten that mark as leader of the CCF in 1945, 1953 and 1957 — he would leave his mark on federal politics, particularly during the Pearson minority governments.
Argue, meanwhile, has been effectively written out of the history of the New Democratic Party. At NDP headquarters, in the line of portraits of past CCF and NDP leaders one finds M.J. Coldwell and Tommy Douglas next to each other, with no other portrait in between.
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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NOTE ON SOURCES: When available, election results are sourced from Elections Canada, the Library of Parliament and J.P. Kirby’s election-atlas.ca. Historical newspapers are also an important source, and I’ve attempted to cite the newspapers quoted from.
In addition, information in these capsules are sourced from the following works:
Dynasties & Interludes: Past and Present in Canadian Electoral Politics, by Lawrence Leduc and Jon H. Pammett
Turning Points: The Campaigns that Changed Canada, 2004 and Before, by Ray Argyle
Nation Maker: John A. Macdonald, His Life, Our Times, by Richard Gwyn
Alexander Mackenzie, by Dale C. Thomson
Wilfrid Laurier: Quand la politique devient passion, by Réal Bélanger
Robert Laird Borden: A Biography, Volume 1, by Robert Craig Brown
In Search of R.B. Bennett, by P.B. Waite
The Life and Times of Tommy Douglas, by Walter Stewart
M.J.: The Life and Times of M.J. Coldwell, by Walter Stewart
Rogue Tory: The Life and Legend of John G. Diefenbaker, by Denis Smith