Capsules on Manitoba's provincial 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 the elections in Manitoba.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written. (Last updated Mar. 30, 2022.)
1896 Manitoba election
Thomas Greenway sends a message to Ottawa
January 15, 1896
Elections in the late 19th century in Canada were often decided over the things that defined the country’s divisions at the time: language and religion.
This was the case of the Manitoba provincial election of 1896.
Since 1888, the province had been governed by Thomas Greenway and his Liberals. The Conservatives were a defeated and depleted force in the legislature. Instead, Greenway’s chief opponents — or political punching bags — were the Conservatives in Ottawa.
Upon joining Confederation in 1870, Manitoba had two separate, publicly-funded school systems: one was Catholic and predominantly French, while the other was Protestant and English.
That made sense in 1870, but by the late 1880s the population of Manitoba was overwhelming English-speaking, thanks in large part to an influx of Ontarians who wanted Manitoba to be a lot more like Ontario.
Knowing a popular policy when he saw one, in 1890 Greenway abolished the separate school system and made the French language no longer an official language of government. The new non-sectarian (though still Christian) school system would effectively get rid of French-language education in Manitoba.
There was pressure on John A. Macdonald’s federal government to disallow the legislation, as Macdonald still counted on support from francophones in Quebec. Instead, Macdonald decided to let this issue be decided by the courts — and it went through the various stages of appeals for a few years.
But by the mid-1890s, a ruling came down saying that it was up to the federal government to act. The Conservatives, now under Mackenzie Bowell, dragged their feat until introducing remedial legislation (which split the party in two and eventually contributed to Bowell’s fall).
This was great news for Greenway, who needed an issue to focus a re-election campaign around. He refused to follow the remedial legislation and Bowell gave Greenway six months to figure out a solution. The Manitoba premier took that time to prepare for a campaign, and dissolved the legislature on December 20, 1895, setting an election for January 15, 1896.
Greenway denounced the “menacing attitude assumed by the Dominion Government” as an attack on provincial autonomy and went on the hustings with little to fear from the local opposition.
The 1896 Manitoba election was a one-issue election. The combination of a popular policy (minority rights weren’t exactly vote-getters) and an anti-Ottawa campaign delivered a big landslide to Greenway’s Liberals.
His party won 32 seats (nine of them by acclamation) and 50% of the vote, leaving just five seats and 40% to the Conservatives, two seats to the Patrons of Industry (a farmers’ group) and one Independent.
Political affiliations were fluid at the time, but this represented a gain of five seats for the governing party since the 1892 election.
Despite the rebuke from voters, Bowell still pressed ahead to find a way out. But Greenway and the federal Liberals did everything they could to delay action until a federal election would be forced later in the year.
That 1896 federal election, fought over the Manitoba Schools Question outside of the province (inside, the provincial election had decided things), brought Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals to power. Shortly thereafter, Laurier and Greenway settled on a compromise which allowed some Catholic and French-language education where numbers warranted. The question wasn’t entirely settled for Manitoba’s francophones, who continued to fight for their rights, but it would no longer be the political football that it was in the 1890s.
1949 Manitoba election
November 10, 1949
There’s been a lot of talk about coalitions lately (originally written on Nov. 10, 2021), as the Liberals and New Democrats have apparently been discussing (informally, they say) some sort of co-operation that could make this minority parliament last. But co-operation is not coalition — if there aren’t NDP cabinet ministers or MPs on the governing benches, it ain’t a coalition.
But coalitions used to be all the rage, at least when wars were raging. After the outbreak of the Second World War, a coalition government was formed in Manitoba that included all parties — the Liberal Progressives, Conservatives, Social Credit and the CCF. But by the 1949 election, only the Liberal Progressives and the Progressive Conservatives (as they were called by then) were still together, as Social Credit had dissolved away and the CCF had left the coalition before the end of the war.
The Liberal Progressives, themselves the result of an alliance between the old Liberal and Progressive parties, were led by Douglas Campbell, who had replaced Stuart Garson as premier when he made the jump to federal politics in 1948. The PCs were under deputy premier Errick Willis. Against them was the CCF under the leadership of Edwin Hansford, mounting his first (and only) campaign as leader.
It was a lopsided affair for the coalition. Campbell’s Liberal Progressives won 38% of the vote, with the PCs taking 12%. With the addition of a few coalition-aligned independent candidates, the total take for the governing side was 57% of the vote and 45 seats, with the Liberal Progressives accounting for 30 of them and the PCs for nine.
The CCF captured 26% of the vote and formed the opposition with seven seats (all of them in Winnipeg), and was joined on that side of the legislature by three Conservatives (who were opposed to the coalition), one independent and one Labor-Progressive (otherwise known as a Communist).
Campbell would go on to govern the province until 1958 but he would do so alone for nearly the whole time, as the PCs finally put an end to the coalition in 1950.
1962 Manitoba election
Duff Roblin secures third term
December 14, 1962
After a long period of rule by the Liberal-Progressives, Duff Roblin and the Progressive Conservatives scored an upset victory in the 1958 Manitoba election, securing a minority government. It was the party’s first victory since 1914 and came hot off the heels of John Diefenbaker’s federal landslide.
With a big and reforming legislative agenda, the PCs gained the support of the CCF in the minority legislature, as Roblin had positioned the party in the centre of Manitoba’s political spectrum — with the Liberal-Progressives to the right and the CCF to the left. When an opportunity presented itself, Roblin dissolved the legislature and won himself a majority government in 1959.
The first years of the Roblin government were focused on investment in the social sector, particularly education. But with Diefenbaker’s PCs reduced to a shaky minority in 1962, the likelihood of a federal election in 1963 seemed high. This might have pushed Roblin to call an early election for December 14, 1962.
Campaigning on a program of economic development — highways, northern development, the Red River Floodway — Roblin’s PCs were in a strong position. The Liberals had shed the ‘Progressive’ moniker and were now under the leadership of Gildas Molgat, someone who would keep the Liberals firmly on the right. The CCF was now the New Democratic Party under Russell Paulley, but the NDP was unable to make a breakthrough in its first campaign.
When the votes were counted, the Progressive Conservatives were returned with 36 seats, matching their total from 1959. Their share of the vote dipped only slightly, falling about a point to 45%. The Liberals gained two seats, winning 13, and increased their share of the vote from 30% to 36%. The NDP, though, fell seven points to 15% and only seven seats. A Social Crediter was also elected.
Roblin would win one more election in 1966 before stepping aside in 1967 to mount a (failed) bid for the federal PC leadership. Two years later, Ed Schreyer would form the first NDP government in Manitoba’s history.
1981 Manitoba election
Howard Pawley leads the NDP back to power
November 17, 1981
After four years in office, the Progressive Conservative government under Sterling Lyon — a confrontational, pugnacious small-government conservative — was becoming increasingly unpopular in Manitoba. Lyon brought in fiscal restraints, fomenting opposition by groups affected by the government’s cuts, and seemed distracted by constitutional debates and “mega-projects”.
The New Democrats, who had governed Manitoba for two terms before the PCs came to power, were re-invigorated under the new leadership of Howard Pawley, who spent his time as opposition leader improving the state of the party’s organization.
Running as a relative moderate against the “neo-conservative'“ Lyon — whose party ran under the somewhat menacing slogan “Don’t Stop Us Now” — Pawley won a big majority with 34 seats, an increase of 11 since the 1977 election. The PCs lost 10 seats, dropping to 23, as the New Democrats won central and northern Winnipeg and rural seats in the north and east, while the PCs were pushed back to southern Winnipeg and the rural southwest.
The provincewide vote, however, was closer than the seat total might have suggested: 47% for the NDP and 44% for the PCs.
The Liberals, under Doug Lauchlan, were shut out and captured just 7% of the vote, which still stands as the Manitoba Liberals’ worst election performance in their history.
The Lyon government also still stands as the only single-term government in Manitoba.
The New Democrats would narrowly win one more election in 1986 under Pawley, but Gary Filmon would return the PCs to power in 1988 and stay there for the next 11 years.
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