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.
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.
1988 Manitoba NDP leadership
Gary Doer takes over
March 30, 1988
Seven years since being returned to power in 1981, the Manitoba New Democrats under Howard Pawley were struggling by 1988. The party had secured only a tenuous one-seat majority in the 1986 election and were hanging on by a thread following a resignation that left a seat vacant.
When it came time to vote on the NDP’s budget in 1986, disgruntled NDP MLA Jim Walding saw a moment to exact some revenge for what he felt was a snub by his party that kept him out of cabinet — a snub exacerbated when Walding found himself facing a challenge by one of Pawley’s aides for his own riding nomination.
Walding voted against the budget and Pawley’s government was defeated by a margin of 28 to 27.
It was not a good time for an election. Hurt by a big hike in auto insurance rates and Pawley’s support for the unpopular Meech Lake Accord, the New Democrats were trailing in third in the polls behind the second-place Liberals and a rejuvenated Progressive Conservative Party under Gary Filmon, who was taking the PCs into a more centrist direction after the confrontational conservatism of the Sterling Lyon years.
Pawley decided that the NDP’s best chance of survival was if he stepped aside, and when he called an election for April 26 he announced his own resignation and an NDP leadership race that would name his successor on March 30, 1988.
With little time to organize, there were still five candidates that emerged.
Gary Doer, minister of urban affairs and a former president of the Manitoba Government Employees’ Association first elected under the NDP banner in 1986, was the first to declare. He was seen as the front runner and he opened his leadership campaign admitting that the Pawley government had made mistakes.
Though he started out as a long shot, Doer’s main challenger turned out to be Len Harapiak, the minister of agriculture, who was described as “earnest, hard-working, soft spoken and family-oriented” by The Globe and Mail’s correspondent in Winnipeg. Like Doer, Harapiak had been first elected in 1986.
There was also Andy Anstett, attempting a comeback after being defeated in the 1986 election, Conrad Santos, an MLA, and Maureen Hemphill, minister of community services. Hemphill represented the party’s left wing, boasting she was not running “an establishment campaign”.
Doer had the backing of the urban white collar labour vote, and garnered endorsements from the Manitoba Federation of Labour and senior cabinet ministers. From Winnipeg, Doer counted on endorsements from influential New Democrats in Brandon and the rural areas of the province to broaden his appeal.
Harapiak, representing The Pas, had rural and northern support, along with the endorsements of more junior cabinet ministers. Both he and Doer were seen as moderates, but Harapiak had a longer history with the party after having run (and lost) as an NDP candidate on several occasions before his 1986 victory. Doer, by contrast, was seen by some as more of a newcomer.
The convention in Winnipeg included nearly 1,800 delegates, supplemented by satellite voting locations in Dauphin, Swan River, Flin Flon, Thompson and The Pas. Each riding was allowed to have one delegate for every 10 members in the riding, which meant parts of the province with stronger local organizations had more clout.
On the first ballot of voting, Doer emerged on top with 38% of delegates’ votes. Harapiak was not far behind with 33%, followed by Anstett at 19% and Hemphill with 10%. Santos garnered only five votes.
Hemphill backed Anstett for the next ballot of voting, but it didn’t help. Doer picked up 113 delegates, growing his support to 45%. Harapiak picked up 79 delegates and remained within reach of Doer with 38%, while Anstett saw his total drop by 27 delegates to just 18%.
An anyone-but-Doer movement emerged, as both Anstett and Hemphill got behind Harapiak. It almost succeeded, as Doer gained only 91 delegates on the third and final ballot to Harapiak’s 192.
But Doer won by a margin of 21 votes, with 835 delegates against Harapiak’s 814.
Doer had little time to get comfortable as NDP leader, as the election was only a few weeks away. A new face and some new energy was not enough, and the NDP suffered a big defeat, dropping from 30 seats and 41.5% of the vote in 1986 to just 12 seats and 24% in 1988. The Liberals under Sharon Carstairs formed the official opposition while Filmon and the PCs formed a minority government, which they were to increase to a majority two years later.
But despite the razor-thin leadership win and his electoral defeats in 1988 and 1990, Doer was able to stay on as leader of the Manitoba New Democrats. He’d lose again in 1995 before finally bringing the NDP back to power in 1999. Doer would serve as premier until 2009, when he stepped down and ended 21 years as leader of the Manitoba NDP — far longer than anyone else has ever held the title.
All because of 21 votes.
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