#EveryElectionProject: Nova Scotia
Capsules on Nova Scotia's 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 elections and leadership races in Nova Scotia.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1920 Nova Scotia election
A Nova Scotia dynasty rolls on
July 27, 1920
Remember when Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservatives were first elected in 1984? Now, imagine that government was still in power today — and about to be re-elected.
That’s what the situation was like in Nova Scotia in 1920 when George H. Murray sent the province to the polls.
His Nova Scotia Liberals had been in power since 1882 and Murray himself had been in office since 1896. With that uninterrupted record of winning, perhaps it is not surprising that few thought Murray’s Liberals were in any danger in 1920.
But the 1920s were a topsy-turvy time in Canadian politics. The First World War had shattered the old systems that kept different classes in their places and only two parties anywhere close to government.
Farmers were unhappy with the status quo and starting their own parties throughout the country. The United Farmers had already taken power in Ontario. It would not be the only place where the two old parties were shoved aside.
Labour groups were becoming restless. The Winnipeg General Strike had taken place only the year before. The Independent Labour Party was starting to make inroads. In Nova Scotia, the coal miners in Cape Breton wanted change.
And, for the first time, women were voting.
It made for an unpredictable time in Canadian politics. Could that tumult upset the apple cart in staid Liberal Nova Scotia?
Murray didn’t think so, and on June 29, 1920 he called an election that would be held on July 27.
The premier made the case to voters that Nova Scotia was in pretty good shape. The legislature was running well and the government had put into place measures to ease the return of Great War veterans into civilian life. Highways were being built, the Nova Scotia Power Commission had been created and benefits had been increased for widows and children.
Trying to prevent farmers from drifting away from the Liberal Party, Murray claimed “it can be said, without possibility of contradiction, that the farmers of Nova Scotia have never made any request of the Government which has not received a generous response. Every effort has been made to encourage an increased production.”
The Conservatives under W.L. Hall didn’t buy it. Their support largely came in rural areas of the province, and Hall charged that the Liberals had “deliberately set a date in the busiest season of the farmers and fishermen, hoping to prevent their active participation in the campaign.”
If the farmers stayed home, he thought, the Liberals would be re-elected.
Hall said that the Liberals hadn’t done as much as they could have during their 38 years of government and that theirs wasn’t nearly the “progressive” government that Murray claimed to run.
The Liberals were also under attack from Labour, who said their priority was to provide the “proper shelter, food and clothing” for people so that “workers should be emancipated from the position of serfdom they occupy at present.” Labour was also for more direct democracy through referendums and proportional representation.
The party had its best chances in Cape Breton, where workers were disappointed that the Murray government hadn’t enacted an eight-hour day.
As was the case in other parts of Canada, the United Farmers and the Independent Labour Party co-operated in the Nova Scotia campaign, strategically running candidates where they would not get in each other’s way.
But with all these voices calling for the end of Liberal rule, the campaign was still, in the words of The Globe, “the quietest Provincial election campaign in the history of Nova Scotia” and, according to the 1920 edition of The Canadian Annual Review of Public Affairs, “there were no scandals to give the contest a flavour which had been too common in past Canadian elections.”
Despite a drop in support, the result was another big win for Murray. The Liberals won 29 seats, only one fewer than in the 1916 provincial election. The Liberals defeated Conservative candidates in Kings and Queens counties and swept all five of the Halifax seats. In Cumberland and Cape Breton, however, the rise of Labour and the Farmers cost the Liberals.
The Farmers would win the second-most seats in the election with six. Their strength was concentrated in the neighbouring counties of Cumberland, Colchester and Hants. They also won a seat in Antigonish.
Labour won a seat in Cumberland, too, while four of its five seats came in Cape Breton around Sydney.
Combined, the Farmers and Labour won about 32% of the vote, more than the Conservatives whose support collapsed by nearly half to just 23%. The party held on to only three seats: two in Richmond and one in Yarmouth.
Hall, who went down to personal defeat in his riding, blamed the party’s loss on “the brief period at our disposal for organization, and the remarkably short notice we had that an election was pending.”
The Liberal-friendly Globe saw the result as a warning to the Conservatives in Ottawa, saying “it is another notice to Mr. Meighen and his office-holding Administration of the fate which awaits them when the electors of the Dominion come to the polls.”
In the end, The Globe wasn’t wrong. The rise of Labour and the United Farmers in Nova Scotia came largely at the expense of the Conservatives. The disintegration of the two-party system that began after the First World War would fell Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives in the 1921 federal election. When that vote was over, the Conservatives would find themselves in third — and shut out in Nova Scotia.
1933 Nova Scotia election
August 22, 1933
This instalment of the #EveryElectionProject was not from The Weekly Writ, but a longer form article. You can access it below:
1980 Nova Scotia NDP leadership
McDonough blazes trail in Nova Scotia
November 16, 1980
Never underestimate the drama of small parties.
In 1980, the Nova Scotia New Democrats qualified as one of those. Under Jeremy Akerman, the NDP had made progress by winning two seats in the 1970 Nova Scotia election and three seats in 1974, but were still only at four seats after the 1978 election.
That last result did not meet Akerman’s hopes, and after 12 years, limited success and disagreements with the party executive, Akerman decided to call it quits.
Three candidates emerged to replace him: Cape Breton North MLA Len Arsenault, Cape Breton Centre MLA Buddy MacEachern and two-time federal NDP candidate in Halifax, Alexa McDonough.
With Akerman out, what they were vying to take over was a party in turmoil.
The Nova Scotia NDP was a shaky coalition of the blue collar labour wing based in Cape Breton and the white collar professional (largely academic) wing of the party based in the rest of the province, particularly in Halifax.
Bitter over Akerman’s departure, maverick Cape Breton Nova MLA Paul MacEwen railed against his own party, claiming “Trostskyist elements” had taken over and that the NDP executive was “a bunch of ayatollahs”.
Sick of his outbursts, the party moved to expel him as a member of the NDP. But MacEwen was able to stay on as a member of the NDP caucus when Akerman and MacEachern voted to keep him in. Arsenault voted to boot him out.
Hoping to settle the matter at the leadership convention — which Akerman, now no longer a sitting MLA, refused to attend — the party passed a resolution saying that any caucus member would have to be a member of the party, effectively expelling MacEwen for good. This caused members of the United Mine Workers Union and the United Steel Workers to march out of the hall, followed by MacEachern.
Once tempers had mellowed, the party tried to put on a brave face of unity. In his speech to the convention, MacEachern said “I know the Liberals and Tories are watching the convention on television and rubbing their hands with glee, saying ‘They’re going to tear themselves apart.’ Well let me tell them, there has been no blood spilled here.”
MacEachern was on the losing side of the debate, as the party had decided it was done with MacEwen, who was threatening of forming his own NDP. But it wasn’t Arsenault who emerged as the vehicle of the anti-MacEwen, anti-Akerman vote. It was McDonough, the 36-year-old research assistant and former social worker.
When the ballots were counted, it wasn’t even close. McDonough finished with 237 votes from a party looking to move on. Arsenault was well behind with 42, just one more than MacEachern.
The Nova Scotia New Democrats had just made history. McDonough was the first female leader of a major political party in Canada (there had been others, like Thérèse Casgrain, who led minor parties before her).
It was such a novel concept, that some newspapers weren’t quite sure how to handle it. In the Southam News papers, the headline was “Woman to lead Nova Scotia NDP”, as if she was of another species.
Brian Butters, a correspondent for Southam News, betrayed the sexism of the time when he opened his article with “Nova Scotia's New Democratic Party has decided Alexa McDonough is more than just a pretty face.”
In McDonough’s first election as leader in 1981, her party would drop to just a single seat. But that seat was McDonough’s in Halifax, giving the NDP its first seat outside of Cape Breton — ever. (Paul MacEwen, the thorn in the side of the NDP, was re-elected as an Independent.) The party also captured 18% of the vote, the best it had ever done or would ever do until 1998. By then, McDonough had moved up in the world as leader of the federal New Democratic Party.
1991 Nova Scotia Progressive Conservative leadership
Cameron wins an uncoveted title
February 9, 1991
As the last decade of the 20th century dawned, the Nova Scotia Progressive Conservatives had little to look forward to. Under the leadership of John Buchanan since 1971, the PCs had come to power in 1978 and won re-election three more times. In the last of that series, however, the PCs were starting to falter — Buchanan limped over the finish line in 1988 with 28 seats in the 52-seat legislature.
A couple of years later, his government was drowning in scandal amid RCMP investigations and allegations of cronyism and corruption that touched both Buchanan and his cabinet. The party had just lost a byelection in Cape Breton badly and, wanting an out, Buchanan found one. In a case of game recognizing game, Brian Mulroney, himself polling in the low-teens, appointed Buchanan to the Senate.
The surprise move left the Nova Scotia PCs without much of an idea of where to turn next. Buchanan’s government had been a relatively quiet one with few cabinet ministers setting themselves apart from the pack.
But over the next few months, the list of candidates was formed. Tom McInnis, the MLA for Halifax Eastern Shore since 1978, was the early front runner. As the attorney general, McInnis had some profile and experience in other cabinet portfolios. Seen as a bit of a maverick, McInnis campaigned with the slogan “Reason to Believe” and, at the outset, he was the betting favourite.
His main challenger appeared to be Roland Thornhill, the former mayor of Dartmouth and the MLA for Dartmouth South since 1974. Thornhill was a veteran of the party, having lost to Buchanan in the 1971 leadership contest. He had held a series of cabinet portfolios, most recently tourism. At first, it seemed like Thornhill would have to sit out the race — the RCMP was investigating him over an alleged deal he made with banks to settle his debts after he was appointed to cabinet.
Thornhill, though, didn’t care and he launched his campaign anyway. The investigation dogged him throughout, but he cast himself as the victim. He was the favourite of the long-standing members and closely aligned with Buchanan.
Also in the running was Donald Cameron, the MLA for Pictou East since 1974 and the industry minister. A dairy farmer in his mid-40s, Cameron was a confrontational, blunt and hot-tempered Tory. A good friend of Mulroney, he also had strong support from caucus.
Rounding out the list was an outsider: Clair Callaghan, the former head of the Technical University of Nova Scotia and a failed PC candidate in 1988. That defeat, though, meant Callaghan had none of the baggage of Buchanan’s government. While that might have been attractive to members eying the PCs’ awful polls, Callaghan’s campaign never gained much traction.
But even the insiders tried to make themselves out as outsiders, as both Cameron and McInnis attempted to distance themselves from the former premier. They both promised to clean up government and get rid of patronage, though Cameron’s pitch was weakened when a media report alleged a friend had received a lucrative government contract in his riding.
The prize the four men were fighting over wasn’t a glittering one. Kevin Cox, writing from The Globe and Mail’s Atlantic Bureau, wrote this up as the PC leadership job description:
Must be skilled in resuscitation techniques as well as renovating and house cleaning. Should stand up well under intense media and RCMP scrutiny. A scandal-free record helpful but hardly essential. This position will appeal to those willing to face a challenge: to restore public confidence in a patronage-tainted government now subject to an RCMP investigation, a slim hold on power and only 14 per cent of public support. Salary: about $97,000 per annum. Could be short-term employment.
PC delegates gathered on February 9, 1991 in a Halifax hockey rink to cast their ballots. Though no one knew for certain, the expected first ballot finish was Thornhill, McInnis, Cameron and Callaghan. It didn’t quite end up that way.
Perhaps weighed down by the RCMP’s ongoing investigation, Thornhill under-performed — as did McInnis. Cameron finished first with 754 votes, followed closely by Thornhill with 736, McInnis with 680 and Callaghan with 178.
Callaghan dropped off but it didn’t settle matters. The largest number of Callaghan’s supporters went to McInnis, who gained 82 votes. But he was stuck in third with 762, still 13 votes behind Thornhill. Cameron, with 801, was again on top.
With McInnis eliminated, most of his delegates went over to Cameron, who was promising the same hard line against past patronage. Cameron jumped 400 votes to 1,201, with Thornhill gaining just 283 votes and finishing second with 1,058.
The delegates’ were right to trust their gut — Thornhill would be charged by the RCMP later that month. Those charges would eventually be dismissed, but a Thornhill premiership would have been a tumultuous one.
Not that it mattered. Cameron would continue to lead the PCs for another two years until their inevitable defeat. Facing election in 1993 at the last possible moment, the PCs dropped to just nine seats, the party’s worst showing since 1945. Cameron held his own seat of Pictou East, but resigned as PC leader shortly after losing the premier’s office.
Short-term employment, indeed.
1997 Nova Scotia Liberal leadership
Nova Scotia Liberals choose MacLellan
July 12, 1997
It was a bad time to be a Nova Scotia Liberal.
When John Savage led the party to victory in the 1993 election, he took over a province facing numerous challenges. Four years later, after years of unpopular austerity and cuts, the Nova Scotia Liberals were third in the polls. With even his own party wanting him out, Savage had little choice but to step aside and kick-off a leadership race to name his replacement.
The date was set for July 12. But before that vote could happen, Jean Chrétien called the 1997 federal election. His party was able to narrowly secure another majority government, but that wasn’t with the help of Nova Scotia. The federal Liberals had swept the province in 1993. In 1997, the Liberals were shut out, losing all 11 seats to Jean Charest’s Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats under Nova Scotia’s own Alexa McDonough.
So the race to replace John Savage was not a particularly upbeat campaign, to say the least.
There were two front runners for the post.
The first was Bernie Boudreau, a Cape Breton MLA first elected in 1988. He had held the finance and health portfolios in Savage’s cabinet. He was the first to throw his hat in the ring and had a majority of the Nova Scotia Liberal caucus behind him.
That, however, wasn’t exactly a good thing. Boudreau had been the face of the government’s drive to balance the budget and its closure of hospitals. He was the party establishment candidate and the defender of the unpopular Savage government. There was little appetite for that, both inside and outside the Liberal Party.
His main opponent was an outsider to provincial politics. Russell MacLellan, 57, was still well-known in Nova Scotia’s political circles as he had been a Cape Breton MP since 1979. Though he never held a cabinet portfolio, he had been a parliamentary secretary to various federal ministers.
There was also Roseanne Skoke, another former MP. She had been elected in 1993 in the riding of Central Nova but had lost her nomination bid to be the Liberal candidate again in 1997. Lastly, there was Bruce Holland, a Halifax-area MLA elected in 1993.
Both Skoke and Holland were sharp critics of the Savage government.
“We’ve run the province with an autocratic, arrogant attitude and as a result we angered everyone in the province and people just don’t feel good,” Holland said at the final of 10 leadership debates.
One of the biggest concerns in the race was about patronage appointments — not that they were given out, but rather that they weren’t. As premier, Savage promised not to make the kind of patronage appointments that his PC predecessors had done. That didn’t go over very well in Liberal circles.
“The elites in the party received their patronage appointments and our grassroots workers didn’t,” explained Skoke. “Political patronage is inherent in the political party system and it is imperative that we recognize and reward the faithful of this party. That is something the Savage government failed to do.”
While MacLellan was also critical of the Liberal government, he didn’t go as hard as Skoke or Holland. He ran a relatively low-key campaign, keeping his proposals vague and promising to listen to the grassroots of the party. His was a front runner’s campaign — or, at least, one of two front runners — and he nearly cruised to a first ballot victory.
MacLellan earned 4,978 votes on the first ballot, finishing with just under 49% of the vote. Boudreau was second with around 32% of the vote, while Skoke captured 17% and Holland finished with a little less than 3%.
It was clear that MacLellan was going to win, and to solidify that victory Holland endorsed the former Cape Breton MP. On the second ballot, MacLellan grew his total by 561 votes, seemingly taking from both Holland and Skoke, who saw her vote drop, and won with 56% on the second ballot. Boudreau finished with just 32%.
“We’re sending a message tonight that we’re back in business,” MacLellan told the crowd after his victory.
In some ways, he was right. Liberal support had tanked in the polls, but by the 1998 Nova Scotia election MacLellan was able to win a minority government, tying the NDP in seats and earning a mere 3,000 more votes than the New Democrats across the province. MacLellan remained in power with the support of the PCs until 1999, when his government was brought down and his party defeated in that year’s election.
The Liberals finally fell to that third spot, where they would remain for the next 10 years.
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NOTE ON SOURCES: When available, election results are sourced from Elections Nova Scotia 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:
Joseph Howe, Volume II: The Briton Becomes Canadian, 1848-1873 by Murray Beck
The Man from Halifax: Sir John Thompson, Prime Minister by P.B. Waite
Sir Charles Tupper: Fighting Doctor to Father of Confederation by Jock and Janet Murray
Robert Laird Borden: A Biography, Volume 1 by Robert Craig Brown
Angus L. Macdonald: A Provincial Liberal by T. Stephen Henderson
Robert Stanfield’s Canada: Perspectives of the Best Prime Minister We Never Had by Richard Clippingdale