Battle of the Ballot

By David Turner in People

Affiliation for one political party or another has always been a strongly contested issue when one glances backward at the Canadian electoral scene since 1867. For the first thirty years following Confederation, the Conservatives ruled for twenty-five, although in that last five year span, they had as many Prime Ministers. Sir John A. MacDonald was in poor health when he won his final election in 1891 and died a year later. John Abbott served but one year and resigned. John Thompson occupied the chair for two years before expiring with a heart attack. Next in line was Mackenzie Bowell who was 75 at this point and never really wanted the job in the first place. After a few months he conceded to Charles Tupper.
With the Conservatives in such a state of disarray, it cleared the way for a landslide victory by Liberal candidate, Wilfred Laurier in 1896, although a week passed before the results were proclaimed official. Although our present system isn’t without its rough spots as witnessed in the most recent election, in this era ballot burning, voter impersonation, voter intimidation and various forms of bribery were a regular and almost accepted measure of election day festivities.
The Laurier Liberal win certainly was accepted with favour by both sides of my ancestral families…all diehard Grit supporters to the core from the time they disembarked the boat from Europe. A vote cast in any other direction than Liberal was almost an act of treason, which makes it extremely difficult to understand why my grandfather Will Carruthers for some reason “jumped ship” for a brief period. Family members would whisper among themselves “Is Will still Conservative?” as though he’d contacted some horribly contagious disease. He soon got back in line and his family were again able to look their Liberal friends and neighbours in the eye.
Today’s political parties have to struggle to secure even a 50% voter turn-out, but for the greater part of the twentieth century, casting your vote was the most important contribution one could make. Who became Prime Minister might be the ultimate goal but was only the final piece of the puzzle. It was at the local level where the political waves were the most pronounced and ultimately ignited the dormant spirit of the populace.
Local candidates seized every opportunity to make their pitch. In rural settings, schoolhouse gatherings proved popular for political rhetoric. Farm auctions could score several points if handled well…unlike the one where an aspiring Liberal candidate jumped onto a manure spreader to address the crowd, joking this was his first time to speak from a Conservative platform. While his followers were enjoying a good laugh, somebody obviously from the opposing camp yelled, “Throw it in gear!”
Heated discussions erupted wherever political candidates gathered, hence friends, neighbours, even family members would fail to speak to one another for days or even weeks following an election…and no one was better acquainted with this phenomena than my parents.
In Grey County in the 1920’s and 30’s, no one’s political star shone brighter than school teacher turned politician, Agnes MacPhail. Following World War One, Miss MacPhail joined a co-operative movement known as the United Farmers of Ontario, whose philosophies of collective marketing coincided exactly with her own. “You can’t expect others to solve your problems,” she told area farmers, “when those others have gained their wealth and power by legally robbing you of your just portion of that wealth and power.” It was this oratorical style that endeared her to the rural population and gave her the courage to run in the 1921 federal election…an election that held the distinction of being the first where a woman could even vote. Despite great odds she won against ten men, and became the first female Member of Parliament, subsequently winning every election until 1940.
It wasn’t an easy road by any means, her male counterparts giving her little respect. “Don’t you wish you were a man?” one asked. “Don’t you wish you were?” Agnes retorted. Another hurled a barb concerning her unmarried status. “Why aren’t you home looking for a husband?” “Because I might find one like you!” When asked if she would ever consider joining the Senate, Agnes quickly answered. “No, when I die I want to be buried.”
By 1940 however, the UFO party was heading west with the sun and Agnes was fighting for her political life. Her opponent was Walter Harris, a Markdale lawyer running for the Liberal party. Although he’d been practising law in Markdale for nearly ten years, most local residents never considered Harris anything but a “city boy”, as he operated his practise in Toronto for many years until the Depression forced him to seek another site.
However, Agnes was still the chosen candidate up and down the concessions of rural Grey. The Turner family would certainly be supporting her…well most of them. My parents had just recently been married and were living with Dad’s parents. To their disbelief, Dad and Mom voted for Walter. Between the Depression and now a world war, in my parent’s opinion the UFO party seemed mired in issues no longer relevant.
No doubt as strong and a definitely more interesting argument… Walter Harris was related to my mother… second cousin or something. There’s nothing like nepotism when it comes to choosing sides I guess! Frequently while attending college in Toronto, Walter would visit with Mom’s family and my mother figured him to be charming beyond words.
But that was no reason to vote for him. Voting against Agnes MacPhail? It was nothing less than treason! Dad’s family may have expected as much from Mom, after all “city types” stick together… but my father… that was the real disappointment. Had he forgotten everything Agnes had done for the local farming community as well as agriculture in general? Voting against Agnes! Why, even their family car had once been owned by Agnes MacPhail, and for that reason alone was always considered “special.” But their pleas fell on deaf ears, my parents cast their vote and Walter won his seat. (As it turned out, Mom and Dad exhibited significant foresight, Walter Harris not only won that 1940 election, but every election for the next seventeen years, even securing the high powered seat of Minister of Finance along the way)
Liberals and Conservatives had basically taken turns running the country the first quarter of the new century, but starting in 1921 and continuing through 1948, Canada was run by basically one party…and one man, Liberal, William Lyon Mackenzie King, which must have kept my family’s political fever in high gear.
Oh there was a five year period in the early 1930’s when the Conservatives regained power, but lost the next election in a landslide. To be fair, this was in the midst of the worst economic crisis the world had ever seen and it probably wouldn’t have mattered who was running the show. The Liberals of course blamed the continued stagnation fully on the shoulders of the governing party, promising speedy recovery if allowed to once again rule.
Following King’s reign, Louis St. Laurent extended the Liberal dynasty until 1957. It was during this election campaign that I first became aware of politics and the strong feelings it evoked. Political events boiled over that year concerning a pipeline the Liberal government planned to construct to carry natural gas from Alberta to central Canada. The Conservatives under John Diefenbaker thought the project terribly expensive (eighty million) and placed any roadblock to stop it. In an act of defiance, the Liberals dusted off a little used procedure known as “closure” and passed the bill. Diefenbaker was furious, but helpless and the pipeline went ahead.
During the election drive of 1957, Diefenbaker campaigned with a vengeance, often mentioning the Liberal’s “Nazi tactics” during the pipeline debate. Our parents…especially Mom who was the “true Liberal” in our family (Dad once said if Hitler had been a Liberal Mom would have voted for him) made sure we were there when Prime Minister St. Laurent made his campaign “whistle stop” in Palmerston. We even got to miss an hour of school! I was just eight years old and all I recall was an old man giving a short speech on the steps of the train. St. Laurent apparently ran a rather tired campaign; having no doubts his accomplishments and honourable reputation would easily defeat this upstart lawyer from Saskatchewan.
When we returned to school, our peers gathered around asking all about our political foray into town. I don’t remember what we told them, but I do recall our teacher Mrs. Ashmore taking little interest. We soon learned she was a stalwart Conservative supporter, and the consensus was if it had been Diefenbaker to hit town we probably would have got the entire day off! I guess people were ready for change, for the Conservatives posted a minority win. Up until that time, a small photo of the current Prime Minister was tacked unobtrusively into a corner of the bulletin board. Following the Conservative’s modest win, a photo of the new Prime Minister was placed front and centre above the blackboard.
A series of missteps plagued the Liberals the following year…scandals, economic recession, plain stupidity…you name it, and within a year, another election. All except Mom (“There’s no way I’m going to waste my time seeing him!”) joined the crowd in Listowel when Diefenbaker made his stop to garner support. Our family still backed Lester Pearson and the Liberals, but the Conservatives destroyed them…208 to 49. I guess Mrs. Ashmore figured the landslide win called for particular attention. By the time we returned to school the following day, the small portrait of John Diefenbaker had been replaced by a 16 x 20 inch poster!