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With the federal election winding down, I thought it would be interesting to dive into the history of Canadian elections, the good, the bad and the downright vicious, over the course of 100 years. While this election has had some intense back and forth, it pales in comparison to many elections of the past.
Let’s begin with, of course, the first Canadian election in 1867.
The 1867 election was held just over a month after Canada became a country, running from Aug. 7 to Sept. 20. The only provinces that were a part of this election were Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Quebec.
Sir John A. Macdonald had been sworn in as prime minister when the nation was founded, and he would lead his party, the Liberal-Conservative Party, to the election. The election was a mild affair, with the Liberal-Conservative Party winning 100 seats and a majority government. The Liberal Party did not have a party leader at the time of the election so George Brown, the elder statesman of the party, was considered the leader. Brown ran for seats in the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and the House of Commons, something that was possible at this point. Unfortunately, Brown didn’t win a seat in either election and the Liberal would remain without a leader for their 62 seats.
The third party was the Anti-Confederation Party, led by Joseph Howe, took 18 seats mainly in Nova Scotia where there was resentment over Confederation.
In the 1872 election, Manitoba and British Columbia had joined the country, thereby increasing the total number of seats up for grabs. Sir John A. Macdonald would remain in power but the Liberal Party would significantly increase its seats from 62 to 95 seats. The Conservatives would have 100 seats once again, resulting in the first-ever minority government in the nation’s history. There were two independent MPs who gave their support to MacDonald, giving a technical majority. By this election, those running could no longer run in both the legislature and House of Commons. The Liberals continued to have no official leader in the party.
In the 1874 election, Macdonald had been forced out as prime minister over allegations over the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway on Nov. 5, 1873, with the Liberals forming a government two days later and an election called in January of 1874. Prince Edward Island had joined Canada by this point, and this would be the first election to have secret ballots. The Liberals under Alexander Mackenzie would gain 34 seats, finishing with 129 to form the government. Macdonald and the Conservatives would lose 35 seats, becoming the official opposition.
Moving ahead to the 1878 election, which was held on Sept. 17, would spell the end to the majority government of Alexander Mackenzie after only one term. Canada was hit with an economic depression, along with the push for free trade by the Liberals, helped Macdonald regain his position as prime minister. The Conservatives would win 134 seats, while the Liberals fell to 63 seats.
By the 1882 election, John A. Macdonald would run for re-election and once again lead the nation as prime minister. His party would finish with 133 seats, while the Liberals under Edward Blake would have 63 seats, a gain of 10 over the previous election.
Those two men and their parties would once again go head-to-head in 1887. The result was more or less the same in that election, with Macdonald once again winning the election, although he lost 10 seats, while the Liberals gained six more seats under Edward Blake.
The 1891 election would see several changes to Canada. For the first time, much of the North West Territories were able to vote in the election, which they did on the Conservative side. Macdonald ran on the principle of National Policy, which would provide protective tariffs, while the Liberals supported free trade with the United States.
The election was one of the closest in recent years and Macdonald campaigned hard. He would win re-election as prime minister but it would come at a price. He would die only a few months after the election. His party had taken 117 seats to 90 won by the Liberals. After his death, three more men would serve as prime minister before the next election. John Abbot succeeded Macdonald following his death, and he was followed by John Sparrow David Thompson, who himself was followed by Mackenzie Boswell. Wilfred Laurier would run for the first time as leader of the Liberals in this election.
Once the 1896 election had been called, Sir Charles Tupper had taken over leadership of the Conservatives and would lead the party in the election against Laurier and his Liberals. Tupper had been a Father of Confederation and former premier of Nova Scotia. During the election, Tupper argued that the future of Canadian industry was under threat and the Conservatives had to unite to defeat the Patrons of Industry. The Liberal Party pushed a more conservative platform than in the past, which included supporting the National Policy they had pushed against before. Laurier also supported provincial rights, and won the support of many provincial premiers. By the end of the election, the Conservatives had won 46.5 per cent of the vote but could not capture enough seats to defeat the Liberals who won 117 seats. The Conservatives finished with 86 seats. While Laurier had won the election, Tupper refused to cede power. He claimed the Liberal Party would be unable to form a government. Tupper began to make appointments as prime minister, forcing the Governor General to get involved and dismiss Tupper, and then inviting Laurier to form a government.
The first election of the 20th century happened in 1900 and was a tame affair compared to the election of a few years previous. Laurier would gain 11 seats, finishing with 128 while Tupper fell by seven seats to 79. Overall, all the provinces voted for Liberal candidates, with Conservative candidates scattered throughout the rural and urban areas.
In 1904, Laurier again increased his seats, reaching 137 in his defeat of Robert Borden, who finished with 75 seats, four less than the Conservatives had the previous election. This would be the last election until 1949 when the Northwest Territories would be represented. The year after this election, Alberta and Saskatchewan would be created from the Northwest Territories.
Moving on to 1908, Wilfred Laurier would be re-elected to his fourth term but for the first time he saw his seats decline, with the Liberals losing four seats in total. Robert Borden and the Conservatives would pick up ten additional seats. This election was notable since Alberta and Saskatchewan had become provinces three years earlier. The Northwest Territories would lose out in this situation. Once having a representation, the territories lost all representation in the House of Commons and would wait over 40 years to gain it back.
Into the second decade things began with a big change after the 1911 election between Robert Borden and Wilfred Laurier. After four straight terms as prime minister, Laurier saw a 48 seat drop and Robert Borden began his term as prime minister with a 47 seat gain. The biggest issue in the election was a treaty that would lower tariffs with the United States. The Conservatives were against it, stating it would hurt the relationship with England and damage the economy. Another major issue was the Canadian Navy. Laurier had started up a Canadian Navy as a way to compromise in the naval arms race between the British Empire and Germany. This failed to appease either the French or English Canadians. After the election, the Conservatives created a bill for naval contributions to England, which was passed despite moves by the Liberals to sink it, pardon the pun. It made it to the Senate, which was controlled by the Liberals, where it was struck down. The election was not without some extreme unpleasantness, including the Conservative party running on a slogan of “A White Canada” in British Columbia, to play off the fears of cheap Asian labour.
For the next six years, the longest stretch in Canadian history, there would be no election. This was because of the First World War that an election in 1916 was not conducted. By far, the biggest issue in this election was conscription. Prime Minister Borden had hoped that after the one-year extension of parliament delaying the election, he could form a coalition government like what England had at the time. Unfortunately, Laurier was having none of it because of the issue of conscription, which was strongly opposed by Quebec and the Liberals. Laurier felt that if he joined the coalition, Quebec would abandon the Liberals. A Unionist government was then formed, which split the Liberal Party. Many Liberal MPs moved to the Unionist government to work with the Conservatives. In October of 1917, Borden dissolved the government and kicked off an election. In the subsequent election, The Unionist Party won 153 seats, but only three in Quebec. In sharp contrast, the Liberal Party won 82 seats, 62 of which were in Quebec.
In 1921, it was again a time of change for politics in Canada. The Unionist government would lose its re-election bid to the Liberal Party, which was led by a young upstart by the name of W.L. Mackenzie King, who replaced Laurier after his death in 1919. The Liberals would see a 36 seat increase in seats to 118, while the new Progressive Party formed in 1920 took 58 seats. The Conservative Party, which used to be Unionist Party, would suffer a catastrophic loss by losing 104 seats, finishing with only 49. This was the worst collapse of a party in an election in Canadian history to that time. The Progressive Party had been formed after several former Liberals, angered at the high tariffs on farm products in the 1919 budget, formed their own party with Thomas Crerar as leader. One of the biggest milestones for this election was that it was the first when the majority of women in Canada could vote. It would also see Agnes Macphail, a member of the Progressive Party, elected as the first female MP in Canada. She would serve as MP until 1940 when she moved to provincial politics and served for another five years. This election would be the last until 1993 when a party other than the Liberals or Conservatives took on the role of Official Opposition.
In 1925, the election would be one of the most unique in Canadian history to that time. The Liberal Party would win less seats than the Conservatives, picking up 100 to their 115. In addition, Mackenzie King would lose his seat in the House of Commons and Arthur Mieghan, the leader of the Conservatives, demanded that he resign from the Prime Ministers office. Instead, King had an MP in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan resign his seat so that Mackenzie King could run in a by election, which he won easily. The Liberals worked with the Progressives to hold onto power, forming a minority government. With King back in power, a scandal erupted when it was found that a cabinet appointee was accepting bribes. King asked the Governor General to call an election, but he refused, so King resigned on June 28, 1926 and Meighen was invited to form a government. It doesn’t stop there though. King then claimed that Canadian politics were being interfered with by a foreign power. King then rallied the Progressives back to his side and he defeated Meighen on a vote of confidence after three days. An election was then called at this point.
Which brings us to the 1926 election, where the Liberal Party would capture 116 seats to Conservative Party’s 91, effectively giving King the Prime Minister’s office once again. After his defeat, Meighen resigned as leader of the Conservatives. Interestingly though, the Conservatives picked up 1.476 million in the popular vote, almost 100,000 more votes than the Liberals. Two other parties, the Progressive Party, would win 22 seats, down two from its previous election result, while the United Farmers of Alberta earned 11 seats.
By 1930, the good times of the 1920s were over and the country was moving into The Great Depression. With a new era taking over the country, and not in a good way, it was no surprise to see that a change in the leading party would come as well. Due to a problem plagued campaign, King would lose 27 seats, falling to 89, while R.B. Bennett, the new leader of the Conservatives, would gain 44 seats and reach 135. The United Farmers dropped two seats to nine, while the Progressive Party fell eight to just three seats. The campaign of Bennett was described as electric, and many were hopeful he would help to reverse the trend of The Great Depression.
By 1935, it was clear that Bennett was not able to improve the lot of many in the Depression and once again, a change was coming. The economy was the central issue, not surprisingly, and with Bennett doing little to boost the economy early on, he was a very unpopular person. He did begin to copy the American New Deal in his last months in office but it was too little too late. The Liberals would gain 83 seats, rising to 171, while the Conservatives collapsed, losing 95 seats and finishing with 39. It would be the worst collapse of the party until 1993. Three new parties would be formed and gain a spot in the House of Commons. The Social Credit Party, newly created, would gain 17 seats, while the Co-operative Commonwealth would pick up seven seats. The Reconstruction Party would gain one seat. The Progressive Party and the United Farmers of Alberta Party would both fade to history at this point.
By the next election in 1940, the Second World War was the main election issue and it would come as little surprise that voters would rally around the government and the Liberal Party, which gained six seats to finish with 179, the most successful result for the Liberal Party in its history. A new party, the National Government Party would be formed on the principal of having an all-party national unity government. That party would take 39 seats, while the New Democracy Party would earn 10 seats, and the Co-operative Commonwealth would have eight seats.
The election in 1945 came only a month after the end of the Second World War and it brought very little in the way of change for who was in power. The Liberals once again took power with 118 seats, even though they lost 59 seats from the previous election. A new party, the Progressive Conservatives, which came from the Conservative Party after a name change in 1942, gained 27 seats to finish with 67. The Co-operative Commonwealth had an excellent election when they gained 20 seats to finish with 28. The Social Credit Party gained three seats to finish with 13. The election wasn’t an easy one for King, who lost his own bid for re-election and William MacDiarmid had to resign his seat so King could win it in a by-election. Many people also predicted that the Co-operative Commonwealth would break through and win 100 seats because it had a big victory in the Saskatchewan provincial election. As was already stated, that was not the result for the party. The Liberals made social welfare programs a big part of the election and they promised tax reductions, loans to farmers, $250 million for family allowances, $400 million for public spending to build houses and $750 million to provide land, jobs and business support for veterans.
In 1949, for the first time in 30 years, the Liberal Party went into an election without the leader of King. He had retired in 1948 as the longest-serving prime minister in history and was replaced by Louis St. Laurent. This was also the first election where residents in Newfoundland would be voting, along with parts of the Northwest Territories. The Liberals would win their fourth consecutive election, and it was an incredible win. The party took 191 seats, the largest majority government to that point in history. As of 2017, it is the third largest majority government in Canadian history. The Progressive Conservatives lost 24 seats, falling to 41 but retaining the official opposition status. The Co-operative Commonwealth and Social Credit parties both saw losses in seats, finishing with 13 and 10 seats respectively.
As Canada moved into the 1950s, the 1953 election would once again see the Liberals win the election, their fifth in a row, but they would lose 22 seats from the previous election. The Progressive Conservatives, led by former Ontario premier George Drew, had 51 seats, while both the Co-operative Commonwealth and Social Credit parties reversed their previous declines, gaining 10 and 5 seats.
Big changes came to Canada in 1957 when the Liberal Party, which had governed the country since 1935, finally lost its status as ruling party, falling to the Progressive Conservatives in one of the biggest upsets in Canadian history.
George A. Drew resigned as leader of the PCs in 1956 due to ill health and John Diefenbaker took over as leader. The PCs pushed the narrative that the Liberals were unresponsive to the needs of regular Canadians. With so many majority governments, it was felt that Liberal ministers did as they pleased with no regard for what opposition parties said. Diefenbaker was also becoming known for his fiery speeches and criticism of the government, which gained him huge followings wherever he appeared during the election campaign.
Conversely, the Liberals were confident in another victory, to the point where they did not bother to fill the vacancies in the Senate. No new proposals were made by the Liberals during the campaign and St. Laurent made his speeches only in major cities, while Diefenbaker made speeches on a train, stopping at many towns along the way. In the end, Diefenbaker and the Progressive Conservatives would gain 61 seats, finishing with 112, while the Liberals fell by 64 seats to finish with 105. The Co-operative Commonwealth and Social Credit parties finished with 25 and 19 seats, both a slight increase from the previous season.
In 1958, Diefenbaker increased his popularity and power going from a a minority government to the
largest majority government in Canadian history. One reason for this was that Diefenbaker called a snap election after the Liberals chose a new leader named Lester Pearson, another was the collapse of the Social Credit Party, and a turnaround in the view of the PCs in Quebec. Voter turnout was also historically high, reaching 79.4 per cent. The Conservatives finished with an astounding 208 seats, a gain of 97 over the previous election. The Liberals, now led by Pearson, finished with 48 seats, a drop of 56 from 1954. The Co-operative Commonwealth finished with eight seats, a drop of 17, and the Social Credit Party finished with no seats.
In 1962, the gains the PCs made in the previous election were nearly all lost when the party finished with 116 seats, a drop of 92, while the Liberals gained 51 seats to finish with 99. The Social Credit party gained 30 seats, after finishing with none the previous election. It would be the best election result for the party. The New Democrat Party, under Tommy Douglas, gained 11 seats to finish with 19. The New Democrat Party had been formed through an alliance between the Co-operative Commonwealth and Canadian Labour Congress parties. The huge drop for the PCs came down to several misguided decisions, including cancelling the Avro Arrow. The election is also notable for the fact that it was the first in which all Indigenous people could vote.
It would not be long before another election would take place, with a coup in the PC cabinet when members tried to remove Diefenbaker from the leadership position in the party. Diefenbaker had opposed the approval of stationing American nuclear missiles on Canadian soil. Half of his cabinet resigned over the issue and Diefenbaker would make steps to resign but no-confidence votes resulted and the government fell, triggering the election. The Liberals would gain 29 seats to form the government at 128 seats. Diefenbaker and the PCs would lose 21 seats to fall to 95. Both the Social Credit and NDP would lose seats, finishing with 24 and 17.
In the last election before the Centennial, taking place in 1965, the Liberals campaigned on the promises they kept the previous two years including lowering income taxes, bringing higher wages. They also promised to implement a national Medicare program by 1967.
Deifenbaker was still leader of the Conservatives, having refused to resign after the previous election lost but he was eventually forced out by party president Dalton Camp after the election. One important note for the election was that it was the first election for the Rhinoceros Party of Canada. The party fielded Cornelius, a resident of the Granby zoo, as its only candidate. This election would also be the last election where a single Conservative party did not with the absolute majority of the vote in Alberta.
So ends our look at every election in Canada’s first 100 years.
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