There is a common misconception that Sir John A. Macdonald was elected as Canada’s first PM when Canada became a country on July 1. In fact, he was chosen by the Governor General at the time to lead the country, and the first election in Canadian history would not take place until several months later.
In fact, that election ran for over a month, with votes being tallied from Aug. 7 to Sept. 20.
With the first of my 36 episodes on elections in Canadian history, I am going to dive into the first three today, beginning with 1867 of course.
The 1867 election would be the only one that would see just the original provinces of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia take part.
At the time, there were three main parties all vying for control of the House of Commons. The Conservatives, also known as the Liberal-Conservatives, the Liberal Party and the Anti-Confederation Party. Yes, you heard that right, there was a party that was against Confederation, running in the election that came just after Confederation.
The Conservatives were led by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, while the Liberal were without a leader but George Brown was unofficially the leader at the time.
Joseph Howe, who had served as the premier of the Colony of Nova Scotia from 1860 to 1863, led the Anti-Confederation Party. The sentiment in Nova Scotia was very much against joining Confederation and it was through the efforts of Premier Charles Tupper, himself a future prime minister, that Nova Scotia joined Canada in 1867.
As I stated previously, the election took a bit of time due to the limitations of the time, and it was not a secret ballot. You had to announce who you were voting for when you went to vote. In all, 74.3 per cent of all eligible voters would vote.
When the election was called, the Conservative government opened polls in districts it felt it could win quickly, then gradually opened polling in tougher districts in the hopes that voters would be swayed in their decision by early victories for the Conservatives in other districts. At the time there was also no Canada Elections Act and election practices just continued from the colonial period for each province. Restrictions were also placed on who could vote. Obviously women couldn’t vote yet, but in Ontario an owner or tenant had to have property worth $200 in an urban area, or $100 in a rural area. This meant only about 16.5 per cent of adults in Ontario were enfranchised to vote in 1867. As well, anyone who was a judge, magistrate, police or prosecutor, as well as anyone in the civil service, were excluded from voting. Indigenous who met the property qualifications were excluded as well, even though they should have been allowed based on the property rules. In all, only 11 percent of the total population of Canada were eligible to vote in the election. Anyone excluded from voting in provincial elections under provincial rules were also excluded federally.
At the same time that the federal election, the provinces, such as Quebec, were hosting provincial elections, making for a very busy summer. An interesting event would occur in the Kamouraska district in the province, when a riot broke out on nomination day. At the nomination meeting, all candidates were proposed in a single open meeting that quickly descended into rioting and anger, forcing the returning officer to take refuge from the rioters. No nominations were set forward, and as a result, no one from the district went to the House of Commons, and would not until 1869 when a by-election was held. At another nomination meeting, the Liberals charged that the presiding officer heard the name of the Conservative nominee but not the Liberal nominee and the Conservative candidate was chosen by acclamation as a result.
In the 1867 election, Macdonald and the Conservatives cruised to a majority government with 100 seats, taking 34.8 per cent of the vote. The Liberals took 62 seats, while the Anti-Confederation Party picked up 18 seats, all from Nova Scotia. In fact, 18 of the 19 available seats in Nova Scotia went to the Anti-Confederation Party.
Of the three parties to exist in this election, only the Conservatives and Liberals would be around for the next election. When Britain refused to allow Nova Scotia to secede, the movement died away and 11 of the 18 Anti-Confederation MPs would move over to the Conservatives.
Fast forward four years and we come to 1872 and a very different looking Canada. By those point, the size of Canada had increased greatly with the addition of the large province of British Columbia, and Manitoba, which at that point was 1/8th the size it would eventually be. The Liberal Party was still not lead by an official leader but Edward Blake took on the role as unofficial leader, while Sir John A. Macdonald continued to lead the Conservatives. By this point, the dual mandates had been abolished, which meant that a person could not serve in the House of Commons and a Legislature at the same time, which pushed Blake to focus on the House of Commons. At the time, the British Columbia had six seats in the House of Commons, while Manitoba had four. The size of the House of Commons had also increased, from 162 seats to 200. Over the previous five years, the fortunes of the Conservative Party had changed as well. The country was dealing with an economic recession and the country feeling divided over the promised railway to connect British Columbia to the rest of the country.
While the previous election had run for six weeks, the 1872 election would run for three months, from July 20, 1872 to Oct. 12, 1872.
Even though the House of Commons had increased its seat count, the Conservatives still only finished with 100 seats in the House of Commons, while the Liberals picked up 33, coming within six seats of defeating the Conservatives to lead the country. The new provinces were mostly split in votes. The Conservatives picked up four seats in BC, while the Liberals had two. In Manitoba, the Conservatives had two seats, while the Liberals had one, along with one independent. The real gain for the Liberals was in Ontario, where future prime minister Alexander Mackenzie campaigned heavily for the party. In that province, the party had 48 seats to 38 by the Conservatives. In Quebec, the Conservatives made up their ground with 37 seats to the Liberals 27.
At the time, there was still not ballot, and simply a proclamation of who one would vote for. Those who opposed the ballot, including an unnamed MP, stated, quote:
New Brunswick was the only province to have ballots, which it adopted in 1855 after several riots that led to deaths during elections.
With the Conservatives at 100 seats, and the Liberals at 95, along with five independents, this created Canada’s first minority government. Macdonald was forced to work with the independents in order to have a functional majority over the Liberals.
Of course, the real story of the 1872 election would come out afterwards when it was discovered that Sir Hugh Allan and American industrialists had provided $350,000 to the Conservative Party for the campaign in exchange for being granted the charter to build the transcontinental railway. This would become known as the Pacific Scandal and it would reshape the political landscape of Canada for the next half decade. I covered this in my episode about the Pacific Scandal on Coast to Coast.
In 1873, the Conservate government would fall and Sir John A. Macdonald would resign as prime minister amid the Pacific Scandal. This would bring the Liberals to power for the first time and in the subsequent 1874 election, the first held on a single day, Jan. 22, they would retain that hold on power.
The House of Commons once again increased, this time by six seats to 206. Prince Edward Island had joined Canada by this point as well.
The biggest change to come from this election was the use of secret ballots, which were implemented to prevent parties from influencing voters to vote one way or another. Even with the decision to implement secret ballots, there was still opposition to it. Antoine Dorion, a Liberal MP would say of that opposition, quote:
The Liberals would pick up 34 seats, finishing with 129 seats. They were led, officially this time, by Alexander Mackenzie, who would now become the second prime minister of Canada. Sir John A. Macdonald and the Conservatives suffered a collapse, losing 35 seats, and becoming the Official Opposition for the first time. There were also 12 independents, many of which were from the Conservatives and had left the party after the scandal. Across the country, the Liberals tended to win each province, with Ontario being the biggest win. The Liberals picked up 61 seats, while the Conservatives only had 25. It was closer in Quebec with the Liberals having 34 seats to the 29 of the Conservatives. The new province of Prince Edward Island was overwhelmingly Liberal, as the party picked up five of six seats on the island province.
Many consider the 1874 election to be one of the most corrupt in Canadian history. Of the 206 MPs elected, 65 of the seats were contested on grounds of corruption. This may seem like it was just sour grapes for those who lost, but in fact only two petitions were dismissed and only 14 members were confirmed in their seats. A total of 30 Liberals and 19 Conservatives were unseated.
In Cornwall, Ontario, during one hearing, a man named Charles Mullen stated that he was going to vote for Dr. Darby Bergin but Alexander Macdonald supporters grabbed him and drove him in a sleigh 20 kilometres out of town and left him there, unable to get back to vote in time. Another election worker admitted that he gave an elector $20 for a pig worth only eight dollars, and then never delivered the pig. The judge that presided over this case stated that $3 dollars was paid for each vote he received in that riding and the election was voided.
In London, Ontario, Major John Walker ran as an independent Liberal and defeated Sir John Carling, the Conservative candidate. He won by only 61 votes, but was charged by Carling of bribery. Several witnesses came forward and 16 of them, including a former mayor, were proven guilty of corrupt practices. It was estimated $50 was given for every vote in that election. The chief justice who looked over the election stated the election was quote:
“tainted and voided by wholesale corruption.”
Walker was unseated and in the new byelection, Carling won.
Information from Macleans, Wikipedia, Montopedia, Dynasties and Interludes,