Many call this the first modern election in Canadian history. After being elected in 1874, the Mackenzie Government began to reshape the election process in Canada. Along with the secret ballot that was extended nationwide, laws were changed so that the election took place across all the provinces on a single day. This would also be the first election to truly be dominated by economic issues.
After five years under Liberal rule, Canada was due for another change in leadership. The previous five years had seen several advancements in Canadian institutions, including the establishment of the Supreme Court of Canada, but the county had been going through a terrible recession. That recession spelled the end for the Liberals, who would find themselves out of power for nearly 20 years after this election.
The Conservatives under Sir John A. Macdonald had recovered from the Pacific Scandal and were eager to become the ruling party again so they could complete their promise of the railroad to British Columbia, something the Liberal Party had slowed down over the past five years.
At the time, the Liberals were also pushing for free trade and the business elite of Toronto and Montreal were against this, which cost the party a great deal of support in those key areas.
Newspapers were typically against the Liberals as well. The Montreal Gazette on Sept. 17, 1878, the day of the election, reported in a column quote:
“If the present government should be sustained at the polls and their one-sided free trade policy is continued in operation, the progress of this country towards greatness will be a slow and tedious process. If, on the other hand, the policy of the Conservative Party is endorsed by a majority of the electors of Canada, we can confidently anticipate a speedy revival of business, the rapid settlement of the country and the building up on this North American continent of a Dominion which will serve as the right arm of the British Empire.”
In 1876, Macdonald had reintroduced The National Policy as a platform of the Conservative Party. This policy called for high tariffs on imported manufactured items to protect the manufacturing industry, a massive expansion of physical infrastructure in the country and promoting population growth in Western Canada. It would be on this policy that Macdonald and the party would campaign on.
The Conservatives campaigned on the slogan of “Canada for the Canadians” and their campaign was run in such a way that it would seem that those who opposed the Conservatives were disloyal to Canada itself.
The Liberals were very much against the National Policy, feeling that it would set region against region.
Mackenzie would state, quote:
“I not only believe in having Canada for the Canadians but the United States, South America, the West Indies and our share of the European and Australasian trade.”
In a visit to New Brunswick on the campaign trail, Mackenzie would add regarding the National Policy, quote:
“What is the National Policy? So called. No policy can be called thoroughly national which proposes to protect a certain class of the community and leave all the others unprotected, and this is precisely what a system of protection means. It is a system which in the course of a few years will ensure a much larger percentage of poverty than exists at this present time.”
Many saw Mackenzie as overworked and tired after leading the country, while Macdonald, after five years away from the top post, seemed to be rested and healthy, and by all accounts, sober for the most part. Macdonald would speak at many summer picnics throughout Ontario, where his natural speaking style was well received by residents.
In the election, the Conservatives gained 69 seats, finishing with a majority of 134 seats. Their percentage of the popular vote also increased heavily, with 229,151 votes for the party. The Liberals in contrast collapsed, losing 66 seats to finish with 63. Voter turnout was as at its lowest level in Canadian history to that point, with 69.1 per cent of eligible voters casting a ballot. That would be the lowest turnout until 1891.
British Columbia, which nearly pushed to secede from the country over the previous five years due to the delay over the railroad, split its seats between the Liberals and Conservatives, while in Ontario the Conservatives finished with 60 seats to the Liberals 27. In Quebec, the Conservatives dominated, claiming 45 seats to the 17 won by the Liberals. The only place where the Liberals won more seats than the Conservatives was in New Brunswick, where they picked up nine seats to the Conservatives four.
The Ottawa Daily Citizen would report on election day, quote:
“The policy of Mackenzie, Cartwright and Company universally condemned. The People’s Verdict, a splendid majority for Sir John Macdonald and the National Policy.”
The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
“On the street crowds collected and the most intense enthusiasm prevailed. Friends who had known each other by sight previously grew fraternal under the cheering over the Conservative Reaction was the order of the evening. Bands played through the street and were followed by immense crowds, singing and cheering for Sir John A. and the Conservative Party.”
The enthusiasm, at least according to the newspapers, was seen in Ottawa as well where the Citizen reported, quote:
Macdonald would be elected in Victoria of all places, and the story of how that happened is an interesting one.
Despite his party gaining a majority government, voters in his native Kingston had not forgotten about the scandal and as a result, in a very rare occurrence, Macdonald’s party won the election, but he lost his own seat. The Liberal, Alexander Gunn, defeated Macdonald 991 votes to 847. This was no small feat. Gunn was a new politician who had unseated not only a prime minister, but someone who had held the Kingston seat since Confederation.
Say what you will about Macdonald, but the man was a skilled politician and he had foreseen this as in the previous election he narrowly won. To secure his victory, he had himself put on the ballot in another place as well, Victoria.
It was acceptable for a party leader to go into an election running in several ridings at once, but it was rare. In the 1878 election, Macdonald ran in three ridings, Kingston, Victoria and a small riding in Manitoba. He would win in two of the three ridings, losing in Kingston. Despite never visiting Victoria, and being the perfect example of a parachute candidate, Victoria elected Macdonald with 46.8 per cent of the popular vote. Likely a big part of that was the hope that Macdonald as leader would bring the railroad in sooner rather than later.
In the Victoria election, Macdonald ran against Amos De Cosmos, the eccentric second premier of British Columbia who had also served as an MP for Victoria since 1872. The Victoria Daily Colonist was very much behind Macdonald, calling him, quote:
“A great and worthy chief of the Liberal-Conservative Party”
At the same time, it criticized Cosmos, the man who actually lived in Victoria, as quote an, quote:
“non-entity except that of vanity…Amor de Cosmos has no friends on either side in the Dominion Parliament.”
The newspaper even published a mock ballot with step-by-step instructions, stating, quote:
“Today, the proper thing to do will be to place a X against the name of Sir John A Macdonald, leaving the name of Mr. De Cosmos untouched, just as if it was not on the ballot at all.”
As it would turn out, thanks to Victoria being a two member constituency, Amor De Cosmos would be re-elected to Parliament along with Macdonald.
Macdonald would not visit Victoria until 1886, well after his time as its MP had ended.
As for the National Policy, it would be implemented in 1879 and would fundamentally change Canada forever. The policy was popular in Eastern Canada but by the 1900s, it was very unpopular in Western Canada, and would lead to the rise of the Progressive Party of Canada in the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, it would slowly be dismantled by the Liberals until it was gone for the most part by the 1950s.
Information from Dynasties and Interludes, Ottawa Citizen, Montreal Gazette, Wikipedia and Capital Daily.