Sir John A. Macdonald and his Conservatives would once again go up against Edward Blake and the Liberals five years after the 1882 election. As with the 1882 election, there was little in the way of a lively competition between the two parties.
The Conservatives had a relatively easy time with this election campaign as Blake had been giving indications he would resign as leader of the Liberals for some time, including right before the election. He had also spent much of 1886 in Europe resting due to overworking himself the previous year. Blake would in fact attempt to recruit Oliver Mowat, the premier of Ontario, to succeed him prior to the election. The call of the election had caught Blake off guard as well, but with Mowat not wanting to lead the party, there was little choice for Blake but to lead the Liberals into another election.
While the Conservatives continued to ride the National Policy as their campaign, the Liberals focused on lowering tariffs, imposing taxes on luxuries and limited reciprocal trade with the United States.
In the time between the 1882 and 1887 elections, the Electoral Franchise Act had been passed on July 14, 1885. The bill was a major goal for Macdonald, who saw it as advantageous to his party and it would go through several changes. When it was first introduced, the act would have allowed widows and single women who met property qualifications the right to vote, and it would have given the right to vote to all Indigenous people who owned land with $150 in capital investment. A very early version would have given the vote to all Indigenous people but after the 1885 Northwest Resistance, that was removed and it focused only on those Indigenous living in eastern Canada. Also in order to receive the vote, the Indigenous had to live off a reserve and renounce their Indian Status.
The Liberal Party was very against this bill and would pay people to find signatures for a petition against it. Despite the opposition, since the Conservatives had a majority government, they were able to pass it with ease. The finished bill gave the right to vote to all men over the age of 21 who were born or naturalized British subjects. At the same time, it prevented all women, most Indigenous west of Ontario, and anyone of Chinese descent from voting. The amendment to restrict Chinese people from voting was put forward by Macdonald himself on May 4, 1885. The bill also moved control over voter eligibility from the provinces to the federal government. Macdonald would go on to say that the bill was his greatest triumph and it would remain in place until 1898 when it was repealed by the Liberal government. Through this bill, the percentage of people eligible to vote increased somewhat, reaching 26 per cent of people in Ontario alone.
The Ottawa Journal would write on election day, Feb 22, about the new voters, stating quote:
“There was a good deal of interest taken in the new vote, that is, of those newly given the right to vote by the Franchise Act. A large proportion of the new voters were young men in the upper wards and it is claimed these went largely Conservative.”
Newspapers naturally made no secret of who they reported, once again displaying how to vote by showing a completed voting card with the candidate the newspaper supported highlighted with an X next to his name.
The Ottawa Daily Citizen wrote in detail on how to vote, in support of the candidates they agreed with, stating quote:
“The names of Messrs. Perley and Bobillard will occupy the centre position on the ballot paper. Each elector has two votes. Conservatives will of course mark the ballot paper for the candidate of the party.”
The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
“Today brings to a close the most important electoral struggle since Confederation. The contest has been a short but intensely bitter one on the part of the Opposition who have based their campaign wholly upon slander, misrepresentation and appeals to passion and prejudice.”
The Gazette went a step further, stating that voting for the Liberals was a vote for Nova Scotia to secede, stating quote:
The Liberals continued to grow their seat count, but once again it was not enough. They would finish with 79 seats, up six from the previous election, but it was far below the 123 seats the Conservatives won, which was ten fewer than they had in the 1882 election. The Conservatives may not have known it at the time, but the slow decline that would see them removed from power by the electorate in 1896 had begun. Voter turnout was again high, with 70.1 per cent of eligible voters coming out.
Despite the relatively high number of eligible voters coming out, the election was quiet by previous standards. The Ottawa Journal would report, quote:
“In the city there was not the slightest temptation for a crowd to gather anywhere. Plenty of polls, no crowd, no excitement, no fight.”
In the west, there seemed to be more excitement. The Regina Leader would report, quote:
“The town hall proved far too small for the tremendous crowd that assembled on Tuesday night at the adjourned meeting to give Messrs. Davin and Ross an opportunity of meeting on the platform. Mr. Davin entered amid deafening cheers and Mr. Ross supporters with the contingent from Moose Jaw got up quite a respectable cheer.”
Some newspapers did support the Liberals. The Toronto Globe wrote after the election, quote:
“The task of holding the present winners together has passed a man even worse than Sir John Macdonald, with the prospect of Sir Charles Tupper’s accession to the premiership at an early day, it is quite within probability that the country will be delivered from corruptionist rule long before the expiry of the term of the new Parliament.”
The Manitoba Free Press would write, quote:
Of course it wouldn’t be a 19th century election without a few shady tactics. The Ottawa Journal would report that in Montreal Centre a card had been sent to supporters of Sir Donald Smith, stating that the poll location had changed. Several individuals went to the new location, only to find that there was no polling booth there. In response, the Conservatives offered $100 for the arrest of the individuals who facilitated the deceit.
Two men were also arrested in the riding of Quebec West and charged with bribery and corruption in the election. There were also arrests for perjury for individuals who voted in places of dead men, and other who received money for their vote.
Police were also called to some polling stations in Quebec City after scuffles were reported between Conservative and Liberal supporters.
Over in Ottawa, several German Canadians went to vote but when they attempted to, they were challenged by poll takers and told to take an oath of allegiance. Believing that the oath implied certain obligations, they decided not to mark their ballots.
For the first time in years, Macdonald also found himself back representing Kingston, although he again chose multiple ridings to run in. He won in both Kingston and Carleton, but chose Kingston since it was his hometown.
The seat count in the House of Commons had also increased, this time to 215 and 13 independents were elected in the election.
The Liberals improved their seat count in Ontario as well, finishing with 37 seats, only 17 seats less than the Conservatives. Prince Edward Island continued to be a Liberal stronghold, with the party picking up five of the six seats on the island, with the one remaining seat going to an independent candidate.
This would be the last election with Edward Blake leading the Liberals. Four years down the road, a new man would be in charge, Wilfrid Laurier.
Following the election win, what was described as the largest procession ever seen in Ottawa was held on Feb. 25. The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
“The houses all along the route were brilliantly illuminated and half Ottawa appeared to be out to witness the sight. Sir John Macdonald headed the procession in a sleigh drawn by four horses and in which were also seated the members elect Messrs. Perly, Robilliard and O’Connor. As the crowd gave him three cheers, Macdonald raised his cap to the gathered masses.
Information from Biographi, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Ottawa Journal,