When 1891 came along, the country was soon plunged into a new election campaign and this one would be notable for many reasons.
The first was that it would be the last election campaign for Sir John A. Macdonald, who would die only three months after the election while still in office. That death would begin a decline for the Conservatives that saw them go through four Prime Ministers in only five years. The second notable aspect of this election was that it was the first in which Wilfrid Laurier served as leader of the Liberal party, a position he would hold until 1919, longer than anyone else in Canadian history.
The Conservatives once again campaigned on the National Policy, while emphasizing stability under the leadership of Macdonald. The campaign slogan would be “The Old Flag, The Old Policy. The Old Leader”
The old flag referred to Macdonald’s support of the British Empire, the Old Policy referred to the National Policy and the Old Leader was of course Macdonald. A very famous poster from that campaign showed Macdonald on the shoulders of an industrial worker and a farmer, representing the rural and urban interests of Canada. The poster shows Macdonald to be elite, but helped by the common man.
Not everyone believed the poster. An editorial in the Victoria Daily Times stated quote:
“If the old flag is good, why does Sir John discriminate against the country whose name it bears…if the old leader is honest, why does he not address the electors manfully. If the old flag, the old policy and the old man are so good, why oh why has the population of Canada been decreased during the reign of the old man under the old policy of protection?”
The Liberals supported implementing free trade with the United States, which was still an unpopular idea for the time. Laurier knew little about tariffs and other items of trade with the United States, but he wanted something that was clear and opposite of the Liberals to campaign on.
The choice by the Liberals to focus on free trade resulted in the Conservatives making the election an election of patriotism, with Macdonald hinting that any such deal with the United States would result with the takeover of Canada. It may seem like such a thing would be unlikely but at the time, they were only 70 years removed from the War of 1812, the same distance we are removed from the Second World War.
This worked as several voters believed the Liberals were looking to give Canada over to the Americans. One Frederickton farmer, who was unnamed, was quoted in the Montreal Gazette stating quote:
“The people of Canada are not so blind but that they can see through these Liberal junketings to New York, Boston and Washington. They recognize these insidious enemies of their country and will give their answer at the polls.”
Macdonald would say, quote:
“Every American statesman covets Canada. The greed of its acquisition is still on the increase.”
During the campaign, Macdonald would tell a crowd in Toronto on Feb. 7, quote:
At the same time, the Conservatives were dealing with issues of corruption when it was discovered that MP JC Rykert had taken $50,000 in a shady sale of timber permits in the Cypress Hills. He resigned over the issue. That wasn’t the only scandal. Thomas McGreevy was accused of accepting huge campaign contributions in the previous election in order to give a Quebec contractor advancing interests in public work projects. This was done under the behest of Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the closest friends of Macdonald and who many saw as his successor. With the scandals piling up, Macdonald chose to push an election before things got too bad.
Even Macdonald realized this, stating quote:
“I am a good deal discouraged as to our future because our ministry is too old and too long in office.”
At the time, Macdonald was 75 years old and had been in public service for roughly 50 years.
Timothy Anglin, a former Member of Parliament with the Liberals who served from 1867 to 1882, charged that Macdonald had only called an election to benefit his party.
Macdonald would say in a speech on Feb. 6, three days after dissolving Parliament, quote:
“The policy we introduced in 1878 we are going to stand by. Look how it has built up the country. Look at Toronto, Montreal and the towns throughout the country.”
Macdonald had only planned to direct the campaign from Toronto but since it was looking to be closer than expected, he had to hit the campaign trail. Even at 75 though, he was still a skilled politician and he was able to turn the idea of free trade with the Americans into the main issue, pushing any scandals from only a month previous away from the minds of voters.
On Feb 9, he would give a speech where he would state his goal was to quote:
“Foster and develop the varied resources of the Dominion by every means in our power, consistent with Canada’s position as an integral portion of the Empire.”
It came at a toll for Macdonald though. He would give his last major speech of the campaign on Feb. 25, and after he was said to have stumbled out of the room not from drunkenness as had happened in the past, but from exhaustion.
The Montreal Gazette would report, quote:
He would not travel again for the rest of the election and all campaign activities were conducted from his brother-in-law’s house in Kingston.
Sir Charles Tupper, one of the leaders of the Conservative Party, took on a lot of the campaigning for Macdonald. Tupper, who was seen as heir to Macdonald and who would eventually become Prime Minister, albeit for 69 days, toured through Ontario in February campaigning for the party. Speaking in Ottawa, Tupper would say on Feb. 26, quote:
“Sir John is certain of success in Ontario. He will receive a more magnificent endorsement form that province this time than every before. I addressed crowded unanimous and enthusiastic meetings at Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Strathroy, London and Windsor and in every one of these places there were more who could not get inside than got there.”
Betting continued prior to the election as well. The odds were 4 to 1 that the Conservatives would maintain their government and few went against this bet. For Sir John A. Macdonald in his home riding of Kingston, even money was on the bet that he would win, but 2 to 1 that his majority would not be 100. As it turned out, he won by over 500 votes. In Brandon, Mantoba, betting was reported to be quite high with many volunteering for campaigns to help influence the odds. One man in Toronto put down a bet $1,000 to $100 that Macdonald would have a 15 majority in the province of Ontario. Needless to say, that man did not win that bet.
The Liberals would gain 10 seats, reaching their highest total since 1874, with 90 seats. It was not enough to prevent the Conservatives having a majority though. While the party lost five seats, they still finished with 117 seats. The Conservatives won all of the seats in British Columbia, most of the seats in Manitoba and Nova Scotia, but mostly split Ontario with the Liberals. Thanks to Wilfrid Laurier being the first francophone leader of the Liberals, the party was able to take 33 seats in the province, while the Conservatives took 27. This was the first time the Liberals had more seats in Quebec than the Conservatives since 1874.
Without Macdonald, it is likely that Laurier and the Liberals would have won the election, but his skillful use of a rallying cry of loyalty to Canada and against free trade was highly effective. There was also the gerrymandering conducted by the Conservatives over the previous four years that changed boundaries of local ridings to benefit Conservative candidates.
There would of course be drama, but things were beginning to settle down after the rough and tumble 1870s and 1880s in Canadian elections. For the first time ever, two candidates received the same amount of votes. In Brome, Quebec, where the tie occurred, the returning officer had to act as tie breaker, with Daniel Bishop Meigs winning.
The Manitoba Free Press would report that in Kingston, for Macdonald’s last election, quote:
“The returns were read with wild cheers at the newspaper offices and the City Hall. Nearly every polling booth in the city gave Macdonald majorities.”
For the election as a whole, the newspaper would state, quote:
On April 29, a feeble Macdonald opened the new session of Parliament and looked quite feeble. On May 12, he suffered a minor stroke while talking with Governor General Lord Stanley. When Stanley asked if he wanted to lie down, Macdonald said, quote:
“That is no use, the machine is worn out.”
On June 6, Macdonald was dead from a severe stroke.
Information from Macleans, Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Biographi, The Conspiracy That Never Was, Archive History, Manitoba Free Press, Montreal Gazette, Victoria Daily Times,