The Nov. 3, 1904 election was notable for three reasons. First, it would be the last election until 1949 in which parts of the Northwest Territories were granted representation and it was the last election before the arrival of Alberta and Saskatchewan into Confederation. The most notable aspect though was that it pitted Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Robert Borden against each other. The two men, who were friendly rivals, would contest the next three elections against each other, while also leading their parties through the chaotic time of the First World War.
Laurier would dissolve Parliament on Sept. 29, 1904, trigging the election. The call for an election was met with disdain by some newspapers. The Nanaimo Daily News reported in its editorial, quote:
“Fearful that the rapid ebb of the tide of public favor will leave them stranded high and dry if they linger, the Government have declared for a general election before the good humor generated by a bountiful harvest has evaporated.”
Once Parliament was dissolved to make way for the election, Borden would release an election manifesto, in which he raised his concerns over transportation, western division and the equipping of national ports. He would state, quote:
“Our aim is to apply it for the common good of the people and for the conservation of the Canadian market for the Canadian producer, that honest industry in every legitimate calling may receive a just reward, that the toiler may enjoy in his own land full employment under conditions which ensure a just wage.”
One of the most contentious issues of the election were the railroads. Robert Borden opposed the plans of the Laurier government in 1903 to build two more transcontinental railways, the Canadian North and the Grand Trunk Pacific. While Borden agreed there needed to be transportation to the west, he felt having two railroad within a day’s carriage ride of each other was a waste. He also wanted railroads that were owned and operated by the government, not private corporations.
When the election was called, Borden would say the choice was between, quote:
“A government-owned railway, or a railway-owned government.”
During one election rally, Borden would turn the words of the Liberal motto of Laurier and the Larger Canada, and state that it should be “Laurier and the Larger United States.”
Laurier would attack government ownership of the railroad, which garnered some bad press in western newspapers. The Western Tribune would report, quote:
“To attack government ownership as a Yankee notion is not only an appeal to prejudice, but it is absurd inasmuch as there is no country in the world where private ownership is more firmly established than in the United States.”
One man identified as a disgusted Liberal in Montreal, stated quote:
Norman Wilson, who would be elected as a Liberal in 1904 and serve until 1908, countered the bad press during a meeting he was part of in Russell, Ontario, stating quote:
What positions had we in 1896? We were living alone. But today, the name of Canada is in every mouth. It was claimed that the Laurier government was not loyal but is that so?”
Newspapers such as the Pall Mall Gazette would also praise Laurier and his government, stating quote:
“Sir Wilfrid Laurier is the living embodiment of the spirit required in Canada. It looks as if he might have as long a spell of power as Sir John Macdonald. Not only is this French-Canadian, but enthusiastic British Imperialist statesmen one of the most inspiring and useful personalities in the empire, but the election attempts to turn race feeling to his disadvantage have deserved severe defeat.”
Conservative candidates would try to drum up controversary regarding the sudden richness of several Liberal Members of Parliament. George Henderson would state, quote:
“Mr. Clifford Sifton came to Ottawa a poor lawyer with his creditors chasing after him and today he lives in a place which could not have cost less than $30,000. He does not even pull his blinds down but it is a blaze of effrontery. The Liberal Party could not help themselves.”
On the day of the election, the Ottawa Morning Citizen printed in a large headline on its front page, its support of the Conservatives, stating, quote:
“This is the day to emphasize the fact that Canada belongs to Canadians and not to Corporation Grafters and Yankee Railway Manipulators. Vote today for sound business principles for the building up of Canada, not as a nation simply, but as the most important beyond-the-seas bulwark of the great British Empire.”
The Citizen also published a report that members of the Liberal Party had printed circulars announcing a Conservative Rally that did not exist, far from the polling stations. The newspapers would write, quote:
“This is but another example of the discreditable tactics that have marked the whole conduct of the Liberal campaign, a conduct, it may be stated, that is on a parallel with their methods while in office.”
The election appeared to be busier than usual, with polling stations in Ottawa being described as having great energy. The Ottawa Journal reported, quote:
“Every cab in the city is out and each party has a large number of private rigs and several automobiles to bring out the careless voters.”
Election betting continued once again, and was widely reported with enthusiasm by the newspapers of the Dominion. The odds on Oct. 31, were 3 to 1 on the Laurier government winning, and 1 to 1 that the Opposition have not as many seats in Ontario as before. In Windsor on Nov. 2, the day before the election, the odds had increased to 4 to 1 for the government, and only one bet that day came in, $100 on Sutherland carrying his riding to a 150 majority. The day before, two men had made that same bet, wagering $500. Even some companies would get in on the betting through unique advertising. A.E. Lees and Company printed an advertisement in the Vancouver Province that stated, quote:
The Liberals again increased on their majority, reaching 137 seats, an increase of nine from the previous election. The 137 seats, at the time, was the largest number of seats ever for a political party of Canada, beating the 134 won by the Conservatives in 1878 and 1882. It would also be the largest number of seats won by any non-Unionist Party until 1935.
The newspapers the following day announced in bold letters on their front pages the huge win for the Liberal Party.
The Victoria Daily Times would write quote:
“Overwhelming triumph for Laurier government.”
The Ottawa Morning Citizen would announce, quote:
“Canada acclaims Laurier. Majority is over 60. Leader Borden fallen.”
The Ottawa Journal would write, quote:
“There was probably never an election with fewer uncertainties.”
The Conservatives would fall by four seats to 75. The Liberals also garnered over half the popular vote, 50.9 per cent.
The Liberals continued to have trouble defeating the Conservatives in Ontario, but they had improved their seat count, with 39 seats to the 47 won by the Conservatives. The Liberals would dominate in the other provinces, winning every seat in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, and 53 seats in Quebec. Only two independents won any seats in the election.
The Edmonton Journal would draw parallels between the 1904 election and the 1882 election, with both elections centered on the issue of a railroad, and the fact that the country was prosperous economically, which the ruling party claimed credit for.
For Robert Borden, it was a tough election, not just because his party lost seats, but Borden lost his own seat in Nova Scotia in the Liberal sweep of the province.
One newspaper would write, quote:
“Borden’s misfortune is regretted even by his opponents. His disappearance, though it may be only temporary, leaves a distinct gap.”
Borden would contemplate resigning but he had grown to enjoy the recognition he received as party leader and by Christmas he would decide to stay on as leader. That would benefit him only seven years later. He would be back in the House of Commons when a vacancy was found in the Carleton riding and Laurier arranged for Borden to be acclaimed.
Information from Biographi, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, the Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Journal, Edmonton Journal, Windsor Star, Winnipeg Free Press,