Since 1896, there had been no change in government in Canada. For 15 years, the Liberals led the country as it entered the 20th century and its cultural framework changed thanks to the immense immigration efforts that brought in hundreds of thousands of people.
While many expected the Liberals to once again to win another election, fate had other plans. The 1911 election would be bring in a massive change to the political landscape of Canada.
The past three elections had seen little in the way of major issues, with the exemption of the railroads but the 1911 election would see several issues come to the forefront of the election debate.
The first was the issue over a Canadian Navy. At the time the British Empire and Germany were building up their navies and Laurier attempted to find a compromise for Canada by starting up the Canadian Navy. This decision was disliked by both French and English Canada, with French-Canadians refusing to give aid, and English-Canadians wanting the aid to go directly to Britain.
The Liberals faced criticism in British Columbia and the Maritimes who felt that the party was abandoning ties to Great Britain through its foreign policies and its decision to create a Canadian Navy. Oddly, Henri Bourassa, quit the Liberal Party because he believed it was too pro-British.
Laurier felt that the navy issue was splitting Canada in a way not seen since 1896 and the Manitoba Schools Question and to deal with this, he attempted to open up treaty talks with the United States that he believed would economically favour Canada, while at the same time would divide the Conservative Party as its western wing had wanted free trade while its eastern wing did not. In January 1911, a free trade agreement would be signed between Laurier and President Howard Taft. Unfortunately, the agreement had to be ratified by both the US Congress and Senate, rather than just the Senate, which would stall the hopes of Laurier later in the year.
On Jan. 26, 1911, Laurier announced to the House of Commons that the agreement had been reached, which had free trade on natural products, but only a small number of manufacturing products. The hope was that this would limit the blow back from the powerful manufacturing firms of Ontario and Quebec. This would not be the case. Several Liberal MPs would secretly begin working with the Conservatives, backed by the manufacturing firms, to stall the bill. Even Clifford Sifton, who had been an MP for years, made a pact with Borden to defeat Laurier. This was called the Revolt of the Eighteen, with their hardline being that the free trade agreement was the, quote:
“worst blow ever to threaten Canadian nationality.”
While Borden accepted the support of these Liberals, that caused issues within his own party and Borden announced to his party members he would resign over the conflict. This put everyone in line and they presented a unified front for the election.
When Laurier and the Liberal Party attempted to bring up the topic of free trade in the 1891 election, Sir John A. Macdonald used it as an election issue by invoking patriotism and fear over the United States annexing Canada. The Conservatives would do the same 20 years later and they would get ammunition in that fight thanks to a Republican in America named William Bennett. He would introduce a resolution that asked the president to begin talks with Britain for how the United States could annex Canada. While President Taft rejected the proposal, the entire resolution was used by the Conservatives against the Liberals, as was a quote by the Speaker of the House, Democrat Champ Clark, who said quote:
By 1911, mass immigration to Canada’s West had also shifted the base of support for the Liberals to Western Canada. Farmers in that region wanted markets for their crops and supported free trade with the United States.
J.W. Scallion, the president of the Manitoba Grain Growers Association, would say of free trade, quote:
“No trade arrangements which the Canadian government would enter into with any country would meet with greater favor or stronger support from the farmers of this country than a wide measure of free trade with the United States.”
In Central Canada, there was little support for free trade among the many manufacturing businesses that dominated the economy in Ontario and Quebec.
Borden, now seasoned with his third election campaign, would campaign on the platform of opposing free trade with the Americans, stating that there was a secret plan by the Americans to annex Canada and the free trade agreement was the first step. Borden would say, quote:
“It is beyond doubt that the leading public men of the United States, its leading press, and the mass of its people believe annexation of the Dominion to be the ultimate, inevitable and desirable result of this proposition, and for that reason support it.”
He would add in another speech, quote:
“Mr. Taft wants our resources because their own resources are nearly exhausted.”
The Conservatives would run on the slogan of “Keep Canada for Canadians”, which harkened back to the slogans of Macdonald in elections past.
The Conservatives would produce thousands of pamphlets that included the speeches of Clark and Bennett, which built up anti-Americanism in Canada prior to the election.
Bourassa would campaign in Quebec for the Conservatives, even though the Conservatives were far more imperialist than the Liberals.
Even celebrated British author, Rudyard Kipling, would campaign for the Conservatives, writing an appeal that the Montreal Gazette published on Sept. 7, 1911, three weeks before the election, that stated quote:
In British Columbia, the Conservatives tapped into anti-Asian sentiment by campaigning on the slogan of “A White Canada” as there were fears among the whites in the province that cheap Asian labour would result in lower wages.
The Liberals focused their campaign on the economic benefits that free trade would bring to Canadians. In the west, the Liberals spread the message that free trade would bring higher prices for Canadian products, and lower prices for Canadian necessities. In Quebec, where voters were angry over Laurier and his ties to England, he would focus on the alliance between Bourassa and Borden. He would tell voters that a vote in support of Bourassa was simply a vote for Borden, who he called an imperialist.
In London, Ontario, Laurier would state, quote:
“Victory is in the air. I feel the swing that makes it sure. I am pretty old at the game. I have travelled over the provinces of Canada more than once, and today, I find for the cause I represent such enthusiasm as I never found before.”
The Nationalist candidates, as they were called, were located in Quebec and they would focus on campaigning for Borden. This Conservative-Nationalist alliance was not official, but 28 Nationalists would run as Conservatives. This alliance allowed Borden to focus on Ontario where he portrayed Laurier as a leader disloyal to the British Empire due to his free trade agreement with the Americans. The Nationalists and Bourassa would focus on Quebec, where Laurier was portrayed as disloyal to French-Canadians because he sold their military interests to the British. Bourassa would call Laurier’s policies “moral evils”
It would not be total support for Bourassa, due to Laurier still being somewhat popular in Quebec. On Sept. 20, Bourassa was met by 2,000 people at an event who began to throw stale eggs and stones at him. This was in retaliation for the hooting by a crowd at a Laurier event in Montreal the night before.
The election was highly divisive and in Montreal, Police Chief Campeau anticipated rioting on election day between the Nationalist and Liberal supporters. He would request controllers to provide him with three automobiles so he could convey police reserves to any point, quickly, if trouble were to break out.
Impersonation warrants were also issued after several people in Vancouver had impersonated different people at various polling stations in an effort to sway the election in their riding. In Vancouver, two were exposed by the Conservatives and four were exposed by the Liberals. In Winnipeg, 12 men were exposed by the Liberals at a North Winnipeg polling station. In Winnipeg, 200 Dominion constables and a so-called vigilance committee of 1,200 Liberals were guarding the polls to prevent any impersonation.
In Toronto, every rig and vehicle was put into service by the parties to ensure every vote that could be polled, would be. Police were also stationed at as many polling booths as possible to prevent any attempts at influencing the vote, or illegal activities.
On Sept. 21, 1911, when the election was held, the Liberals would see a total collapse of their support. The party would lose 48 seats and fall to 85, while the Conservative surged to a majority government with a gain of 47 seats, to finish with 132. The Conservatives took every seat in British Columbia thanks to their campaign slogan, and an astounding 71 seats in Ontario. Even in Quebec, they picked up 26 seats to the 36 won by the Liberals. The Liberals only beat the Conservatives in Alberta, Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.
Borden would state upon his election win his belief that Canada and the Americans could work together without the need for free trade.
The Liberals would lose eight of their cabinet ministers in the stunning defeat.
The Ottawa Journal would write, quote:
“The cabinet of all talents was shattered as no cabinet was ever before. The bloom, as well as the blossom, went down to defeat. The Old Guard as well as the recruits who had only recently been given commissions.”
Laurier would say the day after the election, quote:
“There is no doubt that we have been decisively defeated. I gladly lay down the premiership, a burden I have carried for 15 years.”
One individual who would lose his seat was William Lyon Mackenzie King, who was elected in a by-election in 1909 and had served as Canada’s first Minister of Labour.
Writing about King, the Journal would state, quote:
“The young and ambitious Minister of Labour, Honourable William Lyon Mackenzie King, met his Waterloo in more ways than one, for he was defeated in the constituency of North Waterloo, where he had appealed to the large German population to condemn Mr. R.L. Borden for offering to strengthen the British navy in the most effective way. His answer from the electors is a clean dismissal from public life for which Mr. King was little fitted.”
King would return to the House of Commons and go on to serve as prime minister for over 21 years, longer than any other person in history.
The Los Angeles Times would write about the election, quote:
“Their ballots have consigned to everlasting flames the bogy of annexation by the United States which Champ Clark called from the deeps. It was not really a wraith of anything that existed on this side of the line. It was a pumpkin scarehead with blazing eyes, a crooked slit for a nose, and a hideous grinning mouth which the fun-loving Champ placed upon a pole along with the Stars and Stripes, the while he carried terror to loyal Canuck hearts by his derisive shout of annexation.”
As for that Canadian Navy issue that helped bring down the Liberal government. The Conservatives put forward a bill to give contributions to the British, but while it passed the House of Commons, it was defeated in the Senate by the Liberals.
Laurier would now return to his former role of Leader of the Official Opposition, a role he held from 1887 to 1896. Borden on the other hand would become Prime Minister of Canada and would lead Canada through a very difficult time, all the way up to 1920 when he chose to leave politics, physically exhausted from the previous nine years.
King would visit with Laurier on Sept. 25, and express his regret at the loss of the election. He would write of what Laurier told him in his diary, stating quote:
“He told me that he was going to go back into the House, that it had not been his intention to do so at first, that he had told his wife before starting out on the contest that if he was not returned, they would spend their remaining days quietly together, that it was against his own convenience and inclination he returned but that the party was so badly shattered he would have to stay and get it together.”
One man elected for the first time to the House of Commons in 1911 was R.B. Bennett. Only 19 years later, he would become Prime Minister of Canada.
The issue of free trade would mostly disappear from Canadian politics at this point, only to return again in the 1980s, with the parties reversed in their support.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Biographi, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Maple Leaf Web, Library and Archives Canada, Vancouver Province, Edmonton Daily Bulletin, Montreal Gazette, Ottawa Journal, Calgary Herald,