Four years after Canada was nearly torn apart over the 1917 election and the Conscription Crisis, the next election would roll around the bend. For the first time since 1887, the Liberals were not represented by Sir Wilfrid Laurier, who had died in 1919. He was replaced by a new man, William Lyon Mackenzie King. The Conservatives had been led by Sir Robert Borden since 1900, but this election, following his retirement, Arthur Meighen had come in as leader and was now serving as prime minister.
While this election would be far less divisive than the previous election, it still had its share of drama.
The election is notable in the fact that for the first time in Canadian history, neither the Liberals nor Conservatives were the Official Opposition. That role would be filled by a new party that had sprang up in Western Canada, the Progressive Party.
Following the war, the Unionist Government would begin to fracture as former Liberals who had supported conscription left that party due to high tariffs on farm products announced in the budget. This group, made up mostly of Western Canada MPs, was led by Thomas Alexander Crerar and they would form into the Progressive Party. Some Liberals would stay with the Conservatives, while others would rejoin the Liberal Party, where they were often seen with suspicion. Arthur Meighen attempted to continue with the Unionist alliance and attempted to rename the Conservatives as the National Liberal and Conservative Party, but this failed. Then, despite still having another year left before an election needed to be called, Meighen called an election. One official would write to him later on the matter, stating quote:
“This fall is the worst possible time you could have chosen for an election.”
Over the previous four years, the war had ended, and the labour movement would begin to rise. In 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike occurred, and it was crushed by the Conservative government, including Meighen, who played a key role in the violent suppression of the strikers. This would hurt him heavily in Manitoba, and among organized labour supporters, for the coming election.
The three parties would all take different platforms, which appealed to different areas of the country. The Progressives were committed to the removal of protective tariffs, which was a pillar of the Conservative Party since the days of Sir John A. Macdonald. The tariffs were seen as a hinderance to farmers and workers, while only helping the businesses of Ontario and Quebec. The Progressives were okay with a gradual removal, and this was a position that King and the Liberals attached themselves to, in order to sway some Progressive voters over to the Liberals. Meighen was having none of this in the election, choosing to attack the Progressives and labeling them as socialists and a group out to destroy the social order.
In regard to the removal of tariffs and the dreaded free trade debate that had taken the Liberals out of power in 1911, the Liberal position was, according to the party itself, quote:
“The tariff issue today is not between free trade and protection or between farmers and manufacturers or urban workers. The issue is whether the tariff shall be framed at the dictation of a few great interests or revised in accordance with the will of the people working in stores and offices and factories. Is there to be a real democracy or a sham democracy…It is for the people of Canada to say.”
King would begin the first of his major campaign tours that he would do for every election until his last in 1945. In a railway car he leased from the CPR, he took two trips, one to the Maritimes and one out to the Canadian West. He would meet with local and regional leaders and made one speech per day. Writing in his diary about these speeches, including those in hockey rinks, he would state, quote:
“At 8 went to meeting in Rideau rink. A cold, cheerless dismal place, spoke with a hat and coat on not to good effect.”
King and Meighen had known each other since they both attended university together in the 1890s, and both men hated the other. King was no fan of Meighen and would routinely criticize him. Even later in life, when Meighen was attempting to win a seat in a by-election, King did not run a Liberal candidate against him as per custom, but he put resources behind the CCF opponent, who would beat Meighen, ending the man’s political career in the process.
King would come across Meighen during the campaign tour, and would write quote:
Meighen was seen as stiff and lawyer-like, which did not appeal to the people of the west. The literature given out by the Conservatives was also dry and written in a lawyer manner, and many speculated that Meighen had written the pieces himself.
Meighen was noted for being one of the best orators in the history of the House of Commons, who could easily debate with King and was known for his razor-sharp tongue. During the two-month election campaign, it was estimated that Meighen had made 250 speeches. Despite his skill with speeches, he was not able to convince those in the west of the importance of having protective tariffs. Meighen would receive a telegram from an official in Manitoba that showed the lost cause the west was to the Conservatives, which stated quote:
“I do not know how close you are in touch with Western conditions at the present time, but it seems to me that the election will be won or lost East of the Great Lakes. I do not think you can count on many seats West of there.”
This election was the first in which the majority of Canadian women could vote, and it would be the first in which women ran for public office. The Conservatives did not waste an opportunity to remind women voters that it was their party that gave women the vote. The Liberals countered that they would have done the same if they were in power at the time, adding that several Liberal provincial governments gave women the vote.
Conservative literature touted that it was a woman’s role to keep the traditional society together. The literature stated quote:
“It may well be that the future of the entire race is to be henceforth in women’s hand. If this be so, then there is one thing that the woman voter cannot escape, her responsibility.”
The Liberals would also court the female vote, and in its pamphlet Women and Politics, it stated quote:
“Every woman will, on that day, determine by her vote what Party or set of men will administer the government of Canada for the next five years. Women are more concerned with the home life of the nation than any other interest. The real question therefore for them are, how can a political party affect the home, the cost of living?”
The Dominion Elections Act would be passed in 1920 would allow women to run for Parliament, but Indigenous or Asian women were denied this right. The Act also created the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer, and Oliver Biggar, a former army colonel, was chosen as the first person to occupy this position. The chief electoral officer was a deputy minister and the individual’s job were to preside over the election and prepare a report after each election. Biggar would have a massive job ahead of him. He would have 75,000 brand new election officials who supervised the process, which now included women who could now vote, doubling the number of eligible voters in the country.
Many newspapers would turn against the Conservatives in the election, including some that had supported Conservatives in the past. The Gazette would state in a headline, quote:
“Quebec will not have Mr. Meighen”
The Toronto Star would criticize Meighen for appearing to side with the United States during his brief time as prime minister, rather than the British Empire, stating quote:
In the election, the Liberals came back into power for the first time in a decade, winning 118 seats, the exact amount needed for a majority government. The Progressive Party became the Official Opposition, finishing with 58 seats, while the Conservatives had the worst collapse in Canadian history to that point, falling 104 seats to 49. Even Meighen would lose his seat in Portage la Prairie. Mirroring the collapse of the Liberals 10 years earlier, eight Conservative cabinet ministers lost their seats. Meighen would win his seat in a by-election after the election.
The Montreal Gazette would write, quote:
“The verdict is decisive. It has been a good fight on the part of the Prime Minister, but a feeble one on the part of his party. A lack of touch between ministers and members on the one hand, and the electorate on the other, has chilled the ardor of the old time Conservatives.”
The Toronto Mail and Empire would put blame on Quebec for the Conservative loss, stemming from the Conscription Crisis four years earlier. It stated quote:
“Quebec went to the polls yesterday in a frame of mind that was far from judicial, but not farther than at any other time since the beginning of the war. Its people were determined to punish the men in office who had placed on the statute books and enforced the Military Services Act for the purpose of enforcing our defenders at the front.”
Echoing the division created by the conscription crisis, the Liberals won every single seat, 65 in total, in Quebec, as well as all 16 seats in Nova Scotia. Overall, the Liberals carried most of the Maritimes.
The Conservatives found their strongest support in Ontario, where they won 36 seats, while the Progressive and Liberal Parties won 20 and 21 seats respectively. In the west, the Progressive Party won all eight seats in Alberta, 15 of 16 in Saskatchewan and 11 of 14 in Manitoba. The Conservatives won no seats in the Prairie Provinces.
Even though we were now getting into the modern era of elections, there were still people who were trying to influence the election.
In Montreal, 15 men were arrested the morning of the election on the charge of being prospective election telegraphers. In their pockets were numerous cards bearing the names of electors. Another five men were arrested as they prepared to telegraph votes. All the men had cards bearing names other than their own. In all, the 20 men had 35 cards that would have allowed them to complete fraudulent votes. The phrase telegrapher at the time meant someone who impersonates a voter.
Bets still continued on election results, with large sums being put down, some as high as $10,000, or $146,000 today, at even money.
On the day he would win the election, King would write in his diary, quote:
“Reached Ottawa at 7 a.m., polled my vote a few minutes after 8. Came to my rooms, oh so glad to see them again, all so peaceful and quiet there knelt in prayer before dear Mother’s picture and thanked God for his protecting providence through all.”
He would continue, looking at his prospects in the election, stating quote:
“Win or lose, I feel I have fought a good fight, run a good course and kept the faith and I shall be happy and contented whatever the outcome.”
Later in the night, upon winning the election, he would write in his diary, quote:
In his statement to the press, King would highlight that the election result showed that many Canadians agreed with him in his criticism of the Conservative government. He would write, quote:
“The people of Canada, have shown by their overwhelming defeat of the Meighen Administration that they realized the truth of the charges of autocracy and usurpation which I have been making against the Meighen government since the Right Honourable Mr. Meighen took control of the country…The fact that three provinces, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, have voted solidly for Liberals is in itself evidence that the Liberal policy has appealed not only to one class or group or race but to all classes.”
Among the five women who ran for public office, Agnes Macphail of the Progressive Party was elected in this election, becoming the first woman MP in Canadian history. She would remain in the House of Commons until 1940. From 1921 to 1935, she was the only woman in the House of Commons, until Martha Black was elected in 1935.
Upon her election, she would state, quote:
“I shall never forget that I do, in a measure, represent all women of Canada and what I do will strengthen or weaken their cause. My chief aspiration is to be in Ottawa just what I am here. I want really to represent the people, who are sending me, and of whom I am one.”
Earlier in this episode, I stated that the Progressive Party was the official opposition. While they technically were, the party refused the role of Official Opposition, which then fell to the Conservatives, making Meighen the Leader of the Official Opposition.
Chief Electoral Officer Mowat would prepare his report after the election, citing difficulties for electors, mostly women, who had been left off voter lists. In his report, he asked that more revision officers be appointed, and advance polls also be established. Parliament would respond to this by reducing the number of voters needed for setting up an advance poll from 50 to 15.
While the Liberals won 118 seats, on the line for a majority, resignations would turn his majority in a minority. The Liberals would lose two by-elections but then gain two seats back when two Progressive MPs crossed the floor. By Nov. 25, 1924, until the 1925 election, the Liberals held a two-seat majority in the House of Commons.
King worked with several Progressive MPs in order to pass legislation throughout the next four years, preventing his government from falling until a confused vote brought it down in 1925 but more on that in the next episode.
Information from Elections Canada, Wikipedia, Library and Archives, Meighen and the Montreal Tycoons, Dynasties and Interludes, Ottawa Journal,