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For the past 58 years, Canada generally had several years between elections. The shortest time period was between 1872 and 1874 but then 1925 and 1926 came along.
Why did these elections come so quickly after each other? Well, it all came down to a minority government, a decision by a Governor General, and some crafty political maneuvering.
For the past four years, the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King had held onto through an alliance with the Progressives, due to its slim majority. The Conservatives had fallen to third in the 1921 election, but were the Official Opposition after the Progressives turned down the role.
The next election was not scheduled until December of 1926, but all of that would change when a budget vote was voted down in Parliament in September of 1925. King was not expecting this turn of events, but it would trigger the election one year early.
The previous four years had been boom years for Canada. There was elation in the decade following the First World War as the Jazz Age began. Not all Canadians enjoyed the good times, with many labourers and farmers dealing with tough times.
As was the case in 1921, Arthur Meighen and the Conservatives pushed a high tariff policy that was supported by the manufacturing firms of Ontario and Quebec. King, taking a line from the Progressives to court their voters, supported reduced tariffs accomplished over time. Progressives, who represented the Canadian West for the most part, wanted little to no tariffs to help labourers and farmers.
In the leadup to the election, King promised low tariffs and good relations between English and French Canada, which was a major issue at the time, almost a decade after the Conscription Crisis.
During the four years leading up to 1925, Meighen had not sat around doing nothing. He had focused on rebuilding the Conservative Party, which had been decimated in the 1921 election. He especially focused on rebuilding in Quebec, while also focusing on the Maritimes and Ontario. Due to his belief that high tariffs were good for the country, he knew that he had essentially lost the Canadian West before the election was even held.
On election day, it was expected that it would be the largest amount of voters going to the polls in Canadian history. In places such as Victoria, cars were being loaned to electors to help get people out to vote. Even Premier Oliver loaned his car to party workers after he voted early in the morning. There was also betting that the Liberals would take the election.
In the election on Oct. 29, 1925, the Conservatives bounced back with a gain of 66 seats to finish with 115, eight short of a majority. This made Arthur Meighen prime minister once again, a role he had from 1920 to 1921. Sorry, I should correct, that, it made him Prime Minister, technically. What do I mean? I will get to that.
King and the Liberals lost 18 seats to finish with 100, while the Progressives collapsed and lost 36 seats to finish with 22. The Conservatives took the majority of seats in British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In Ontario, they had 67 seats to the 12 won by the Liberals. The Liberals again ruled Quebec, finishing with 59 seats to the Conservatives four, an improvement considering the Conservatives won zero seats in 1921.
Interestingly, King would write in his diary in the morning of the election and he would predict that his party would gain 59 in Quebec, although he was wrong in his belief he would take half of the votes in the Maritimes. He would write, quote:
“I believe we will have a majority over all of 10 to 15 and with the Progressives a majority of 40 to 50. W should hope we will have in round numbers a majority as good as Liberal of 25 overall…whatever the outcome, I shall regard it as all for the best and shall not murmur in the least, nor rejoice over much.”
King had lost in his own riding and would write, quote:
“There was just a little feeling of regret at losing a riding and having to face another contest, a little feeling too of relief at not having to keep on nursing a constituency. I find that the greatest anxiety. I shall get a seat somewhere.”
Upon receiving the full election result, King would blame the defeat on money from the big interests who were seeking further protection and a lack of organization on the part of the Liberals. He would write, quote:
“It looks like a heavy road ahead, but the Progressives may come in with us, a few will be foolish enough not to, then if he wins in the House of Commons, it looks like another election or great uncertainty again for awhile.”
The Windsor Star in bold lettering stated, quote:
“King may keep office. Denies his mind is made up to resign as a result of the vote.”
King had told the Canadian Press, quote:
“When all the returns are in, I intend to discuss the situation with the Governor General and I shall then make a statement on my intentions.”
King had met with Byng on Oct. 30, the day after the election, and King would write that Byng said to him, quote:
“There are three alternatives as I see it. The first is dissolution, that I hope you will not ask for, that I would not wish to grant at this stage, the people do not want another election immediately. The next is that Mr. Meighen, having the largest solid group should be called on and the third that you should continue. I shall of course agree to whatever you say as to the last two, but Mr. King, as a friend of yours, may I say that I hope you will consider very carefully the wisdom of the second course.”
The issue was that despite having fewer seats than the Conservatives, King was able to hold onto power by forming a coalition with the Progressives, who aligned closely with the Liberals and this allowed King to form a minority government. This may seem surprising but as the sitting prime minister, King was able to do this.
Meighen of course was fuming over this turn of events, and he demanded that King resign as prime minister. Governor General Lord Byng agreed that the Conservatives should form the government but despite his objections, there was no valid reason to dismiss King from power.
King then ran in a by-election in Prince Albert and was elected.
While King spoke to the press and helped to guide the public narrative, Meighen stayed relatively silent on the whole matter in public. It would not be until Nov. 5, a week after the election that Meighen would speak. He had been waiting until he knew what King was going to do in regards to staying on in power. Meighen would state, quote:
“The premier’s statement stripped of its sophistry is merely an announcement of his determination to hang on in defiance of a heavily adverse verdict from the people of Canada…Mr. King is now merely the leader of a minority group. There has never been a case in Canada and none for a third of a century in Britain, where the leader of a minority group has waited for the calling of Parliament, or has refused to resign immediately once the will of the people was known.”
King would look at the path ahead and state in his diary that he felt it was the right thing to do. He would write, quote:
“Regard all power as a trust in the fullest sense. I have had great comfort and help from the spiritual influences about me.”
As can be expected, this government did not last long and a scandal rocked the government. For a time, King kept the Progressives on his side through the promise of supporting the establishment of Old Age Pensions.
In the customs department, it was found not only were leading members of the department conducting illicit trade. At the time Jacques Bureau was the Minister of Customs and Excise. King had seen the danger of this affair for his government and he had Bureau resign in September 1925, before the last election, and take a position in the Senate. King would write in his diary, one month earlier, quote:
“Bureau I was saddened and shocked to hear is on another drunken spree. Poor fellow. He is killing himself rapidly, cannot overcome his condition.”
Two days later, King would write again of Bureau, stating quote:
“Outrageous and disgraceful the manner in which Customs Dept. being run.”
When the scandal broke after Conservative MP Henry Stevens had the House pass a motion to create a special committee to investigate the customs department, it was found that Bureau shielded individuals and also benefitted personally through receiving contraband liquor, while his chauffeur received a smuggled vehicle.
King knew that a vote of censure was coming, so he asked the Governor General to call an election in the hopes of forming government again without the need for a coalition. Instead, Lord Byng refused this request. King would write, quote:
“It was clear from the moment I began to speak that His Excellency’s mind was completely made up and that he did not wish even to argue the constitutional aspect, but to stand in the position already taken.”
On June 28, 1926, King resigned. The entry in his diary states in simple tone, quote:
“Resigned as Prime Minister of Canada today.”
Rather than be crushed by his resignation, King would write quote:
“I feel relief beyond all words in being free of office with a sense of right in every step of the procedure.”
He would speak in the House of Commons on the day of his resignation, stating quote:
“His Excellency, having declined to accept my advice on the subject of dissolution, to which I believed under British practice I was entitled, I have tendered my resignation, which His Excellency has agreed to accept.”
Upon giving his resignation, King moved the House to adjournment, which Meighen protested should not be allowed and that he should say something as well. Meighen then said that there should be a conference between himself and the prime minister, to which King responded, quote:
Meighen was then asked by Byng to form a government.
At the time, an MP who was appointed to a cabinet post would resign their seat and then seek re-election in a by-election. Meighen did not do this because it would result in several ministers not being in the House of Commons during critical votes when his government was already shaky as it were. He gave up his own seat to become prime minister but he named several men as acting ministers, or ministers without a portfolio, so they did not have to resign. King would argue this was against government policy and the ministers had to resign, then be elected in a by-election. If they did not do so, they would have no right to govern.
A representative for Meighen stated, quote:
“Having in mind the fact that the present session has now continued almost six months and is very near to close, Mr. Meighen believed it to be the first duty of any government he might form to conclude with all dispatch the work of the present session.”
King was an incredibly smart person when it came to political maneuvering and he would go on the attack, stating that Lord Byng was an official of a foreign power who was interfering with Canadian politics.
The Meighen government made it through four Parliamentary votes, but they lost on the fifth vote by only one vote.
King then brought the Progressives to his side and within three days, they had brought down the government in a vote of confidence. With that, Meighen gained the distinction of having the shortest lived government in Canadian history and Lord Byng called an election.
King would campaign on the message of the Conservatives being corrupt. He also ran on the platform of the constitutional issue, citing interference by the governor general in Canadian affairs. On July 2, 1926, he would write quote:
“I could not believe Byng would deliver himself so completely into my hands.”
King was smart enough as a politician to know that attacking Byng directly would upset some people in Canada, due to the ties to the Royal Family. He portrayed Meighen as governing illegally. This tactic was spurred on by nationalist feelings in Canada, helping King gain traction.
Meighen, possibly believing that his high tariff talk had helped win the election for him previously, continued on the high tariff platform, while also attacking the Liberals, stating they were corrupt.
In the Sept. 14, 1926 election, King and the Liberals regained power, with 116 seats, while the Conservatives fell by 24 seats to 91. The Progressives lost another 11 seats, and the United Farmers of Alberta gained nine seats to tie the Progressives with 11 seats total. Meighen would lose his seat in the election and promptly resigned as leader of the Conservative Party.
The day after winning the election, King would visit the tomb of Sir Wilfrid Laurier and Lady Laurier, where he was joined by the Speaker of the Commons in a private visit, so he could lay a wreath of bay leaves.
To hold onto power, which he would for four years despite a minority government, King formed an alliance with the Progressives again.
This election was also notable in that the Liberals agreed to not run candidates in all ridings due to their alliance with the Progressives. This created the unique situation where the Conservatives picked up 40 per cent of the vote in Manitoba, twice what any other party had, but had no seats elected.
The Liberals once again decimated the Conservatives in Quebec, with 59 seats to their four seats. In Saskatchewan, as well as the aforementioned Manitoba, the Conservatives won no seats. The Conservatives took the balance of seats in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Ontario and Nova Scotia.
The entire affair, known as the King-Byng Affair, would be brought up at the 1926 Imperial Conference, and at the 1929 Conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation and the 1930 Imperial Conference. It would eventually result in the Statute of Westminster, which was passed on Dec. 11, 1931. This Statute clarified Dominion parliaments and gave them full legal freedom except in an area where they chose to be subordinate to England. From this point on, the Governor General would follow the advice of the Prime Minister of Canada, not the British Parliament.
Byng would say of the whole affair upon his return to England, quote:
“I have to await the verdict of history to prove my having adopted a wrong course, and this I do with an easy conscience that, right or wrong, I have acted in the interests of Canada and implicated no one else in my decision.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Dynasties and Interludes, Biographi, Library and Archives Canada, Victoria Daily Times,