From 1935 to 1940, Canada went through a monumental change. The Great Depression gradually ended, and in its place the deadliest war in world history would begin. By the time the 1940 election came along, the political landscape of Canada had changed as well.
William Lyon Mackenzie King was still leader of the Liberal Party, a position he had held since 1919, a year after the previous war ended, but the Conservatives were now dealing with a rotating door of leaders. This time, the party was led by Robert Manion, while two parties, the Co-operative Commonwealth and the New Democracy Party, hoped to pick up new seats in the election.
King had little regard for Manion initially, writing in his diary, quote:
“Manion is making a buffoon of himself. His performance at the Walker Theatre on Saturday night was that of a jackass. The Tory Party was disgusted with him and are almost in despair.”
With Canada dealing with the Second World War, there was the hope among some parties that a unified government would be created, as had seen in the First World War, but this time it would not be the case.
Robert Manion had put forward the idea of a National Government and it would be the Conservative Platform to have this unified party. Giving the party a new name not only alienated it in Quebec, but King thought it was a terrible idea. He would write in his diary, quote:
“I can only conclude that Dr. Manion sees no possibility whatever of the election of a Conservative government.”
In launching his campaign on Feb. 9, 1940, Manion would charge that King had imitated Hitler by suddenly dissolving Parliament, while also stating he was in favour of conscription and a railway merger. He also criticized King for not allowed Britain to open its own air training schools in Canada in 1938. Instead, King offered to train British pilots in Canadian air bases.
Manion would state in his opening statement, quote:
“I accuse Mr. King of having repudiated his public pledges of a lifetime when he gagged Parliament on Jan. 25…By this act he imitated Hitler in the latter’s treatment of the German Parliament…I am almost compelled to believe that he must have imbibed some of the spirit of Hitler when he made that well-publicized visit to the Fuehrer in Berlin a couple of years ago.”
The Liberal Party would release a pamphlet in Saskatchewan to question why the party was going by a different name. It would state quote:
“Dr. Manion has thrown the historic Conservative Party overboard. Has appointed himself leader of a mythical National Government movement…Is he secretly acting for railway amalgamationists? Or vested interests’ intent upon reviving the old Bennett policy of National Self Sufficiency? There must be someone behind his costly coast-to-coast campaign for so-called national government, but who?”
King could have waited another year to call an election since he had a majority, but with Mitchell Hepburn, the Liberal leader in Ontario, and George Drew, the Conservative leader in the province, condemning Ottawa’s war effort, King decided to initiate an election campaign before the spring offensive in Europe, which may have hurt his chances at another majority.
The major issue of the campaign was talk of conscription, something Quebec was very against, just as the province had been 25 years previous. The Liberals, knowing that any re-election hopes were tied directly to Quebec, promised not to initiate conscription. King also knew that Manion supported conscription, so taking an opposite stance would ensure that the Liberals would once again take the vast majority of seats in Quebec.
Radio was now the primary way of spreading a message for a party and King would rely heavily on radio as he was in Ottawa, leading the wartime government and could not travel extensively through the country. He would make only one short trip to Winnipeg, then Prince Albert, which he represented, and Saskatoon. There would be one final rally in Toronto. Instead of taking these trips, he would spend his time focusing on his radio speeches to a fine detail. For his opening radio address on Feb. 7, there were seven revisions to the speech over five days, with all but one being written by King himself.
King would say quote:
“The decision is yours. It is not your representatives in Parliament who are now being asked to decide on the present and future of this country at a time of war. It is you, yourselves, who are not only the masters of Parliament, but, as never before, the masters of your own fate.”
The election campaign would be put on hold briefly in mid-February when Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada, passed away on Feb. 11, 1940. He had suffered a severe head injury four days previous when he fell after suffering a stroke at Rideau Hall. Despite surgeries, his condition quickly worsened. The party leaders all agreed to suspend their campaigns for several days.
King would eulogize the Governor General over the radio, stating quote:
“In the passing of His Excellency, the people of Canada have lost one of its greatest and most revered of their Governors General and a friend who, from the day of his arrival in this country, dedicated his life to their service.”
It would be a week before the campaigns got moving again.
With patriotic support high in Canada, Manion, who was a decorated First World War veteran, attacked King for his lack of a war record. On March 23, he would state, quote:
“The soldiers have confidence in me and I will get 95 per cent of the votes of the soldiers of both this war and the last war. They know me. I was one of them and I wasn’t in the United States in the last war.”
One week before the election, a rather unique situation occurred. Archie Dubeau, a Conservative candidate for Hochelaga, was speaking to a crowd and getting quite animated when his movements caused loose and errant matches in his pocket to ignite, setting his pants on fire. After putting out the fire in his pants, he continued with his speech, amid some laughter from the audience.
In the election, 669 candidates would take the field, the most ever, of which 239 were Liberal candidates, while the National Government Party had 212 candidates.
Things got off to a tragic start just prior to the election, when Willie Poisson, the Liberal Candidate at Three Rivers, Quebec, died suddenly.
The election would be the most successful in terms of percentage of seats for the Liberal Party in its history. On the March 26, 1940 election, King and the Liberals took 179 seats, up six from the previous election. This represented 73 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons, and it was the highest amount of seats won by a party in Canadian history to that time. Even today, only the 1949, 1958, 1984 and 2015 elections had more seats won by the ruling party.
The National Government, or Conservatives, did not lose any seats, finishing with 39 once again. The New Democracy Party, which ran with the Social Credit Party, lost seven seats to finish with 10, while the Co-operative Commonwealth picked up one more seat, finishing with eight.
In almost every province, the Liberal Party defeated the Conservatives, even in Ontario. The Liberals won every seat in Alberta, Quebec and Prince Edward Island. In Ontario, the party won 56 seats to the 22 won by the Conservatives. A major reason for this was that due to it being a time of war, many Canadians rallied around the current government, helping it cruise to such an overwhelming victory. The closest province was New Brunswick, in which the Liberals and the Conservatives both won five seats. Manion would also lose his own seat in the election.
Its been awhile since I talked about shady tactics done by parties looking to get elected. Well, there was a bit of that at least in the West Ottawa riding. George Sloan, who was the campaign manager for National Government candidate Dr. T.H. Leggett, stated that the West Ottawa Liberal Association distributed thousands of dummy ballots in wards in the area. The imitation ballots looked similar to the official ballots, and featured only two names, Dr. Leggett and his Liberal opponent, George McIlraith, and there was an X next to the name of McIlraith.
As for that conscription talk, the Liberals would face huge pressure form the military and English Canada to implement conscription. King would find a solution to the problem by having a referendum in 1942 on the question of conscription. Across Canada in that vote, 64.5 per cent of voters were in favour of conscription, with 83 per cent of English Canada in favour. In Quebec, voters were 73 per cent opposed to it.
On Nov. 22, 1944, King would initiate conscription but only 13,000 conscripted men left Canada, while only 2,463 reached the battlefield and only 69 died. The Liberals would also not suffer the damage in Quebec that the Conservatives dealt with in 1917. Overall, it was far less politically damaging, allowing the Liberals to continue to rule Canada until 1957.
One final note on this election, a man in Saskatchewan would finally be elected to the House of Commons after years of trying, John Diefenbaker. For the next 39 years, until the day he died, Diefenbaker would sit in Parliament, including as prime minister from 1957 to 1963.
Information from Wikipedia, Biographi, Ottawa Journal, Dynasties and Interludes, Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Vancouver Province,