When 1949 came along, both of the major parties in Canada were now led by new individuals. The Conservatives had forced John Bracken out of his leadership role in 1948 and in his place was George Drew, the former premier of Ontario who led his provincial party to one of its biggest election wins ever. At the helm of the Liberals was Louis St. Laurent, a former prominent minister in the cabinet of William Lyon Mackenzie King. He had been a successful corporation lawyer, and served as both minister of justice and minister of external affairs.
This was the first election since 1920 that King would not be leading the party, and many wondered if success would continue for the Liberals, who had governed Canada since 1935.
The election would also be the first in which Newfoundland citizens were voting, after the island had joined Confederation in March of 1949. The Northwest Territories were represented as well, for the first time since 1904.
Not only would over 1,000 candidates put their name forward in the election, a record at the time, but there were an additional one million voters in Canada, which included 600,000 more native born Canadians who came of age between the 1945 and 1949 election. There were also 25,000 wives of servicemen who came over from England. Another 62,000 people became naturalized citizens in Canada, and Newfoundland added another 170,000 residents. Chinese and Japanese Canadians also both finally received the vote in 1947 and 1948.
St. Laurent was seen in Canada as calm and dignified and referred to as Uncle Louis due to his kind nature around children.
One newspaper would write about his appeal with children, stating quote:
“They flock around him at stations. They chase the train. They climb onto his motor car. They think he is terrific and he handles them as if they were his grandchildren. After watching the show, one Liberal wag remarked, the voting age ought to be lowered to 12.”
St. Laurent was seen as so popular that the party didn’t run on any issues, but would state that its focus for the upcoming election would be unity, ensuring high employment and income for Canadians, health insurance, social welfare and the rights of labourers.
One Liberal was quoted in Maclean’s speaking on the popularity of St. Laurent. He would state, quote:
“That man has won the affection of this party more than any leader I ever knew. We don’t want him to fail. We’ll win for him if we possibly can. St. Laurent’s our best man, by head and shoulders, if he goes down the party’s decapitated and at his age he’s got to win this year or not at all.”
St. Laurent would visit his hometown of Compton, Quebec, where he was met with a large reception of people that greatly impacted him. With tears going down his cheeks, he would state, quote:
“After all the emotions which I have experienced today are the most thrilling that can come to the human breast.”
Such displays of openness greatly appealed to Canadians, further improving his image across the country.
Drew, despite being a popular premier and a veteran of the First World War, was abrasive and had a style that many voters did not like. When a Gallup poll around the time of the election, asking who did the best job for his party, St. Laurent won with 62 per cent, while Drew had only nine percent.
Drew would begin his campaign on May 21, heading to western Canada, before eventually circling back to tour through Ontario and Quebec. While the Liberals would run essentially on no issue, the Conservatives and Drew had trouble finding an issue to focus on. In his first campaign speech, Drew stated that he would work with the provinces and fight to save Confederation. The next day, he focused on curbing socialism, and then the next day it was on economics regarding export trade. He would state, quote:
He would also state that the federal government had over-taxed the Canadian people $1.5 billion during the three years previous to the election. He would state that for every $4 needed last year for the business of the government, $5 was taken from the people through taxes.
On May 26, Drew then focused on social security, promising a national health program, old age pensions without a means test and family allowances.
In Drew’s final radio speech, he would state, quote:
“The basic issue in this election is whether or not we are going to have a return to responsible government with the members of Parliament free to exercise their rights on behalf of the people who elected them.”
One unnamed Progressive Conservative was quoted in Maclean’s about his hope for at the very list a slim majority for the Conservatives. He would state, quote:
“If the thing breaks right, our grandchildren will still be voting Conservative. If it breaks wrong, the same grandchildren will be reading about the Progressive Conservative Party in their history books.”
The election was lacking in interest among the voters. On June 6, the Ottawa Citizen would report, quote:
“Unless there is a complete reversal of feeling between now and June 27, Canada’s first peacetime election in 14 years is going to be written into the books as one of the dullest and most apathetic in history.”
The newspapers, such as the Ottawa Citizen, would take note of the differing campaign styles of St. Laurent and Drew. In regards to St. Laurent, the article stated that he was running a grass roots campaign that was a combination of folksy talks from the platform of the rear of a train. It would state, quote:
“Uncle Louis homilies delivered in a quiet, good humored, grandfatherly fashion, of sober, high-level speeches on the governments record.”
The article continued with Drew, saying he was making slam-bang attacks on the government, speaking with more vigor and intensity and making emotional appeals. It also stated that his campaign was the most spectacular as Drew was an experienced campaigner. It would compare that with St. Laurent, which the newspapers said was more studied in his approach.
Even how they conducted their speeches differed. The Ottawa Citizen stated, quote:
“The prime minister speaks frequently from a text and only at smaller meetings does he speak extemporaneously. Drew has handled practically every speech on the swing down here on an off-the-cuff basis, with a minimum of notes.”
King, who was in a situation for the first time in 30 years, in that he did not know what to do election night. He would write, quote:
“I hope no ill fate in elections. It is strange. I hardly feel interested, except as naturally anxious to see party win, but so isolated as not to know with whom or where to share tomorrow evening. I believe the party will win.”
As usual, newspapers were divided in their support. During one week of the campaign, the Toronto Star gave five times as much news space to the Liberal party as it did the Progressive Conservatives. Conversely, the Toronto Telegram gave five times as much space to the Progressive Conservatives as it did the Liberals. On June 15, the Star covered eight Liberal rallies, while the Telegram covered none and instead covered four Progressive Conservative rallies, which the Star ignored. Even when they covered the same event, the newspapers differed. On June 3, St. Laurent spoke at a rally in Goderich, Ontario. The Telegram would write, quote:
“The Goderich grandstand, which seats about 1,500, was by no means crowded.”
Two Star reporters gave differing accounts of the event as well. One reporter said there were 2,200 people at the rally, while the other said that 3,000 people cheered him on.
When Drew spoke in Moose Jaw on June 6, the Telegram stated he spoke in front of 3,000 people, while the Star said he spoke in front of 1,500 people. The biggest discrepancy was on June 20, when Drew met supporters at a Quebec City railway station. The Star stated that 400 people came to greet him, while the Telegram said the crowd was close to 3,000 people.
There was some truth to this though. On the campaign trail, while Drew would rent out the Glebe Collegiate auditorium and Massey Hall, St. Laurent rented out Maple Leaf Gardens.
On May 30, the Liberals received a bit of good news when the Liberal Party in Newfoundland won a landslide victory in the province’s first election since joining Confederation. The party took 17 seats, compared to the Progressive Conservative’s two. With such a complete win, the Liberals were sure of victory there in the federal election.
One event that had an influence on the election, at least in Quebec, was the Asbestos Strike at Thetford Mines. On Feb. 14, 1949, 5,000 workers at four asbestos mines walked off the job, demanding a raise, limit to illness-causing asbestos dust, paid holidays and more. Maurice Duplessis was the leader of the Union Nationale, a Conservative leaning party, and he supported the employers against the strikers, including sending provincial police in. The strike would be resolved on July 1, 1949, but it would cost the Conservatives support in the province, aiding the Liberals. One man who supported the workers was Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who would be blacklisted by the provincial government and unable to teach at the University of Montreal as a result.
J.A. Hume of the Ottawa Citizen would theorize that the Liberals would win the election with a majority, predicting the party would take 157 seats, while the Conservatives would have 61. As it turned out, he was right about the majority, but way off on how many seats the Liberals would win.
In the June 27, 1949 election, the Liberals crushed all competition in the election, gaining 73 seats and finishing with 191. This was the largest majority in Canadian history to that point and even today, only 1958 and 1984 involved a party winning more seats. It also remains the biggest election win in the history of the Liberal Party.
That massive majority came at the expense of all the other parties, which all lost seats. No party lost more seats than the Conservatives, who fell 24 seats to 41. The Co-operative Commonwealth lost 15 seats to finish with three, while the Social Credit Party lost three seats to finish with 10.
Across the entire country, only Alberta had a party win more seats than the Liberals. In that province, the Social Credit Party won 10 seats, to the Liberals five. The two biggest wins, in terms of provinces, for the Liberals were Ontario and Quebec. In Ontario, the Liberals took 55 seats, while the Conservatives had only 25. Again, considering the popularity of Drew, this was a surprising outcome. In Quebec, the Liberals decimated the Conservatives, winning 68 seats, to the Conservative’s two.
With the election win, St. Laurent became the second Francophone prime minister in Canadian history after Sir Wilfrid Laurier.
Maclean’s would write on Aug. 1, 1949, quote:
St. Laurent would say on election night, quote:
“The decisive verdict you have rendered will strengthen the Government in carrying out the program we laid out before you during the election campaign…I wish to repeat the promise, which is my only election promise, to give you the best service of which I am capable.”
King was happy to see St. Laurent take such a huge election win. He would call St. Laurent upon hearing of the win. He relates in his diary, quote:
“I told him it was his victory, his campaign had done it…I told him I thought of the day he came to the Library to talk over entering government and our days at San Francisco, when it seemed like defeat for him in Quebec and his decision and mine to stay on and fight and said how well earned and merited the victory was.”
King would release a statement on election night as well, stating quote:
“Naturally I am delighted with today’s victory of the Liberal Party. Too much credit cannot be given to the Prime Minister, Mr. Louis St. Laurent, for the splendid leadership he has given the country in Parliament since his appointment to office, and throughout the campaign, just concluded.”
Drew was less happy about the election, stating quote:
“We will start immediately to build a strong party for the service of our country…The Progressive Conservative party has a great role to play in the future as it has in the past.”
King would not live to see another Canadian election again. He would pass away on July 22, 1950.
Information from Library and Archives Canada, Dynasties and Interludes, Wikipedia, Macleans, Ottawa Citizen, Canadian Encyclopedia, The Vancouver Province,