After the massive win for Louis St. Laurent and the Liberals in 1949, there was hope that the party would once again get a majority when the next election came about.
This would be a re-match between St. Laurent and his Progressive Conservative opponent George Drew.
Many in the Progressive Conservative party were unhappy with the fact that the election was schedule for Aug. 10, in the heart of summer season. In fact, this is the only time that August has ever seen a federal election.
Dalton Camp, who was working for the Progressive Conservatives, would state quote:
“The prospect of an August election appalled the PCs. The Tory vote would be secluded in summer cottages, the cities would be insufferable, campaign audiences would be small and distracted by the heat. The farmers would be tending their crops.”
Drew would state when the date was decided that it was the very worst date in the year for an election. He would say quote:
“Having treated Parliament with contempt, they now treat the people with even greater contempt.”
St. Laurent would respond to the criticism of the election date, stating quote:
“Some Canadians do not take the trouble to vote but that is their responsibility…that is part of the price we pay for free democratic institutions. I hope we all do it without resentment or a feeling that it is something we should not have to do.”
As with the 1949 election, the Liberals didn’t make any promises but instead campaigned on their record, which by this point had reached 18 years of government through half of The Great Depression and the Second World War. St. Laurent, who started his campaign on June 22, was still immensely popular in Canada.
Prior to the election, in a poll of the public, 58 per cent of respondents said that St. Laurent was doing a good job as prime minister, including 47 per cent of Progressive Conservative supporters.
St. Laurent continued to be seen as Uncle Louis, the benevolent grandfather to young Canadians. Some Progressive Conservative candidates would attempt to play off that. Elmer Bell, president of the Western Ontario Progressive Conservative Association, would state that parents should hide their children until St. Laurent finishes his campaign tour. He would state on June 27, 1953, quote:
“I see our kissing Prime Minister is on the warpath again. I suggest that if he comes this way again you keep your children in, or they’ll be kissed. He has a lot of tricks. One of them is giving the children a school holiday. At least the time and effort put on education will not be hindered by that maneuver now that school is out.”
Some did question whether St. Laurent could do another election since he had been in politics by that point since 1941. He would say quote:
St. Laurent would travel across the country, beginning in Windsor and moving east to Fredericton, then west to Winnipeg and beyond. He would travel on what was dubbed the “Uncle Louis Limited”, which included having three secretaries from the East Block aboard, a handyman, many reporters and everything that he needed in his special Car 100, including a shower, bed and lounging area. Also on the train was a valet, waiter, cook and porter, along with telegraph operators. One reporter on the tour would state, quote:
“Listening to him, you become, even the most reluctant, charmed and warmed by his personality. He can turn the indifferent or the doubtful into a starry-eyed partisan.”
In his opening speech of the campaign, he would tell Canadians that they have never had it better and that prosperity would continue under a Liberal regime.
Prior to the 1953 election, the Liberals, as mentioned, had been in power for 18 years. The Conservatives had not been in power since 1935 and among all the candidates, only Earl Rowe had experience in cabinet, when he briefly held a post during R.B. Bennett’s time in office. An editorial in Maclean’s would state, quote:
“It is commonplace to say that the Liberals have been in too long, it is even more profoundly true that the Conservatives have been out too long…After 18 years in the political wilderness they no longer know how things are done, or what goes on.”
Over the previous four years, the St. Laurent government had dealt with the Korean War, committing the third largest overall contribution of troops, began the first steps towards universal healthcare, expanded social programs including old age assistance, allowances for the blind and began the process of constructing the Trans-Canada Highway.
In contrast, the Progressive Conservatives campaigned on the promise of cutting $500 million tax cut. This is no small amount, equally about $5.1 billion today.
Drew would state at his first campaign rally, quote:
“Those who believe that it is time for a change now have the one chance that democracy affords.”
This may have seemed like a good idea, but it would severely handicap Progressive Conservative candidates across the country. They could not make any promises of increased spending in their local areas, and in the Maritimes the lower taxes were seen as lower transfer payments, which would cause severe economic times for the provinces there.
Dalton Camp would say years later, quote:
“Drew’s election manifesto was intended to be a bombshell and it was bursting over the heads of the unsuspecting party candidates and organization.”
The Conservatives also promised to make municipal councils and school boards exempt from sales taxes. There was also the promise of a health insurance scheme, aid to help people with low incomes buy homes and a reforming of the Senate.
Drew would say quote:
“We will introduce legislation to amend the Criminal Code which will make it an offence punishable by due process of law to engage in Communist or other subversive activities designed to destroy our democratic system.”
Drew, who would begin his campaign in Guelph on June 19, continued to be up against a very popular figure in St. Laurent. Scott Young, writing for Maclean’s, would state, quote:
“Mr. Drew is unpopular in some places. Some people both in and out of his party admit that, while still believing in him.”
In speaking of the campaign policies of the Liberals, Drew said it was not a policy, just a yawn.
Throughout June and July, Drew would travel around Canada by train, plane and automobile, and found that his rallies were better than in the previous election. He would state quote:
“I’m thriving on it. It is good to see the real, genuine interest people are taking in the election.”
During the August long weekend, Drew would cover 480 kilometres and give nine speeches.
The next day, Drew attempted to tour through the Petawawa Army Base, but he was refused due to a Queen’s Order and Regulation from 1927 that prohibited visits by campaigning politicians to visit camps or units of the Armed Forces. Drew would state quote:
In Ottawa on July 8, Drew spoke in front of 2,000 people, declaring that his party would provide better treatment for the civil service. Drew had worked as a civil servant many years previous, making it an issue that was important to him.
Some would call Drew the most hated man in Canada, but St. Laurent would state that was not the case. He would state quote:
“I haven’t any evidence of hate for Mr. Drew or for myself. There is no difference between political hate and any other kind.”
Overall, the campaign was a civil one for the most part, especially compared to previous years. Even External Affairs Minister Lester B. Pearson called Drew an honest and capable leader. Of course, there were some incidents, such as a man calling St. Laurent an old goat who should go back to Quebec, during a campaign stop in Edmonton.
When the Aug. 10, 1953, election arrived, the Liberals again won a majority but in the process lost 22 seats, finishing with 169. The Progressive Conservatives were able to rebound slightly, picking up 10 seats to finish with 51. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation gained 10 seats, finishing with 23, while the Social Credit Party picked up five seats to finish with 15.
The Liberals continued to dominate across the board when it came to provincial results. The party would win the majority of seats in every province, including picking up 66 seats in Quebec, while the Conservatives won four. In Ontario, the Liberals again did well, winning 50 seats to the 33 won by the Conservatives.
One odd incident would occur in Montreal when someone stole a ballot box, while another person attempted to impersonate another voter. Other than those incidents, it was an orderly election across the nation.
St. Laurent would say after his historic election win, quote:
“We shall continue to strive resolutely for peace and prosperity, and, with peace and prosperity, as the fundamental aims of the Liberal Party, which is to ensure to all Canadians, in every province, of every race and creed and class, and of all political parties, the closest possible approach to equality of opportunity and to a fair share of the bounties with which Providence has endowed our favored land.”
Upon his election loss, Drew would state, quote:
“I believe that democracy is not something to put on the shelf until the next election. We should continue the organization of our party, start in now keeping it alive.”
Questions would abound if Drew would step down as leader, but he would only say, quote:
“That is not a decision to be made by individuals but by the party. There will be an annual meeting of the party and decisions will be made by the party.”
By the time the next election rolled around in 1957, Drew would be out, replaced with a new man named Diefenbaker and it would be an election that would make history.
Information from Macleans, Wikipedia, Dynasties and Interludes,
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