Ontario’s Elections: The Mowat Years (1867 – 1894)

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The first general election in Ontario’s history was held on Sept. 3, 1867. The Conservative Party was led by John Sandfield Macdonald, while the Liberals were led by Archibald McKellar. Macdonald was a close friend of Sir John A. Macdonald, but despite the same last name they were not related.

As with the federal elections at the time, votes were recorded orally or with a show of hands and only 13 per cent of the population was eligible to vote. This was because to vote, a man had to be 21 years of age or older, and be a born or naturalized citizen. They had to own or co-own $100 of property in rural areas, or $200 in urban areas. In addition to that, they also had to have an annual income of $250. Anyone who was a judge, crown clerk, land office employee, tax and duty collector or even postal worker were not allowed to vote.

Voting in those days was a shady affair and bribes were common. Employers, clergy and community figures would hang around polling stations and bribe people with food and money.

The Conservatives and Liberals would both finish with 41 seats, although the Conservatives had a higher percentage of the popular vote. The Conservatives under Macdonald were invited to form a government, which they did with help of the 15 Independents who formed a coalition government with him. With the tied vote, the first government for Ontario was called the Patent Combination because it was a mix of two different parties.

The first election in Ontario’s history was a joyous affair by most accounts. The Kingston Whig-Standard wrote quote:

“At the close of the polls in Toronto, a grand procession took place the carriages covering nearly half a mile, headed by a bandwagon drawn by horses. Following this was an open carriage containing the successful candidates, who were loudly cheered as they passed along.”

There was some controversy, including $10,000 of government money being used to defeat McKellar in his own riding, which was not successful.

Over the next four years, Premier Macdonald would bring in several acts and changes to the new province of Ontario. Education aid was provided for the University of Toronto, the District of Muskoka was created to aid in colonization, and an act was created that provided land for homesteaders in the regions of Muskoka, Haliburton and North Hastings. The act also encouraged the extension of the railway into those areas. He would also work closely with the federal government and would build the bureaucratic infrastructure of the new province. His government would also establish colleges including Ryerson University and the University of Guelph.

Having a government that was a coalition, which could easily fall, forced the Conservatives to work with the Independents and the Liberals. Premier Macdonald would also be the first, and last, Roman Catholic Premier of Ontario until Dalton McGuinty in the 2000s.


As the 1871 election approached, Macdonald was deeply ill and many wondered how long he would remain in power. Against him was Edward Blake, who had come in to lead the Liberal Party in 1868 and was energetic and ready to fight to be premier.

You will recognize Edward Blake for the episode I did on Opposition Leaders who never became prime minister. He would become the leader of the Liberal Party from 1880 to 1887, and be the last official leader of the Liberal Party not to serve as Prime Minister until Stephane Dion in the 2000s.

Newspapers often took a pretty hard stance in favour of the party they supported. The Brantford newspaper would write of Blake, quote:

“With Edward Blake as leader of such a powerful band of supporters as he now has, the honor and credit of the province are safe.”

In the March 21, 1871 election, Blake and the Liberals gained two seats to finish with 43, while the Conservatives fell by three, to finish with 38. While the seat count had the Liberals winning, the election was considered to be inconclusive and the they did not have a clear majority.

Sandfield, despite his health, was determined to carry on and said he would meet the legislature even if he had to, quote:

“Be carried in on a blanket.”

He would then avoid calling the assembly into session. Once he did, he ignored votes of no-confidence and this would prompt Edward Blake to make a move to remove Macdonald from leadership.

The Liberals charged the Conservatives with irregularities in the election of six Conservatives. The Controverted Elections Act of 1871 would then be passed and took electoral irregularities out of committees in the legislature and gave it to the courts. This resulted in by-elections being called for December 1871.

By that month, Blake had mounted a successful attack through back-room maneuvers and a no-confidence motion that led the resignation of Macdonald and Blake becoming the new premier of the province.

While Blake was on his way to leading the province, Macdonald would be dead on June 1, 1872.


Over the previous four years, Edward Blake left provincial politics and moved on to the federal level. Replacing him in 1872 was Oliver Mowat, who would have an impact on Ontario for the rest of the century. Mowat had previously been a judge and many wondered about a judge resigning to lead a party. As it turned out, very well as Mowat would become the longest serving premier in the history of the province by a margin of 10 years.

The Conservatives were led by Matthew Crooks Cameron, who had been serving in the Legislative Assembly since 1867. He had been opposed to Confederation, instead wanting a Legislative Union. He would run in the federal election that same year, but was not elected. He would serve in the cabinet of Premier Macdonald after the first election and after Macdonald died, Cameron became the new leader of the party.

As usual, there were issues with the election and campaign. One man impersonated another voter and was released without charges. The Montreal Star reported quote:

“The man who attempted to personate a voter at the late election was given leg bail and is now probably enjoying the proceeds of his attempted fraud and having a laugh at the so called strict election law.”

A reward of $50 was put forward for the arrest and conviction of anyone who took part in bribery or intimidation during the election.

Various newspapers would also endorse Mowat, including in Brantford. The newspaper stated quote:

“The record of four years of Reform Government is before the country, and upon that record Mr. Mowat and his colleagues have come back to the people, to ask for an endorsement of their conduct and policy, a renewal of confidence in the administration.”

In Mowat’s first election, on Jan. 18, 1875, he would lead the Liberals to a majority government, finishing with 50 seats, an increase of seven. Cameron would see his party lose four seats, finishing with 34.

The Brantford newspaper would write quote:

“Mr. Mowat and his colleagues have received at the hands of the people a following which will enable them to carry on the work of the country with success, and not be hampered by a close majority in the business of legislation.”

With this election win, Mowat would spend the next 24 years as premier of Ontario, becoming one of the most influential premiers in Canadian history. He was also involved in the Great Coalition government of 1864, which would lead to the formation of Canada, making him a Father of Confederation.

At the time, Mowat was aided by the fact that the previous government had created a financial surplus, which Mowat would be able to use. His government would quickly get to work promoting railroad construction, investing in land drainage and building colonization roads to the frontiers of the province to encourage settlement.


In 1879, another election came along and while the Liberals were still led by Mowat, the Conservatives had a new man in charge, William Ralph Meredith. Meredith had been elected into the Legislature in 1872 and was seen as a radical by many members of his party. While he was against women’s rights, he had a progressive political policy when it came to the Indigenous and he was considered one of the best speakers in the country.

Even with his views, which were unusual for the time, he rose through the party to become deputy leader in 1878. When John Cameron retired in 1879, and with no formal ballot, he was given the leadership of the party.

For Mowat, he had a great deal of respect for Meredith, writing of him quote:

“There was no man in the ranks of the Opposition upon whom the choice could be more worthily have fallen. Always ready in debate and judicial in the tone of his arguments, he was a generous and formidable opponent.”

While Mowat had respect for Meredith, that didn’t stop him from doing everything he could to defeat him in the elections. The two men would face off in four elections, with 1879 being the first. One thing Mowat did was to steal many of the proposals put forward by Meredith. Journalist Hector Charlesworth would write quote:

“Mowat frequently rode to victory on policies that had originated with his brilliant opponent.”

When Meredith called for a reduction of salaries of reliable and efficient officials in the government, Mowat leapt on this and reduced the indemnity to $600.

Leading into the election, Mowat also formed an alliance with the Catholics in the province through consulting with the archbishop of Toronto, recruiting the Roman Catholic Christopher Fraser to his cabinet, and listening to the Catholic organization of The Orangemen. When the election came along, those Catholic voters would flock to Mowat and the Liberals.

The election came quite late, something for which Mowat was criticized. The Montreal Gazette would write quote:

“By a wrenching of the constitution from its legitimate meaning, Mr. Mowat succeeding in postponing the electoral trial until now, although the Legislature really expired in the month of February last.”

Usually, the election should have been taking place in January, but this time it came in June.

On June 5, 1879, Mowat would continue his domination of Ontario politics with a decisive win for his Liberal Party. The party would pick up 57 seats, an increase of seven, while the Conservatives finished with 29.

The Brantford newspaper would write quote:

“The victory is gratifying, as showing that men can appreciate and reward those who serve them faithfully and well, and it gives assurance that our future destinies are to be controlled by those who have shown their fitness for the important trust by years of patient toil and vigilance in our service.”


Mowat and Meredith would once again go head-to-head four years later in the 1883 election.

One year prior, an issue over the border between Ontario and Manitoba became a hotly contested issue with the federal government looking to extend Manitoba’s borders eastwards to the Great Lakes.

Mowat was firmly against this and threatened to pull Ontario out of Confederation over it. Mowat would send police to the disputed area, with Manitoba doing the same. It was not until the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Britain issued several rulings over the border dispute that things died down.

Mowat would also conduct some gerrymandering in 1882 to improve the chances for the Liberals to win the election the following year.

The Conservatives also condemned the government for denying Catholics their share of patronage appointments. Mowat was also be hurt by the fact that his government did not neutralize the Crooks Act. This Act, passed in 1876, limited the granting of licences to municipal councils for the sale of alcohol.

The Montreal Gazette reported quote:

“The friends of Mr. Mowat are busy endeavouring to excite the alarm of the temperance people by pretending that such legislation will relax the restrictions imposed by the Crooks Act upon the liquor traffic. Nothing could be further from the actual position of the question.”

At the same time, Meredith attempted to win over the Catholics to the Conservatives, hence attacking the Liberals over the patronage appointments. Unfortunately, the Catholics decided to stay with the Liberals for the time being.

When the writ was dropped, it would bring about one of the briefest elections in Ontario history. The writ was dropped on Feb. 3, 1883, nomination day was the 20th and the election was a week after that. The Montreal Gazette reported quote:

“The Ontario Legislature has been dissolved and the writs for the new elections issued, nomination day being fixed for 20th instant and polling a week later. The campaign is thus made as brief as the law will permit. The suddenness of the appeal to the country will, however, occasion no surprise. Both parties have been preparing for the event for some time past.”

Mowat launched his campaign in January of 1883 with a huge convention in Toronto. He would present the case that it was a moment of crisis for Ontario and that the work the Liberals and Reformers had fought for over the course of 50 years was in danger of being destroyed by the federal government. He would tell the 6,000 delegates quote:

“The great evil we supposed had been corrected by the Confederate Act is rife and no we are no more free than before, as much under the heel of others as when this complaint was first made. Are the men of Ontario no less faithful in devotion to liberty than their fathers were? Or may Sir John A. Macdonald succeed where Sir Charles Metcalfe failed?”

In the Feb 27, 1883 election, the only one ever to be held in February, would see support for Mowat take a dip for the first time. Mowat and the Liberals lost nine seats in the Legislature, falling to 48 seats, while the Conservatives increased by eight to 37.

With a smaller majority, many saw this as the beginning of the end for Mowat. The Toronto Mail would report quote:

“Ontario has not decided as definitely as we had hoped that Mr. Mowat must go, but his going or staying is still a matter of reasonable doubt and may remain so till the meeting of the Legislature. Ontario has not overturned Mr. Mowat with decisive indignation but she has given him a most terrible warning.”


Mowat and Meredith would go head-to-head once again in 1886. The main issue during the election was the issue of prohibition. While Mowat did not seem interested in enacting prohibition, that view did not hurt him because of his own legendary status within the province and the fact he did not drink, or drank very little.

There were rumours in some papers that the government was sending people to tell tavern-keepers that if they did not support the local government candidate, they would lose their licence to sell liquor.

The Ottawa Daily Citizen reported quote:

“It is a notorious fact that many of the men employed by the Government have acted in the past as political agents…Is it not time that this tyranny was crushed?”

In 1885, the Workmen’s Compensation Bill was introduced by Meredith, which the Liberals then incorporated into one of their own bills with changes that Meredith objected to because he found it accommodated too much to employers. Nonetheless, the bill helped raise the popularity of the Liberals in the province.

The Liberals had once again stolen the proposals of the Conservatives to boost their own profile, but Meredith would not entice rural voters with his platform. Often he barely focused on rural voters, instead focusing on urban voters. In 1886, during the campaign, he would claim that it was unjust to give voting privileges to the sons of farmers, while at the same time denying the same to urban labourers. While this was a logical belief, it hurt him heavily in rural areas. At the time, Ontario was mostly rural, and Meredith’s view would essentially prevent him from being elected in the province as premier.

Mowat would also bring up the issue of separate schools in order to inflame controversy and push voters to his side. The hope was to bring Catholics to his side by giving the impression that their separate schools were in danger.

The Hamilton Spectator would respond to this with quote:

“Mr. Mowat is at a great deal of pains to discuss matters which are not in controversy. Separate schools are established by the British North America Act, and no power or privilege in respect to them enjoyed at the time of Confederation can be taken away so long as the British North America Act remains unchanged. Mr. Mowat has not changed with responsibility for that act, nor for separate school legislation which preceded it.”

Throughout the election campaign, Sir John A. Macdonald travelled through Ontario campaigning for Meredith and the Conservatives. The Victoria Daily Times reported quote:

“Everywhere he is being received with the greatest enthusiasm. His health is keeping good, and he is in remarkably good fighting trim for the stump. It is believed that he is feeling the pulse of Ontario, which now will be the battle ground between the Conservatives and the Liberals.”

This election was an odd one in that it used the Limited Vote System, where Toronto voters had two votes to vote for three Members of the Provincial Parliament, to allow for a degree of minority representation.

In the Dec. 28, 1886 election, Mowat and the Liberals increased their seat count by nine, to finish with 57. The Conservatives would fall five seats, to finish with 32.

The Manitoba Weekly Free Press reported quote:

“At the time of writing the returns show that Mr. Mowat has secured a wonderful victory. The patriotic government of Mr. Mowat has not only preserved its hold upon the affections and admiration of the people of Ontario, but has almost doubled its majority. This is a grand victory which must thrill the bosom, not only of every Liberal, but of every Canadian, with glowing pride.”


As 1890 came along, Oliver Mowat continued to dominate provincial politics as he had for almost 20 years.

Within the Legislature, the number of seats had increased to 90 with the creation of the new riding of Nipissing in 1889. Once again, the election was also run through the limited voting system, giving two votes to a Toronto voter for three MPPs in the district.

The main issue during this election, and elsewhere in Canada as the Manitoba Schools Question became a national issue, was the segregation of schools for Catholic and Protestant students. The Liberal Party of Canada would support segregation, while the Conservatives opposed it. It would become such a major issue that it would cause the downfall of the Conservatives and the beginning of a Liberal Dynasty in 1896.

The Crooks Act would again be an issue in this election, as Mowat had amended the Act prior to the election to introduce a local option that made it similar to the Scott Act the federal government passed. That Act put the issue of prohibition into the hands of municipalities, which could ban alcohol if they wished.

The Kingston Weekly British Whig reported quote:

“The Montreal Witness thinks the action of the Mowat government on the Scott Act will be a source of weakness to it in a general election.”

Since Mowat had been in power for so long, several newspapers would attack him and his party for what they saw as growing corruption. The Owen Sound Times reported quote:

“Mr. Mowat, has at least three times, passed laws to protect his partisan friends from the penalties for violation of the law. He sacrificed 5,000 acres of timber lands at a loss to the province of $2.6 million to benefit a lot of greedy foreign capitalists. He rejected plans made by Canadian architects for good legislative buildings which would cost $600,000 and then employed a foreign architect to put up inferior buildings, which will cost $2 million.”

Other newspapers, like the one in Brantford, took a different view of Mowat, stating quote:

“Not a breath of corruption or mismanagement has tainted the record of Mr. Mowat and his colleagues during the long period of 18 years, in which they have been at the helm.”

Meredith would attack Mowat for taking the policies of the Conservatives and making them Liberal Acts. The Hamilton Spectator reported quote:

“Referring to the acts for which Mr. Mowat and his friends take credit, Mr. Meredith pointed out that in these things, the present government had merely carried out the plans prepared and partly executed by Sandfield Macdonald.”

He would also take on the question of schools, stating that the Conservatives were friends to Catholics and French Canadians. He would say in a speech in Toronto quote:

“I recognize that our French Canadian fellow citizens are loyal to this great Dominion and to the Motherland. I am willing to testify to the services they have rendered to Canada and to the Motherland in the preservation of this glorious Canada as one of the dependencies of the Motherland. I am willing to recognize the beauties of the French language, as one of the most beautiful languages on the face of the Earth.”

Newspapers in support of Mowat would then attack Meredith as anti-Catholic. The Kingston British Whig reported quote:

“In 1883, Mr. Meredith tried to beat Mowat by telling the Catholics that they would never get justice until he was in power. Now he intimates that he has one mission to perform and that it is to suppress the Catholic church and the separate schools.”

Once again, rumours of influencing election results were rampant against the government.  The Manitoba Weekly Free Press reported that workers with the GTR Southern Division Road were told they had to vote for Mowat on pain of being dismissed.

Charles Stiff, superintendent with the company would state according to the Free Press quote:

“He said they were not true but admitted the company had sent two inspectors to state verbally to agents that it would be in the interest of the road to have the Mowat Government sustained inasmuch as it had always treated the company with great fairness.”

In the June 5, 1890 election, the Liberals lost four seats to finish with 53, but this was still more than enough for a majority over the Conservatives, who gained two seats to finish with 34.

The Winnipeg Tribune reported quote:

“As was generally predicted, the Mowat administration has been sustained. There is no disguising the fact that the Conservatives are completely non-plussed and the Equal Righters are knocked silly so to speak. Even the most ardent Liberals scarcely hoped that Mr. Mowat would be sustained by a majority as large as he had in the last house. Their surprise and gratification knew no bounds, therefore, when the returns pouring in from all quarters show that the little premier was going to have a larger majority than in past years.”


Four years later, the two leaders would go against each other once again with a slightly different result.

In the 1894 election, the main issues in the province were French Language schools, once again stemming from the Manitoba Schools Question, farmer interests, supporting Toronto businesses, women’s suffrage and the demands of labour unions. The temperance movement was also gaining in strength at this time.

The Patrons of Industry, a political movement formed by farmers in 1890, would work with the urban labour movement to address the frustrations of both groups against big business. The Patrons of Industry would have several members of both the Liberals and Conservatives running under a joint banner.

The Protestant Protective Association was another political movement. Associated with the Orange Order, the PPA was heavily anti-Catholic and was against the rights of Catholics and French-Canadians believing they were attempting to take over Ontario. Like the Patrons of Industry, several Conservatives and Liberals ran under the PPA banner.

All of this was giving Mowat the feeling of being boxed in. What was called the agrarian crisis was weakening the traditional voter base for the Liberals at the time, but both parties would suffer from this. Issues such as prohibition, the rural resentment of the National Policy of the federal Conservatives, and hostility towards separate schools all sprang up as major issues.

Even with the issues, and the fact that Mowat had been leading Ontario for 22 years, there was still a lot of support for him. The Kingston Whig-Standard reported quote:

“After 22 years of faithful service to the people, the Mowat government is appealing for a renewal of the lease of power it has so wisely exercised. As a faithful servant is judged by his record, so the government of Sir Oliver Mowat appeals confidently on its splendid record in every department of the public service it controls.”

The Legislature had also increased with the number of seats increasing from 91 to 94, thanks to new ridings in Toronto, Hamilton and Ottawa.

In the June 26, 1894, the Liberals lost eight seats but still formed a majority government due to the Conservatives losing nine seats. Both main parties lost seats due to the influence of the PPA and Patrons of Industry. The Liberal-Patrons of Industries won 12 seats, while the Conservative-PPA won five seats. The Patrons of Industry would also win five seats, while the Conservative-Patrons won two seats and the Liberal-PPA won two seats. All of this together caused the two main parties to suffer significant losses.

The Winnipeg Tribune reported quote:

“Upon the administrative side, humanly speaking, it was simply invulnerable and the people renewed their expression of confidence in it. They took the plain, common sense, business like view that the maintenance of Sir Oliver Mowat and his colleagues was the only safe course to pursue.”

This election was significant for another reason, which I will go into in the next episode.

Both Meredith and Mowat, who had gone head-to-head so many times in the past elections, would no longer be leading their parties by the time the next election rolled around.

Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Ottawa Daily Citizen, Wikipedia, Brantford Expositor, Ontario Legislative Assembly, Elections Ontario, Montreal Star, Montreal Gazette, Kingston British Whig, Hamilton Spectator, Winnipeg Free Press, Winnipeg Tribune, Owen Sound Times,  

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