The 1898 election would bring about monumental changes in Ontario politics, but not in terms of what party was ruling. Sir Oliver Mowat had moved on to federal politics after Sir Wilfrid Laurier took office as the Liberal Prime Minister in 1896. After serving as the premier of Ontario for 24 years, he became the federal Minister of Justice. In 1897, he would become the eighth Lt. Governor of Ontario, allowing him to watch the results of the election, without any worry of being elected or not. William Ralph Meredith was also out as the leader of the Conservatives. He had first taken over the party in 1878, and served until 1894 when he retired from politics and became the Chief Justice of the Common Pleas.
The Liberals were now led by Arthur Hardy, who had been serving in the Legislature since 1873 and had served in the cabinet of Mowat since 1877.
As the new premier of Ontario in 1896, Hardy’s government would bring in a controversial policy in December 1897, which was an amendment to the Crown Timber Act, which required all pine cut under licence on Crown Land after April 30, 1898, to be sawn into lumber in Canada. While this amendment was popular among many residents who did not like American companies taking Canadian timber, the Americans and even the federal government would put heavy pressure on the Ontario government to change course. The American Secretary of State would even speak with the British Ambassador in Washington over it. Sir Wilfrid Laurier would deflect all pressure to Hardy, stating that the province could do as it pleased.
Heading into the election, he campaigned on the fact that the Liberals had led Ontario for 26 years of what he called quote:
“progressive legislation and honest administration.”
He hoped to bring back rural farmers who had started to migrate away from the party, and the Catholics that were starting to weaken in their favour of the Liberals.
James Whitney was now the leader of the Conservatives, having come into office in 1888. A former soldier in the Canadian militia, he would see success in the election campaign leading up to the election.
Whitney would move to strengthen his base by reaching out to the Catholics. One way he did this was by appointing James Joseph Foy as the party’s flag bearer. Foy was a prominent Catholic lawyer. With Foy on his side, Whitney was able to convince Catholics that the days of anti-Catholicism were over, even if there never was much anti-Catholicism in the province during the days of Mowat.
Hardy would travel throughout Ontario to drum up votes for his party. At one point, he spoke at Windsor Opera House, which was well attended. The Windsor Star wrote quote:
“Long before the hour for opening the public meeting in the Opera House arrived, every seat was occupied and before the meeting had progressed very far, a large number could not find seats. Among the audience were many ladies who were given seats near the platform.”
At the Russell Theatre in Ottawa on Feb. 18, Hardy was met with another strong reception. The Ottawa Journal reported quote:
“The Hardy reception in the Russell Theatre last night was one of the most orderly and yet enthusiastic ever held here. Those who had misgivings that the crowd would do as many political audiences do, disfigure the floors, were agreeably surprised at the thoroughly representative orderly and intelligent audience present.”
Throughout the campaign, Whitney was confident in success in the election. He would say on Feb. 14, quote:
“We are confident and certain of winning. The meetings are well attended and are very enthusiastic. I will not specialize and give reports on the different ridings but everything augurs well for success.”
Whitney would also attack Hardy, charging him with falsehood and cowardice. He would state quote:
“He is coward enough and I want these words of mine to go through the length and breadth of this land.”
Lies would appear in several papers. The Toronto World would push the belief that American lumbermen supported Hardy. It would be stated in the Kingston Whig Standard quote:
“The Toronto World has started the fiction, on the authority of a Michigan agent, expressed through a Hamilton man, that the American lumbermen have subscribed $200,000 with which to help Hardy carry the election. That is a lie, barefaced, wicked, malicious and the people who put it in circulation know that it is a lie.”
On the March 1, 1898 election, the Liberals did gain six seats to finish with 51, but the Conservatives surged ahead with 19 more seats to finish with 42. Despite this, the Liberals still had a clear majority in the Legislature. The Patrons of Industry and Protestant Protective Association lost nearly all their support and finished with no seats after having success in the previous election.
The Montreal Gazette wrote quote:
“The Ontario government had a narrow escape from defeat today. Mr. Whitney has proved that he put up one of the best fights the province ever witness in a provincial campaign.”
The Toronto Globe reported quote:
“The results of the election creates a somewhat critical state of affairs. The government is sustained by a small majority but it is useless to ignore the fact that it suffered severely because of the length period during which it held power. The cry it is time for a change, however, unreasonable as it may have been, had more potency than we imagined.”
Due to the result being close and several races needing recounts, competing papers would claim victory for the party they supported. The Toronto Globe declared that Hardy was the victor with a clear majority, while opposition papers in places such as Parry Sound stated that Whitney had the majority
After the election, Hardy wanted to call another election almost immediately but his ministers would talk him out of this. As for the Conservatives, since they had come so close to winning, decided that with more money, they would win the next election. Whitney would begin launching election protests in the hope of pushing the Liberals to call an election.
Hardy would be out of politics in 1899 due to ill health and needing money. Two years later, he was dead from appendicitis.
For Whitney and the Conservatives, their time would soon come to lead the province.
As the 1902 election arrived, the Liberals were now led by a different man, and the number of electoral districts had expanded from 93 to 97 with changes to districts. Ottawa was also allowed to elect two members, which meant that there would be 98 MLAs in the Ontario Legislature.
Sir George William Ross would lead the Liberals. He had been elected to the House of Commons in 1872, serving for a decade. In 1883, he was elected to the Ontario Legislature, where he became the Minister of Education and oversaw the transformation of mechanics’ institutes into 300 public libraries, while also expanding the kindergarten system and the university system of the province.
Chosen to lead the Liberals, Ross was called the Father of New Ontario when he became premier on Oct. 21, 1899. Over the next three years, he would promote the development of the natural resources of Ontario, he put a bounty on the refining of nickel and he established a new railway through the northern part of the province.
James Whitney was again leading the Conservatives and he would see his fortunes begin to reverse from the previous election.
Ross would campaign on the accomplishments of the past for the Liberal Party. At one point he stated quote:
“The policy of the government was by legitimate, mild, yet effective and sound methods to add to the revenue of the country.”
Newspapers like the Ottawa Citizen campaigned for the Liberals, stating that Ross meant prosperity for the province. The newspaper would write quote:
“Ross, Pense and Prosperity are the trinity of good things that the Liberals have to offer in the pending election.”
It would then mock the claims of victory put forward by the Conservatives in past elections, stating quote:
“Victory is in the air. That’s just where the Tory victories of 1898 were, in the air, and it is where, the victory will remain in 1902. The father of the family remembers Ross every time he sees a school book. He does this out of gratitude for the cost of books have been greatly reduced in the past 25 years.”
The Brantford newspaper would report that the Liberals were receiving better responses to their rallies in the province. It would state quote:
“The Liberal left no stone unturned today in their efforts to outdo the fine demonstration of yesterday and they succeeded in making a display. The premier was loudly cheered when called on to speak. He thought that this meeting was sufficient proof that it was no time for a change. This meeting in numbers and the reception in the afternoon in enthusiasm exceeded any he had experienced.”
Henry Smith, a former Liberal MP, would state quote:
“I sat in the House of Commons with George W Ross, present premier of Ontario, where he represented West Middlesex in the house, and I recognize in him a man of marvelous ability and industry.”
On May 29, 1902, the Liberals would once again win a majority, the party’s ninth consecutive, but this time they lost a seat to finish with 50. The Conservatives, in contrast, continued to rise and finished with 48 seats, only two away from tying the Liberals.
Due to the fact that it was so close, most newspapers couldn’t report on who had won the election the day after. The Halifax Herald reported quote:
“The news of the Ontario elections received up to the present writing indicate that the contest has been a close one, and leave in doubt the final result…it may not be possible for even a day or two after the election to say, with certainty, which side is actually ahead.”
Finally, the results came in and the newspapers, the ones that supported Ross and the Liberals, launched into praise of the government on its victory. One newspaper stated in bold letters quote:
“Ontario continues true to her old allegiance.”
Ross had received the returns in his office in the Parliament buildings, where he was joined by Members of Parliament from Ottawa and members of his family.
The Brantford newspaper reported quote:
“It is delightful to think that the province on the whole has endorsed the policy of building up Ontario. No one can be more gratified than I that the electors did not fail to remember Ross, and, as far as in me lies, I shall not forget to remember their best interests.”
Ross would state quote:
“I am not able to say just now what circumstances weighed most with the electors in casting their votes. I can simply thank my supporters all over the province and the candidates elected, as well as those defeated, for the splendid fight they put up against misrepresentation by the Conservative party and by their organ.”
One thing was clear, the areas the Liberals had carried for years before were now being carried by the Conservatives.
Whether the Liberals knew it or not, the writing was on the wall.
After the Liberals had led Ontario for 34 years, the writing was on the wall over the past election. Even though Ross had made several changes to Ontario during his time as premier, he could not stem the changing tide. His party was also dealing with several controversies including a vote buying scandal, demands within his own party for prohibition to be enacted, the support of the government in propping up Francis Hector Clergue and his failing industrial businesses, and the reluctance to support public ownership of electricity generation.
Prohibition was a major issue for the election. After Manitoba began moving towards prohibition, people in Ontario wanted to do the same. In 1902, Ross and his government passed legislation that would allow for prohibition if it was favoured by a number equal to the majority of those voting in the 1898 election. A referendum was held on Dec. 4, 1902 and the votes fell short. Ross then declined to take any further action, which angered prohibitionists.
Other scandals came along showing that Liberal organizers had exchanged support for the government in exchange for money and patronage in ridings. The aforementioned Francis Clergue issue was related to a 1903 by-election in which the Liberal victor was aided by Clergue in getting elected through the use of a company steamship to transport 20 men to vote under the names of dead or absent men.
The Ottawa Citizen wrote quote:
“Having failed in recent elections to retain power by the favor of the people it has had recourse to corrupt means to maintain itself, and as its condition has become more desperate the worse has become the corruption.”
In the hope of revitalizing his party, Ross shuffled the cabinet and then called for a Liberal convention in late 1904. He then set an election for January 1905.
Liberal candidates would do their best to downplay the scandals during the election. At a rally held at the Ward Market Hall in Ottawa, Edward Devlin stated, according to the Ottawa Journal, quote:
“He defended the action of the Ross government against the attacks of the Conservatives, and assured his hearers that Whitney and his party only cared to gain power and their cry of corruption was only a hypocritical one.”
The Conservatives jumped on the Liberal controversies. Under the banner of exposing Liberal corruption, Whitney hit the ground running to defeat the Liberals.
The Windsor Star, which supported the Conservatives, wrote quote:
“Mr. Whitney stands for clean government, Mr. Ross stands for government at any cost. Mr. Whitney desires clean elections. Mr. Ross has accepted the fruits of the stolen elections. Mr. Whitney has broken no pledge. Mr. Ross has broken the record as a pledge breaker and as he himself put it, he was delighted, when the Liberal Convention helped him to crawl out of his prohibition obligations.”
Conversely, the Kingston Whig-Standard wrote in support of Ross quote:
“Mr. Whitney has no policy but he asks the people to just give him a chance and see what he will do. Whitney’s own forecast of the election next week is something like this. Tories elected 96, Grits elected 0.”
Whitney would court the temperance vote heavily in the election. During one speech in Cornwall, he stated that when he stayed at hotels, he always stayed away from the bars.
The policy his party would take was to reduce the number of licences, removing those in charge of issuing licences at the time, and enforcing local liquor laws. The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:
“That position was endorsed by many men of high standing who were known publicly to be interested in the abolition of the liquor traffic.”
When the Jan. 25, 1905 election came along, the Conservatives were able to increase their seat count by 21, finishing with 69 seats. This made James Whitney the new premier of the province, while Ross and the Liberals saw the party seat count fall by 22, giving the Conservatives a majority. Among the Liberals, five cabinet ministers lost their seats.
The Toronto Mail and Empire would write of the election result quote:
“All the strong men on the government side, with the exception of Mr. Ross, have disappeared and there remains an opposition composed of politicians representing the least desirable elements in our public life.”
The Ottawa Journal wrote of the election result, quote:
“Mr. Whitney has it now in his power to build up a truly patriotic party, guided with a single eye to the best interests of the province and to the conservation of the rights and privileges of the people and the confidence of the people that he will do this will if he is true to himself be amply justified.”
Whitney would say of the election in a wire, quote:
“In the immediate presence of the great political upheaval in the province today, I can have but little to say. All must acknowledge the serious meaning of this emphatic expression of the people’s will. I fully and gladly appreciate the fact that the Liberals in large numbers joined in that expression.”
Ross received the returns of the election in his office in the Parliament Buildings surrounded by friends and colleagues. By the time it was confirmed he was defeated, he was sitting alone in his office.
Samuel Hume Blake, a lifelong temperance supporter and the brother of former premier Edward Blake, would write to Whitney and state quote:
“All honest men in the Dominion should join in thanking you for the verdict reached yesterday at the bar of public opinion of an outraged province, unanimous in the head centre of Toronto, which found the indicted criminals in high places guilty of treason against our Commonwealth.”
This was the first time that the Conservatives formed a government since they won the first election in Ontario’s history in 1867. This win also began a Conservative dynasty that dominated provincial politics for the next 80 years. From 1905 to 1985, the Conservatives would only lose three elections.
In 1908, the Legislative Assembly increased to 106 MLAs as boundary lines changed. The Conservatives, still led by James Whitney, were looking to form another government, while the Liberals were now led by Alexander Grant MacKay. MacKay had served as the Commissioner of Crown Lands under Premier Ross until 1905. In 1907, he became the new leader of the party.
Whitney, looking to gain a second term, campaigned on his government having a clean record. He would say quote:
“We have abolished the abuses under the Ross government. We have fulfilled our promises except as to law reform, which will be our next work. Judge us on that.”
When he launched his campaign in early May, he would state quote:
“We promised to cheapen school books. We promised a change in the licence system. We promised to bring about law reform. We have done every one of those things, excepting the last one, and we have laid the foundation for that law reform, so that it will be carried out at the next session.”
Unlike the last election, Whitney stayed in Toronto to campaign for the most part, only delivering five speeches outside the city during the election campaign.
MacKay campaigned on the Liberal party being a new beast than it was a few years ago, and the scandals of the day. He would say at one rally in Waterloo just before the election, quote:
“Now just a word by way of contrasting today with three and a half years ago. You will recollect that our good Conservative friends had proven some things which could not be defended…I have to ask now, after four sessions have passed and after reviewing the work of the Liberals for 35 years, have our friends been able to show anything wrong? That one dollar was misappropriated or misapplied?”
The June 8, 1908 election would see the Conservatives win 86 seats, the most ever won by a party in the province to that point. It would not be until 1929 that that total would be beat. The Liberals would lose nine seats, falling to 19. Since 1867, the Liberals had never won less than 41 seats, which they did in that first election.
Of note in the election was that Allan Studholme would become the first Labour Member of the Legislature in the province’s history.
While MacKay saw his party lose seats, there was still praise for him in the newspapers. The Winnipeg Free Press Prairie Farmer wrote quote:
“The Liberal party is in better shape as a whole, as a result of the election. Mr. MacKay took up the work with shattered and disorganized forces and by his energy and undoubted gifts as leader and organizer, put the party into fighting trim once and made a fine as a campaign as the province has ever seen. He has alienated no one and when the next battle comes to be fought there will be a different story to tell.”
MacKay would say quote:
“In several ridings where Liberals considered the battle a fairly even one the Conservative majorities were large. What accounts for this, I have no opportunity at present of judging.”
As it turned out, MacKay would not even be in the province when the next election came along.
In the years since the last election, the Whitney government had brought in a number of changes including eliminating the numbered ballot, establishing agricultural schools, while promoting the province’s mining industry. The province had also invested heavily in the settlement of western and northern Ontario. In 1910 alone, the province spent $582,000 on colonization roads, amounting to about $16 million today.
Whitney would say in a speech to supporters quote:
“The mining laws have been revised and we brought a man from Northern Ontario, who knew all about the country, to supervise that department.”
The Conservatives had also imposed a tax on railways and ended tax subsidies to them.
Whitney would say of the Conservatives work in previous years quote:
“We have merely endeavored to see our duty and when we saw our duty we went ahead to do it in a businesslike way. That is all.”
While teachers were scarce at the time in rural schools, Whitney would promise to bring in more teachers and to keep them in the province. He would say during one rally in Brantford quote:
“We are preparing a regulation by which every teacher will have to teach a year in Ontario before getting a certificate. My own opinion in favour of compelling them to teach here for two years, but I had to give way. I am not sure yet that I was right.”
Electricity was spreading throughout the province and the Whitney government put down its commitment to bringing in hydro-electricity to remote areas of northern and western Ontario. The area of Northern Ontario was called New Ontario at the time and settlement of it was of paramount importance for the government.
Whitney would say quote:
“The question of the further opening up and development of New or Northern Ontario is obviously of great importance and should be dealt with without delay.”
The election was called soon after Robert Borden and the Conservatives had defeated Sir Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals on the federal level. It was believed by Whitney that he could take advantage of that by calling an election and hopefully continuing the Conservatives run of victories in the province.
When the writ was dropped for the 1911 election, the previous Liberal leader, MacKay suddenly resigned his seat in the Legislature. He would move to Edmonton where he was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1913, serving until 1920 when he died of the Spanish Flu at the Edmonton General Hospital.
His replacement, a man who had nearly no time to prepare, was Newton Rowell. Oddly, he was not a member of the Legislature but had spent much of 1911 campaigning for Sir Wilfrid Laurier in the 1911 federal election. After that election was over, and Laurier was ousted as prime minister, Rowell was chosen to lead the Ontario Liberal Party.
The Ottawa Citizen reported quote:
“In this campaign, Mr. Rowell stands out as one of the best political speakers that this country knows. He brings no cheap clap-trap to his aid. He has no funny stories to tell. And yet he is able to hold the closest attention of his hearers and draw from them spontaneous rounds of applause. He impresses one with his deep sincerity and earnestness. When he declares that he did not covet the position of Liberal leader, no one can doubt his sincerity.”
Rowell would open his campaign at Massey Hall in Toronto on Nov. 14, 1911. He would immediately criticize Whitney for calling an election prematurely. He would state quote:
“The tendency of every government which has behind it an overwhelming majority is to become domineering, overbearing and insolent in reference to the rights of the minority.”
Rowell would attack Whitney and the Conservatives extensively over taxation reform, the needs of settlers and education in rural areas. At one rally in Brantford, Rowell stated that one could go to any part of the province and they would find the greatest dissatisfaction existed over the educational affairs, especially bilingual schools. He would state quote:
“If Sir James is ignorant of present conditions with regard to bilingual schools, then there must be incompetency in management of our educational affairs more than we had even expected.”
The Owen Sound Times would attack Rowell, stating that the things his party recommended were things that Whitney government had already done, or would do.
The newspaper wrote quote:
“There is irony in the circumstance that the Premier manifesto is paragraph by paragraph a complete answer to the statement afterwards issued by the new Liberal leader Mr. Rowell. The railway and immigration policy advocated by Mr. Rowell is on the road to accomplishment. The same may be said of the educational measure advocated and those affected by electrical development.”
In the December 11, 1911 election, Whitney and the Conservatives won their third straight election but it was not as much of a landslide as before. This time, the party lost four seats, while the Liberals picked up three to finish with 22. The 82 seats won by the Conservatives was more than enough to win another majority. Studholme, the only member of the Labour Party, retained his seat.
Mackay would be elected in the election, becoming not only a first-time MLA but the Leader of the Opposition.
Whitney would say of his election victory, quote:
“At this moment, it is difficult for me to choose proper language in which to express the heartfelt appreciation of my colleagues and myself and our thanks for this magnificent endorsement by the people of Ontario of the course pursued by us.”
Before the 1914 election, the Ontario Legislature increased its number of seats to 111. The Conservatives were still led by Whitney, who was looking to win his fourth straight election, something that had not been done since Oliver Mowat achieved it in 1886. Rowell, despite coming in at short notice as leader, proved to be an able leader for the Liberals and remained leader into the 1914 election.
Rowell had spent the previous three years reorganizing the Liberal Party that had been shattered over the past few elections.
In the election campaign, he would criticize Whitney for Regulation 17, which limited the teaching of French in schools, and the new workmen’s compensation act. Prior to 1910, the worker was required to prove negligence on the part of the employer, but the act would change that. It was widely hated by companies who called it socialist legislation.
His party would campaign on the slogan of Abolish the Bar to take advantage of the growing temperance movement. He would declare that the election was a battle between the organized Christianity of the Liberals and the organized liquor interests of the Conservatives.
This was taken up by William Lyon Mackenzie King, who stated quote:
“There is one enemy in the line of social and moral reform and that is the open bar, which ruins man by leading him on to alcoholic excess. What is the good of education if you put alongside the boy the temptation of the open bar.”
At a speech in Kingston, Rowell would say quote:
“We promise, if returned to power, at the very next session of the legislature, to pass legislation completely wiping out all hotel and club licences in this province and that no shop license will be permitted to issue to replace any hotel or club licence is wiped out.”
Rowell also campaigned on giving some women the vote and to create a committee to investigate and provide a solution to the movement of farmers to the city.
Various newspapers would praise Rowell. The Winnipeg Free Press Prairie Farmer wrote quote:
“A remarkable feature of the present Ontario provincial election campaign which ends with a general election on Monday June 29 is that the outstanding personality seems to be the leader of the opposition, Mr. N.W. Rowell. Men everywhere are discussing not the premier of the province but the champion of the Liberal forces and his policies of abolish-the-bar, tax reform, etc.”
For Whitney, the year 1914 had been a difficult one for him. He had moved his office to the Toronto General Hospital building in January after he was struck by a heart attack late in 1913. His health was poor throughout the year and he was not able to table his workers compensation act because of his poor health. During the election, he could only appear at one public meeting, which was held at Massey Hall in Toronto.
The Windsor Star reported quote:
“Sir James Whitney has been able to make only one appearance on the public platform, which was in Toronto on Tuesday night. The condition of his health prevented him from touring the province, which would have helped the government candidates materially.”
This was in sharp contrast to Rowell, who campaigned heavily throughout the province. The article continues quote:
“Mr. Rowell on the other hand, has been conducting meetings in various parts of the province and has waged a most aggressive campaign.”
The new Ontario Election Act also carried stiffer fines for elections in the province. Under the new law, anyone who was found guilty of bribery in the election would be imprisoned for six months, while also paying a $200 fine. The same applied to candidates who treated anyone to refreshments, costing them $200 and voiding any election result.
On June 29, 1914, the election was held with the Conservatives gaining one seat. The Liberals also gained two seats, finishing with 24. This gave the Conservatives another majority government. Studholme, once again the only Labour member in the Legislature, was once again re-elected.
The St. Catherine’s Standard wrote of the election quote:
“The feverish campaign of the Liberal leader himself, the clamor of the party press, and the fulminations from the pulpits of those clergymen who fell for the cry of Abolish The Bar, added but a handful of members to the corporal’s guard of Liberals in the Legislature for the past decade. The common sense of the electors and their gratitude for the stainless administration and progressive legislation of the present government remained unshaken.”
Only a few months later on September 25, 1914, Whitney died in Toronto. After nine years, Ontario would have a new premier.
After the death of Whitney so soon after the last election, the role of premier fell on William Howard Hearst. Under Hearst, Ontario would go through many changes over the course of the next five years, even as the country was dealing with the First World War.
Hearst’s government would provide compensation for workers that were injured, provide loans to new settlers, pass new municipal acts, create agricultural schools, begin fire prevention services and reforestation of various forest lands. Hearst was a supporter of the temperance movement but the base of his party were the alcohol producers and barkeepers so he had to walk a thin line. He would do this by creating the Board of License Commissioners in 1915, which would distribute licenses for any business looking to sell alcohol.
In 1916, the Ontario Temperance Act was introduced as a wartime measure, which made the possession of liquor or beer outside of a person’s home illegal. As a result of this, bars, taverns, clubs and liquor stores were shut down. It was decided that to save money, voters would also vote on a referendum on prohibition when they vote for the party to lead the province. The referendum result would be in favour of prohibition in the province.
Prohibitionists were very active in the election, with one report of 4,500 in Toronto alone canvassing and working in connection with the referendum.
Women’s suffrage was growing in popularity across Canada and between 1916 and 1917, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba all gave the vote to women. Hearst opposed women’s suffrage but due to mounting pressure, he would change his opinion and in 1917, Ontario became the fifth province to permit women to vote. His government was the first Conservative government to give women the vote.
The Winnipeg Tribune wrote of Hearst quote:
“Ontario has had, in Sir William Hearst, a premier generally regarded, and rightly so, we believe, as a man of personal integrity but he is an old-time party man and, as such, is bound to follow many of the old objectionable party customs.”
The next election was supposed to be held in March of 1918 but Hearst, along with new Liberal leader William Proudfoot, both agreed to extend the existing provincial government until the forces returned from the war in 1919.
Journalist John Wilson would say quote:
“There could not have been a worse time for a general election.”
The decision by Proudfoot to delay the election with Hearst would cost him his position as leader. In the 1919 Liberal Convention, 95 per cent of members voted their disapproval of Proudfoot. In the June 26, 1919 leadership election, Proudfoot finished in fourth place on the first ballot, losing to Harley Dewart.
As the election approached, the first in the province in which women could vote, the new United Farmers of Ontario came onto the scene. The organization was formed in 1914 and by 1917, it had 350 local clubs and 12,000 members thanks to its call to nationalize railways, provide progressive taxation and legislate the operation of co-operatives. By the time the 1919 election came along, the organization had 50,000 members. Many farmers felt betrayed by the federal Conservative government of Sir Robert Borden who went back on a promise to exempt farm labourers from conscription. Hearst supported this, and that would cost him dearly in the election.
The Liberals were badly divided over the conscription crisis, just as the federal Liberals were.
In the election campaign, only the Conservatives ran with a full slate of candidates, while the United Farmers of Ontario only ran in rural ridings. The Liberals would attempt to avoid running in ridings where the United Farmer candidates were located.
Heading into the election, many were saying it would be one for the ages. The Regina Leader wrote quote:
“The present election contest is the most remarkable in Ontario’s history. Instead of a straight fight between the two old parties, with an occasional Independent or Labour candidate in the field, the present contest finds no less than six separate parties with candidates in the field.”
The hope of the United Farmers was that they could form the Official Opposition and then work with the Labour Party to have a majority in the Legislature.
The same Leader story continued quote:
“The general impression, however, seems to be that the Conservative Hearst Government will carry the largest number of seats obtained by any one party, but doubt is expressed whether it will succeed in winning a majority of the seats.”
In the Oct. 20, 1919 election, the province and country were shocked by the result.
The Conservative suffered a huge defeat falling from 84 seats to only 25 and Hearst would lose his own seat. The Conservatives became the first party in Ontario history to go from the leading party to a third place party in the Legislature. The Labour Party surged from one seat to 11 seats. The Liberals also increased their seats from 24 to 27. The real surprise was the United Farmers of Ontario who went from no seats to 44. No one, not even the United Farmers, expected to hold a government and they didn’t have an official leader because their current leader was serving in the House of Commons and couldn’t run in the provincial election. The United Farmers and the Labour Party would form a coalition to govern the province for the next several years.
The Toronto Globe would write quote:
“The Hearst Conservative government was swept off the map by the rush of a new party.”
In the election, all the anti-prohibition candidates were defeated, eight returning soldiers were elected, three clergymen were elected, and only two dozen MPPs were able to keep their seats. Among the MPPs who were not re-elected were five cabinet ministers, including Hearst.
Hearst would say of his defeat quote:
“I will not make any prophecy as to what will take place. I thought the government was going to sweep the country and I was not alone in that, for a great many Liberals who were supporting me thought so too. The Temperance Act had no doubt a great deal in my defeat, but I did what I felt was right, and if I had to do it over again, I would do the same.”
William Lyon Mackenzie King, the leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, would write in his diary quote:
“Am delighted with the political earthquake which has effectually shaken Tory citadels throughout Ontario. Let us pray for years to come. It is the best thing that has happened since the war.”
In speaking with the press, King would say quote:
“It looks like the handwriting is on the wall. It is a victory for the progressive forces arrayed against the reactionary forces of Toryism in Ontario.”
With no leader of the United Farmers, it created a unique situation briefly where Ontario did not have a premier. The Lt. Governor, Sir John Hendric, would state quote:
“I believe that under the circumstances I could call any one in the house and ask him to form a government. Of course, it goes without saying that such a man would have to have the support of the majority of the Legislative Assembly to carry on.”
Ernest Drury would agree to lead the new government, becoming premier, as he was the vice president of the party. He had not run in the election, so he would run in a by-election to enter the Legislature.
He would say of his new role quote:
“May we not hope that this political movement, which has begun as a class movement, representing farmers and labour, may be expanded and broaden out until it embraces citizens of all classes and occupations and becomes indeed a People’s Party.”
In the election, two women stood for election, Justerna Sears and Henrietta Bundy. Both were unsuccessful in their attempt to get elected.
After the upheaval caused by the unexpected result of the 1919 election, many were wondering what exactly would happen in the next election.
As it turned out, it would be a return to form for Ontario.
Over the past four years, the United Farmers government under Ernest Charles Drury had accomplished many things in a short period of time. The party introduced allowances for women and children, a minimum wage for women, increased worker compensation benefits, and provided support for parents and children born out of wedlock. Ontario Hydro was expanded to provide electricity to rural areas, while the Province of Ontario Savings Office was created. The first reforestation program in North America also began, as did the construction of a modern highway system. His government also provided a grant for Frederick Banting and Charles Best to research a treatment for diabetes, which would result in the discovery of insulin.
In regards to temperance, the government was a strong enforcer of it but it was not popular publicly as the years went on.
Overall, the election was one with little in the way of drama. Premier Drury was unable to campaign for some time due to a severe sore throat, and all three leaders had trouble agreeing on what the main issue was. The Red Deer Advocate reported quote:
“The Ontario election campaign, according to all accounts, is one of the quietest known in that province for a long time.”
If there was an issue, it was temperance and the call for a referendum to decide it once again. Liberal leader Wellington Hay would state of a referendum quote:
“There is no doubt that when the vote is taken, and I have no doubt one will be taken, the majority will express itself clearly and decisively.”
Conservative leader Ferguson would try to appeal heavily to rural voters to take away the vote from the United Farmers. He would promise that his government would provide grants of money to be paid directly towards farmers. At one rally held at Massey Hall, he would say quote:
“The importance of agriculture cannot be overestimated. Greater stimulus must be given to the industry by improving the conditions of the rural life, and increasing the advantages and profits to be derived from life upon the farm.”
Heading into the election, no one knew what was going to happen. The Toronto Mail and Empire would write quote:
“With polling day 96 hours distance the eyes of the Dominion are centered upon Ontario this week. More than the political complexity on the next provincial legislators hangs upon the outcome of Monday’s election. Perhaps never before in her history has Ontario experienced an election so difficult to dope as the present one.”
The general consensus was that no party would have a majority.
In the June 25, 1923 election, the Ontario Conservative Party rebounded from its previous result to once again earn a majority in the Legislature, although it took less than half the votes cast. The party was able to surge ahead with a 50 seat gain to finish with 75. One issue with this election was that the voter turnout was extremely low, only 50.7 per cent. Ontario would not reach that low level again until 2007. Every party in the election took fewer voters than they had in 1919.
The Toronto Mail and Empire would report quote:
“Ontario is in the hands of its friends again. That combination of big spenders and little autocrats was the flimsiest the people of this province ever went up against. Yesterday’s election was a victory for the people of Ontario.”
The new premier of the province would be George Howard Ferguson, who had taken over as leader of the party. Ferguson had been in the Legislature since 1905 and was well respected in the party. He served as the Minister of Lands, Forests and Mines from 1914 to 1919.
The United Farmers took a larger portion of the vote than it had in 1919 but only had a fraction of the seats because of many voters who did not want to vote for the United Farmers instead choosing to vote for the Conservatives. Another problem for the United Farmers was that they did not run a candidate in any riding where a Liberal candidate was running, as well as 20 other districts. In the end, the United Farmers lost 27 seats and finished with 17. The Liberals also collapsed, losing 13 seats and finishing with 14, while the Labour Party lost seven seats to finish with four.
Drury apparently had good humour in regards to the election campaign. He would say quote:
“During all discussions of the campaign, I and my followers, have endeavored to treat issues before the public in a fair and educative way. I have no regrets. The people have spoken and I am quite willing to abide by the will of the people.”
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, St Catherines Standard, Windsor Star, TVO Today,