Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canadian elections were not always boring

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So far, the election of 2011 has been a tedious affair with little to get excited about. It hasn't always been like this.


It was only the seventh election since Confederation, but the campaign in the spring of 1891 was one of the most bitter. It was also Sir John A. Macdonald's last contest; he died three months after the vote at the age of 76.

The key issue was the debate about trade and Canada's relationship with Britain and the United States. This was not the last time that such issues were to tear the country apart. Facing discontent in Quebec over the hanging of Louis Riel and forced to deal with several political scandals, Macdonald made his protectionist "National Policy" the central theme of his campaign. In an emotional appeal, his campaign cry was, "The Old Flag, The Old Policy, The Old Leader."

He decried the Liberals and their leader Wilfrid Laurier's "unrestricted reciprocity" (or free trade) proposal with the Americans as nothing less than a threat of the U.S. annexation of Canada. "A British subject I was born -- a British subject I will die," John A. proclaimed.

His patriotic manipulations worked and he was rewarded with another majority government.

Canadian-American relations again haunted Laurier in the contentious election of Sept. 21, 1911. In power since his victory in the 1896 election, Laurier had more or less followed Macdonald's tariff-friendly economic policies. But when U.S. President William H. Taft offered a modest reciprocal tariff reduction, Laurier, seeking to appease Prairie farmers, unwisely accepted the deal.

During the campaign, the full weight of Toronto and Montreal business interests, which refused to accept any change in the tariff, were brought to bear on the Liberals. In a key moment, 18 notable Toronto Liberals, led by former cabinet minister Clifford Sifton (then the owner of the Winnipeg Free Press) publicly declared their opposition to the Liberals' reciprocity treaty.

Like Macdonald in 1891, the Conservatives, now led by Robert Borden, strategically, if incorrectly, equated free trade with annexation. At the same time, Quebec nationalists were upset with Laurier's naval policy and alleged pro-Imperialist sentiments.

On election day, the Liberal chieftain and his party were defeated, ending Laurier's 15-year reign as prime minister.

The same anti-American hysteria was to be heard decades later during the 1988 election over the North American Free Trade Agreement. The parties' roles were reversed, however. Brian Mulroney and the Conservatives defended the agreement, while John Turner and the Liberals denounced it as the first step toward an American takeover of Canada.

In the election held during the First World War on Dec. 17, 1917, U.S. trade was not the issue, but loyalty to Britain and the soldiers at the front was.

Fearful that Canada would not be able to fulfil its promised commitment of men, Prime Minister Robert Borden pushed through conscription or the draft. Laurier, then the aging opposition leader, knew that French Canada, collectively no supporter of the British Empire, would never accept such a measure and repeatedly refused Borden's invitation to enter a coalition government.

Angered, many English-speaking Liberals turned against Laurier. John W. Dafoe, the editor of the Free Press and a longtime friend of Laurier, was especially outraged by the Liberal leader's position, going so far as to permit the headline in the newspaper to declare that A Vote for Laurier is a Vote for the Kaiser.

In the end, the results confirmed Laurier's worst fears for Canadian unity: For the first time in the country's history, Parliament was almost divided on linguistic lines. Borden and his English unionists were on one side as the government and Laurier and Quebec were on the other as the opposition.

Some months after the election, in a telling moment, J.N. Francoeur, a Liberal member in the Quebec assembly, prepared a motion questioning Quebec's future in Canada. He was persuaded not to introduce it, but the damage was done.

In 1926, Mackenzie King made the decision of Governor General Byng not to grant him a dissolution of Parliament, so he could go to the polls for the second time in less than a year, the central issue of that campaign. It was the last time a governor general has refused such a request from a prime minister. Whether Canadians understood the constitutional issue is debatable, but King was, nevertheless, victorious.

Less heady was the election in 1968 when the only thing that mattered was Pierre Trudeau, the charismatic new Liberal leader. Trudeau probably held the media in more contempt than Stephen Harper does, but he was also the first Canadian politician to utilize television to his own advantage. Media guru Marshall McLuhan declared him to be a "cool" performer. His chief opponent, Conservative leader Robert Stanfield, a nice man from an earlier era, really never stood a chance and Trudeau swept to victory on a wave of "Trudeaumania."

Six years later, in the election of 1974, when Trudeau's economic policies were under fire and his status as a political celebrity had waned, Liberal strategists deliberately kept Trudeau in a bubble and away from the media -- no different than what the Conservatives are doing today with Stephen Harper. The result, which the Harper team has no doubt heeded: Trudeau regained the majority government that he had lost in the 1972 election.

Of the elections held since then, the one with the most historical ramifications was in 1993. That contest featured Kim Campbell, the first and only woman to be prime minister, who had the unenviable role of defending the record of her former boss, Brian Mulroney. She faced the Liberals led by Jean Chrétien, the NDP and Audrey McLaughlin and two new parties mainly siphoned from the Tories: Preston Manning's Reform Party, organized by western Canadians resentful over Mulroney's treatment of the region and the Bloc Québécois led by Lucien Bouchard, who was similarly resentful about Mulroney's handling of Quebec's constitutional problems.

The results were indeed consequential. Chrétien and the Liberals won the election and the Conservatives were left with only two seats. Most importantly, the Bloc took 54 of Quebec's 75 seats becoming the official opposition and forever altering the Canadian political landscape. The Bloc's continued popularity and success at the polls has made it much more difficult for either the Liberals or the Conservatives (reborn in 2003) to win majority governments -- a cycle Stephen Harper is trying to break.


Now&Then is a column in which

historian Allan Levine brings a historical perspective to the major events of today.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2011 J11

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