Canada’s Biggest Election

Biggest Election: It’s 88

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With 56% of the vote, the 1988 Federal Election has been crowned Canada’s biggest by Calgary Grit readers, knocking off Tommy Douglas’ 1944 Saskatchewan win in the final.

With a federal election about to start up, it was probably appropriate to look back at some of the big elections from the past. And there are certainly lessons all parties can learn from ’88, as there are from all past elections.

Without a doubt, 1988 was Canada’s most exciting election. There was a real policy debate, an unfolding national unity crisis, great ads, a mid-campaign coup attempt, an exhilarating debate, a real three-party race, and a see-saw campaign that was in doubt until the end. And, for better or worse, Mulroney’s second term would shape Canadian politics for the next 20 years thanks to the Meech collapse, the Tory collapse, the rise of Reform and Bloc, free trade, and the GST. So I don’t think this election won just because it was more familiar to voters (after all, my Greatest PM contest featured a Laurier-MacDonald final) – I think it truly is a deserving winner.

A big thanks to everyone who voted, and to John Duffy for seeding the elections. And now, the attention of this blog can turn squarely to the present and the next “big” election we’re about to embark on. It certainly doesn’t appear to have the makings of a historic one but, then again, the element of surprise is why a lot of the elections in this contest can truly be called “historic”.

Final Vote
Provincial Final
Federal Final
Provincial Semis
Federal Semis
Provincial Quarters
Federal Quarters

Canada’s Biggest Election Final

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After starting with 16, we’re down to the final round of Canada’s Biggest Election. The 1988 Free Trade Election crushed the competition in every round on the federal side, while the 1944 Saskatchewan election eeked out a 2 vote win over 1976 Quebec to take the title of the biggest provincial election.

So the final is set. The excitement of ’88, against the long term impact of ’44. Voting is open until Wednesday at 10 pm.


What Was Canada’s Biggest Election?
(1) 1988 Federal Election
(2) 1944 Saskatchewan Provincial Election
See Results

The Provincial Final

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On the federal side, the 1988 election has earned the title of Canada’s Biggest Federal election, collecting 64% of the vote against the 57/58 Diefenbaker wins in the final.

So the time has come to crown Canada’s Biggest Provincial Election. It has come down to the top 2 seeds – 1976 Quebec and 1944 Saskatchewan. Voting is now open until 10 pm on Wednesday night. Next week, the provincial and federal winners will go head-to-head for the overall title of Canada’s biggest election.

(2) 1944 Saskatchewan v.s. (1) 1976 Quebec

The Case for 1944: Tommy Douglas’ win was an absolute rout, blowing out the governing Liberals and establishing a 20 year CCF dynasty that would change Saskatchewan forever. The win was the first ever for a socialist party in North America, raising eyebrows across the continent.

The election’s impact on Canada as a whole cannot the under-estimated either. While the CCF’s success in Saskatchewan never materialized into a federal NDP win, three other provinces have since elected CCF/NDP governments and 1944 no doubt paved the way for that. Many of Douglas’ policies, most notably health care, would be later adopted by the federal Liberals and strong CCF performances like these two elections scared Mackenzie King to the left on many issues. For better or worse, much of Canada’s current welfare state can be traced back to 1944’s shocker on the Prairies.

The Case for 1976: It’s rare that an election stuns a province, never mind a country but 1976 did just that, drawing headlines around the world. Given the rise of the PQ, the corruption scandals surrounding Bourassa, and the polls that showed Levesque marching to a win, the result should not have been surprising, but it still was.

As for the consequences, we all know them. Bill 101 came into being, and the exodus of head offices out of Montreal began. Two referendums and what seemed like a dozen unity crises came and went. And yet, the country still stands. So while the 1976 Quebec election did not destroy Canada, it certainly changed it forever.


Which Election Was Bigger?
(1) 1976 Quebec (Rene Levesque and the PQ win)
(2) 1944 Saskatchewan (Tommy Douglas and the CCF win)
See Results

Provincial Show-Down

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In the federal side of the bracket, it will be 1988 versus 1957/58, after the free trade election cruised to a 74% win and Dief’s dominance lead to a squeaker of a win (51% to 49%).

So the time has come to select the final showdown on the provincial side. The following four elections ran away with things in round 1 but I’m expecting closer races this time around. It’s the battle of Quebec in one semi and a pair of political dynasties born one year apart in the other.

(4) 1960 Quebec vs. (1) 1976 Quebec

The Case for 1960: When political dynasties fall, it’s always memorable. And few political dynasties deserved to fall more than the Union Nationale, who had ruled Quebec since World War 2. Under Duplesis, electoral fraud was common, the press was oppressed, and the province resisted modernization, being controlled by the Catholic Church and US business. After Duplesis (and his reformist successor Paul Sauve) died, the stage was set for an 8 seat Jean Lesage win under the Maîtres chez nous slogan.

The win started the quiet revolution – Quebec became more secular, Hydro Quebec come into being, economic and social reforms were passed, and nationalist sentiment bubbled to the surface. The Liberal win also jump started the political career of a young Cabinet Minister by the name of Rene Levesque and, in many ways, set the stage for the 1976 election shocker.

The Case for 1976: It’s rare that an election stuns a province, never mind a country but 1976 did just that, drawing headlines around the world. Given the rise of the PQ, the corruption scandals surrounding Bourassa, and the polls that showed Levesque marching to a win, the result should not have been surprising, but it still was.

As for the consequences, we all know them. Bill 101 came into being, and the exodus of head offices out of Montreal began. Two referendums and what seemed like a dozen unity crises came and went. And yet, the country still stands. So while the 1976 Quebec election did not destroy Canada, it certainly changed it forever.


Which Election Was Bigger?
(4) Quebec 1960 (Lesage over Barrette)
(1) Quebec 1976 (Levesque over Bourassa)
See Results

(3) 1943 Ontario vs. (2) 1944 Saskatchewan

The Case for 1943: The 1943 Ontario election was a dog fight, with three parties coming within 5% of each other and the PCs holding on for a 4 seat minority government victory. The Liberals, victims of a Hepburn-King feud, were booted from power, while the surging CCF came up just short.

The resulting 42 years of PC dominance, at a time when the Liberals owned the province federally, has been well documented and certainly changed Ontario’s history dramatically. But the real reason this election left a mark was because of what didn’t happen – that is, the CCF coming up just short. If you think a CCF government in Saskatchewan changed Canada forever, just imagine the impact one in Canada’s largest province would have had…

The Case for 1944: While the previous year’s Ontario vote was close, Tommy Douglas’ win was an absolute rout, blowing out the governing Liberals and establishing a 20 year CCF dynasty that would change Saskatchewan forever. The win was the first ever for a socialist party in North America, raising eyebrows across the continent.

The election’s impact on Canada as a whole cannot the under-estimated either. While the CCF’s success in Saskatchewan never materialized into a federal NDP win, three other provinces have since elected CCF/NDP governments and 1944 no doubt paved the way for that. Many of Douglas’ policies, most notably health care, would be later adopted by the federal Liberals and strong CCF performances like these two elections scared Mackenzie King to the left on many issues. For better or worse, much of Canada’s current welfare state can be traced back to 1944’s shocker on the Prairies.


Which Election Was Bigger?
(3) 1943 Ontario (Drew over Nixon)
(2) 1944 Saskatchewan (Douglas over Patterson)
See Results

Quick Hits

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No new blog content today, but I’ll direct you to a pair of older posts:

1. Everyone has until Wednesday at 10 pm to vote in the latest round of “Canada’s Biggest Election“. The 1957/58 vs. 1878 matchup may be en route to a recount, with 57/58 holding 1 vote lead so far.

2. Three by elections have been called for September 8th: Saint-Lambert and Westmount-Ville-Marie should be held with reduced leads by the Bloc and Liberals, despite NDP hype around Anne Lagacé Dowson in Westmount. The real test will be Guelph – for the riding background, here’s what I had to say about it back in May.

On To The Quarters

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The provincial races turned into Frank McKenna sized routs, with Duffy’s four favourites all advancing.

’76 Quebec (1) over ’35 Alberta (8): 81% to 19%
’44 Saskatchewan (2) over ’52 British Columbia (7): 84% to 16%
’43 Ontario (3) over 1867 Ontario (6): 77% to 23%
’60 Quebec (4) over ’89 Newfoundland (5): 78% to 22%

This sets us up for a very competitive provincial final 4 next week. But, before we get to that, it’s time to take a look at this week’s two quarter-final matchups. Voting will be open until Wednesday at 10 pm.

1935 (4) vs. 1988 (1)

The Case for 1935: The “King or Chaos” depression election turned into a Liberal rout – 171 seats for King to R.B. Bennett’s 39. Despite this, it was still a memorable election, with a plethora of fringe parties and independents winning seats, including disgruntled Bennett Cabmin HH Stevens’ Reconstructionts, Social Credit, and the CCF.

So why is this election important? Well, for starters, it set up a record 22 consecutive years of King/St. Laurent government and established the Liberals as the “big government” party at a time when CBC creator R.B. Bennett had shifted the Tories drastically to the left thanks to his deathbed conversion to government reform. It made King our war time Prime Minister, saving the country another conscription crisis. And breakthroughs by the CCF and SoCreds established these two as legitimate political players in the years to come. The election itself might have been a no-contest but it’s impact was immense.

The Case for 1988: The 1988 election was undeniably one of Canada’s most exciting ever. All three parties enjoyed leads in the polls in the year prior to the election and the campaign itself turned into a see-saw affair between Mulroney and Turner, once Turner picked opposition to free trade as his hill to die on. Vicious attack ads, a big issue, another thrilling debate, a mid-election putsch attempt – this campaign has it all and, in the end, it had Brian Mulroney winning the first back-to-back Tory majorities in over 70 years.

But beyond the excitement of the campaign and the economic impact of free trade, the ’88 election profoundly changed Canadian politics. Mulroney may have kept the Tories in power, but the cost would be the explosion of his coalition into the Bloc and Reform parties 5 years later. Had Broadbent turned free trade into his issue, the NDP might have replaced the Liberals on the left of the political spectrum. Had Turner held his post-debate surge, we may have been in for a decade of John Turner and a Mulroney heir (Campbell? Charest? Clark?) running our country. Who’s to say how the Meech/Referendum story would have played out with different actors? For good or bad, the ’88 campaign set the stage for the modern era of Canadian politics we’re living in today.

Which Election was Bigger?
(4) 1935 (King over Bennett)
(1) 1988 (Mulroney over Turner, Broadbent)
See Results

1957/58 (6) vs. 1878 (2)

The Case for 1957/58: While the 1935 election set up a Liberal dynasty, these back-to-back elections saw it crash down in spectacular fashion. A no-name with a long name from Saskatchewan managed to usurp the throne and, in the process, won one of the largest victories in Canadian history.

The Liberals had become more concerned with government than politics, treating elections like minor nuisances and growing more and more arrogant. This would prove their undoing, as St. Laurent/Howe rammed through closure on the pipeline debate and then, following Dief’s ’57 stunner, Pearson ordered the Tories to turn the government back to the Grits, setting up the ’58 romp.
While the Diefenbaker years would prove to be short lived, the impact of ’57/’58 was on how politics were run in Canada. It showed that TV matters. It showed that charisma and the cult of the leader matter. It showed that opposition parties had to present a vision. For the first time, it showed that campaigns matter.

The Case for 1878: The 1878 election marked John A’s comeback from the Pacific Scandal, cementing his reputation in the history books and leaving Alexander MacKenzie as a footnote. As for it’s impact, here’s what a regular reader sent in, back when I was taking nominations for this contest:

This election returned the Tories to power after the Pacific scandal, and cemented the Tories as Canada’s first “natural governing party”. The real story though, is the National Policy, which cemented Conservatives as protectionist, economic nationalists for over a century. The policy was so popular that it extended Conservative governance for more than decade and engendered Laurier’s defeat when he opposed it 1911. I think this policy helps to explain the emergence and staying power of ‘red Tories’ even after their disappearance in the US.


Which Election Was Bigger?
(6) 1957/58 (Diefenbaker over St. Laurent, Pearson)
(2) 1878 (Macdonald over Mackenzie)
See Results

Provincial Vote

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With the first round of federal elections done, we move to the provincial side of the bracket for a series of intriguing match-ups. Once again, the seeds have been selected from the list of reader nominations by Fights of our Lives author John Duffy. Voting will close at 10 pm on Wednesday night.

1935 Alberta (8) vs. 1976 Quebec (1)

1935 Alberta (Aberhart over the UFA): Brownlee and the farmers knocked down to 0 seats after he’s set up in a faux sex scandal. The crazy SoCreds take over going from zero seats to 36 years in power, tilting Alberta to the right for the next 70+ years.
1976 Quebec (Levesque over Bourassa): Rene Levesque surges to power, and puts the threat to Canada’s unity on the cover of TIME magazine. The PQ threat in Quebec would define Canadian politics for the next 30 years.

Which Election Was Bigger?
(8) 1935 Alberta (Aberhart over the UFA)
(1) 1976 Quebec (Levesque over Bourassa)
See Results

1952 BC (7) vs. 1944 Saskatchewan (2)

1952 BC (SoCreds over Socialists): West Coast wildness – STV system used to keep CCF out of power, but it leads to a surprise SoCred win.
1944 Saskatchewan (Douglas over Patterson): Tommy Douglas creates North America’s first socialist government, leading to new frontiers in social policy nationwide.


Which Election Was Bigger?
(7) 1952 BC (SoCreds over Socialists)
(2) 1944 Saskatchewan (Douglas over Patterson)
See Results

1867 Ontario (6) vs. 1943 Ontario (3)

1867 Ontario (Macdonald ties McKellar): Libs and Tories deadlocked at 41 seats, leading to a grand coalition government under John Stanfield Macdonald’s leadership.
1943 Ontario (Drew over Nixon, CCF): Liberals implode, CCF on the march, and Conservatives come up winners to begin a 42-year dynasty.


Which Election Was Bigger?
(6) 1867 Ontario (Macdonald ties McKellar)
(3) 1943 Ontario (Drew over Nixon)
See Results

1989 Newfoundland (5) vs. 1960 Quebec (4)

1989 Newfoundland (Wells over Rideout): Clyde Wells loses the popular vote but wins the election, helping to kill Meech Lake.
1960 Quebec (Lesage over l’Union Nationale): The Quiet Revolution begins on election night and transforms Quebec society, Canadian politics, and public policy, forever


Which Election Was Bigger?
(5) 1989 Newfoundland (Wells over Rideout)
(4) 1960 Quebec (Lesage over Barrette)
See Results

The First Round Begins

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The field of 16 has been set in the search for Canada’s Biggest Election. For simplicity’s sake, there will be 8 federal and 8 provincial elections (even though Ralph Klein’s first Calgary mayoral run was an inspired suggestion), and will only involve elections prior to 1990.

As a fun twist this year, I’ve brought in an expert to seed the teams – John Duffy. John’s Fights of our Lives is one of the best books on Canadian elections out there so he seemed like a natural choice and I’m very happy that he agreed to do it. I sent him a list of all the nominations and comments people submitted and, from that, he produced the seedings (and the little one line synopses you’ll see bellow).

Apologies if your election of choice was left out but I believe the final list John produced has a great mix of elections on it, which should make this a fun contest.

Voting begins today and closes at noon Saturday for the four federal first round match-ups. Next week, we’ll begin what should be a series of very intriguing provincial competitions (I’ll be announcing the provincial seeds this weekend…so you’ll need to live in suspense for a bit).

1896 (8) vs. 1988 (1)
1896 (Laurier over Tupper): With the new country shaking to bits over religious education in Manitoba, a great unifier emerges in Laurier.
1988 (Mulroney over Turner and Broadbent): Turner and Mulroney duke it out over free trade with the US and leadership in an epic personal duel.


Which Election was Bigger?
(8) 1898: Laurier over Tupper
(1) 1988: Mulroney over Turner
See Results

1925/26 (7) vs. 1878 (2)
1925/26 (King over Meighen…and Byng): In a wild and wooly hung parliament, a cornered Mackenzie King outfoxes Meighen, Byng, the Progressives, everyone — and turns House of Commons trickery into ballot box gold.
1878 (MacDonald over Mackenzie): Macdonald storms back from the wildreness of scandal to re-ignite the National Policy and complete the CPR.


Which Election was Bigger?
(7) 1925/26: King over Meighen
(2) 1878: MacDonald over Mackenzie
See Results

1957/58 (6) vs. 1979/80 (3)
1957/58 (Dief over St. Laurent, Pearson): Prairie no-hoper Diefenbaker decks the Chairman of the Board, St.Laurent, then crushes his successor, Prince-of-Peace Pearson.
1979/80 (Clark over Trudeau, Trudeau over Clark): Trudeau falls, Clark rises, Clark falls, Trudeau rises, as constitutional and energy battles rage across the regional landscape.


Which Election was Bigger?
(6) 1957/58: Diefenbaker over St.Laurent, Pearson
(3) 1979/80: Trudeau vs. Clark
See Results

1911 (5) vs. 1935 (4)
1911 (Borden over Laurier): An aging Laurier deploys free trade with the US to revive his government, but challenger Borden turns the blade to defeat the champion.
1935 (King over Everyone): Arguing it’s “King or Chaos”, Liberals take on all comers and shatter the Conservative brand for two decades.


Which Election was Bigger?
(5) 1911: Borden over Laurier
(4) 1935: King over Bennett
See Results

An Election Election

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First it was Greatest Prime Minister. Then Greatest Prime Minister We Never Had. Then Best Premier. And with the summer here, it’s time yet again for my annual march-madness-history-political-poll-thingy.

Thanks for all the suggestions – I really liked the idea of “biggest scandal”, but felt it might descend into partisan poll stacking. I’m definitely going to run “Best election ad” one day but youtube is lacking when it comes to good old 80s Canadian political TV ads. This idea is so inspired, I only wish I’d thought of it. So the winner is…“Canada’s Biggest Election” .

I haven’t completely settled on a seeding system yet, but I’m inclined to have one side of the bracket filled with federal elections and one side filled with provincial/municipal ones, to try and highlight those a bit more. Any election of the past 10 years is exempt because my favourite University history proff always said you needed at least a decade before you could even begin to judge an event’s impact. And referendums are out, just because.

I’ll leave it up to everyone to decide what a “big” election means to them, but I’d suggest the following criteria:

1) Unpredictability: Either a surprise result or a close result are important, because this implies history could have easily gone a different way.

2) Impact: The result of the election must have significantly altered history – ideally for Canada as a whole, but also municipally or provincially.

Being a “memorable” election might also be a criterion for some, but I don’t think it’s essential since part of the purpose of this should be highlighting lesser-known elections.

With that in mind, I’m opening the floor up to nominations. I know the federal ones, but if there’s an election you feel is deserving of more respect than it gets, speak up. Most of all, I’m looking for some good provincial (and municipal!) elections to include in the contest. So comb the annals of your home province’s history and place a nomination in the comments section or over e-mail.

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