Canada’s New Government Turns 8

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in History | 4 Comments

harper cake
Today marks the 8th anniversary of Stephen Harper’s election as Prime Minister. At the time, a lot of Liberals figured they could turn him into Joe Clark after a quick leadership change. Yet, by this time next year, Harper will have passed Louis St. Laurent, Robert Borden, and Brian Mulroney, to become the 6th longest serving Prime Minister in Canadian history – and most succesful conservative in over a century.

That’s the good news. The bad news for Harper is that it’s hard to fight the “time for a change” bug. Trudeau and King both lost elections after around a decade in power, and Chretien’s own party forced him out of office. Usually, you only get a fourth term if voters don’t trust the other guy and, from where I sit, there are two fairly impressive “other guys” with their sights set on 24 Sussex.

That said, no one expected Harper to last 8 years, so we would all be foolish to under-estimate him.

Canada has always been at war with Eurasia

Posted on by CalgaryGrit in History, Humour | 5 Comments
RB Bennett was one of Canada's most popular Prime Minister, to the point where average Canadians would name their buggies after him,

RB Bennett was one of Canada’s most popular Prime Ministers, to the point where average Canadians would name their buggies after him.

We found out last week that the Harper Conservatives will be leading a review of the way Canadian history is taught in schools. We don’t yet have word on whether this review will include teaching students that education is a provincial responsibility under the constitution, but I have been able to procure a leaked curriculum draft, which I have posted below.

Canadian History: Recommended Course Outline

Unit 1: The Conservative Party Founds Canada (19th Century)

Key Date: 1871 – In an act of state coercion, the first ever Census is administered.

Key Date: 1885 – The Canadian Pacific Railway is completed, an engineering marvel which would not have been possible with a carbon tax.

Class Discussion: It’s important to show students both sides of the Riel uprising. To do this, encourage a classroom debate, where half the students argue that Riel is a traitor, and the other half argue that Wilfrid Laurier is the larger traitor for defending him.

Mandatory Viewing: Students can learn about turn-of-the-Century Canada by watching this educational episode of Murdoch Mysteries.

Unit 2: Robert Borden Wins World War I (1900s and 1910s)

Strike from Curriculum: Borden’s 1917 government, composed of Liberals and Conservatives, should under no circumstances be referred to as a “coalition” government. Instead, refer to it as “an enhanced Conservative Government”.

Creative Writing Assignment: Have students draft an “alternate history” where Wilfrid Laurier is Prime Minister during the War, leading to a German victory.

Mandatory Reading: Stephen Harper’s Hockey Book

Unit 3: Mackenzie King Causes the Great Depression (1920s to 1940s)

Class Discussion: To see both sides of the issue, have students debate if King’s policies in the 1920s led to the depression, or if his policies in the 1930s worsened it.

Strike from Curriculum: 1932 – RB Bennett creates the CBC.

Unit 4: The Rise of Diefenbaker (1950s and 1960s)

Key Date: 1967 – The Beatles release “with a little help from my friends”, a song which would be popularized 42 years later by Stephen Harper and Yo Yo Ma (have students watch video and compliment the Prime Minister on his performance).

Strike from Curriculum: 1957 – Lester B. Pearson wins Nobel Peace Prize (if you must mention this, be sure to talk about other Canadian accomplishments of the 1950s, such as PC leader John Bracken being voted one of Manitoba’s 10 Sexiest politicians in 1951).

Interactive Exercise: Imagine it’s 1953, and write a fundraising letter to Conservative Party members viciously attacking Louis St. Laurent. For bonus marks, film an attack ad.

Unit 5: The Joe Clark Era (1970s and 1980s)

Key Date: 1979 – A nerdy Albertan defeated his far handsomer opponent, Pierre Trudeau. (See if students can find modern day parallels to this)

Class Discussion: Discuss how Ken Dryden nearly cost Canada the 1972 Summit Series. Set up a debate between students on the topic “Which was worse – Dryden’s 83.8% save percentage during the Summit Series, or his push to destroy the family unit through National Childcare?

Unit 6: Modern Day (1990s to Present)

Key Date: 2006 – Canada’s New Government cuts the GST from 7% to 6%.

Key Date: 2008 – Canada’s New Government cuts the GST from 6% to 5%.

Interactive Exercise: Have students dress as their favourite character from the Sponsorship Scandal and hand each other brown paper envelopes full of Monopoly money.

Suggested Term Paper Topics

  • Great Canadian Institutions: The Stanley Cup, Tim Hortons, The National Citizens Coalition
  • Which Liberal leader did the most damage to the country?
  • How did Canada change during Michael Ignatieff’s time outside the country, from 1978 to 2005?

  • Canada’s Greatest Losers

    Posted on by CalgaryGrit in --- 2013 LPC Leadership Race, Featured Posts, History | 7 Comments

    Liberals elected this loser at their 1919 leadership convention

    Last week, Martha Hall Findlay and Karen McCrimmon declared their candidacies for the Liberal leadership race. This week, George Takach has taken the plunge. I’ve posted one blog interview with David Merner, and will have others with David Bertschi and Alex Burton next week. Deborah Coyne, meanwhile, has already released more fresh ideas than we’ve seen from Stephen Harper during his entire tenure as Prime Minister.

    These are seven very different candidates with seven very different messages, but the one thing they share in common is that none of them hold a seat in the House of Commons. This has prompted Warren Kinsella (and others) to gently suggest they do us all a favour and drop out, before they jump in. As the saying goes, if you can’t win your own riding, you can’t win the country.

    Now, Warren is free to support whomever he chooses using whatever criteria he chooses. And as far as criteria go, electoral track record is a pretty important one to consider. I know I’d have a difficult time supporting anyone who has never held elected office. That said, it’s likely worth looking at a few “losers” from history, before we automatically disqualify every “loser” from consideration.

    John Diefenbaker: This guy could put together losing campaigns more consistently than the Toronto Maple Leafs. Before being elected, he lost twice federally, twice provincially, and once for Mayor. Despite being a five-time loser, the Tories went with Dief in ’56, and he rewarded them with the largest majority in Canadian history.

    Mackenzie King: Even though he lost his seat in both the 1911 and 1917 elections, the Liberals put their faith in King at Canada’s first leadership convention in 1919. King would go on to become the longest serving PM in Commonwealth history…losing his own seat twice more along the way.

    Jack Layton: Jack beat out three candidates with seats at the 2003 NDP leadership convention, even though he’d never been elected to any position higher than Councillor. He’d lost in his bid for Mayor, finished fourth in the 1993 federal election, and lost by over 7,000 votes in the 1997 federal election. Despite this track record of defeat, the Dippers went with Jack and he rewarded them by becoming the NDP’s most successful leader ever.

    Brian Mulroney: Brian hadn’t even won a City Council election when he became PC leader, and had lost in his previous leadership bid. In his first ever election, he won over 200 seats.

    Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, John Turner: Although they had perfect records in their own ridings, all three lost a leadership race before becoming Liberal leader. Losers.

    Stephen Harper: Harper did not hold a seat when he ran for Canadian Alliance leadership in 2002. At that time, he had a rather uninspiring “1 win and 1 loss” record when it came to local elections – and remember, that’s a .500 record from a Calgary conservative.

    Those are just a few of the many losers who won their party leaderships. Indeed, the only examples from the past 30 years of national parties electing “winners” who had never lost their riding or a leadership race are Stephane Dion, Audrey McLaughlin, Stockwell Day, and Peter MacKay. MacKay killed his party, and the other three almost did.

    That’s not to say that all “winners” become “losers”, but you need to go all the way back to Justin Trudeau’s father in 1968 to find a successful leader who had a perfect electoral record when he first took over his party’s leadership. And while I don’t want to dismiss Pierre Trudeau’s accomplishments, I suspect most barnyard animals could have held Mount Royal for the Liberals in 1965.

    The above examples come from federal politics, but we see it everywhere. Just eight years before becoming President, Barack Obama lost a primary race for a congressional seat by a 2:1 margin. Alison Redford couldn’t even beat Rob Anders in a nomination meeting.

    So while I wouldn’t dismiss a candidate’s electoral record (or lack thereof), it’s important to remember that a lot of winners have quickly turned into losers, and a lot of losers have gone on to have very successful careers.

    Liberal Leadership Races Through History (Part 3): King Chooses His Heir

    Posted on by CalgaryGrit in History | 5 Comments

    Previously: Prologue, The 19th Century, An Elected King

    He may not have been a career politician, but Uncle Louis could still stage one heck of a photo op.

    The last blog post in this series took place at the 1919 Liberal leadership convention, during the aftermath of the Great War. All of a sudden we have – cue the music – Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray, South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio. To put the amount of time King ruled into perspective, John Turner would still be Liberal leader today if he had King’s staying power.

    As you can imagine, the Liberal Party King left to his successor in 1948 was very different from the one he inherited from Laurier. In 1919, the Liberals were in opposition, still trying to patch themselves together after being torn apart by the conscription crisis. In comparison, the Liberal crown in 1948 was likely the most appealing party leadership to ever open up in Canadian history. The Liberals had become the natural governing party and, despite some noise by the CCF, there was little reason to doubt the next Liberal leader wouldn’t win two or three elections in a row. This was the Liberal Party in the heart of a 22 year stretch of majority government rule – the glory days of Rome.

    So it’s not like delegates were looking to rock the boat when the time came to crown a new king. Indeed, the transfer of power from King to St. Laurent was perhaps the stablest leadership change in Canadian history. King had slowly been transitioning responsibilities to his chosen successor for years, and CD Howe would still be doing the heavy lifting in Parliament. There would be no drastic policy shifts, no major Cabinet shuffle. There have been more dramatic logo changes.

    Still, there was the formality of a leadership race to get through. Although a young Paul Martin (get used to seeing that name in this post series) mused about running, three candidates wound up on the first ballot:

  • At 60, Chubby Power was the youngster of the bunch. He also brought with him the most amazing political resume in the history of Canada. His father and grandfather had been politicians (as would his then one year old grandson, Lawrence Cannon). He’d played professional hockey for the Quebec Bulldogs. He won a Military Cross at the Battle of the Somme, then returned to Canada to run as a Laurier Liberal against conscription in 1917. He was one of the most prominent Quebecers in Mackenzie King’s Cabinet. The problem for Power was that he had gone all mavericky, resigning over conscription during the war and running as an independent Liberal in 1945 under a mischievous “King if necessary, but not necessarily King” motto. Power readily admits in his memoirs that he made himself “rather obnoxious” by repeatedly criticizing the government. Unsurprisingly, he was a non-factor.
  • Jimmy Gardiner was the first westerner to make a serious run at the Liberal Party leadership. He was also the last. That tells you all you need to know about the Liberal Party’s relationship with Western Canada over the past 65 years. Gardiner enjoyed two brief stints as Premier of Saskatchewan before joining Mackenzie King’s Cabinet in 1935, where he would hold the agriculture portfolio for the next 22 years.
  • Louis St. Laurent had made a name for himself as a lawyer and director of major corporations, and was the first French speaking president of Canadian Bar Association. Although his father had run for the provincial Liberals in 1904, Louis stayed out of politics – except for one brief and unremarkable appearance on stage at a Chubby Power campaign event in 1926. He had been in politics for just 6 years by the time the convention rolled around.

  • How St. Laurent Was Crowned

    There were doubts about St. Laurent. He was seen to have campaigned poorly during the recent Quebec election – even his confidant Jack Pickersgill conceded St. Laurent “lacked fire and appeal”. Gardiner, Power, and yes, even the young Paul Martin, had more elected experience than him. Some wondered if English Canadians would back a French Catholic – St. Laurent himself had doubts, telling reporters when King resigned that he would not run if he thought the Liberals would be “split on religious or racial lines”.

    Yet this was a “race” in name only – like the first two elections St. Laurent would lead the Liberals through, voting was a mere formality.

    To understand how we got to that point, we need to flash-back to November 26th, 1941, when King’s trusted right hand man Ernest Lapointe passed away. King recognized he would need a new Quebec Lieutenant – not just for the sake of tradition, but to prevent a repeat of the conscription crisis that had torn the country and the Liberal Party apart during the war to end all wars. After Quebec Premier Adélard Godbout turned King down, several of his advisers (including Chubby Power) suggest St. Laurent. King had lunch with St. Laurent on December 5th and appealed to his sense of duty to coax the reluctant lawyer into becoming Minister of Justice. St. Laurent accepted, but made it perfectly clear he was being conscripted just for the war, and would return to private life once the fighting ended in Europe.

    Once the fighting ended in Europe, King designated St.Laurent as Secretary of State of External Affairs, marking the first time the PM had ever handed off these powers to a Cabinet Minister. Remember, these were the post-war years, with the founding of the United Nations, the beginning of the cold war, and atomic age dawning on the world…this was not a light portfolio.

    Still, by 1947, St. Laurent made it clear to King that he had served his tour of duty and was ready to call it a career. King begged him to stay. Cabinet Ministers begged him to stay. Even a few Conservatives begged him to stay, in the interests of national unity. They all told him he could be Prime Minister, but St. Laurent didn’t seem too excited at the prospect, even after getting a taste of the role as the acting PM whenever King was out of the country.

    But King wanted St. Laurent as his heir and Mackenzie King always got what he wanted. He made his case, argued it, persisted, and systematically made cleared all possible roadblocks. St. Laurent was worried about money, so wealthy benefactors were found to help him out financially. St. Laurent wanted CD Howe to stay in government, so King made sure Howe stayed. Once St. Laurent reluctantly agreed to run, King announced his retirement, then orchestrated the show. He even arranged to have half his Cabinet put their names forward for nomination at the convention…only to make a show of withdrawing and throwing their support behind St. Laurent.

    It therefore came as a surprise to none when Louis St. Laurent took the leadership on the first ballot, with 69% support. The reluctant politician had become the reluctant Prime Minister.

    Who would you have voted for at the 1948 Liberal Leadership Convention?
    pollcode.com free polls 

    For more…

    Louis St. Laurent Dictionary of Canada Biography

    Charles Gavan Power’s A Party Politician: The Memoirs of Chubby Power
    George Bowering’s, Egotists and Autocrats
    The Mackenzie King Diaries
    Allan Levine’s King
    Jack Pickersgill’s My Years with Louis St. Laurent
    Dale C. Thomson’s Louis St. Laurent, Canadian

    Liberal Leadership Races Through History (Part 2): An Elected King

    Posted on by CalgaryGrit in History | 8 Comments

    Previously: Prologue, The 19th Century

    Spoiler Alert: He sees dead people…or at least, got advice from them.

    In 2009, delegates at the Liberal Party convention in Vancouver voted overwhelmingly to choose the party’s next leader using a one-member-one-vote system. This effectively killed the grand old leadership convention, a system the party had used to select its leaders for 90 years – except, of course, in exceptional circumstances and national crises, such as Michael Ignatieff wanting to be party leader.

    The change was done to democratize the leadership selection process and engage the membership – I suspect those were also the original reasons the Liberals became Canada’s first party to select its leader at a convention. Of course, continuing the tradition of having caucus select the leader would have been problematic in 1919. Two years earlier, many Liberals (including King’s main challengers) had run for Borden’s Unionist government, and the Laurier Liberals were reduced to little more than a bloc Quebecois, with just 20 seats outside Quebec. While many returned to the fold after the war, this was likely not the ideal caucus to be selecting the Liberal leader at a time when the party was divided and uncertain about its future.

    So following Laurier’s resignation as leader in November 1918, and his death three months later, Canada’s first leadership convention was called for August 7th, 1919, in Ottawa. Sydney Fisher dropped out the night before, leaving four candidates on the ballot:

  • George Perry Graham: A Liberal stalwart from Ontario, Graham had served as an MPP and MP for 20 years. That’s about all you’ll need to know about George Perry Graham for the rest of your life.
  • Daniel Duncan McKenzie: McKenzie served as interim leader following Laurier’s death. As you might expect, Twitter went apeshit in March of 1919 when McKenzie announced he would break his solemn word and run for the permanent job.
  • William Fielding: Fielding started out as a separatist, winning the 1886 Nova Scotia election as Liberal Party leader on an anti-confederation platform. When he never got the “winning conditions” he was looking for and the movement collapsed, Fielding decided to give Canada a try, and eventually jumped to federal politics in 1896 to become Laurier’s Minister of Finance.
  • William Lyon Mackenzie King: Grandson of the fiery Scot William Lyon Mackenzie, who led the 1837 Upper Canada Rebellion. King had served as Minister of Labour in Laurier’s government, but spent the war working for the Rockefeller Foundation in the US. Cue the “Just Visiting” attack ads. Seriously. King fought off several smear campaigns at the convention claiming he had abandoned Canada for the Rockefellers during the war.

  • How King Was Crowned

    Mackenzie King has developed a reputation as Canada’s greatest political tactician – even today, political strategists wear WWWLMKD bracelets. So it’s not surprising that King was well positioned heading into the 1919 leadership contest, though that was likely due more to luck than design. Or maybe it was “intelligent design” since, after all, in his diary King repeatedly credits his victory to “God alone”. Before you judge King, keep in mind God had a lot more free time back then, since he didn’t have to worry about helping wide receivers win Super Bowls and actresses win Oscars.

    King was confident enough in the Lord’s plan that he never set up a leadership organization and took a 3 month trip to Europe that spring, returning to Canada just 10 days before the convention. Then again, maybe this was another example of King’s tactical brilliance, taking the “low profile” frontrunner campaign strategy to the extreme.

    In either event, it sure seemed like someone had aligned the stars in King’s favour heading into the convention. King had made a name for himself in the field of labour relations, first as editor of the Labour Gazette, then as Deputy Minister of Labour and Minister of Labour. His reputation in this field was such that the Rockefeller Foundation hired him for $20,000 a year in 1914 to advise them on labour relations. As luck would have it, post-war unrest and General Strikes in Winnipeg earlier that year had pushed workers right to the front pages, making King’s experience that much more valuable.

    Also working in King’s favour was his age – he was 44, and his main competitors were all over 60. Fielding had just turned 70. The Liberals were replacing a 77 year old leader, so one imagines many delegates were looking for generational change.

    Still, this convention was really all about one thing – conscription. The race quickly turned into a battle between Fielding, who had supported Borden’s Unionist government in 1917, and King, who had returned to Canada for that election to run for the Laurier Liberals. Although Fielding won his seat and King lost his, this would not be the last time King was lucky to have lost an election – something poor RB Bennett could attest to.

    Indeed, King’s decision to martyr himself alongside Laurier would be the decisive factor in him winning the 1919 Leadership Vote. Although the man could not speak a word of French, Quebec delegates lined up squarely behind King in Ottawa (many influenced by King’s future lieutenant, MP Ernest Lapointe). King had stood with Laurier and they would stand by King.

    Whether or not Laurier himself would have stood by King is not as certain. King certainly saw himself as Laurier’s heir, and had spent a lot of time with the aged warrior in the final years of his life. However, when King asked for Lady Laurier to endorse him at the convention, she revealed she could not, since her husband had told her just days before his death that he believed only Fielding could re-unite the party. King was taken aback by this news, but doesn’t seem to have held a grudge, since he would routinely consult with the spirit of Laurier on important matters of state.

    King invoked the legacy of Laurier in what is considered to have been an impressive convention speech, and would ride that legacy, and the Quebec delegates, to a 5th ballot 476-438 victory over Fielding.

    It’s doubtful anyone expected great things from King – after all, his party had been out of power for a decade, had been ripped apart during the conscription crisis, and King himself was not an especially charismatic or inspiring speaker. However, be it due to brilliant strategy, luck, or divine will, King would go down as the longest serving Prime Minister in the history of the Commonwealth.

    It would be nearly 30 years before the Liberals would need to gather again to select a leader.

    Who would you have voted for at the 1919 Liberal Leadership Convention?
    pollcode.com free polls 

    For More Information:
    Library Archives of Canada – Canadian Confederation (Nova Scotia)
    Allan Levine’s King
    The Mackenzie King Diaries – specifically, the convention
    JL Granatstein’s WL Mackenzie King
    George Bowering’s, Egotists and Autocrats
    FA McGregor’s The Fall & Rise of Mackenzie King: 1911-1919

    Liberal Leadership Races Through History (Part 1): The 19th Century

    Posted on by CalgaryGrit in History | 2 Comments

    Previously: Prologue

    In the 19th Century, political parties still followed the British tradition of having caucus select their leader. At least, they followed this tradition when they felt the need to have a leader. In both the 1867 and 1872 elections, the Liberals ran sans chef. That may seem unfathomable today, but all politics was local in those days – a look at the results of the 1867 election shows many candidates won with only a few hundred votes, and the winner was actually acclaimed in over 40 ridings. The parties themselves had been evolving for decades, and looked more like a mish-mash of like-minded factions than the leadership vehicles they are today.

    Alexander Mackenzie routinely topped the Hill Times’ “Sexiest MP” poll

    That said, after coming within 5 seats of winning the 1872 election, the Liberals recognized the time had come to name a leader.

    That Alexander Mackenzie would be that leader is somewhat surprising, when you consider his background. He had come to Canada from Scotland at the age of 20 as a stonecutter, and in the words of George Bowering:

    “He was diligent and honest, and he was not a lawyer. Despite all these drawbacks, he rose steadily through the political ranks.”

    True to form, when the time came to pick a leader, Mackenzie was reluctant to take on the title. He suggested the party look to George Brown…or Edward Blake…or Luther Hamilton Holton…or Antoine-Aimé Dorion…or anyone else. One by one, they all declined (though Blake, in true Liberal fashion, would try to oust Mackenzie two years later).

    Even though Mackenzie may not have been Mackenzie’s first choice, he was likely the man caucus wanted. He had assumed many of the traditional “leader” responsibilities in the House following Brown’s retirement in 1867 and, with Blake sick for much of the 1872 campaign, had taken on a leadership role during that election, campaigning in nearly 20 Ontario constituencies. Mackenzie was not just the “default choice” who assumed the post because no one else wanted it – he had the necessary resume and experience, and likely would have won a contested vote had there been more interest in the job.

    Sure enough, Mackenzie performed well enough in government after riding MacDonald’s Pacific Scandal to power. I won’t dwell on his time as Prime Minister, since this blog series is about how these men became leaders, but Mackenkie reshaped the way the country was run, introducing the secret ballot, single-day elections, the Auditor General’s office, and the Supreme Court.

    Mackenzie stayed true to his humble origins, turning down the Queen’s offer of a knighthood on three separate occasions. He was as honest a politician as you could find in the 19th century – perhaps in our country’s history.

    So, of course, he was doomed to failure. Which is why five MPs (including a young Wilfrid Laurier) came knocking on Mackenzie’s door in 1880, to inform him he had been replaced with…

    Edward Blake: The happiest guy in the world that Stephane Dion and Michael Ignatieff never became Prime Minister.

    Edward Blake has been remembered by history as “that Liberal who never became Prime Minister”. Which is unfair to a man who founded one of Canada’s largest law firms, served as Premier of Ontario, was chancellor of the University of Toronto, and was elected to both the Canadian and British Houses of Commons.

    Unlike Mackenzie, Blake came straight out of the politician mould, so it’s not difficult to chart how his career path led to the party leadership. His father was a politician, and Edward was educated at Upper Canada College and the University of Toronto. He was recruited into politics by George Brown and found himself leader of the Ontario Liberal Party by the age of 35. Blake jumped to federal politics in 1872 and likely would have been the first Liberal Prime Minister instead of Mackenzie, if health problems and the death of his infant daughter hadn’t prompted him to take a pass when the time came to choose the party’s first leader.

    Blake clearly had ambitions, and he kindly offered to take over the Prime Minister’s job from Mackenzie when he returned to health. When Mackenzie gave him a “thanks but no thanks” reply, Blake made some less kind speeches snidely critiquing his leader.

    Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Mackenzie convinced Blake to re-enter the Cabinet in 1875, as Minister of Justice, where he served for two years before health issues again forced him out of politics.

    By 1880, the Liberals were in opposition, and caucus was getting antsy, so – stop me if you’ve heard this story before – they forced out Mackenzie in favour of Blake.

    Blake was the obvious choice given his experience and profile, and there weren’t really any alternatives by this point – Brown and Holton had died earlier that year, and Wilfrid Laurier was still too young and too French for the job.

    However, 7 years later, Laurier was 7 years older, and the Louis Riel hanging suddenly made “the French thing” less of a liability.

    To contemporaries, Laurier paled in comparison to Edward Blake

    It’s easy to forget that those living through history don’t have the opportunity to read ahead. We get few advanced warnings for greatness. Pierre Trudeau was only crowned Liberal leader on the 4th ballot. William Lyon Mackenzie King won by 38 votes on the 5th ballot. So just because Wilfrid Laurier went on to become one of the most successful leaders in Canadian history, we shouldn’t assume everyone saw it coming in 1887. In fact, few did.

    It’s not that greatness was never expected of Laurier. He had always been a rising star – that first round draft pick you pin your hopes on. He had been elected provincially at the age of 30, and had jumped federally three years later. In 1877, he became a household name after delivering a powerful speech to 2,000 listeners in Quebec City’s Salle de Musique, dispelling the belief that being a Liberal was akin to heresy (a belief still shared by most at Sun News). Later that year, as a result of Laurier’s speech (and a nudge from the Vatican), Quebec bishops issued a decree that no political party was to be condemned. Laurier had become a star, and would soon be elevated to Cabinet as the Liberal Party’s voice – and chief organizer – in Quebec.

    Despite this early promise, Laurier’s development stalled on the opposition benches, during Blake’s leadership. Like a lot of first round picks, Laurier was starting to look more and more like a bust. He appeared “lazy” and “uninterested” in the House, prompting journalist JW Dafoe to write the following in 1884:

    “He was then in his forty-third year; but in the judgment of many his career was over. […] There were memories in the House of Laurier’s eloquence, but memories only.”

    So when Blake resigned in 1887, once again due to poor health, Laurier was not the obvious successor. In his book on Laurier, Andre Pratte remarks “had there been a spontaneous vote among the members of the Liberal caucus, Laurier would certainly not have been at the top of the list of potential successors.” While Laurier had scored points and raised his profile in Quebec after the Riel execution, many were skeptical Ontarians would ever vote for a French Canadian Catholic. Even Laurier himself was doubtful, begging Blake to stay, telling his mentor “there is no one to take your place”.

    But here is where Edward Blake, despite his flaws and failings, deserves to go down in history as one of the titans of the Liberal Party. Although prominent Ontario Liberals Richard Cartwright and David Mills expressed interest in Blake’s job, and likely had more support within caucus, Blake put down his foot and insisted on Laurier. The outgoing leader first talked Laurier into accepting his job, then talked the caucus into backing his reluctant protégé. In the end, it became a formality with Cartwright nominating and Mills seconding Laurier for the leadership post, but only because Blake had used every last drop of political capital to whip caucus in line behind his chosen successor.

    The next day, La Minerve newspaper responded with the hilarious-with-hindsight assessment of the choice as “replacing a giant by a pygmy”. It would take a few elections to prove the skeptics wrong, but thanks to Blake, Laurier would go down in history as the tallest giant in the party’s history.

    For More Information:
    Alexander Mackenzie Parliamentary Biography
    Library of Canada – Alexander Mackenzie
    The Canadian Encyclopedia – Edward Blake
    Canadian Biography – Edward Blake
    Canadian Biography – Wilfrid Laurier
    George Bowering’s very awesome book, Egotists and Autocrats
    Barbara Robertson’s Sir Wilfrid Laurier: The Great Conciliator
    Martin Spigelman’s Wilfrid Laurier
    Andre Pratte’s Extraordinary Canadians: Wilfrid Laurier

    Liberal Leadership Races Through History: Prologue

    Posted on by CalgaryGrit in History | 8 Comments

    George Brown helped found both the Liberal Party and the Globe & Mail. Brown may very well have been the first-ever “anonymous Liberal insider”.

    Between now and the Liberal leadership convention next spring, my intent is to draft a series of blog posts recapping Liberal leadership races throughout history.

    Some of these will be more thorough and more interesting than others – after all, there’s only so much one can say about Lester B. Pearson’s first ballot victory with 79% of the vote at the 1958 Liberal leadership convention. Also, I don’t think anyone visits blogs to read 20-page essays and I don’t want to spend my summer squinting at microfiche, so these posts will be concise, and will primarily draw from (and cite) articles and books for source material. At least until we get into the modern era, when first hand accounts become more accessible.

    Before we begin, it’s worth pausing to decide where to begin. My original intent was to start with William Lyon Mackenzie King’s 5th ballot victory at Canada’s first ever leadership convention, in 1919. But that would be ignoring over 50 years of history, and if I’m going to write anything about the 2008 leadership contest (and believe me, I’ve got plenty to say), I can’t very well overlook other Liberal leaders who were appointed by caucus. So the first installment of this series will recap how Alexander Mackenzie, Edward Blake, and Wilfrid Laurier were selected.

    But jumping straight to Mackenzie’s ascension in 1873 overlooks the fact that the Liberal Party was very much alive and kicking for the 1867 and 1872 elections. And if we look at the pre-confederation fossil records, we can find another 7 or 8 elections fought by various ancestors of the Liberal Party.

    So before we get to the Liberal Party leader with the most integrity and the most facial hair, let’s gaze briefly into pre-history.

    In the Beginning…

    The temptation is to start in 1867, but 1867 can’t truly be considered the beginning, since the Liberal Party pre-dates confederation. As convenient as it is to assume Canadian history begins July 1st, 1867, there were meaningful elections fought in the province of Canada going all the way back to 1841. Heck, there’s even a Heritage Minute on it:

    Baldwin and Lafontaine led the Reform Party, a movement that would split wide open in 1854, with the moderates joining the Tories to found the Liberal-Conservative Party, and the radicals coalescing into the Clear Grits in Upper Canada and the Rouges in Lower Canada. Depending on where you draw the line between “party” and “ad hoc rainbow coalition”, the Clear Grits and Rouges morphed into the Liberal Party sometime between the late 1850s and early 1870s.

    During this period, George Brown was the de facto leader of the Liberals in Upper Canada, and even got to be Prime Minister for 2 days in 1858. Brown is likely best known today as the founder of the Globe – a paper he used to advance his reform agenda. When Brown was shot and killed in 1880, the culprit would be a disgruntled newspaper employee rather than a political assassin.

    Brown’s passion was politics, and by the time the 1867 election rolled around, he was Ontario Liberal Leader, and the most prominent Grit in the newly-founded country. Although the Liberals had no official leader, it seems almost certain he would have assumed the title of Prime Minister had Sir John A been upset in the new country’s first election.

    So in many respects, you could argue Brown was the Liberal Party’s first true leader, and the country’s first Liberal Prime Minister – if only for a few hours, long before confederation. But most would instead bestow those honours on Alexander Mackenzie – which is where we’ll begin part 1 of this Liberal leadership series next week.

    For More Information…
    Canadian Heritage Gallery
    The Canadian Encyclopedia
    History of the Liberal Party of Canada
    The Quebec History Encyclopedia
    Will Ferguson’s Bastards and Boneheads

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