Today every adult Canadian can vote, but only about half do. Here’s what it was like when they fought their way to the polls, often sold their votes and sometimes found cheats had stolen the election



Today every adult Canadian can vote, but only about half do. Here’s what it was like when they fought their way to the polls, often sold their votes and sometimes found cheats had stolen the election




Today every adult Canadian can vote, but only about half do. Here’s what it was like when they fought their way to the polls, often sold their votes and sometimes found cheats had stolen the election


When Canadians go to the polls this year, each voter will be handed a ballot on which he will pencil an X opposite one of the candidates’ names. He will fold and return the ballot to the deputy returning officer, who will tear off the counterfoil and, without opening it, drop it through the slot in the ballot box.

In less than a minute it will be over and the voter will have been a more or less casual part of an electoral system that has evolved from ninety years of effort by the country's legislators. The system is governed by an act that has probably been amended more than any other in the statute books, each change prompted by incidents at elections.

Canada’s twenty-third federal election, which is rapidly approaching, will probably be a pretty orderly affair, but in the past Canada has had elections marked by riots and broken skulls. They were held under conditions, and occasionally produced results, that seem almost unbelievable today.

One election lasted six weeks; in another, two men were declared elected to a single seat. Frequently in Canada's early days men were elected to two and even three seats.

The first three federal elections after Confederation in 1867 did not include the use of a ballot; there was no secret vote. Until 1874 all votes (except in New Brunswick) were made orally by electors. As logical as the secret ballot seems now, it was not without a struggle that it finally was adopted.

The first recorded use of the ballot was in Athens in the fifth century B.C. It was largely abandoned during the Middle Ages, but by the nineteenth century it had become common in some countries of Europe. It was used in local or provincial elections in Canada before Confederation but. before its adoption in England in 1872, was rejected for federal elections. Canadian opponents argued that the ballot would loster lying and deception. “A workman, for example,” said one MP, “having promised his employer to vote one way would vote another.”

In 1870 the member for Hochelaga, Que., Antoine Dorion (who later became Liberal minister of justice), argued, “In England the ballot has never been adopted, as it is considered unmanly and not according to English system or practice.” He said the ballot had been used in New Brunswick since 1855 and had been adopted for local elections in the larger cities of Lower Canada as early as 1845 “after several lives were lost in riots. ' Apparently announcing one's choice—often in a loud, aggressive fashion—precipitated many fights.

Then Dorion, speaking in the House of Commons, mentioned the real reason many politicians fought the ballot.

I hose opposed,” he said, “are afraid that if the ballot was adopted they might not be sure of getting the votes after having bought them. (Laughter.)”

But the election of 1874, probably the most corrupt in Canadian history, brought about several changes to the federal electoral laws, among them being continued on page 36

continued from page 29

adoption of the ballot at all the polls.

The Conservatives, under the great but opportunistic Sir John A. Macdonald, had been victorious in the elections of 1867 and 1872, but in 1873 the notorious Canadian Pacific scandal broke. It was revealed that during the 1872 campaign Sir Hugh Allan and American industrialists associated with him, whose Canada Pacific Co. had been granted the charter to build the transcontinental railway, had made contributions totalling three hundred and fifty thousand dollars to the Conservative Party, in November 1873 Macdonald resigned and the Liberal leader, Alexander Mackenzie, formed a new cabinet.

In a general election the following January the Liberals won an overwhelming victory, taking 143 of the 206 Commons seats. Subsequently, however, 65 of the seats were contested on grounds of corruption—almost a third of the House of Commons. Two of the petitions were dismissed, 14 members were confirmed in their seats, but 30 Liberals and 19 Conservatives were unseated. The trials provided newspaper sensations for a full year.

Charges of corruption were fairly easy to prove because it was only necessary to show that a supporter of a candidate had been guilty of one instance of bribery or other illegal act to disqualify the candidate. In one trial held in Cornwall, Ont., in which the petitioner and defeated candidate, Dr. Darby Bergin, charged that Alexander F. Macdonald had been guilty of corruption, a witness, Charles Mullen, testified that he had intended to vote for Bergin but two men got him into a sleigh on a pretext and drove him fourteen miles out of town, making it impossible for him to return before the polls closed. An election worker admitted giving an elector twenty dollars for a pig that was worth only eight, and then neglecting to take delivery of the pig. The presiding judge remarked that apparently an average of three dollars had been paid by Macdonald for each vote he received, and voided the election.

The trial that probably attracted the most attention took place in London, Ont., where Major (later I.t.-Col.) John Walker, running as an independent Liberal. defeated the Conservative candidate, Sir John Carling, by the narrow margin of sixty-one votes. Carling charged Walker with “bribery, treating, undue influence and personation.”

The hearing before Chief Justice Hagarty lasted four days and commanded as much as four columns of space in Toronto newspapers, which were then only four to six pages in size. Among the witnesses were several prominent Londoners who had worked on behalf of Walker, including Frederick A. Fitzgerald, a successful grocer who became first president of Imperial Oil. and Thomas H. Smallman, a railway ticket agent who made a fortune in chemicals and oil. Seventeen witnesses, among them John Campbell, a former mayor of the city, were proven guilty of corrupt practices, although there was no proof against Walker himself. It was testified that as much as fifty dollars was given for a single vote.

The public attitude toward corruption at the time is suggested by a comment that appeared in the Canadian Monthly: “The worst feature of the case is the levity with which the disclosures are received.”

The chief justice noted that for the 1,260 votes polled for Walker, at least nine thousand dollars, or an average of seven dollars per vote, had been spent. He said the election was “tainted and voided by wholesale corruption.” Walker was unseated, and in a new contest Carling won.

Just two months after the 1874 election the ballot was incorporated in a new election act. But the ballot, although it made voting secret, did not eliminate corruption. Electoral officers could still be bribed to overlook impersonation, the names of the dead could still be added to franchise lists and men could be found to vote under those names. Legitimate electors could still be disfranchised by the stroke of an official pen and ballot boxes could still be stuffed or stolen. Corruption reached such a pitch that in 1884 a pamphlet was printed in Montreal, entitled “Election by Lot—the only Remedy for Political Corruption.”

As Canada's population grew and voting lists lengthened, it became increasingly expensive to buy election victories. But eighty years ago most elections were won by slim majorities due to the fact that not many people had the right to vote. Until 1885 provincial franchise laws were applied to federal elections, and these varied from province to province, generally giving the vote to property owners only. This meant that less than twenty percent of Canadians could vote (compared to more than fifty percent now) and in Brit-

ish Columbia it was as low as eleven percent.

The first federal franchise act, in 1885, gave the vote to tenants who paid twenty dollars a year in rent (and whose rent was paid up) as well as to income and wage earners who made at least three hundred dollars a year. This raised the voting population to about twenty-three percent of the whole. By 1898 five provinces had manhood suffrage, only Quebec and Nova Scotia clinging to property qualifications. Women with fathers, brothers, husbands or sons in the armed forces were enfranchised in 1917, and the next year almost all women of age were given the right to vote in federal elections.

In 1920 provincial franchise laws were abandoned for federal elections, and in 1938 the franchise act was incorporated into the Dominion Elections Act, the name being changed in 1951 to the Canada Elections Act.

This act enfranchises almost all Canadians of both sexes over the age of twenty-one. Among those barred from the franchise are the 263 returning officers who are permitted to vote only if there is a tie in their own electoral districts. This clause was added after a by-election in 1871 in Marquette, Man., where two candidates each polled 282 votes and the returning officer declared both were elected. Before the matter could be settled parliament was dissolved. Since then the returning officer has had to act as a tiebreaker only twice, in 1891 in Brome, Que., and in 1935 in Chaplean, Que. Such an occasion may have been behind the comment made by Norman Ward in his 1950 book The Canadian House of Commons: “1 am informed on unimpeachable authority the returning officer must not only know the law but also be able to hit with both fists and run like a deer.”

The most recently enfranchised group are the Doukhobors of British Columbia who this year will be eligible to vote in a federal election for the first time.

Today it is taken for granted that all Canadians will mark their ballots on the same day, but it was not always thus. T he first election following Confederation in 1867 was extended over a period of six weeks. The Conservative government first opened polls in districts it felt sure it could win, then gradually worked along to the tougher districts, anticipating that a certain number of voters would be swayed in their decision by early Conservative victories. The second election of 1872 lasted nearly three months. This system also allowed men with property in various parts of the country to travel about and vote in each constituency in which they were enfranchised.

Staggered voting days allowed another custom that the government found useful: a candidate defeated in one district had time to move on to another in the same election. For more than fifty years after Confederation a member of parliament could be a candidate in more than one riding. If he was successful in more than one he was supposed to choose and represent one only. This rule was not strictly observed, however. The record was set by Sir Wilfrid Laurier who held two seats from 1911 to 1917. I he rule became law in 1919.

In practice, only party leaders sought two seats in one election; both Macdonald and Laurier did it consistently. Macdonald, during the election of 1878, actually ran in three constituencies; two days after being beaten in Kingston, he was elected by acclamation in Marquette, Man., and a month later he was elected to what was thought a safer seat in Victoria, B.C.

In 1874 the holding of all elections on

one day became law, certain exceptions being made for a time because of the inaccessibility of some parts of the country.

Over the years many other changes have been made to the Elections Act to try to prevent abuses and punish infractions but its efficiency is dependent on the basic honesty of both candidates and electors.

The ballot paper itself has undergone several modifications, not only to protect the secrecy of the vote, but to reduce the chance of error. The simple X with which a vote is recorded is to ensure that a voter cannot make a mark that can be identified as being his—in such a case enabling him to sell his vote and prove that he had fulfilled his part of the bargain.

At one time the name of the printer appeared in small print at the top of the ballot but this was eliminated after it was found electors were casting votes for him.

Until 1888 when a precise weight of ballot paper and a hard, smooth marking surface became mandatory, ballots might be of such light weight they were trans parent, or the surface on which they ha to be marked so rough as to allow the mark to show through. In either case it meant the vote could be read, and consequently it could be sold. After the ballot became standardized, a deputy returning officer was still able to check on a vote by initialing the ballot in a special way, which would enable him to pick it out later. T his was actually possible until 1949 when it was decreed that the deputy returning officer should initial all ballots before the polls open.

“Every safeguard in the act, such as this," says Chief Electoral Officer Nelson Castonguay, “was inserted because someone found a loophole.”

Fewer votes from graveyards

It is surprising how long it has taken for some loopholes to be found and plugged. Until 1938. for example, the law stated that poll doors were to be closed at eight p.m.. but it also said that, at the discretion of the deputy returning officer, only one person at a time might be admitted to the poll. So if there should be a long lineup of electors still w'aiting to vote at eight p.m.. they were automatically disfranchised when the door was shut. It was simple, therefore, for a deputy returning officer to slow down the voting process in a district known to be unfavorable to the party that appointed him. I he act was finally altered to the effect that any elector arriving at the poll before closing time must be permitted to vote.

Enumerators (who make up the election lists) were once chosen by the returning officers, who in turn are appointed by the party in power. Consequently, all enumerators were either party Liberals or party Conservatives, and the election became more than ever a part of the machine of the incumbent party. Now, in accordance with the act. the two enumerators at each polling division are named by the candidates representing the two leading parties at the previous election— one enumerator being named by one candidate, the second enumerator by the other candidate. This has made it difficult for enumerators to add names appearing on local cemetery headstones, either to increase their own fee (they are paid on a per-name basis) or to open the way for impersonation.

“1 won’t say there’s absolutely no padding,” says Castonguay. "but certainly there’s no wholesale padding as there used to be.”

It is not necessary to go back very far

for evidence of such padding. In 1938 Charles H. Cahan, a former Conservative secretary of state and long-time member for Montreal’s St. Lawrence-St. George constituency, told a parliamentary committee, “I know at the last election (1935) in the city of Montreal, in my own constituency, there was a regular colonization of the home for the indigent. 1 know of some three hundred votes that were brought in there.”

Senator C. G. Power (at the time Liberal MP for Quebec South and minister of pensions and national health) said in the House in 19.38, “Certain gangs, mostly from the U. S., will undertake to poll so many votes at an election.” On another occasion Power said. “It is within my memory that people were literally bought on the market place, gangs of forty or fifty men actually sitting on the fence, waiting until funds were provided so they could vote.”

The extent to which corruption was tolerated was indicated by Cahan who said, “In Montreal you may . . . arrest them for impersonation, but they are all let out at six o’clock.”

He told of action taken by his own workers to stop impersonation. “In one election they destroyed twelve cabs within the first three hours of polling by simply taking hatchets and cutting through the tires and rims . . . and not a single soul in the city dared to arrest them.”

Phis type of incident makes more plausible a seemingly farfetched section of the act. which authorizes the returning officer or his deputy to “require any person within half a mile of the place of nomination or of the polling station to deliver to him any firearm, sword, stave, bludgeon or other offensive weapon in ihe hands or personal possession of such person.”

In the early days, although there was

no law to so decree, election day was by custom a holiday. In 1929 when the act was changed to make election day a Monday, the holiday idea was brought up but rejected.

An interesting part of the Elections Act is Section 108, which restricts publication of election results. It was added to the act in 1938 and was a direct result of the election of 1935, by which time radio broadcasting had reached its peak. The polls on the east coast close four hours before the polls on the west coast and in this election, results of the Maritime voting were broadcast in British Columbia in good time, it was argued later, to influence the voting there. Now no one can legally “in any province before the hour of closing of the polls in such province, publish the result or purported result of the polling in any electoral district in Canada, whether such publication is by radio broadcast, or by newspaper, news sheet, poster, billboard, handbill, or in any other manner.”

Many sections of the act have been passed simply in the interest of peace— Section 49, for example, which forbids providing or using “any loud speaker, bunting, ensign, banner, standard or set of colors, or any other flag ... as political propaganda on the day immediately preceding the day of the election and before the closing of the polls on the day of the election.”

This section also forbids the wearing of any “ribbon, label or like favor,” so the display of lapel buttons of the “I Like Ike” variety within two days of an election is taboo. And outlawed by the section is the type of explosive behavior of which, it is recorded, a prominent Conservative farmer is supposed to have been guilty in a Quebec town back in the 1880s. In Quebec the Liberals were known as the Ranges and the Conservatives as the Bleus. On election day the

farmer did his best fo set frre fo fhe normally charged atmosphere by leading his cow through the streets of the town, her horns bedecked with blue ribbons and with red ribbons hanging under her tail.

The system of open nominations was also changed because they were frequently the occasion of riots. With open nominations, all candidates in a riding were proposed at a single open meeting. In 1867 the meeting was such a shambles in the Quebec riding of Kamouraska that no election could be held. The Liberals charged that at one nomination the presiding officer heard the name of the Conservative nominee but was unable to hear any Liberal shouts, then declared the Conservative candidate elected by acclamation.

Comparatively peaceful nominations by a petition bearing twenty-five signatures were substituted by the Liberals following the 1874 election, and candidates were required to make a deposit of fifty dollars, which was not refundable. The latter was to reduce the number of frivolous candidates who had their names put up only in the hope that someone would buy them off. In 1882 the Conservatives increased the deposit to two hundred dollars, which wotdd be refunded to the winner and all others with more than half the winner's votes. In 1920 the number of petition signatures required was reduced to ten, but the two-hundred-dollar deposit—a good salary for six months’ work in 1882 but only a fair salary for a month’s work today—remains the same.

Various committees set up periodically to study the act have failed to recommend that a candidate’s party affiliation be placed on the ballot with his name, in spite of the fact that there have been cases of apparently deliberate attempts to confuse the electorate by putting up a candidate with the same or a similar name to that of a strong incumbent or his chief rival.

The last abortive attempt to designate political affiliations on the ballot was made in 1955 when Ray Thomas, Social Credit MP for Wetaskiwin, Alta., pointed out that in the general election of 1953 there were six ridings in which at least

two candidates had the same name, the only differences to guide the voter being the candidates’ addresses and occupations, which also appear.

In the election of 1949 Arza Clair Casselman, Conservative whip in the House, who has been firmly entrenched in the Ontario constituency of GrenvilleDundas for years, was opposed by one James Franklin Casselman, whom he defeated. In the 1953 election, learning that the Liberals would run as official candidate a man named Arthur Clark Casselman, the Conservative member changed his listing to A. Clair Casselman so it would appear first on the ballot (which lists names alphabetically), and won again.

Another example is provided by the Quebec riding of Berthier-MaskinongéDelanaudière where Liberal Joseph Langlois had been elected in 1949. In 1953 voters were confronted with the following confusing list of names:

Adrien Arcand, Lanoraie, journaliste

Joseph Langlais, Yamachichc, mécanicien

Joseph Langlois, Saint Justin, notaire

Joseph Elie Langlois, Maskinongé, notaire.

The Liberal incumbent’s name was thus bracketed by a Langlais, who ran as an independent and whose name was the same as Liberal Langlois with the exception of one letter, and by another Langlois who ran as a Progressive-Conservative and whose occupation of notary was the same. In spite of these hazards, however, Joseph Langlois again won with a comfortable majority.

Possibly the most effective use of similar names was made in the days of Macdonald when Dr. Charles Frederick Ferguson, a Conservative whose son became premier of Ontario, won a federal election in North Leeds and Grenville riding by having tacked on trees outside each polling station signs reading: “I commend my friend, Mr. Ferguson, to the support of the electors. John A. Macdonald.” The name was that of the blacksmith in Ferguson’s home town, ic