Whether we like it or not, after being confined to our homes for a year and a half we are all now off on a haphazard journey. Canada’s 44th federal election has begun. We will now be coaxed, bribed, and flattered. There will be appeals to the logic of our minds and yearnings of our hearts.
This election matters because all elections matter. Ask Americans if it mattered that Donald Trump defeated Hilary Clinton. While all elections are important, some are more important than others. Over the next few weeks I will consider Canadian elections that were more significant than others because of the changes they wrought.
The Canadians or Colonials Election – 1926
Liberal Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was an odd duck loner with notoriously bad breath and totally bereft of charisma. Conservative leader Arthur Meighen was a brilliant debater but a sour puss who made clear that be believed himself to be the smartest man in any room he occupied. In the 1925 election, King lost his seat and the popular vote. He won only 116 seats to Meighen’s 131. But King refused to resign. He met with Governor General Lord Byng and said he would try to continue as prime minister with the support of the Progressives, a fringe party comprised mostly of disaffected Liberals. It worked, for a bit.
Parliament resumed in January 1926. Still unable to sit in the House, King had his able Quebec lieutenant Ernest Lapointe audaciously move a government confidence motion on itself! He was interrupted by Meighen who leapt up to move one of his own. The speaker allowed debate on Meighen’s motion. The Progressives supported the Liberals which allowed King to maintain his tenuous hold on power.
In February, King won a hastily-called by election in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. He was back in the House in time to have his government attacked as corrupt regarding a customs department issue. By the end of June, it appeared that the government would lose a censure vote; in effect, a vote of non-confidence. King dodged by going to see Byng. He asked the governor general to dissolve parliament and call a new election.
Eton-educated Viscount Byng of Vimy had led British troops in South Africa and Canadians at the fabled Vimy Ridge. His family had been Lords, Viscounts, Earls, and such for generations. He was not about to be pushed around by this pudgy little colonial. He said no. The Canadian prime minister could not have the election he wanted. King’s only option was to resign the next day. Byng summoned Meighen, appointed him prime minister, and ordered him to form a government.
Now opposition leader, King rose to ask if parliamentary procedures had been followed and all newly appointed cabinet ministers had taken their oaths of office. They had not. They had done a political two-step to avoid resigning and running for office again as all cabinet ministers had to do in those days. King had them on a technicality. King moved a motion declaring that Meighen’s government was not legally in power. Then, for the first time in Canadian history, a government was defeated with a vote of non-confidence. Now an election had to happen. It was set for September 23, 1926.
The campaign had only one issue. Who governs Canada? Is it the British-appointed governor general or the prime minister who had been elected by the Canadian people? King said, “a constitutional issue greater than any has been raised in Canada since the founding of this Dominion.” Ironically, just as Canadian nationalism had been stirred by the glorious victory at Vimy Ridge, Byng was at the centre of it all again when a new nationalist pride was felt in the breasts of many Canadians. After all, there is no deeper existential question than who are we? The 1926 election was posing that fundamental question and demanding an answer. Are we Canadians or colonials?
King took the message across the country. For two weeks, Meighen spoke of tariffs and King’s corruption and political trickery but then he too addressed little more than what had been dubbed the King-Byng Thing.
Voter turnout was high, demonstrating the importance Canadians placed in the election’s question. King and his Liberals were returned to power with 128 seats and a solid majority. Its support grew from 40% to 46%. Meighen’s Conservatives won only 91 seats. In an uncomfortable meeting, Byng asked King to again become prime minister and form a government.
Weeks later, the Canadian election was the talk of a previously scheduled imperial conference. Inspired by Canada’s temerity, the other British dominions demanded all that the Balfour Declaration had suggested and insisted that they and Britain be deemed equal. Britain agreed. Negotiations continued until in December 1931 the Statute of Westminster declared that Canada and the other Dominions were independent and that Britain could no longer pass laws that applied to them. Governor Generals became subordinate to prime ministers.
Elections matter. The 1926 election determined that Canada would be an independent state.
(If you enjoyed this article, please check my other work at johnboyko.com or my books – my latest is The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)