Elections Matter

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.

Arthur Meighen

            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.

Viscount Byng of Vimy

            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.

William Lyon Mackenzie King

            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.

Legacy

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.)

Our next Governor General is Amazing

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Mary Simon would be Canada’s 30th Governor General; the first Indigenous person to serve in that role. Simon is a tremendous choice.

(photo: CTVNews)

Mary Simon was born in the tiny village of Kangiqsualujjuaq, on the east coast of Ungava Bay, at the tip top of Quebec. While her mother was Inuk, her father was an English Canadian who ran the local Hudson’s Bay Company post. Simon and her seven siblings grew up spending months every year on the land, hunting food.

Simon has dedicated her life to public service; specifically, to protecting and advancing the rights of the Inuit people in an environmentally sustainable north. As the board secretary of the Northern Quebec Inuit Association, she played a role in negotiating the 1975 James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement – Canada’s first comprehensive Indigenous land claim settlement. She was elected vice president and then president of the Makivik Corporation, which administered the agreement’s complex terms.

Simon served as the secretary and then co-director of policy with the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. Its 1996 report outlined a 20-year plan to restructure the relationship between Canadians and Indigenous peoples.

The next year, Simon became one of three Canadians representing the country on the Joint Public Advisory Committee of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. She was elected committee chair in 1998.

From 1986 to 1992, Simon served as president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference. It represents nearly 200,000 Inuit in Alaska, Russia, Greenland, and Canada and lobbies governments to protect Inuit interests while advancing social and economic development. She then served as Canada’s ambassador for Circumpolar Affairs from 1994 to 2003. At the same time, from 1999 to 2001, she was Canada’s ambassador to Denmark.

Beginning in 2001, Simon served as a Counsellor on the Carter Centre’s International Council for Conflict Resolution. The Carter Centre was founded by former US president Jimmy Carter and seeks to mitigate and prevent conflicts around the world.

Simon served on the Nunavut Implementation Commission which, beginning in 1994, consulted Inuit communities to ensure their interests were reflected in the creation of Canada’s newest territory: Nunavut.

From 2006 to 2012, Simon was president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. It lobbies the federal and provincial governments with respect to Inuit rights in the north. Its work has become especially important as the very real effects of the climate crisis are altering life in the north. 

Simon has always respected education as the engine of change. From 2008 to 2014, she chaired the National Committee on Inuit Education. It brought positive changes to education in the north and ensured that Inuit children respect their cultural heritage and are taught in their own language.

The announcement that Simon would become Canada’s first Indigenous governor general was made in the shadow of recent revelations of mass graves being discovered outside several residential “schools.” The horrific news focussed attention on Canada’s history of systemic racism. Standing next to Prime Minister Trudeau, Simon observed, “My appointment reflects our collective progress toward building a more inclusive, just, and equitable society.”

I hope she’s right. We deserve to be pleased that it is no longer remarkable that our next governor general will be a woman. Let’s look forward to the day when the fact that a prominent official is Indigenous is no longer newsworthy. For now, let us celebrate the fact that our new governor general is such a well-qualified and simply amazing person.

(If you enjoyed this article, please see my others at www.johnboyko.com and you might even want to check out my books including my most recently published The Devil’s Trick: How Canada Fought the Vietnam War.)