While Canada and Ontario celebrate their 150th anniversaries it might be worth recalling how just closely they were conjoined politically 100 years ago.
Politics in Canada and Ontario was much different than today. For one, it was entirely a male preoccupation — though the seeds of change were embedded in much of the political debate between 1910 and 1925.
Politics in Ontario and Canada was also different than today because it was very personal and intense.
The social media in the first quarter of the 20th century were newspapers. Public debate took place in local newspapers which, in many communities, were unashamedly for one political party or the other. You were a Liberal or a Conservative, just like your father before you. You read only local party supporter newspapers, shopped at party supporter stores and drank (when it was legal) with fellow party supporters.
Temperance and whether candidates were “wet” or “dry” provoked enormously intense debate in communities and in Ontario’s legislature.
Other issues, largely national in nature, related to Canadians ties to the mother country — Britain.
Trade was an issue in the federal reciprocity election of 1911. Conservatives believed in tariffs and a preference for trade with the Empire (the British Commonwealth). Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals – who lost the 1911 election – believed that freer trade with the United States would help Canada develop.
A victorious Conservative federal government under Robert Borden decided to solidify its support for Britain by contributing $35 million for construction of three dreadnoughts, should an emerging German navy sail out of line.
The Naval Service Bill debate of 1911-12 pitted the nationalism of Laurier’s Liberals against the Empire view of Borden’s Conservatives.
The Naval Service Bill actually originated under Laurier’s government in 1910, when Canada sought to develop its own navy. British opposition resulted in Canada finally being given two old British ships: HMC Niobe and HMC Rainbow. Both were scrapped by 1917.
The Naval Service Bill passed through the House of Commons under the Conservatives but was rejected by a then Liberal dominated Senate.
This set the stage for what became the most controversial federal election in Canadian history, the conscription election of 1917.
Under pressure from the British, and after a visit to Canadian troops in Europe, Borden’s Conservative government introduced electoral legislation which, among other things, gave soldiers on the front a vote and women with relatives in the war the right to vote.
Then the Borden government introduced a bill imposing conscription — mandatory military service.
Conscription was vigorously opposed in Quebec and by Laurier’s Liberals. Borden won the 1917 election and formed a Unionist government overwhelmingly representing English speaking Canada. The rise of contemporary Quebec nationalism can be traced in part to this 1917 election.
Meanwhile in Ontario, a bitter conscription side issue erupted in the November 1919 provincial election.
Borden had promised that farmers would be largely exempt from conscription. The promise was not kept and Ontario’s rural voters responded by electing the first ever third party coalition government of 49 United Farmers of Ontario and 11 Labour MPPs under UFO co-founder Premier Ernest Charles Drury.
Drury’s government initiated numerous policies, including minimum wages for women, development of Ontario Hydro and protection of the rights of children. However, his strict stand on temperance, the embarrassment of a minister going to jail on alcohol related charges, and Drury’s efforts to introduce proportional representation and the single transferable ballot resulted in the great Ontario legislative filibuster. As a result, his government was defeated in the subsequent 1923 Ontario election by the Conservatives.
Political debates in turn-of-century Canada were often fought with great speeches and wit. Debates were intense, but today the issues seem strange.
Of course, debate on Twitter scarcely parallels the manner in which serious political battles were once fought in Canada. The great public debates are now departed in favour of semi-coherent flips on a social media.