by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
The very political machine that Manitoba Premier Rodmond Roblin, with the help of Public Works Minister Robert Rogers, developed would contribute to his government’s downfall as its tentacles spread outward beyond individual control. In the end, it was a scandal over kickbacks to the party, involving the contract to build the new Manitoba Legislative Building, that brought down the Roblin government in 1915.
But before there was the Manitoba Legislative Building scandal, there was the Gimli byelection of 1913, which was blighted by the widespread suspicion that corrupt practices were used to elect Conservative candidate Edmund L. Taylor to the legislature.
When criticizing the party politics of the era — Conservative and Liberal, alike — Manitoba historian, W.L. Morton, was still able to define Roblin as “a man of great energy, simplicity and directness of mind and ... a vigilant realism in reading public opinion and a keen sense of human foibles and weaknesses. A certain pomposity of speech and manner, a self-confidence, that verged on arrogance, a personal loyalty which approached a blind trust in colleagues were to mar the strong characteristics of Roblin as they hardened into fixed habit.”
Morton went on to say that Roblin was a man of great ability and achievement who was known to be honest in his dealings, but his downfall was that he was swept away by the mechanics of blind partisan politics. Morton added that Roblin “deserved a better fate” and the party he led deserved “more loyal and honest service from its agents.”
It can be argued that the Conservative political machine had become intoxicated by its own success. And as successful election outcomes ensued through the use of ever-increasing suspect tactics, beginning in 1900 when the party came to power, it was difficult to restrain the urge to up the ante to ensure even more electoral successes followed.
The Roblin “agents” that invaded Gimli in 1913 were primarily civil servants, who owed their loyalty to the regime since they were appointed to their positions by the Conservative government. Workers appointed or hired by one government could be fired with the election of another party. To avoid the unemployment line, civil servants willingly did the bidding of their political masters to whom they owed their patronage positions.
It wasn’t until a civil service commission was established by Tobias Crawford “T.C.” Norris’ Liberal government after the 1915 election that some semblance of independence from political interference was realized by Manitoba’s civil servants.
The province’s political parties at first relied upon railways to fund their election campaigns, soliciting donations in exchange for favourable — although rather suspect — treatment. But by the early 1900s, this source of revenue was drying up and grand construction projects funded through the public purse offered another cash cow to be exploited. Money earmarked in the provincial budget for roads was only partially used in their construction with the “left-over” funds ending up in party coffers.
Parties in power tampered with voters’ lists — voter registration was in the hands of government appointees who weren’t averse to removing another party’s supporters from the list — and ridings were redistributed to make it more likely their candidates would be re-elected.
Ballot boxes in key ridings went missing or were burned under suspicious circumstances — the most infamous example was the “Burning of the Gimli Ballot Box” in 1886 — or boxes were stuffed to “steal” elections. Elections were sometimes marred by violence with supporters of one party slugging it out with the opposition.
When candidates were unsuccessful, it was not uncommon for them to accuse successful opponents of some alleged wrongdoing in an attempt to have the courts overturn the election results. Newspapers of the day are filled with accounts of legal actions — “protests” or “petitions” by losers against their opponents.
A report indicated 120 “protests” were filed following elections between 1887 and 1915 against political opponents. In the 1914 general election alone, 10 protests were filed against Liberal candidates while seven were filed against Conservatives. The number of protests may have been high, but only a couple resulted in a full investigation.
On February 29, 1912, the Manitoba Free Press reported Liberal MLA S. Hart Green was arrested, “To make the game easier for the Conservative machine in North (Winnipeg) ... on election day, and of course (he was) released without any charge being laid against him.”
The same tactic was used against party workers. The Winnipeg Tribune, a newspaper owned by independent R.L. Richardson, commented on September 21, 1911, that “If the battle warrants between Liberals and Conservatives continues, it is doubtful if there will be any citizens out of jail by the time the polls close, and extra jail accommodations will have to be provided.”
In the case of the Gimli byelection, the evidence for misuse of public funds and attempts to bribe the electorate was far too widespread and overt to be shrugged off as simply being business as usual. As a result, newspapers opposed to the Conservative regime had a relatively easy time providing numerous instances of election improprieties in the Gimli constituency.
A correspondent in Ashern told the Free Press that the western portion of the Interlake was being flooded with government-employed building inspectors, homestead inspectors, weed inspectors, licence inspectors, road inspectors, provincial constables and other (government) workers, “begging, cajoling and employing other demoralizing means of securing the vote for Taylor.”
It was reported that at least 500 government and party workers flooded into the constituency to help Taylor get elected. The Free Press said the “gang spread over the doomed constituency like an invasion of barbarians, a dozen to each poll.”
On the other hand, Roblin would later point out that unlike Liberals MLAs who campaigned in support of Eggertsson, no Conservative MLAs campaigned on behalf of Taylor during the Gimli byelection. Of course, with so many other party troops in the field, it was completely unnecessary for Tory MLAs to enter the fray.
Government workers distributed liquor along the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) line between Oak Point and Gypsumville, “one or two leaving the train at each of the principle places.”
In another report to the newspaper, J.B. Hugg, a lawyer from Winnipeg, said that while he was in Ashern he saw C.F. Byrnes, the owner of the West Hotel in Winnipeg’s North End, accompanied by three “stout helpers,” get off the train and take up residence in the local hotel. From his hotel room, Byrnes distributed whiskey he had brought from Winnipeg to the voters of the district, who were given to understand that if they voted for Taylor, local roads would be graded. Road contracts were also promised to prominent citizens visiting the hotel room.
As it turned out, Brynes was one the Conservative “heelers,” who were enlisted to spread the party’s message during election campaigns. Hotelkeepers were especially obliging to Roblin, who kept the temperance forces at bay — prohibition would have been disasterous to their bar liquor sales.
Three barrels of whiskey were sent to Arborg by mistake during the byelection that had been repainted and relabeled “salt pork.” The barrels were retrieved, sent to Teulon and then onward to their intended destination of Chatfield where the liquor was dispensed to thirsty voters, although it was also reported that those guarding the liquid cargo had freely sampled the spirits and were drunk by the time they reached Inwood en route to Chatfield.
Ironically, Taylor was a prominent member of the Methodist Church in Winnipeg and an avowed teetotaler. It is difficult to imagine that he personally approved of the methods used by the political operatives sent to help in his campaign. But by all accounts, Taylor did nothing to intervene, possibly due to the fact that he choose to turn a blind eye and intentionally remain ignorant of the illegal methods used to solicit votes in his favour.
Whatever the reasons for his silence, the campaign was a great success — Taylor defeated Liberal candidate Arni Eggertsson by 842 votes. The only poll carried by Eggertsson was Arborg. As a result of Taylor’s landslide victory, Eggertsson lost his $200 candidacy deposit, since he failed to obtain the required number of votes to keep it under the terms of the Manitoba Election Act. The Liberals were apparently quite surprised by the overwhelming vote in favour of Taylor, as were the Tories by how successful they had been in supporting Taylor’s candidacy.
A Free Press editorial, one day after the election, called the result indicative of the strength of the “ruling political machine.”
(Next week: part 3)