100 years ago big issues dominated mayoralty race

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

This year’s election mayoralty campaign hasn’t exactly attracted the undivided attention of the electorate. Although four candidates are running  — Sam Katz, Kaj Hasselriis, Marianne Cerilli and Ron Pollack — the consensus is that Katz has command over the field because of the power of incumbency and the failure of the challengers to bring forth attention-grabbing big issues to instill a sense of urgency in voters.

While this year’s race is seen as somewhat of a ho-hum affair, 100 years ago there were a number of big issues which did cause voters to take notice. Greater participation in the election was also assured by the expansion of the city’s boundaries and the creation of the new ward of Elmwood (No. 7 Ward) which had previously been within the Municipality of Kildonan. 

The December 11, 1906, civic election was noted for voters being able to participate in a major reconstruction of civic government, a potential shake-up in the leadership at city hall and two plebiscites, one of which would help decide the future of telephone service in the city.

“Never in the history of Winnipeg civic elections has the fight between the respective candidates been so brief, but what has been lacking in length has been made up by the snap with which the contest has been waged,” said an editorial in the Morning Telegram a day before the election. “In fact the contest is one of the hottest mayoralty fights that Winnipeg has seen for years. Both sides have strained every nerve to carry the day ...”

Actually, the implications of the issues — including wrestling with a massive city debt — played a roll in potential candidates being hestitant to enter the race. When two candidates did decide to run, there was only a limited time to campaign for the mayor’s chair.

The two eventual candidates were James H. Ashdown and James G. Latimer. The later was a serving city alderman (today known as councillor), while  the former hadn’t been an alderman in years, having last served in that capacity in 1879. 

But, Ashdown, a highly-successful hardware retailer with stores across Western Canada, had plenty of public exposure in 1906 as chairman of the important Water Supply Commis-sion. Winnipeg’s water supply had been a point of contention for years. In fact, the high incidence of water-borne illnesses in Winnipeg, such as typhoid fever, was negitively reported in newspapers as far away as New York.

Red River Fever, as typhoid was called in 1904 and 1905, killed 24.85 per thousand people in Winnipeg, according to a study of 32 North American cities. Most cities had scored below 10 per thousand.

William Garson, a candidate for the newly-instituted board of control, said in a campaign ad that: “The condition of our waterworks has already placed us in grave peril. Should the incoming Council procrastinate like their predecessors they will be guilty of criminal negligence.”

At the time, Winnipeg was drawing its water from artesian wells northwest of the city. A report by the commission chaired by Ashdown recommended bringing potable water to the city from Shoal Lake on the Manitoba-Ontario border. It won’t be until 1919 that the Shoal Lake aqueduct was completed and water-borne disease epidemics subsequently vanished. 

Both Latimer and Ashdown showed reluctance to enter the race to succeed out-going Mayor Sharpe who had decided not to run.

Ashdown’s and Latimer’s names first appeared in newspapers in October 1906 as possible contenders. It was reported that the city’s leading businessmen were prepared to nominate Ashdown as their candidate for mayor. A meeting proposing Ashdown at the Grain Exchange on October 15 on Main Street was attended by the who’s who of Winnipeg businessmen, including bankers, grain dealers, real estate brokers, builders, print shop owners, doctors, manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers.

At the meeting, former mayor and businessman, W. Sanford Evan, said Winnipeggers should throw their support behind Ashdown “because executive ability was necessary, especially when there was about to be put into operation a new form of civic government,” and the financial standing of the city made it “necessary to have a man of business standing and financial repute for the management of civic affairs.”

On the other hand, Latimer was seen as a populist candidate, although reputed to be controlled by the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company, an influential private company which opposed public ownership of electric power generation and distribution. This issue seemed to have been resolved a year earlier when the provincial government passed legislation

allowing the city to form a public power utility.  But, there was a major hindrance acting to the advantage of the private company — financing the utility had proved more difficult than originally thought.

While Ashdown was considering taking up the challenge, there was public speculation that other candidates were also willing to step forward.

“That there will be a contest for the Winnipeg mayoralty this year is the conviction in civic circles,” reported the Morning Telegram on October 10, 1906, “where the idea of acclamation, either for a member of the council or for any man at present in private life, is scoffed at.”

Latimer was referred to as “an old and experienced representative,” who was “a logical candidate for mayor some time or other.”

Another alderman under consideration was Jimmy Harvey, who also expressed reluctance, but this was seen as “airy parrying,” giving “the impression that his name will be on the ballot paper.”

Newspaper at first said the most likely candidates were Ashdown and Alderman John Cockburn.

“Ald. Cockburn is the senior member of the council, has all along been considered a possible candidate, and the probability in his case has become so strong that his candidacy is now

almost a certainty,” reported the Morning Telegram.

Cockburn was said to be considering entering the mayoralty race as a candidate favouring municipal ownership of all utilities.

But, Cockburn didn’t run for mayor, instead opting to seek

election as a controller on the newly-instituted board of control. He was one of four successful candidates for the new board which was established for the 1906 election to serve its first term in 1907 (the mayor and aldermen elected in 1906 also began their terms in 1907). The elected board of control was responsible for overseeing the city’s finances. It was abolished by referendum in 1918.

Ashdown said he was delaying his candidacy until “the people wished his services.” He went so far as to say that he won’t run unless he also received the backing of labour.

Though still a strong presence in Winnipeg, the labour movement had experienced two major setbacks in

the months before the 1906 civic election. 

There was a major workers’ strike against the Winnipeg Electric Railway Company. Troops armed with machine guns — a prelude to the 1919 General Strike — were called out on March 30 after the Riot Act was read by Mayor Thomas Sharpe to disperse a Main Street crowd gathered to support the strike by motormen and conductors. The workers’ demand for better wages and a 10-hour day were met a week later, but the right to form a union was denied.

A strike by metalworkers at Vulcan Iron Works was ended by strikebreakers, court injunctions against the strikers and a lawsuit. The union was crushed by this defeat.