100 years ago big issues dominated mayoralty race in Winnipeg

by Bruce Cherney (part 1 of 2)

(Last week: “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. 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 ...” — editorial in the Morning Telegram, December 10, 1906.

Running in the 1906 mayoralty race were businessman James H. Ashdown and Alderman James G. Latimer.)

Winnipeg businesses were far from labour friendly during this era. In fact, many heated civic election battles would be waged between business and labour interests in the coming years. 

Historian David Bercuson said that Winnipeg labour leaders learned from their experiences in 1906 that “local government would almost automatically make common cause with business in a showdown with organized labour.”

Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council vice-president W.H. Popham attended the October Grain Exchange meeting as an observer. At the time, he said he was non-committal and would have to refer the Ashdown candidacy to the  council’s membership.

By October 24, the labour council answered by resolution that it could not support Ashdown “for reason that he is unfair to organized labor.”

Popham, who turned out to be an unsuccessful alderman candidate in the 1906 election, said labour was not running a mayoralty candidate so the most that could be hoped for was a labour candidate or two could be elected to the board of control or city council. 

While the trades and labour membership would not officially endorse Ashdown, council president W. H. Reeve referred to him as far superior to any candidate coming from the existing city council. 

A majority of members agreed on a resolution that they were free to vote as they pleased.

The labour-oriented The Voice newspaper, run by Arthur W. Puttee, endorsed Latimer and predicted that labour “most assuredly will not vote for Ashdown.”

Despite this setback, after the presentation of petition signed by over 1,400 names urging him to run, Ashdown finally announced at the end of October that he would run for mayor.

 Ashdown said the names in the petition were so thoroughly representative of the city that he felt obligated to accept the nomination.

Latimer later agreed to throw his own hat in the ring after receiving a telegram from his wife staying in California.

“Take the field and stay till the last vote is polled,” she urged.

“That,” Latimer declared, “decided my course.”

Latimer apparently emphasized his decision to run by slamming the telegram onto the table during a speech in Elmwood, “amid round after round of cheers,” reported the Morning Telegram.

The city’s massive debt was also seen as a deciding factor for Ashdown’s candidacy. He and his businessmen backers viewed the existing city council with scorn for plunging Winnipeg into severe debt. The city was overdrawn by $2.9 million at the Bank of Montreal and by $1.3 million at the Bank of Scotland with no prospect of being able to repay these debts.

According to the Morning Telegram, Ashdown supporter Prof. Osborne, said, at a December 10 Woodmen’s Hall meeting in Elmwood, that “the advance in population alone made it necessary for a business man to be at the hand of government ... Winnipeg had already a great public debt. On top of this it was proposed to expend large sums in the near future. The people must well consider, therefor, whom they were to elect in the chief place of importance in the government ... Winnipeg had not been well cared for in the past.”

Prof. Osborne accused Latimer of being a populist, “glad-handing” the people.

“It was because the people had trusted too much in the jolly fellows in the past that government had become so rotten,” he added.

At the Elmwood meeting, Ashdown refuted the claim that he was unfair to labour. Ashdown said he supported fair wages for employees, “however, that every employee should give an honest day’s work for a good day’s work.”

Only Mayor Thomas Sharpe appeared at the meeting to support the candidacy of Latimer, which is understandable since the forces behind Ashdown’s bid had called into disrepute Sharpe’s administration. 

Sharpe said in six years on city council Latimer had given faithful service to the city.

His belief was that “Winnipeg was to be run by the citizens of Winnipeg and not by a clique such as the board of trade (forerunner of the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce), which was making a special effort to elect Mr. Ashdown to the mayor’s chair,” according to a report in the Morning Telegram.

Sharpe’s claim was reinforced at another meeting the next day at the Selkirk Hall by Alderman Moses Finkelstein who said Ashdown was not a candidate of the people, but of a clique “who had put before the people the man of their choice.

“This same clique had endeavored to make believe that everything in the city was going wrong. All the city’s affairs were alleged to be going bad.”

Finkelstein said the only reason city debentures had failed to sell was because of the disastrous San Francisco Earthquake. “As a consequence the bids on the city’s bonds were below par on account of the stringency of the financial market. Mr. Ashdown nor no one else could in any manner change prevailing conditions in the money market.”

But, the biggest issue at the Selkirk Hall meeting was the question of municipally-owned telephones.

“The telephone question is now an issue for the ratepayers and as far as I can see the ratepayers are undoubtedly safe in voting ‘yes’” said Latimer, according to a December 10 report in the Morning Telegram. “I think a man of Mr. Ashdown’s ability should show no hesitation in giving an answer to the question. Certainly I am in favor of the bylaw and the citizens should vote ‘yes.’”

Ashdown said he had not made up his mind on the issue. “I think, however, that it should never have been made a party issue. The time will come when telephones will be owned by the municipalities. I am not sure whether the present bylaw is right or wrong. If it is defective it should be remedied at the coming legislative meeting. At present I do not know what I advocate.”

Despite Ashdown’s lack of decisiveness, he had in the past indicated the need for public ownership of some utilities — telephones were not specifically mentioned by him. “What might be called the natural monopolies, water and light,” he said, should be operated and owned “by the people in the interest of the people.”

The telephone question was one of two bylaws that would be voted upon in a civic election plebiscite (referendum). In fact, plebiscites on publicly-owned telephone service were to be held in municipalities across the province. 

The other city bylaw was a call to spend $75,000 on a new fire station.

The telephone question had been raging for months with the Bell Telephone Company leading the opposition to a municipally-owned system with the support of the Manitoba Free Press.

In the finals days of the election campaign, Latimer was said to have the advantage over Ashdown. 

“My organization has been completed as far as possible, and from what I can see I have good reason to be confident of success,” said Latimer a day before the election.

Supporters at the Latimer headquarters on William Avenue declared their candidate would be elected by a large majority.

Supporters of Ashdown at their Notre Dame Avenue headquarters were equally confident their candidate was about to win. 

An Ashdown supporter even burst into the Latimer headquarters and slapped down $1,000, offering odds at two to one that Ashdown would win. There were no takes, but betting on the election did occur throughout Winnipeg. This was an era when  bets were made on virtually anything — from foot races to hockey games to elections.

“Odds were freely offered on the alderman while Ashdown money could not be found,” the Morning Telegram reported. “The great bunch of the Latimer money, did not appear until late Monday night when some bets at even money were placed in the different hotels in the city.

“Yesterday morning betting became quite fashionable and in all the committee rooms (candidate headquarters) where the different candidates could be found $50 bets were flying every way ... As the day drew on Latimer’s money grew freer until odds of two to one were offered. Two to three were the ruling odds.”

Even the odds-makers believed Latimer was a shoe-in for mayor.

How wrong they were.

By the time the votes were counted, Ashdown had won in a landslide, which was said to have surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic of his supporters.

Latimer was reported as being hindered by the unpopularity of the city council. “The unpopularity of that body was a heavier burden than Alderman Latimer could carry,” said the editor of the Morning Telegram. “It is unfortunate that he was handicapped in this manner as it made the fight Ashdown versus the retiring city council rather than Ashdown versus Latimer.”

Ashdown had received “an exceptional expression of confidence” from the voters.

In the end, Ashdown received 5,091 votes to Latimer’s 2,329, a difference of 2,762. It was apparent that Ashdown received support from a cross-section of Winnipeg voters. In fact, he was heavily supported by voters in the North End, an area populated mostly by working-class voters.

“It was the keenest, though shortest campaign in the history of Winnipeg,” said the Morning Telegram’s editor, “and the excitement was at a fever pitch.”

Once the results were in, Ashdown’s supporters celebrated by carrying their successful candidate on their  shoulders from the Notre Dame headquarters to city hall.

Another major result of the civic election was that municipal ownership of a telephone service was carried — the results were similar across the province’s municipalities — as was the $75,000 suburban firehall. By 1908, the provincial government bought out Bell and created Manitoba Government Telephones, which was responsible for all telephone service in the province.