Hugh John Macdonald pulls off election upset — called “plucky fight against the odds”

by Bruce Cherney

“Shortly after 5 o’clock the central room of Hon. Hugh John Macdonald began to fill with an anxious and expectant crowd of citizens, eager to hear the first news that would lead to the success of the popular leader of the opposition,” said the Morning Telegram, reporting on the scene at the Conservative Party’s Winnipeg South headquarters.

Their anxiety was unfounded, however, as the Conservative Party was swept into power pulling off one of the greatest election upsets in Manitoba history.

Prior to the December 7, 1899, provincial election, the Tories had languished in near obscurity with few believing they could be resurrected in time to challenge the electoral might of the Liberals under Premier Thomas Greenway. 

Following the 1896 election, the Conservatives had won a scant five seats to the Grits’ 32 in the 40-seat Manitoba legislature. To make matters worse, the Tories had only surpassed the independent candidates’ final tally by just two seats. The party was in tatters and desperately needed a Biblical-inspired Moses to lead it out of the political wilderness.

There was a Moses, albeit a reluctant one, who needed convincing that he had the ability to bring his people to the promised land.

“A political career is not one in which I would succeed and the life of a politician is distasteful,” mused the Conservative’s great hope. 

But if there was any truth to the phrase “What’s in a name?” Hugh John, as he was known, proved that a name was invaluable when it came to politics; moreso if your surname was Macdonald and your father was Canada’s most popular and resilient politician.

Canadian Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald had passed away in 1891, but Manitoba Conservatives reasoned his name still carried great clout and could be used to the party’s advantage. 

“Before 6 o’clock,” continued the Morning Telegram, “the room was packed with enthusiastic opponents of the Greenway government and the loyal supporters of ‘Hugh John,’ who cheered lustily as the results came in from several polling sub-divisions.”

Although the final outcome would not be known until days later — Dauphin and Gimli ridings would not hold elections until over a week later — it was already evident on the evening of December 7 that the reign of the Greenway government had come to an end and a new king of Manitoba politics had been crowned.

“Greenway is a Goner!” proclaimed the Conservative-friendly Morning Telegram. “Hugh John is a huge success as a leader.”

“This victory is attributed in a large degree to the personal popularity of Mr. Hugh John Macdonald ... the lustre of his father’s great name also contributed to the affection which is so generally entertained for him. But it would be a great mistake to suppose that this ‘victory’ is solely or chiefly attributed to Mr. (John A.) Macdonald’s personal popularity.”

“The single success secured by the Hon. Hugh John Macdonald in the decidedly self-reliant province of 

Manitoba  yesterday will bring him congratulations from all parts of the country,” added the Montreal Star, “where his plucky fight against the great odds ... we have certainly just witnessed the greatest political overturn in the history of Canada.”

In a state of euphoria, the Ottawa Telegram even opined that Hugh John’s success could rekindle the sputtering flame of the federal Conservatives under Sir Charles Tupper, a flame that had been nearly snuffed out three years earlier by the Liberals led by Sir Wilfrid Laurier. 

“Yesterday the redemption of the country commenced by a movement so appropriately headed by the son of the ‘old chieftain,’ who for so many years directed the destinies of Canada ...,” wrote the editor of the eastern newspaper.

Also caught up in the euphoria, the Victoria Colonist went as far as to suggest that when Tupper resigned as the leader of the federal Tories, Hugh John could step into his shoes and lead the national party to victory.

But this was merely a case of wishful thinking. After an ignoble defeat at the polls, Tupper would resign as party leader in 1900 and Hugh John’s second foray into national politics (the first time he was the interior minister in the Tupper government for only a few months in 1896) was a bitter disappointment. Actually, the Manitoba election victory was the pinnacle of Hugh John’s political career and he only rode that crest from January 10 to October 29, 1900.

In the end, it was probably Hugh John’s great misfortune to bear the name of a famous father which cast a giant shadow over his aspiration to chart his own course in life.

In 1882, Hugh John settled in Winnipeg to pursue a career as a lawyer, entering into a partnership with Macdonald, Tupper (the son of Sir Charles), MacArthur and Dexter. It wasn’t the first time he had been in Manitoba since he served as a militia ensign under the command of Colonel Garnet Wolseley, who led an expedition from Eastern Canada in 1870 to quell the Red River Resistance and exert the federal government’s authority over the newly-created province.

A few days after the expedition’s arrival in Winnipeg on August 24, 1870, Hugh John returned east — he was summoned home by his famous father who wanted him to become a lawyer and not a soldier as Hugh John fervently wanted — with Wolseley and the majority of the troops. Hugh John practised law in Toronto from 1872 to 1882, but never forgot his first encounter with the new land and decided to try his  hand at practicing law in Manitoba. 

Hugh John had arrived in Manitoba during the birth of party politics. In 1883, the Liberals met the Conservatives for the first time in a provincial election with the Tories under John Norquay emerging triumphant.

On February 2, 1891, his father called a federal election and Winnipeg Conservatives looked for a candidate to replace incumbent W.B. Scarth. The local MP told the party he would not be running because he feared the loss of his management job with the Canada North-west Land, a subsidiary of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Liberal Premier Greenway intimated to the CPR that his government was prepared to tax the land company if Scarth ran again. When the railway informed Scarth that he had a choice to run for parliament or keep his job, the MP opted for his job and feeding his family.

W.F. Luxton, the editor of the Free Press, had been proposing Sir Donald Smith as Scarth’s replacement, but  Smith was already assured that he could run unopposed in the riding of Montreal West and declined the offer.

At a February 10 nomination meeting, during which Scarth declined to run, Hugh John made a stirring speech on the Conservative platform that brought him to the attention of the local party executive. The executive began to court Hugh John, who wired his father seeking advice.

“Accept” was the prime minister’s terse reply, and his son was unanimously nominated as the Winnipeg candidate.

On March 5, Hugh John received a 500 vote majority and was on his way to Ottawa. On April 29, 1981, father and son strode the length of the House of Commons to a chorus of cheers. Just a few weeks later, Hugh John’s father died.

Hugh John had been a reluctant politician and the death of his father encouraged him to find a way to quit Ottawa and go home to Winnipeg. New Prime Minister John Abbott, who soon resigned, convinced Hugh John to keep his seat, but two months later he had had enough of the nation’s capital and was again resolved to go home. 

After Prime Minister John Thompson died in office during a luncheon with Queen Victoria in London, Mackenzie Bowell, the new prime minister, begged Hugh John to return to Ottawa. In the meantime, the Manitoba School Question had been reverberating throughout Canadian politics, and the lack of action on the issue by Bowell caused many in his cabinet to leave. 

Tupper became the new prime minister and was able to persuade Hugh John to return. The Manitoba politician was sworn in as the federal interior minister.

On April 23, 1896, just a couple of months after his return, Tupper called a federal election. Hugh John squared off against Liberal Joseph Martin, the author of the Manitoba legislation that ended religious-based schools in Manitoba in favour of a public school system. Hugh John won the Winnipeg seat, but Martin had a trick up his sleeve. With Hugh John in Ottawa, Martin worked behind the scenes to have his election victory overturned. A protest was filed accusing Hugh John’s campaign agent of violating the Elections Act. The court ruled against Macdonald, a ruling upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, and Hugh John was once again a private citizen.

Ironically, while Martin fought tooth-and-nail to unseat Hugh John, he would turn against his own party and actually contributed to Macdonald’s subsequent provincial election victory two years later.

On March 24, 1897, the day the Supreme Court rejected his appeal, Hugh John announced that he would enter provincial politics. Grateful that such a luminary was willing to enter the fray, local Conservatives made him their party leader.

At the time the party was fractured by the Manitoba School Question and it became Hugh John’s mission to rejoin the pieces. He was a tireless campaigner, visiting every constituency in the province.

Railways became a major issue in the election campaign. Hugh John seized upon the Liberal government’s reluctance to expand the provincial railway system and used Liberal inaction on railways and a $250,000 deficit to claim that they were incompetent in their running of Manitoba. 

Actually, the deficit the liberals ran up  — Macdonald called it “immense” —  was primarily attributable to railway expansion aimed at creating branch lines and encouraging competition to lower freight costs. Greenway’s government helped to finance the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway which was in direct competition with the CPR. To Greenway’s chagrin, the CPR and NP&MR came to an agreement which divided the rail traffic between themselves and ended any appearance of competition. Greenway’s railway policy was a bitter disappointment to Manitobans.

At a Neepawa meeting in July 1899, Macdonald outlined his party’s overall platform and prophesied that “we are going to win in the coming election.”

Besides railways, Hugh John played the race card and spoke against the Liberal party’s acceptance of a “mongrel breed” of immigrants — Galicians (Ukrainians) and Doukhobors were singled out. The Conservative leader promised to end their voting rights, claiming their votes were up for sale “and influenced by the (Liberal) government of the day ...” He said that any man who could not sign his name in English would be refused a vote. 

“I will have another clause, no Doukhobor or any man who is protected by law from fighting for his country shall be entitled to vote,” he added.

This would also disenfranchise thousands of Mennonites, who were persuaded to come to Manitoba by a promise they would not be forced to serve in the military.

N. Clarke Wallace, the Conservative MP for West York (Toronto) told a party rally in Boissevain that “Doukhobors and Galicians ... will never in this generation make good British subjects.”

When Greenway speculated on the possibility of Jewish agricultural immigration to Manitoba, he drew heavy criticism from Winnipeg newspapers, which called Jews and Slavs undesirables.

The race card played well among  Protestant voters, especially those originally from Ontario, who by then were the vast majority in the province. On the other hand, Catholic voters were already peeved at the Liberal government because of the Laurier-Greenway Compromise which supported the provincial government’s right to end separate religious schools in Manitoba (French was also banned as an official language in Manitoba’s legislature and courts in 1890).

Prohibition also became an issue  in the campaign. When Greenway hesitated in offering his full support for ending the sale of liquor in the province, Hugh John jumped into the void and promised to do his utmost to support the temperance movement.

It didn’t help Greenway’s cause when a plebiscite was held in 1898 and a majority of more than 9,000 voters supported prohibition. Greenway’s reply to the vote was that his government would “pass a prohibitive measure within the powers of the province.” This implied that the Canadian government would be brought into the issue since it had the power to disallow provincial legislation. Greenway’s subsequent inaction seemed to arise from the belief that Ottawa would disallow any prohibition legislation passed by the provincial government.

Another controversy arose with the Greenway government’s failure to convince Ottawa to significantly extend the province’s borders. Although the federal government extended the province’s borders in 1881, Manitoba’s total area  remained relatively small. The new northern border only went as far as the mid-way point of Lake Winnipeg’s northern basin.

Perhaps Greenway’s greatest disadvantage in 1899 was his loss of key politicians to the federal government — chief among them was Clifford Sifton. As Manitoba’s attorney-general, the Brandon politician had been the negotiator of the Laurier-Greenway Compromise. With the acceptance of the compromise, Sifton was called to Ottawa by Liberal Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1896 and made the minister of the interior. In this role, Sifton changed the government’s immigration policy, accepting “peasants in sheepskin coats” from Eastern Europe as suitable immigrants. This was unpopular among the British Empire-loving Protestants of Manitoba, a sentiment that Hugh John tapped into during the 1899 election campaign.

Greenway, who had been premier since January 19, 1888, and was the member from Mountain riding, had completely misjudged the voters of Manitoba, who were set to dislodge his  government as being “too long in the tooth.”

Macdonald’s campaign was helped substantially by the appearance of Tupper and his “lieutenants” in November 1899 — Wallace was a member of Tupper’s entourage.  While in Manitoba, Tupper accused the Greenway government of rigging the voters’ list through a new Franchise Act and heavily engaging in patronage appointments.

Tupper also said that he had 

observed the tide turning in Manitoba in favour of the Conservatives. “Where the federal (Liberal) ministers  (Sifton was singled out) had very meagre audiences, evincing little enthusiasm, Mr. Macdonald and myself had very large ones animated by the most friendly feelings, cheering loudly the references to the failure of the Ottawa and Winnipeg administration to make good the most solemn promises to which they have pledged,” reported the Morning Telegram. 

When the votes were counted, the Conservatives won two of three Winnipeg ridings (at the time, rural Manitoba held the real power in the legislature), including Hugh John in South Winnipeg. At his riding headquarters, Macdonald was carried to the speaker’s platform on the shoulders of “exultant supporters.”

It wasn’t a resounding election victory, since the Conservatives won 23 of 40 seats, but it was a dramatic turnaround from the five seats won in the previous election.

The Morning Telegram said the victory was the result of good organization headed by W.H. Hastings. “It is organization that has enabled the Conservative Party to effectively combat the systematic efforts of the Provincial and Dominion ‘machines’.”

Despite the election victory, there was a fear among Conservative party ranks that the Greenway government would not resign. “It was prepared, in its rage and desperation, to do anything to retain place, in spite of this overwhelming and apparently, to it, unexpected condemnation by the people,” according to the Morning Telegram.

It was alleged that Greenway was attempting to lure Conservatives away from Macdonald so that the Liberals could hold onto power. 

But they need not have worried. Greenway resigned as government leader a month later and Macdonald took over as premier. 

Although he was only briefly premier, Macdonald's success led to the Conservative Party’s domination of the province for 16 years.

“Hugh John Macdonald was never meant to be more than a stop-gap leader of Manitoba's Conservatives,” wrote George P. Macleod in the Manitoba Historical Society’s magazine article, Sir Hugh John Macdonald (Transactions: 1957-58 season). “The dominion hierarchy planned to follow the Liberal route and regain power through the control of provincial legislatures. Hugh John began the strategy in Manitoba, but Sir Charles Tupper believed that his proper place was in the federal arena.”

It was a strategy doomed to failure. While Macdonald was a successful provincial politician, what he could not duplicate was victory on the federal stage. Tupper felt that Sifton was vulnerable in Brandon and persuaded Hugh John in 1900 to oppose the interior minister. On November 7, he was defeated at the polls by the extremely popular Sifton, ending his career as an elected politician.

Sir Rodmond Roblin, the grandfather of future premier Duff Roblin, replaced Hugh John as Manitoba premier in October 1900.