Manitoba Legislative Building scandal — Kelly paroled early due to “severe nervous breakdown”

by Bruce Cherney (part 4 of 4)

Following a successful civil suit against Kelly, the Manitoba government attempted to have the money from “extras” returned to the province by Kelly. The Manitoba Board of Appeal in May 1917 set the amount owed by Kelly to the province at $1.2 million. Pending the recovery of the money, the government held a $1 million caveat against the construction company Thomas Kelly & Sons.

In the end, the province would collect only $30,000 of the total owed, mostly from the confiscation of properties, including the house at 88 Adelaide Ave. which is now slated to become the headquarters of Heritage Winnipeg.

A relative in 1965 told Winnipeg Tribune  writer Lillian Gibbons, Kelly never spent a day behind bars at Stony Mountain Penitentiary. “He lived in the warden’s house. Saturday nights his friends used to go out and they played poker.” 

The government was also successful in having Thomas Kelly and Sons’ contract annulled in court. A new contract was signed with J. McDiarmid Company for the completion of the Manitoba Legislative Building, which would not be finished until 1920.

Kelly served only nine months of his 2 1/2-year sentence. On Saturday, August 25, 1917, the Free Press reported Kelly was released “on parole on Thursday on the grounds of ill-health.” It was later said Kelly was released because of a “severe nervous breakdown.” Ill-health was also given as the reason Kelly received special privileges while serving his sentence.

News of his parole was sent to the Kellys in Winnipeg by the prison warden. Soon after, Kelly’s son Charles arrived in the family Packard and drove the parolee to his home at Carlton and Assiniboine.

“After the scandal, Mr. Kelly went to Kansas where trouble again overtook him,” according to a March 21, 1939, obituary in the Winnipeg Tribune announcing Kelly’s death in Beverly Hills, California, at age 71. “He was awarded a contract for building a subway under the Kaw River and expenditures under it furnished material for a public investigation and a chaotic campaign in Kansas City. From Missouri Mr. Kelly went to California where an oil strike is said to have brought him considerable means.”

While the trials had ended, the scandal irrevocably tarnished the reputations of many high-profile Manitoba politicians, including Roblin, who built one of the most successful political machines in the province’s history. Ironically, the political machine Roblin had assembled used its might to thwart the Liberals under whose banner Roblin originally entered the political arena in 1888. Roblin resigned as a Liberal MLA as a result of a dispute over the party’s abolition of the dual system of Catholic and Protestant schools as well as the erosion of French language rights in the courts and legislature. He sat as an independent until joining the Conservatives, succeeding Hugh John Macdonald as premier in 1900.

W.L. Morton in his 1955 book Manitoba: A History, called Roblin “a man of great energy, simplicity and directness of mind and possessed of a trenchant grasp of principles ... These qualities were modified by a broad tolerance of different views, a vigilant realism in reading public opinion and a keen sense of human foibles and weaknesses.”

Morton said Roblin’s government was one of great achievements — including expropriating the Bell Telephone Company to create the Manitoba Telephone System which was the first publicly-owned utility on the continent — but, “It was apparent that the Roblin government had been subdued to what it worked in, coarse and completely immoral party politics, and that the Conservative party had been captured by its machine.”

Commenting on the decision to dismiss the charges against Roblin, Morton said, “no further public service, it was clear was to be rendered by pressing charges against a man known to be personally honourable but who had been engulfed by the underworld of politics everyone hoped was now destroyed.”

Essentially, the conclusion reached by historians is that Roblin was an otherwise good premier and honourable man caught up in the nasty web of political intrigue permeating the era. 

The very partisanship of the political landscape made it ripe for abuse, and no party could claim to be unscathed while engaged in the pursuit of power. 

Manitoba 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 opportunity. Investigations of elections in three constituencies in 1913 and 1914 found that less than half the money earmarked for roads actually was used in their construction with the “left-over” funds ending up in party coffers.

But financial skullduggery was just one of many weapons employed by parties. At election time, politicians enlisted the aid of civil servants, sending them out to do their bidding in order to gain votes or secure the loyalty of party faithful.

Famously, the Emerson Journal in March 1914 remarked: “Three weeks ago the Roblin government kindly donated or inflicted on us a party of surveyors and this week they sent a party of twelve telephone men. The telephone service has been on the hummer here for at least two years that we know of and it’s as if the powers that be have just found out about it. Elections are undoubtedly coming off soon if present indications mean anything.”

The newspaper was right as Roblin called a provincial election for July 10, 1914.

In an era when the civil service was not immune from partisan politics, workers appointed or hired by one government could be fired with the election of another party. To avoid the unemployment line, workers willingly did the bidding of their political masters to whom they owed their patronage positions.

Parties in power tampered with voters’ lists — voter registration was in the hands of government appointees who weren’t averse to removing other parties’ supporters from the list — and the redistribution of ridings to make it more likely they would be re-elected. 

All parties bribed voters with liquor and cash. Liberal MLA Hart Green reported that an outhouse near Chatfield contained two barrels of beer and a number of whiskey bottles brought from Winnipeg by Conservative “heelers” to sway voters during a 1913 Gimli byelection .

Ballot boxes in key ridings went missing or were burned under suspicious circumstances 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 candidates of some alleged wrong-doing 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 election alone, 10 protests were filed against Liberal candidates while seven were filed against Conservatives. The number of protests were high, but only a couple resulted in a full investigation.

On February 29, 1912, the Free Press said Hart Green was arrested  “To make the game easier for the Conservative machine in North ... on election day, and of course released without any charge being laid against him.”

The same tactic was used against party workers.  The Winnipeg Tribune, a newspaper owned by independent candidate 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.”

Partisan newspapers riled against the so-called misdeeds of the opposition, but failed to report on the abuses of the parties they supported. Even when a government did something good or a party proposed a measure that would benefit Manitobans, a partisan opposition newspaper would seize upon some relatively minor fault — real or imagined — that could be used to pen a vicious criticism.

Roblin’s most dogged critic was Free Press editor John Dafoe, a partisan Liberal writing for a partisan Liberal newspaper. The Conservatives had their own editorial support in party organs such as the Winnipeg Telegram.

The Manitoba Legislative Building scandal was a turning point in provincial politics as it took what had previously been regarded as an accepted practice of the political game a step too far — the scale of the misappropriation of funds was so gargantuan that it couldn’t be ignored. No longer were Manitobans exposed to a stretch of rural road construction going over budget and a few thousand dollars finding its way into party coffers; instead, they were confronted with a massive misappropriation of funds meant for the erection of the grand edifice slated to be a highly-visible symbol of Manitoba’s progress. 

While the Norris Liberal government initially benefited from the scandal, the mood of Manitobans had been soured against partisan politics. Out of the ashes of scandal, the United Farmers of Manitoba rose to prominence by promising to remove the ugly blight of party politics from the province. 

In 1914, the president of the new movement — it was not a traditional political party, but a populist movement to “reform” the political system — denounced politics of the day as “partyism gone mad, partyism that cannot see any fault in its own party, and cannot see good in the opposition ... partyism that puts a premium on dishonesty and condones acts, if a man or a party of men practiced in other business, would mean that they would at once be frowned out of a decent society. My candid opinion ... is that such partyism ... is the great curse of present-day politics, inasmuch as it opens the way to all manner of corruption.”

Norris’ Liberals only held onto power for a few years, despite implementing some of this province’s most socially progressive legislation, including the vote for women, and running election campaigns as the “purity party.” Regardless of how benevolently Norris ruled, the promise of non-partisan government made by the UFM resonated with voters. The political winds shifted into a bitter blast against old-style parties, resulting in the UFM making inroads in the 1920 provincial election and finally forming the government in 1922. In the latter election, the Conservatives only received 16 per cent of the popular vote, while Liberal support was slightly higher at 23 per cent and Labour’s support was 16 per cent. 

With just 33 per cent of the popular vote, the UFM won 50 per cent of the available seats as the movement benefited from the two-to-one ratio of rural to urban ridings. Despite UFM’s limited success in Winnipeg (one candidate elected), it had the financial and political support of many of the city’s most prominent and influential business leaders such as John Ashdown, who had drifted away from mainstream political parties in the wake of the scandal.

“Businessmen blamed it (party politics) for extravagance, trade unionists equated it with class rule, single-interest groups viewed it as forcing grubby compromises,” wrote Jeffrey Simpson in Spoils of Power (Harper & Collins, 1988). “Most important, farmers increasingly looked upon parties as inadequate vehicles for addressing their own needs.”

“The revelations of the moral obtuseness of party workers and even ministers of the Crown, of things which were done to raise funds to fight blindly partisan elections of the day, discredited the party system in Manitoba,” wrote Morton.

The fact that numerous Royal Commissions and inquiries were appointed to investigate alleged Liberal and Conservative shenanigans did little to dispel public cynicism.

Deeply suspicious of party politics, voters also came to the conclusion that if the Liberals were given the same opportunity as the Conservatives, they too would have unapologetically raided the public treasury.

It wouldn’t be until the election of Duff Roblin, the grandson of Sir Rodmond Roblin, and a Conservative government in 1958 that the by then worn-out “coalition” politics of Brackenism — named after the UFM’s first leader John Bracken — ended and true party politics returned to Manitoba.