by Bruce Cherney (part 2)
Despite his association with newcomers to Manitoba from Ontario — including militiamen — the fact that Premier Robert Atkinson “Hotel” Davis was born, raised and educated in Québec was used against him. The Free Press accused Davis of being unable to shake his Québec roots. “Let Winnipeg, inhabited by Ontario people, send an Ontario man to represent them in parliament (legislature),” proclaimed the newspaper.
The Free Press alleged that all the policies promoted by Davis-(Joseph) Royal were contrary to the provisions of the Manitoba Act of 1870. The newspaper subsequently called upon Lieutenant-Governor Alexander Morris to declare all the Davis-Royal legislation to be unconstitutional.
“They should not owe their existence to trickery and fraud, because their indebtedness to such means of existence must make them servile, corrupt and injurious ...,” according to the Manitoba Free Press of December 12, 1874. “When it is shown that their sole object of life is to acquire money, then these mercenary views will appear plausible.”
“Does the Free Press seriously charge the Lieutenant-Governor and his Ministers with concocting a scheme on the eve of the election to entrap the people?” asked the Nor’Wester two days later. “Does anyone believe Governor Morris would become a party to such a monstrous proceeding? This weak and wicked invention of the Free Press indicates ... ‘a desperate move’ to save itself and the Faction for which it grinds from the political death which must overtake them at the polls.”
Both newspapers alleged their respective candidates were ahead in popular opinion, which was reflected in their biased reporting. For example, a December 16 political debate, preceding the December 30 provincial election, in the Pride of the West saloon was cited by the Nor’Wester as favourable to Davis, while the Free Press claimed Capt. Thomas Scott had successfully wooed the audience to support his candidacy.
To accommodate the audience attending the meeting at the Pride of the West, “the bar” was “closed and the (billiards) tables taken down for the occasion.”
The December 21 Nor’Wester claimed the meeting was crammed with 500 or 600 people who were mostly Davis supporters. On the other hand, the December 19 Free Press declared Scott, who wore a sword “for use for his Queen and his country any day,” was ushered into the meeting by an enthusiastic crowd.
During the meeting, Davis was forced to answer accusations against him that he bought land near Lower Fort Garry (off PTH 9 near present-day Selkirk) in anticipation of the Canadian Pacific Railway crossing the Red River at that point. If true, such an accusation would have been politically disastrous for any Winnipeg candidate. Just days before the election, a railway mass meeting was held in the city and those attending voted to send a delegation to Ottawa to promote a CPR crossing in Winnipeg.
“This was another of those mean lies that had been circulated against him, to injure his candidature in the city,” reported the Nor’Wester, paraphrasing Davis’ speech at the Pride of the West saloon. “The truth was he did not own a foot of land in the neighbourhood (of the fort) at present. All (the property) he had was in the city or west of the city.”
Davis said he supported the crossing in the city and went on to say that without a railway there would be no Winnipeg.
When Scott rose to speak, he repeated the accusation, but rephrased it, saying: “It was a very suspicious circumstance that one of Mr. Davis’s supporters owned land near the Stone Fort; and would it be shown that Mr. Davis would favour the passage of the Canadian Pacific through the city ... he could assure the people that when he was elected he would do all in his power to advance the interest of Winnipeg.”
Francis Evans Cornish said redistribution had created polling stations scattered too thinly across the province which meant Manitobans had to travel great distances in order to vote. Voters were further disadvantaged by polling hours only from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., he added.
Cornish asserted that one poll for all of Winnipeg’s 595 voters — the most populous constituency in the province — was simply not enough.
It should be noted that only men, 21 years old and above, “who were a subject of Her Majesty, a resident of this Province for three months, owner or occupant of real estate valued at $100, or a tenant paying an annual rent of at least $20 on property valued at least $200” could vote (proceedings of the Manitoba Legislature, April 1875) could vote in provincial elections. These qualifications limited the number of people able to vote — there was only 595 eligible voters in Winnipeg out of an estimated population of 6,000.
Scott also claimed that 100 eligible voters in the city had been intentionally left off the voters’ list because they opposed the Davis government. In reply, the Nor’Wester reported on December 14, 1874, that the list was not compiled by Davis, but by William Nassau Kennedy, the registrar for deeds for the county of Selkirk and Winnipeg, as well as Winnipeg Alderman Archibald Wright and city clerk A.M. Brown.
“Surely Capt. Scott does not pretend to charge these gentlemen with an offence of this grave character.”
Using the redistribution of constituencies and vote rigging to gain a political advantage were common accusations during the period, and there was probably some truth to such allegations.
In answer to the complaints about the voting hours, Davis told Cornish and his supporters to arrive early at the polls so that they would have time to cast their ballots.
Royal announced his pride in being the first French-speaking British subject to address an English-speaking political audience in Winnipeg. “The French people across the river (in St. Boniface) had a great fear of coming to Winnipeg; they were afraid that those Winnipeg fellows would cut their throats.”
French-speakers from St. Boniface had good reason to fear their English-speaking neighbours across the river, especially during election campaigns when intimidation was commonly used to discourage voting. A Winnipeg mob had crossed the Red River into St. Boniface to insist that a number of English-speakers have their name included on the voters’ list. The French-language Le Métis newspaper said the men, described as the “loyal” supporters of Andrew E. Wilson, who was running against Donald Smith, demanded the poll book, and when it wasn’t presented started a riot at the polling station at the home of Roger Goulet. Armed with wooden wheel spokes, the rioters attacked the unarmed Métis voters, ransacked the polling station, found the poll book and then burned it.
James Farquharson, the son-in-law of Winnipeg politician and businessman Dr. John Christian Schultz, pulled out a pistol and fired into the crowd of voters. Some were wounded, but fortunately no one was killed.
Not satisfied with disrupting the vote in St. Boniface, the rioters recrossed the river, “crazed with excitement and liquor,” intent upon more violence and mischief at the Winnipeg polling station, according to an “extra” published by the Manitoban on September 21, 1872. With the eruption of violence at the polling station, Lieutenant-Governor Adams Archibald sent troops to the scene.
Since they were prevented from creating more mayhem at the polling station, the rioters, led by Cornish, satiated their anger by destroying the newspaper offices of Le Métis, Manitoban and Gazette, leaving Schultz’s Liberal as the only newspaper in town. After the destruction of the newspaper offices, Winnipeg became known as “the graveyard of journalism.”
It was relatively easy to intimidate voters at polling stations since votes were cast by a show of hands. As a result, voters were often bribed with liquor and cash to support a particular candidate, and since all votes cast were by a show of hands, it was simple to verify whether or not their bribes were successful. If a mob wanted to discourage another candidate’s supporters, they showed up on election day armed and ready, knowing who to target from attending public political rallies as well as past election results.
The secret ballot for federal elections was adopted in 1876, while Manitoba lagged far behind and only introduced the secret ballot for provincial elections in 1888.
As the 1874 election meeting in the saloon progressed, tempers flared, especially when Cornish and G.B. Dougall (originally from Collingwood, Ontario, and then living in Rockwood, Manitoba) rose to speak at the same time.
“We will put Cornish Down,” Dougall is reputed to have said by the Free Press as he jumped on the platform.
Dugald Sinclair and a couple of Cornish’s friends attempted to pull Dougall from the stage, resulting in fists flying.
The Free Press accused “rowdy” Davis supporters of a “cowardly” attack on Cornish, whom the newspaper said was the only recipient of blows.
Those who thought otherwise called out that they would bring charges against Cornish for “assault and battery.”
The Free Press also accused Dougall of having been “imported from somewhere” to prevent supporters of Scott from speaking.
Cornish again took the stage “under the excitement of the moment” and charged Schultz, the MP for Lisgar, “with some of the highest crimes known to the law. His injuries however prevented him from proceeding very far ...”
The Free Press accused Schultz of striking Cornish twice, followed by blows from another “respectable man.”
Schultz was enraged at Cornish, accusing him of inciting John McTavish into taking wagon loads of men armed with axehandles to the polls during the previous federal election with the goal of intimidating his supporters.
The Free Press reported Cornish gave Schultz “a thorough ‘telling off,’ which he so effectively did that the audience refused to hear anything further from Schultz.”
Cornish and Schultz had not always been bitter political foes. In fact, Schultz previously used Cornish’s oratorical skills to stir up a mob against his political rivals during the 1872 federal election riot.
But Cornish was still smarting that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, who considered Schultz, the MP for Lisgar, “a friend and supporter” of his government, had threatened to have him arrested for his part in the election riot. Schultz did nothing to dissuade Macdonald, earning Cornish’s ire.
Cornish celebrated when the Macdonald government fell as a result of the Pacific Scandal of 1873. Cornish and a friend, while apparently drunk, tried to burn the former prime minister in effigy. His friend — unnamed — stood atop a whiskey barrel making a speech. Spectators noted there was more whiskey above the barrel than in the barrel.
The Nor’Wester reported that Scott’s speech at the Pride of the West contained little by way of a platform. “Capt. Scott owes it to himself and the people to acquit himself in a more acceptable manner.
“Any person who will take the trouble to read the address to the electors of Winnipeg recently published by Capt. Scott, and then read the address of Mr. Davis, will at once see he differences between the go-ahead policy of one and the do-nothing policy of the other.”
The Free Press countered by saying that the Davis supporters’ “course of abuse had naturally enough been decidedly too thin for the majority of the audience, and had resulted in placing Davis far in minority in the opinion of the meeting ...”
The support provided by the Free Press, although it was admitted by both sides to be the most powerful newspaper in the community, was not enough to carry the election for the Scott-Cornish coalition.
Scott fell to Davis in Winnipeg, Royal was re-elected by acclamation in St. François-Xavier West, while Cornish was elected in Popular Point. In total, Davis candidates took 10 seats, while the opposition elected eight. The Davis government was able to hang onto power because it was supported by five independents. The total number of seats only added up to 23 as a result of a tie in Kildonan.
Following the election, accusations arose from incumbent John Sutherland that Davis had used bribery in Kildonan to advance the cause of his preferred candidate. The premier argued during a public inquiry that he hadn’t used bribery but promised to reimburse one candidate’s election expenses for withdrawing from the race.
According to the Standard (June 5, 1875), “the evidence of Donald Matheson, elicited in his cross-examination and taken in connection with the evidence of Mr. (William) Thibaudeau, it was (newspaper’s emphasis) a condition that the legitimate election expenses of the retiring candidate (Thibaudeau) were not to be paid unless the candidate voted for the Ministerial candidate who remained (John Henderson).”
The alleged bribe was unsuccessful, and Davis was able to survive the scandal with a majority vote in the legislature.
According to the June 12, 1875, Free Press, the “Opposition ... did not impute corrupt motives, but merely condemned the contribution by members of the Government towards the expenses of an election contest. That the Ministers had interfered in the election in their private capacity there was no doubt; but it does not appear that they went further than to pay or to contribute to a fund to pay the election expenses, legitimated incurred, of a candidate who retired to avoid creating a division in the ranks of their own party.”
The Standard on May 15, 1875, called those who supported the government “Kildonan Whitewashers” — including the Free Press.
“There is not the shadow of a doubt that Mr. Davis was guilty of the grossest bribery and corruption,” alleged the newspaper, “and that at a time when he was Premier of the Province, and while he himself was advocating a measure in the House to amplify the law, to prevent or punish corruption ... The French Members, with the exception of Mr. (James) McKay and Mr. (Alfonse Fortunat) Martin — who are honored by being the exception — of course supported the pliant tool of the party — Mr. Davis.”
In a strange turn of events, the Free Press was by 1875 on the side of the Davis government. Actually, it wasn’t all that strange as after the 1874 provincial election, Davis appointed John A. Kenny, who along with William Fisher Luxton published the newspaper, to the lucrative and prestigious position of Queen’s Printer. In another deft move, Davis appointed John Norquay, who was supported by the Free Press, to the cabinet as the provincial secretary. Davis had effectively silenced one of his harshest critics.
In the April 1875, Kildonan byelection, Sutherland, an opponent of the government, was elected. The unsuccessful candidates were Thibaudeau and Henderson, both of whom were involved in the 1874 election controversy.
If there was some truth to the widely-quoted phrase, “the power of the press,” the Scott-Cornish coalition should have easily won the 1874 provincial election, since the majority of the newspapers were aligned against the Davis-Royal coalition. What is perhaps more telling is that the power of the Winnipeg newspapers could not effectively penetrate far beyond the city’s boundaries where 23 of 24 seats were up for grabs. In those days, the big-city vote didn’t amount to much, as provincial governments rose and fell at the whim of rural voters.
The Nor’Wester ceased to exist on April 5, 1875, as Davis concentrated his efforts on ruling the province and the Free Press was no longer a threat to his government.
According to an editorial in the October 16, 1878, Free Press, following the retirement of Davis from Manitoba politics and reviewing his four years as Manitoba premier, the Davis government “had its imperfections ..., but we are certain that those who really understand the public affairs of this Province, who are desirous of its welfare, and withal, candid enough to think their convictions, will receive this announcement of Mr. Davis’ retirement with regret ... under the leadership of the gentlemen ... (his government) ... has enacted no mean quantity of progressive and desirable legislation; and the Government have succeeded in changing the financial position of the Province from one of indebtedness to one having a balance on the credit side of its bank account.”
For advocating and balancing the provincial budget, Davis would today be termed a fiscal conservative. He was helped in this task by negotiating better financial transfers to Manitoba from Ottawa, which included an additional annual grant of $26,000, raising the federal contribution to the province to $90,000.
Davis is also remembered for abolishing the unelected Legislative Council, or Manitoba Senate. The Free Press applauded this action in a February 12, 1876, editorial which claimed the English-speaking people of Manitoba had long held the view that the council “was an unnecessary appendage of our legislative machinery. Indeed, the majority went even further ... not only was it unnecessary, but positively injurious, and very expensive, as well.”
As premier, Davis performed a delicate balancing act between the interests of the aggressive English-speaking element — originally from Ontario — and the rights of French speakers, which included the dual public school system and French as an official language in the province. He also resisted the demand for a municipal act based on the Ontario model that would have undermined the traditional parish system then in existence. The premier did agree to another redistribution of seats in the legislature favouring English-speaking voters — then by far the majority in Manitoba — but didn’t tamper with the dual school system and was adamant in his refusal to ban French as an official language.
It was only after Davis left the province that the rights of the French residents of Manitoba were abolished through acts passed in the legislature.
Davis also resisted pressures from the Ontarians to free up Métis land and remove legislation restricting speculation in Métis script. A grant of 1.4-million acres of land to the children of Métis residents of the province was guaranteed in the Manitoba Act of 1870.
After Davis retired from Manitoba politics in 1878, he joined his American wife in Colona, Illinois, and then moved to Chicago in 1880. While residing in Chicago, Davis became a wealthy businessman. He died in Phoenix, Arizona, on January 7, 1903.
All Davis accomplished through the deft use of compromise to address the concerns of the various rival factions in the province, as well as his support for minority rights, should rank him as one of Manitoba’s great premiers, but today he is mostly forgotten. Unlike the case with many less accomplished political figures, there are no streets or towns in Manitoba named after Davis. The only visible reminder of his contribution to the province is a plaque alongside Main Street, erected in 1997 by the Mantoba Heritage Council, that marks the spot where his hotel, Davis House, once stood.
John H. O’Donnell, who held little regard for Davis, as he opposed most of the premier’s actions, including the abolition of the Legislative Council, perhaps best summed up the reason behind Davis’ political success, although by using thinly-disguised satire.
In his autobiography, Manitoba As I Saw It, From 1870 to Date (1909), O’Donnell, a physician who came to Manitoba from Ontario in 1869 at the urging of Schultz, wrote that Davis “had the countenance of an innocent abroad ... He was a man of few words, but was all things to everybody, disagreeing with none, and as a result he became known to the whole population, and thought to be a most agreeable man, and if on occasion it was learned that he was agreeing with two men of widely different views, and was taxed with it, he invariably had a plausible excuse and smoothed away the little ripple by asking them to have a glass of port wine that had been sent to him from Montréal by an old Scotchman, claiming the wine had been in his friend’s cellar for over thirty years, and the two politicians on the way home agreed that Mr. Davis was the prince of good fellows.”