by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Today, Edmund Landor Taylor would be referred to as a “parachute candidate” when he ran in the May 12, 1913, Gimli byelection. The Winnipeg lawyer was hand-picked by the Roblin political machine to run in a riding Taylor admitted he was unfamiliar with. In fact, when he arrived to campaign in the Interlake riding as the Conservative candidate, it was claimed by some in the constituency that neither man, woman or child could be found who could admit they had ever personally met the man.
When Baldwin Baldwinson decided to resign from political office and accept a patronage position as the deputy provincial secretary, after years of yeoman service to the ruling Conservatives under Premier Rodmond Roblin, the well-oiled political machine decided Taylor was their man to fill the vacancy in Gimli. The Manitoba Free Press on April 28, 1913, claimed that Taylor had been “imposed on the district by the personal orders of Sir Rodmond Roblin.” Still, local Conservative voters at the urging of the party machine confirmed Taylor’s candidacy in Gimli.
To boost the fortunes of its candidate, the political machine was willing to go to great lengths to get Taylor elected, even if that meant engaging in some rather nefarious practices.
Actually, Taylor needed all the help he could get. In the 1910 provincial election, he was parachuted into Mountain constituency, but lost to local Liberal candidate James Baird, a former mayor of Pilot Mound, by 282 votes.
The voters in Gimli riding may have been initially puzzled by the selection of a candidate without a nomination process, but they soon realized that there was some obvious benefits to be gained by backing Taylor. Campaign workers flooded every corner of the riding, saying, “Vote for Taylor and get roads.” On the other hand, if the constituents didn’t vote for Taylor, the Conservative agents’ promise of plenty of money for road work would be withdrawn.
But that was just one of many methods used to assure the electoral success of the hand-picked candidate.
The first was the calling of a snap-election so that only two-weeks campaigning was available to fill the Gimli vacancy. With such a brief period for the political opposition to organize the nomination of a candidate under the Liberal banner, the Conservative Party expectation was that Taylor would win by acclamation. However, when the Liberals in the riding quickly responded by nominating Arni Eggertsson as their candidate, the Conservatives knew they had a no-holds-barred election to fight.
During a May 1, 1913, election speech in the town of Gimli, Eggertsson said his candidacy was a protest against the attempt to “impose autocracy” on the constituency by parachuting in an outsider favoured by the Conservative political machine. Yet, Eggertsson was himself a Winnipeg resident and former city alderman (councillor). The connection the real estate broker had to the constituency was his Icelandic heritage and a farm (cottage) he lived in north of Gimli during the summer.
In reality, it was not uncommon for both parties to parachute candidates into select ridings during elections. But more often than not, they were sacrificial lambs doomed to lose in an election to an incumbent or a highly-regarded local candidate — exactly what happened to Taylor in Mountain in the 1910 provincial election.
Eggertsson was supported in his campaign during the Gimli byelection by West Winnipeg MLA Thomas Herman Johnson, who was born in Iceland, North Winnipeg MLA Solomon “S.” Hart Green, who in 1910 became the first Jewish member elected to the legislature, and Liberal Party Leader Tobias Crawford “T.C.” Norris, the MLA for the rural riding of Lansdowne, northeast of Neepawa, all of whom made speeches in his favour at rallies and town hall meetings in the riding.
Baldwinson vigourously campaigned for Taylor, travelling the riding to make stump speeches in the company of J.P. Skaptason, the chief clerk and accountant in the Manitoba agriculture department.
Gimli, Arborg, Riverton and Ashern district residents viewed Eggertsson as a more suitable candidate than Taylor, as they believed the tradition was for someone of Icelandic descent to represent them in the Manitoba Legislature. Gimli riding was created in 1899. From 1899 to 1907 and again from 1910 to 1913, the seat in the legislature was held by Baldwinson. From 1907 to 1910, Liberal Sigtryggur Jonasson, who is referred to as the “Father of New Iceland” (the reserve along the west shore of Lake Winnipeg set aside for Icelanders in 1875 by the federal government), held the Gimli seat. Both men were born in Iceland.
But the make-up of the constituency began to dramatically change after New Iceland became part of the province of Manitoba in 1881. When the province took over control from Ottawa, Poles, Ukrainians, Germans and other ethnic groups began to homestead throughout the Interlake district. At the time of the byelection, one-third of the voters were Icelandic and one-fourth were Ukrainian, with other ethnic groups making up the remainder.
The party workers for Taylor readily recognized the change and took advantage of the influx of settlers Eastern European by soliciting their votes.
The new arrivals also favoured the Roblin administration because it upheld their right to send their children to bilingual schools; that is, Ukrainian or Polish language schools.
To woo these voters, the party machine sent C.P. Kamienski, a licence department detective, posing as a road engineer, to campaign in the Gimli area. In Arborg and the surrounding area, F.S. Szablewski, another government worker, also solicited votes for Taylor.
With these diverse factors in play, the contest in the Gimli byelection was ripe to become infamously noted as the poster child for election shenanigans, which had been evolving in intensity as partisan provincial political parties themselves evolved. While the province was founded in 1870, an identifiable two-party system didn’t develop locally until the period between 1878 and 1883.
In 1900, Roblin was chosen to lead the Manitoba Conservatives following the resignation of Hugh John Macdonald, who in 1899 had ended Liberal Premier Thomas Greenway’s 11-year reign over the province. Macdonald’s decision to enter federal politics and contest the Brandon seat held by highly-popular Liberal MP Clifford Sifton, ended in failure. But Macdonald’s error was Roblin’s opportunity. The new premier seized power with relish and did whatever he could to ensure that it would not slip away. To consolidate his hold over the province, Roblin developed one of the most successful political machines in Canadian history, according to historian Ed Whitcomb.
“If ever Manitoba witnessed the working of a political machine, it was under Roblin who, with his minister of public works Robert Rogers, built an organization to rival anything the Liberals, including the federal Liberals under Sifton, could produce,” wrote Jeffrey Simpson in his book, Spoils of Power.
“Their tactics were those familiar elsewhere in Canada: reserving the civil service for partisans, engaging in every available trick at election time, dunning contractors (awarded government contracts) for contributions.”
For example, the contractor who won the contract to build the Manitoba Agricultural College was obliged to contribute $22,500 to the Conservative cause. But the very political machine that Roblin developed would contribute to his downfall as its tentacles spread outward beyond his control. In the end, it was a scandal over kickbacks to the party, involving the contract to build the new Manitoba Legislature, that brought down the Roblin government.
To be fair to Roblin, he was merely a political creature of his era. The tactics employed to curry favour were far from unique to the Conservatives, though the Roblin government seemed to have become among the very best early 20th-century practitioners of the art.
The needs of partisan politics heavily-motivated Roblin’s actions. While criticizing the party politics of the era, Manitoba historian, W.L. Morton, was still able to define Roblin as “a man of great energy, simplicity and directness of mind and ... a vigilant realism in reading public opinion and a keen sense of human foibles and weaknesses. A certain pomposity of speech and manner, a self-confidence, that verged on arrogance, a personal loyalty which approached a blind trust in colleagues were to mar the strong characteristics of Roblin as they hardened into fixed habit.”
Morton went on to say that Roblin was a man of great ability and achievement who was known to be honest in his dealings, but his downfall was that he was swept away by the mechanics of blind partisan politics. Morton added that Roblin “deserved a better fate” and the party he led deserved “more loyal and honest service from its agents.”
It can be argued that the Conservative political machine had become intoxicated by its own success. And as successful election outcomes ensued through the use of ever-increasing suspect tactics, it was difficult to restrain the urge to up the ante to ensure even more electoral successes followed.
(Next week: part 2)