by Bruce Cherney
When Rodmond Roblin arrived by train in Carman a week after the Conservative Party’s overwhelming July 20, 1903, election victory over the Liberals, the band struck up the tune See the Conquering Hero Comes.
Despite the day’s sweltering heat, hundreds came to Carman from many kilometres away to get a glimpse of their “conquering hero.” To bring a measure of comfort to those in town gathered to bestow upon Roblin their hearty congratulations, local organizers were forced to shift the celebrations from the stifling confines of Victoria Hall to an outdoor grove of “magnificent oaks” in order to take advantage of the potential cooling effects of nighttime breezes.
The soirée was a hastily organized event as the local Conservative political machine, run by Tom Kerninghan, had only been notified that morning the newly-elected premier would be coming to town. Organizers met in Kerninghan’s home to hammer out the details of the celebration as the CPR train bearing Roblin made its way to Carman from Winnipeg.
In Winnipeg, the CPR added more coaches to the train due to the large number of supporters who would be accompanying the Roblin entourage to Carman. At Elm Creek, more enthusiastic supporters tumbled onto the train, forcing Roblin and party officials to move to the last car to avoid the crush of people.
After the train pulled into the Carman depot, a procession led by the band escorted Roblin “amid a perfect storm of cheering ... to the Starkey house, where for twenty minutes he had to undergo a perfect fusillade of congratulations and an ordeal of hearty handshaking,” according to a report in the Winnipeg-based Conservative newspaper, the Morning Telegram.
One person shouted out to the premier from the milling throng: “We heard you had a glorious victory.”
The premier replied to more cheers, “Oh you did hear it did you, I came down just to confirm it.”
From Starkey’s, with the band again leading the way, the premier was borne upon the shoulders of the crowd and paraded through the town to the grove. As if on cue, flashes of lightning illuminated the evening, which confirmed what the merrymakers had suspected all along — that Roblin’s premiership had been
preordained by a power beyond the bounds of earth.
In a duplication of the pagan rites of old, a large bonfire was lit to symbolize the Conservative victory at the polls.
By 1903, Roblin had been Manitoba’s premier for three years, but it was the first time that he had led his party in an election campaign.
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 abject failure. But Macdonald’s error was Roblin’s opportunity. When given his opportunity, the new premier seized it 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 had 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 in
1916 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 seems to have become among the very best early 20th-century practitioners of the art.
“In the early years no one seemed to object to all kinds of political dodges that were used to get the votes,” said old-timer Albert Malcolmson, who witnessed first-hand the workings of the Roblin political machine in Dufferin constituency, the riding represented by the premier.
“And in the election, liquor was used very freely,” said Malcolmson, as quoted in the local history called Trials of the Pioneers. “Took a lot of whiskey to win, you know. Roblin would get it by the barrel.”
In the same book, another old-timer, George Kennedy, said: “At one election, Roblin’s boys put on a big barbecue. They roasted a whole ox and treated everybody. Albert Clarke was Roblin’s chief organizer. Once they loaded up a whole democrat (horse and buggy) full of liquor and went out by Barnsley, and herded in a whole lot of votes with that.”
When Roblin was elected in 1903, Kennedy said a big barrel of liquor was rolled up to the Carman Hotel and a ladle was hung on it so that any passers-by could have a belt.
Times haven’t changed as dramatically as one would think. Although liquor is not as openly displayed during today’s election campaigns, it’s still common for candidates to take part in the barbecue circuit, donning chefs’ hats and aprons to grill hamburgers in an attempt to woo voters.
The Roblin government enraged temperance leaders in the province who wanted a ban on the sale of liquor. Two earlier referenda had supported the ban, but were ignored by the Greenway and Norquay governments. Macdonald supported the anti-liquor campaign and with the assistance of James Aikins prepared the Prohibition Bill, commonly called “The Macdonald Act.” The act was attacked through the courts by its opponents but Macdonald persevered in supporting the act until the Privy Council declared it valid law.
Soon after, Macdonald left provincial politics which allowed Roblin a chance to reverse the Macdonald Bill through another referendum. Manitobans voted against prohibition on April 2, 1902, allowing Roblin to continue to receive financial support from liquor and hotel interests.
The needs of partisan politics heavily motivated Roblin’s actions. While criticizing the party politics of the era, Manitoba’s most renowned historian, W.L. Morton, was still able to define Roblin as “a man of great energy, simplicity and directness of mind and possessed of a trenchant to 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. 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 with others. Roblin’s 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.”
Born in 1853 in Ontario, Roblin moved with his family in 1877 to Winnipeg and then to Carman where he became a successful businessman. He would later expand his business interests to Winnipeg where he went into partnership with Nicholas Bawlf, Arthur Atkinson, Samuel Clark, Herbert Crowe and James Mitchell, to form the Northern Elevator Company Ltd. By 1900, the company operated 92 grain elevators scattered across the countryside, more than one-fifth of the total number of elevators then in existence on the Prairies.
When Roblin was first elected to the legislature in an 1888 byelection for Dufferin South, he ran under the Greenway Liberal banner. When the Greenway government’s railway policy failed, Roblin abandoned the Liberals to become an independent, but associated himself with the then small Conservative caucus. When Conservative Leader John Norquay died in 1889, Roblin emerged as the party’s de facto leader in the legislature from 1890 to 1892.
Roblin ran in Morden riding during the 1892 provincial election, but was defeated at the polls. In 1896, Greenway won a landslide victory in the provincial election — while Roblin was one of the few Conservatives to win, taking Woodlands for his party. He was again the party’s parliamentary leader, but when party officials convinced Macdonald to lead the Tories in 1897, Roblin stepped aside.
In 1899, Roblin was re-elected in Woodlands. Although he had been a major cog in the victorious Conservative political machine, he was left out of Premier Macdonald’s new cabinet. The inference can be made that Macdonald recognized the challenge Roblin posed to his authority.
But Roblin didn’t have to wait long for another chance to lead the Conservatives. After a brief stint as premier, Macdonald switched his allegiance to the federal Tories and subsequently went down to election defeat at the hands of Liberal stalwart Sifton, who became the interior minister in Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s government.
For the 1903 provincial election, Roblin abandoned Woodlands in favour of Dufferin riding, which contained his hometown of Carman.
By the time of the 1903 election campaign, the Manitoba Liberals were languishing in disorder stemming from their 1899 election debacle. Contributing to the disarray was the loss of the party’s best and brightest to federal politics. Greenway remained the party’s leader, but the building momentum of the Conservative Party machine meant the prospects for a Liberal return to power were at best slim.
The Morning Telegram reported that J.T. Gordon’s organization in South Winnipeg riding was pulling in increasing numbers of supporters. “The committee rooms at 185 Portage Avenue East are open all the time and the steady attendance of a large number of workers is the best evidence of the enthusiasm with which the campaign is
being carried on.”
W.H. Hasting, the chief organizer of the Conservative election campaign, said the local and district organizations were in better shape than they had ever been.
“Everywhere the feeling is the same — of confidence coupled with a determination to leave no legitimate means employed to ensure the success of the Conservative candidates and the renewal of office of the Roblin administration,” reported the Morning Telegram.
W.H. Corbett, the Conservative candidate in Springfield, said he was confident that he would win his seat handily and the Roblin government would win a majority.
The issues during the election campaign were typical of the time and primarily focused on high tariffs and railways.
In 1901, the Roblin government earned the appreciation of Manitobans by taking over the Northern Pacific and Manitoba Railway and then transferring its lease to the Canadian Northern Railway (Canadian National Railway was formed after the First World War when Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk were merged) in return for more favourable freight rates and the construction of more branch lines to serve rural communities.
To the credit of the Roblin government, the Canadian Northern dramatically extended its railway network in Manitoba and its freight rates by 15 per cent. Faced with greater competition, the CPR had to offer fairer freight rates.
Although the “Roblin-Rogers railway deal” saddled the province with a significant potential liability, the promise of lower freight rates and more branch lines resonated with rural voters who controlled the vast majority of seats in the legislature. At the time, Winnipeg only elected three MLAs.
Of note in the 1903 election was the decision by the labour movement to enter provincial politics for the first time. The Socialist Party of Manitoba ran two candidates — William Scott in Winnipeg Centre and Robert Thoms in Winnipeg North — though unsuccessfully. It would take a few more years before the labour movement would have a significant presence in Manitoba politics.
When the ballots were tallied, the Conservatives had taken 32 of 40 seats in the legislature. The Liberals had fallen from 17 seats in 1899 to just eight after the 1903 election.
The partisan Morning Telegram called it “the greatest vote of confidence ever given by the people of Manitoba — and the Opposition receives the most stinging rebuke ever administered.”
Of course, the newspaper’s enthusiasm was overdone, since the Conservatives in 1896 had received an even more disastrous defeat at the hands of the Liberals, winning only five legislature seats. And in 1888, the Conservatives won just four seats.
During his election evening victory speech in Winnipeg — the party won all three seats in the city — Roblin thanked the voters of Dufferin and Manitoba and congratulated party organizer Hastings “to whose indefatigable industry so much of our success is due ...”
He also took the time to praise the party organ Telegram for a job well done. With implied sarcasm, Roblin also singled out the pro-Liberal Free Press for praise, saying that “honest Liberals who have known me for the last twenty years have resented this campaign of slander (from the opposition newspaper).”
That evening a procession of Conservative supporters flowed down Main Street to mark their party’s victory. At the corner of Portage and Main, they met another crowd which had crossed the bridge from St. Boniface while carrying on its shoulders Joseph Bernier, the member elected from that constituency.
The mingling crowd then went to the Telegram office where the election reports were still being received. “I think I can say this evening what Julius Caesar said when he crossed the Rubicon,” Roblin told the crowd, “‘Veni, vidi, vici — I came, I saw, I conquered.’ But I must modify the expression of the immortal Roman and say, ‘We came, we saw, we conquered.’ It is not because of my individual efforts alone that we are victorious this evening, but it is largely due to the principles for which the Conservative Party of the province of Manitoba stands.”
A week later in Carman, amid a cheering crowd, Roblin savoured his election victory, the first of five that would come over the next 14 years.
A few decades later, his grandson, Duff Roblin, would enjoy similar accolades when he was elected premier of Manitoba.