by Bruce Cherney (part 1)
Political partisanship was so intense during the first election campaigns in Manitoba that newspapers commonly resorted to mudslinging commentary that stretched the boundaries of libelous intent. During the 1874 provincial election campaign in Manitoba, the Nor’Wester used the word “puke” to describe the Manitoba Free Press, asserting that its rival for local readership ignored “right, justice, integrity, patriotism — all the virtues ...”
In the lead-up to the December 30, 1874, provincial election, English-language newspapers based in Winnipeg — the Free Press (weekly) and Daily Free Press, both published by William Fisher Luxton and John A. Kenny; the Nor’Wester, published weekly and managed by E.L. Barber; and the Manitoban, published weekly by William Coldwell, which was renamed the Standard in November 1874 and managed by M. St. John — advanced the cause of their preferred candidates with unbridled and malicious bias.
George Babington Elliott wrote in his book, Winnipeg as It is in 1874; and as It was in 1864, published in 1875, that the Free Press was Reform (Liberal) in orientation and opposed to the Davis provincial government, while the Nor’Wester “is said to be the organ of the present Local Cabinet.”
The Standard was also bitterly antagonistic toward the Davis government.
After Manitoba’s first provincial election on December 27, 1870, the legislature was divided into two parties: those loyal to the government and those opposed to the government. In 1874, a third group referred to as “independents” made their presence known in the legislature.
The “loyalists” in 1870 managed to take 20 of 24 seats in the Manitoba Parliament as it was then called. Members of the Provincial Parliament (MPPs), today’s Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), were elected to represent 12 English-speaking and 12 French-speaking parishes (the equivalent to present-day constituencies).
By the 1874 provincial election, the seats had been redistributed to
reflect the growing influx of Ontario settlers into Manitoba, with the number of French representatives reduced to 10 and the number of English representatives increased to 14, which included just a single seat for the newly-incorporated city of Winnipeg.
The Free Press complained that the redistribution didn’t go far enough, and demanded a reduction to eight French seats.
“It is undeniable that (Premier Robert Atkinson) Davis counts upon the French contingent as a unit. This, independent of any other considerations should be enough to convince every English speaking elector in this Province that his liberties are endangered by a conspiracy unholy and unrighteous ... Mr. R.A. Davis and the gang who support him are the traitors” (Free Press, January 2, 1875).
Davis received the nickname of “Hotel Premier” because he owned the popular Davis Hotel on Main Street (demolished in 1890), but opposition newspapers preferred to call him the “whiskey peddler.”
Davis claimed to have been out of the hotel business for two years prior to the election. He admitted to still owning the hotel, but rented it out to another individual for $6,200 a year.
The very fact that Davis at one time managed the hotel was used against him. Capt. Thomas Scott, his opponent for the sole Winnipeg seat in the legislature, even went as far as to accuse Davis of public drunkenness, inferring inebriation was a natural consequence of being an hotel proprietor.
Scott also refused to believe Davis was out of the saloon business — the most lucrative enterprise for Winnipeg hoteliers — saying the hotel’s liquor licence was in the name of “his clerk. Everybody easily understood that dodge ...”
According to the December 14, 1874, Nor’Wester, Davis claimed to be “stigmatized as a saloonkeeper although that had never been his business (he was technically just a hotel owner, but a saloon was located in his hotel) ... He had lived five years in the city of Winnipeg and during that time no man could say he had been drunk or had been seen reeling in the streets.”
It should be noted that Davis had the controlling financial interest in the Nor’Wester (Ten Years in Winnipeg, by Alexander Begg and Walter R. Nursey, 1879), which helps explain the newspaper’s bias toward Davis.
The Standard accused Davis of
using “his sheet” (Nor’Wester) to further his political career by spinning even “acts of knavish and corrupt politicians” to escape censure. “The conviction with us is deep seated that neither the Premier and his organ, nor the editor (Begg) and his new found friends, are prepared to make any small — not to speak of large — sacrifices the interests of pure government or political honesty” (June 5, 1875).
Temperance seemed to be a pet project of Scott, who favoured a ban on Sunday drinking because it wasn’t fitting to see drunks “reeling about the streets” on church day. He also said strong drink was responsible for most of the crime in the city.
The hotel keeper became involved in the political life of the community upon his arrival. In September 1872, he was appointed to the committee involved in the investigation of the federal election riot of that year. As
a spokesman for the Ontarians in Winnipeg, he was elected a trustee for the Protestant school board. He then became a member of the newly-established Winnipeg Board of Trade (equivalent to today’s chamber of commerce).
In 1873, Davis further enhanced his public image by being appointed to the committee drafting the bill for Winnipeg’s incorporation as a city. Under highly-charged circumstances, the bill was finally passed in the Manitoba Legislature. The City of Winnipeg was officially incorporated on November 8, 1873.
While working in the United States, it is likely that Davis learned of the Grange of the Patrons of Husbandry — grangers were also active in Eastern Canada — which was a secret society opposed to railway and other monopolies. As well, the grangers promoted improvements in agriculture and the“increase the general happiness, wealth, and prosperity of the country,” according to a history of the grangers published in the September 13, 1873, Free Press.
On February 24, 1874, a Grange was established in Winnipeg, and since there was no railroad to speak of in Manitoba, it’s purpose was to oppose the alleged monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company, especially in terms of its commercial operations and domination of steamboat traffic on the Red River.
“While the movement has done, during its brief life, a great deal of good,” commented the Free Press on February 28, 1874, “it has in many instances been abused, and the Patrons of Husbandry have been made the dupes of designing political demagogues, as well as of impecunious and unscrupulous speculators.”
The newspaper knew Davis was a founding member of the local grangers, which explains its questioning of the motivations of the new society. It was also known that Davis used his ties to the grangers to further his political aspirations.
When Donald Smith, the Chief Commissioner for the Hudson’s Bay Company, resigned his Winnipeg seat in the legislature, Davis relied upon the grangers to promote his candidacy for the vacated seat.
During a a nomination meeting for candidates to replace Smith, Duncan Sinclair, the provincial land surveyor who spoke on behalf of the nomination of Alexander McMicken, the manager of the Merchants’ Bank, accused Davis of being the “head centre of a society known as the ‘Grangers,’ a society that tends to disloyalty and annexation (of Canada by the U.S.),” reported the Manitoban on April 4, 1874. “Therefore it becomes our duty, as loyal and patriotic citizens of the British Empire, to oppose such a gentleman when he endeavors to gain access to the governing power of the country.”
John Villiers, a local businessman who supported Davis’ nomination, said comments about the grangers were made by men “who didn’t know what they were talking about. The Grangers are a society organized to bring about good government, and to ensure the general advancement and prosperity of the country.”
Speaking on behalf of Davis’ nomination, Archibald Wright, a city alderman (councillor), saddler and merchant, said Davis’ membership in the Grangers “was one of those blinds that are sometimes used at election times to mislead the people ...”
Davis said his only purpose in seeking the candidacy for the vacant seat in Winnipeg was as a reformer “opposed to the Government ...” He accused Attorney-General Clarke of lining his pockets at the expense of taxpayers. Davis also said he wanted to investigate the financial state of the province to obtain “an account rendered of what has been done with the public monies.”
Since many local businessmen were members of the grangers, they rallied to Davis’ cause. With their support, the hotel keeper was elected to the legislature in April 1874. Shortly thereafter, Davis became provincial treasurer under government leader Marc-Amble Girard, who is considered to be Manitoba’s first premier.
Manitoba entered the Canadian Confederation in 1870 under unique circumstances: it had no earlier experience with responsible government, although there had briefly been an elected body governing the Red River Settlement under Louis Riel — termed a president which reflects a republican form of government rather than a parliamentary system — called the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia.
The assembly’s most important vote was to accept the provisions of entry into Confederation under the Manitoba Act that was negotiated between Ottawa and three delegates from the settlement. The motion was passed by the assembly “in the name of the people ...”
Responsible government in parliamentary tradition, when applied to a province, meant that the lieutenant-governor, who was appointed by the Canadian government, accepted the choices made by a premier, who represented the party, or group, with the most elected members to the assembly, for cabinet positions. Adams Archibald and Alexander Morris, respectively the first lieutenant-governors of Manitoba, were “acting premiers” until a premier and cabinet came into being. In his book, Manitoba: A History, historian W.L Morton described the first two lieutenant-governors as being “their own prime ministers.”
According to Begg and Nursey, Davis’ election to the legislature was secured when he promised to bring down the government led by Henry Joseph Hynes Clarke, who was Manitoba’s attorney-general. Although Clarke was recognized as the government leader, he was not formerly acknowledged as Manitoba’s premier.
“After a pretty exciting scrimmage in the Local House between Attorney-General Clarke and R.A. Davis, in which the latter proved more than a match for the former, a direct vote of non-confidence was passed 15 to 7 (on July 3, 1874) against the Clarke Government,” wrote Begg and Nursey.
The explanation for Clarke’s unpopularity was that he had lost the confidence of the French faction in the legislature and the English members believed the attorney-general to be “extremely anti-Ontarians.”
With his defeat, Clarke resigned and left Manitoba, resulting in Girard became the new premier, an office then formerly recognized, as Lieutenant-Governor deferred to Girard’s selection of cabinet ministers — the advent of responsible government in the province.
On December 1, 1874, all but one member of the cabinet tendered their resignations when two English-speaking ministers refused to contest the next provincial election under Girard’s leadership. Morris called on Davis, the remaining English-speaking minister and the provincial treasurer, to form the new government.
An anglophone born in Québec, Davis was fluent in French and was able to persuade Manitoba’s French-speaking voters that he represented their rights. To reinforce this position, he appointed respected French-speaking politician Joseph Royal, who was elected as the representative of St. François-Xavier West in 1870 and became the first speaker of the legislature, as provincial secretary and public works minister. Colin Inkster, a member of the Legislative Council, or Manitoba Senate (the province had a senate until 1876 when it was abolished for financial reasons by Davis), and a spokesman for the old settlers of Red River, was made speaker of the council.
During the provincial general election campaign, the Free Press on December 12, 1874, called the inclusion of Inkster from an unelected chamber — he was appointed by Lieutenant-Governor Archibald to the post in 1871 — evidence of “Davis-Royal Irresponsible Government ... this novel Cabinet ... must excite ridicule and disgust throughout the whole civilized world ...
“That the foremost political position in the Province should be filled by a person of Mr. Davis’ antecedents and associations is an insult ...”
The Free Press also accused Royal of taking the public works portfolio in order to hand out favours to loyalists. Royal, a lawyer from Québec, would have been more suitable as the province’s attorney-general, according to the newspaper.
In fact, one of the complaints from the newspaper was that the office of attorney-general was absent in the cabinet and appeared to have been abolished. Instead of an attorney-general, J.D. Walker was appointed by Davis as the province’s Crown council.
Other criticisms against Davis and Royal involved an increase in their cabinet minister salaries. Prior to the general election, Premier Davis proposed that he and Royal receive $2,000 a year as ministers of the Crown, a $1,000 salary hike for each of them. Inkster would receive $500 a year. The Free Press suggested that Inkster perform his duties without a salary since he held an unelected position in the provincial government.
The Nor’Wester argued that Davis and Royal should receive double pay, since they doubled their cabinet duties and saved the taxpayers hundreds of dollars by eliminating three other cabinet posts.
The savings to Manitoba by combining cabinet portfolios was stated to be $4,300 annually. The indemnity to members of the legislature was also
reduced to $200 from $300 for a saving of $2,400 a year.
The main policies of the new government were reported in August 1873 as being the efficient expenditure of public money, negotiating with Ottawa for an increase in the federal subsidy to the province (equivalent to today’s transfer payments), and the abolition of the Manitoba Senate for an annual saving of $6,200.
By abolishing the office of attorney-general and replacing it with a Crown council, the Nor’Wester reported on December 14, 1874, that the province would save several thousand dollars a year. The argument was that the council only would be paid $20 a day when the Court of Assize was in session, which was just three times a year. As a result, “the cost of doing the business of the Crown could not exceed five or six hundred dollars a year.”
The policies advocated by Davis were claimed to provide a net annual saving for the public purse of $12,900.
Clarke’s offence, according to Davis and his supporters, was the failure to rein in provincial expenditures and spending more than what was received from Ottawa by way of the federal subsidy. At the time, Manitoba’s taxation powers were extremely limited and revenue came almost exclusively from the federal government. Seventy per cent of the federal subsidy was used to run the Manitoba Legislature, which meant that few funds were left over that could to be used to improve infrastructure and services in the province.
While the Free Press attacked the Davis-Royal “coalition,” the Nor’Wester reserved its harshest criticism for the Scott-Cornish “coalition.”
Francis Evans Cornish, a lawyer, came to Manitoba in 1872 from Ontario where he had been the controversial mayor of London. He immediately became heavily embroiled in local politics. He was vehemently anti-French and anti-Métis and was one of the prosecutors during the Ambroise Lépine trial preceding the 1874 election. He is best known for becoming Winnipeg’s first mayor through rather dubious voting practices.
Capt. Thomas Scott arrived with the Ontario militia in August 1870. He was not the same-named Scott executed on March 4, 1870, by the Louis Riel-led provisional government.
In a great leap of reasoning, the Free Press accused Davis of having conspired with the provisional government to consign “the former Thomas Scott to his martyrdom.”
Actually, Davis arrived in Winnipeg on May 10, 1870, well after the execution and just as the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia was nearing its end. Upon his arrival, Davis purchased “Dutch” George Emmerling’s hotel on the west side of Main Street near the corner of Portage and Main. He renamed the hotel Davis House, which became a popular meeting place, and its saloon was frequented by militiamen from Eastern Canada. Begg and Nursey, a reporter who wrote for the Winnipeg Herald and Winnipeg Times, described Davis House as “a bonanza to its new proprietor ... being crowded from morning to night with the many strangers visiting the town as well as the volunteers (militiamen) stationed at Fort Garry.” Davis enhanced the hotel’s popularity by adding a store, barbershop and billiards hall.
Despite his association with newcomers from Ontario — including militiamen — the fact that 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,” proclaimed the newspaper.
(Next week: part 2)