by Bruce Cherney (part 3)
Conservative candidate Edmund L. Taylor’s victory was so decisive over his opponent in the 1913 Gimli byelection that Liberal banner-bearer, Arni Eggertsson, lost his $200 candidacy deposit, when he failed to obtain the required number of votes to keep it under the terms of the Manitoba Election Act. The Liberals were apparently quite surprised by the overwhelming vote in favour of Taylor. In addition, the Tories were awed by how successful they had been in supporting Taylor’s candidacy.
“The confidence felt by the ruling political machine in this province that they can elect any candidate they want in any constituency they choose by their campaign methods has been confirmed once more by the results in Gimli,” according to an editorial in the Liberal-friendly Manitoba Free Press, a day after the May 12 byelection. “In this as in other by-elections fought in various parts of the province during the past decade, the machine has shown that it can overtake and smother a hostile sentiment and on election day ‘deliver’ a majority of any size required.”
“Naturally,” Premier Rodmond Roblin, the leader of the Conservative Party, told reporters in Winnipeg the day after the byelection vote (Brandon Daily Sun, May 14, 1914), “I am pleased at the election of Mr. Taylor. I am not surprised at his return but am somewhat astonished at the size of his majority.”
While Roblin refused to personally campaign in Gimli, and “persuaded my colleagues also to refrain from taking part ... to find Mr. Taylor single handed winning such a great victory, means either that he is the most popular man in Manitoba or that the government stands higher in the estimation of the public than at any time in its history.”
Specific accusations (Roblin called it “twaddle”) began to appear in the Free Press immediately after the byelection results were announced, such as money being paid openly to voters as well as to outsiders hired to vote for residents absent from the riding on election day. The newspaper also alleged that people were paid wages in advance of any road work beginning, and that roads were promised to isolated homesteaders.
“The whole constituency was flooded with whiskey and beer, free to all comers,” reported the newspaper two days after the byelection.
On May 14, the same newspaper published a letter by Rural Municipality of Coldwell Reeve W.H. Fielding, which it called an “open and unblushing bribery by promises of public grants.” The reeve’s letter, which was circulated to every voter in the RM, claimed Roblin had promised to match every dollar spent by the local government on roads. Fielding said the voters should show their appreciation for Roblin’s promise by voting for Taylor.
“In my opinion,” ended the reeve, “as an independent Liberal, I think the opposition is ill advised in contesting this election.”
An editorial on June 12 referred to the Gimli byelection as the “highwater mark of electioneering rascality in this province.” Another editorial five days later, referred to it as “the highwater mark of electoral villainy and corruption,” alleging that the “electors were browbeaten, cajoled, bribed and bought” and “that the constituency was drenched with liquor for the purpose of debauching the voters.”
These accusations were repeated by Eggertsson, who returned to Winnipeg from Lundar on May 13. “Had fair means been used by the Conservative Party, I should have won the election,” he told reporters.
Eggertsson alleged the people were actually dissatisfied with Roblin’s choice of candidate and petitioned him to run against Taylor, but the tide turned “when government employees and heelers (contemptuous term for political party workers) of all description” arrived on the scene. “Whiskey and money bought up the vote for the Conservative candidate.”
Thomas Johnson said, “The floodgates were opened and a stream of civil servants and special constables overran the constituency in Mr. Taylor’s interest with money and liquor which flowed freely.”
Johnson, who was first elected to represent West Winnipeg in the legislature in 1907, was the right-hand man of Liberal Leader Tobias Crawford “T.C.” Norris. Johnson, a lawyer born in Iceland, who first immigrated to Gimli with his family in 1878 and then moved to Winnipeg, would champion the cause against Taylor’s successful candidacy in Gimli.
By June, the accusations were attracting more attention outside the ranks of the Liberal Party. Even James Shaver Woodsworth, the social reformer, future Labour MP, author and Methodist minister in charge of the All People’s Mission in Winnipeg’s North End, was drawn into the byelection controversy.
In particular, Woodsworth believed that an investigation should be supported by Manitoba Methodists into Taylor’s possible involvement in wrongdoing during the byelection campaign. If the charges were proven to be true, then Woodsworth called for the censure of Taylor, a leading member of the Methodist congregation in Winnipeg.
“We cannot hope for cleaner politics until we know where we stand,” said Woodsworth.
As a result of his speaking out about the byelection, “Woodsworth found himself in the middle of a first-class political mud-slinging contest and here he proved his audacity on the political arena,” wrote Kenneth McNaught in his book, A Prophet in Politics: A Biography of J.S. Woodsworth (1959).
“Mr. Taylor I have known personally for years,” said Woodsworth during the Manitoba Methodist Conference held in Brandon, “and hence am loath to credit statements against his moral character. On the other hand I have too high a respect for some of the gentlemen responsible for the matter that appears in the Free Press and Tribune to believe that they would publish either malicious or unfounded statements. Still further, from independent sources I have knowledge that similar statements are made and believed among the non-English residents of the Gimli constituency ...”
On June 17, the conference passed the resolution, which in part read: “Whereas, serious charges are made, either directly or indirectly, by the Manitoba Free Press and the Winnipeg Tribune in respect to the Gimli election. And whereas, if these charges are true, Mr. Taylor ought not to be the member for Gimli ...”
The resolution, which was a tamer version of Woodsworth’s original that was reworded with the help of Dr. S.D. Chown, challenged the newspapers to prove their claims or withdraw their charges.
Copies of the resolution were sent to the two newspapers, Taylor, Premier Roblin and the province’s attorney general.
Woodsworth explained that his intent was not to make a charge against Taylor, but to get at the truth and affix blame where it was due.
“I cannot think with the Free Press that our courts are so hopelessly corrupt as to warrant no action being taken,” Woodsworth commented.
On June 19, the Conservative-friendly Winnipeg Telegram alleged there was collusion between Woodsworth and the Free Press: “Will the senior Grit organ of Winnipeg deny that the assassin-like attack made by Woodsworth to injure Mr. Taylor was known before it was read by the man who wielded the knife in Brandon.”
In response, the Tribune singled out “the organ of the Roblin government” for making an unscrupulous attack on an “honest, courageous, self-sacrificing Canadian (Woodsworth).”
The Voice, a Winnipeg-based labour newspaper, contained a column on June 30, 1913, saying the reworded resolution was correct for demanding “that those responsible for making the charges of corruption should either prove or withdraw them.”
The column defended Woodsworth and attacked the Telegram as casting “calumnious aspersions” on the Methodist minister.
(Next week: part 4)