A “magnificent failure” — controversy dogged Meighen’s political career

by Bruce Cherney

Only one Manitoban has served as the prime minister of Canada, and then only briefly twice. In fact, Arthur Meighen came to be known as the “three-day wonder.” 

Arthur Meighen was the Conservative Party prime minister for four months in 1920-21 and for less than three days in 1926 and then more or less by default.

Meighen was seen as a natural to follow in the footsteps of Robert Borden. Unfortunately, Meighen happened to become leader when the fortunes of his party were on a downturn. 

He was born in Anderson, Ontario on June 16,1874. After graduating with a mathematics degree from tile University of Toronto, he moved to Portage la Prairie in 1896. In 1898, he moved to Winnipeg to study law and after being called to the bar in 1902, moved back to Portage la Prairie to practice.

On June 1, 1904. he married Isabel J. Cox. Isabel was born in Granby, Quebec, but was raised on a farm near Birtle, Manitoba. “They made an odd, but complementary couple,” wrote Leather Robertson in More than a Rose: Prime Ministers, Wives and Other Women. “Isabel’s sense of humour and friendly ways made it easier for Arthur to come out of his shell, and he brought to her life an intellectual dimension it would otherwise of lacked.” 

The couple would have two sons, Ted and Max, and one daughter, Lillian.

Even his political enemies admired Meighen’s intellect, though they ridiculed his manners and dress. R.B. Bennett, who was Canadian prime minister from 1930 to 1935, was openly jealous of Meighen. Despite this, the Tory prime minister once said, “I’d give anything to Meighen’s mind.”

Journalist Gratton O’Leary related a story of how impressed Canadian Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier was with the new MP from Portage. He told Kurt Cameron of Montreal, “... Borden has found a man at last. I have just heard his speech which I think is remarkable and this man is bound to be heard from in the years to come.”

Lean and tall, Meighen evoked in his detractors an image of Ichabod Crane. It also didn’t help that he hailed from a small Prairie town. The mandarins in Ottawa dismissed he and his wife as being from hicksville. Liberal leader King actually cruelly said that Isabel resembled a “dairy maid.”

Renowned journalist, Bruce Hutchinson called him “an unresting, alarming, almost melodramatic figure.”

Arthur R. Ford in his book, As the World Wags On, referred to Meighen as one of the greatest authorities in Canada on Shakespeare. He related the story of when Meighen was asked to deliver a speech to the Vancouver Canadian Club. He proceeded to speak on Shakespeare without so much as a note. 

When he gave the same oration to members of the Canadian Club in Ottawa, reporters approached him for a copy of his speech. Meighen replied that he didn’t have a copy but would be glad to recite the same speech. He then sat down with the newspapermen and dictated the speech verbatim without referring to notes.

In another instance, Meighen was to deliver a speech in French. In typical fashion, he lost his notes and couldn’t locate his dress clothes. Despite the laughs at his attire, Meighen delivered the speech without a break. He had memorized the nine or 10 pages of text.

Conservative leader Robert Borden also quickly recognized his skills in debate and parliamentary files and ability to analyze legislation. When Borden wanted something to be done, he approached Meighen. But invariably, Borden gave him the most politically sensitive and controversial tasks, which created enemies and hurt Meighen’s election chances when he became leader of the party.

When it came to the debate on the Naval Aid Bill in 1913, his skills were front and centre. Meighen was the solicitor general of Canada at the time, and the Conservatives were in the process of overturning the just defeated Wilfred Laurier Liberal government’s bill calling for the creation of a Canadian navy. 

The Tories ridiculed this measure and called it Laurier’s “tin-pot navy.” Instead, the Tories proposed to give Britain $35-million to buy three dreadnoughts. Facing strong criticism and blockage in the House, Meighen introduced closure into Parliament for the first time, which limited debate on the bill. After closure, the bill passed the House, but was defeated in the Liberal-dominated Senate.

Closure was also used to push through the War-Time Elections Act of September 1917. The bill championed by Meighen took away the vote for 25,000 naturalized citizens who had come to Canada from war-time enemy nations since 1902, while adding another half million women voters who had husbands, sons or brothers serving overseas. Feminists were enraged that the vote was not universal and immigrants were enraged that they were being discriminated against.

Meighen said the bill’s intent was to “shift the franchise from the doubtful British or anti-British of the male sex, and to extend it at the same time to our patriotic women would be in my judgement a splendid stroke.”

The Liberal’s and their party-backed newspapers cried foul. The Vancouver Sun said it was really a “Steal the Election Act.”

It worked. Borden and those who had joined his Unionist cause were reelected. The Union government was composed of Conservatives, some Liberals who defected because they supported conscription and a trade unionist.

But, the greatest controversy that nearly ripped the country apart had proceeded the Elections Act — the Conscription Crisis of 1917.

Designed to replete the thousands who were dying on European battlefields, the Military Service Bill was drafted by Meighen and modeled on the American selective service law.

Quebecers, though thousands fought in the First World War, were less than enthusiastic about the “foreign” war. Patriotic appeals to fight for the Mother Country England or even France, which hadn’t had any contact with Quebec for generations, failed to stir up zeal.

Laurier, who saw a rift occurring in his party between Quebec members and members from in the rest of Canada, called on Borden to allow a referendum. The prime minister refused as he feared its loss because of opposition in Quebec and among  the working-class and farmers (they wanted an exemption for their sons to work the land).

Laurier saw conscription as an illegal attempt to arouse patriotism to revive a flagging government. Certainly, the Borden government was unpopular, mainly because it introduced an income tax (called a temporary measure, but it remains with us to this day) and had alienated naturalized Canadians.

Nine Conservatives joined Laurier in opposing conscription when it came to a vote on July 6 in the House, but 25 liberals deserted him. It was passed by the Senate on August 29 and became law. From this point on, the name of Meighen was abhorred in Quebec.

Combined with the Elections Act and the patriotism felt in the rest of Canada, the Union Government won the 1917 election.

Meighen’s clout in the Borden cabinet was felt during the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The federal government feared an outbreak of Bolshevism across the land, so it concentrated on suppressing the Winnipeg strike before its message of One Big Union spread.

As the acting federal minister of justice, Meighen and Senator Gideon Robertson, the minister of labour, arrived on May 22 to assess the then week-long strike. They met with prominent business leaders of the Winnipeg Citizens’ Committee of 1,000, who had joined them in Fort William. 

While the Strike Committee wanted to talk with Meighen, he refused, not wanting to associate himself with “Bolsheviks.” Many in the Canadian government had begun to associate “aliens” or “foreigners” with an attempt to create a revolution.

When Alfred J. Andrews, a prominent member of the 1,000, was appointed by Meighen to be the justice department’s representative in Winnipeg, he was charged to “examine any evidence that may be available touching on the conduct of the principal instigators of the present unfortunate industrial disturbance with a view to ascertaining whether or not the activities of these men is of a seditious or treasonable character and to advise what should be done.”

The myth of the potential of an alien-inspired Bolshevik revolution was so endemic that the Manitoba government established the Alien Investigation Board and Meighen bolstered the Royal North West Mounted Police contingent, reinforced troops in Osborne Barracks, arranged the creation and arming of a citizens’ militia, and amended the Immigration Act to permit deportation without trial of anyone not born in Canada and accused of sedition. 

The reality was that all the strike leaders were British-born with the exception of one Canadian born in Ontario.

The RNWMP carried out a series of raids on the night of June 16 -17 acting on orders from Meighen. The leaders were arrested “and are now in custody under criminal charges of seditious conspiracy and publishing libel and I think the evidence will be forthcoming to convict the majority of them on these charges,” Andrews wrote Meighen. “The order for their detention under the Immigration Act is only being used as an extra precaution against the accused being allowed bail.”

And then came “Bloody Saturday,” June 21, which started out peacefully enough with a Silent Parade as a protest against the arrests. Thousands were gathered downtown when the RNWMP charged into the crowd using small arms fire and wielding baseball bats. In the end, two men were killed and 30 others were injured in the RNWMP charge. The suppression of demonstrators brought a quick end to the strike.

Meighen’s role in using force to end the strike was never forgotten and would come back to haunt him in the 1921 election, though his implementation of controversial legislation would also have its effect.

Along the way, Meighen also managed to alienate those who had originally elected him — farmers of Western Canada — through his support of high tarrifs, something Western farmers had long battled against and felt favored Eastern industries.

In 1921, the newly-created Progressive Party with Winnipegger T.A. Crerar as leader had arrived as an option to Western voters dissatisfied with the status quo. 

When the federal election votes were counted, the Progressives took 64 seats and the Tories under Meighen finished a distant third with only 50 seats. The Liberals under King became the new government by capturing 117 seats. 

Meighen was abandoned by the farmers who had first sent him to Ottawa and he lost his Portage seat. When he did seek another seat in the House, he turned to voters in Ontario. In a 1922 byelection, he was elected the MP for Grenville.

Although the Liberals formed only a minority government, the support of the Progressives, who could not support the Tories and high tarrifs, kept the Grits in power. In the interim, Meighen worked hard to rebuild the powers base of the Conservative Party.

In 1925, the Conservatives won 116 seats, the highest total of the election, but the liberals still clung to power with the support of 24 Progressives. Enter Lord Byng, who, noting the Conservatives had more MPs (116-101) than the Liberals, decided Meighen should form the government. King had asked the governor general for a dissolution of Parliament and a new election in the wake of a scandal that King feared would bring down his government. King resigned his government when the governor general refused to call an election, commencing the King-Byng Affair.

Meighen could either refuse the governor general’s call to form the government and have the county ruled by no one for the two-month duration of an election or accept the governor general’s proposal . After consulting Borden, who said Meighen had no choice but to accept the offer, he formed the government.

Under political convention of the day, cabinet ministers had to resign their seats and stand for election. Meighen knew he could not face the electorate at this stage, so he created acting ministers so that the cabinet would not have to run for re-election.

The Meighen government within three days of sitting in the House faced a non-confidence vote, which was lost. King turned the subsequent election into a constitutionial question, claiming Byng had usurped the power of the Canadian people by refusing to accept the advice of the prime minister. He also claimed that  Meighen’s creation of acting ministers was unconstitutional.

The Liberals won a majority in Parliament. The Tory leader said he had lost to the “most contemptible charlatan ever to darken the annals of Canadian politics.” The feeling was mutual, they both loathed each other, but King was victorious. Just a year later, a disillusioned Meighen resigned as leader of the Tories and took a position as a Toronto investment company.

Meighen returned to politics in 1932 when R.B. Bennett, the Conservative prime minister, appointed him to a seat in the Senate.

Politics was not friendly to Meighen in his later years. He attempted a comeback in 1941, winning the Tory leadership, but failed to win a seat in the House in a 1942 byelection. He then passed from the political stage and re-entered private business where he prospered.

O’Leary, a friend of Meighen, called him a “magnificant failure” in politics.

Manitoba’s only prime minister died far from the Prairies where he was first elected as an MP. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, St. Mary’s, Ontario. Near the time of his death, the poor, though intellectual, lawyer from Portage la Prairie had become part of the business and social elite of Bay Street — the very people who had first rejected him as a hick from the Prairies.