Burning of the Gimli ballot box — partisan politic’s first appearance in a provincial election

by Bruce Cherney

Political pundits are now saying that Premier Gary Doer is probably leaning toward calling an election as early as this spring. Commentators cite a relatively healthy provincial economy, the presence of voter-friendly announcements — such as a significant infusion of money for much-needed road improvements — and the political expediency of preventing a resurgence in Conservative popularity under new leader Hugh McFadyen as good reasons for an early election call.

Polls indicate that the NDP has a lead over the Conservatives in riding-rich Winnipeg, while the same polls note that the Conservatives are more popular in rural Manitoba than the NDP.

An election call to prevent a surge in another party’s popularity has an historical context. In 1886, there was every reason to believe the popularity of long-serving Premier John Norquay’s government was diminishing and the fortunes of the Liberals were dramatically improving.

Norquay became premier in 1878 with the retirement of Robert A. “Hotel Premier of Manitoba” Davis.

Norquay’s policy of trying to work with Conservative Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s government to bring railway branch lines to the province was going nowhere. Manitoba voters — particularly farmers and urban businessmen, including grain merchants — were becoming restless.

“In the 1880s railways became the most important, and nearly the only issue in Manitoba politics,” wrote historian Ed Whitcomb in his book, A Short History of Manitoba, “as the government and people desperately sought escape from economic strangulation.”

Whereas being closely associated with the Macdonald government may have been a political boon in previous years, by the mid-1880s Macdonald’s “National Policy” was more and more being seen as the business policy of Canadian Pacific Railway at the expense of Western needs. In fact, the CPR at the time was called the “Conservative Party on wheels.”

What disgruntled Manitobans — for that matter people throughout Canada’s West — was the CPR’s reluctance to build branch lines to serve communities not along the trans-continental rail line, and the fact that the 20-year monopoly clause granted by the Macdonald government prevented the province from setting up any railway in competition with the CPR.

The fight against Ottawa’s railway policy, the need for branch lines, the CPR’s monopoly clause and its high freight rates polarized local voters for the first time in the province’s 16-year history. Up until 1886, Manitoba

politics had been relatively non-partisan with no real formalized party apparatuses.

The Macdonald government’s disallowance of provincially-established railway companies placed pressure upon Norquay and invigorated the Thomas Greenway Liberals. Prior to the mid-1880s, there had been an informal agreement that candidates running in provincial elections could run under any party banner, but they were to place Manitoba interests ahead of Ottawa’s policies.

“One of the most significant factors which emerges from a study of

disallowance is that the power has been primarily used against the West ... The West has always been Canada’s empire. The expansion of Western Canada provided the lifeblood of Eastern commerce, finance, manufacturing and transportation. It furnished the market for the goods and services which, by permitting the economics of large-scale operations, made Eastern undertakings successful. To put it crudely, as Macdonald did, the Dominion had purchased the West and was entitled to the profits of its exploitation,” wrote Alan Wilson in the Saskatchewan Law Review article, Disallowance: The Threat to Western Canada.

The Greenway Liberals argued — with some success in 1886 and to the point of forming the government in 1888 — that the Manitoba Conservative Party was too closely tied to the Macdonald government and thus was ineffective in promoting Manitoba’s interests.

 At first, the anti-Norquay forces fell under the banner Reform, but this was replaced by the name Liberal Party by 1886.

During the 1886 election, newspaper reporting started to reflect the evolving Manitoba political scene, and the emergence of the Greenway Liberal coalition as the “Provincial Rights Party.” 

There remained many who still supported Norquay and the Conservatives, but many also opposed the government. The Brandon Sun disparagingly talked of the “Norquayite press” and alleged rampant government corruption.

By 1886, Manitoba had a population of 110,000, a substantial increase from just 25,228 people in 1871 when the province’s first census was completed. In 1871, a year after Manitoba joined Confederation, a scant 241 people called Winnipeg home, but by 1886 the city’s population had jumped to 20,238.

Although the CPR line had been in Winnipeg since 1881-82, it wasn’t until 1886 that the first trans-continental train pulled into the city on its way

to the West Coast. This harbinger of

enhanced immigration to Western Canada reinforced Winnipeg’s position as the “Gateway to the West” and a local desire to maintain this role by whatever means available, including the political process.

Partisanship led to examples of some of the most corrupt election practices in Manitoba’s history. Earlier elections, especially the federal election of 1872, had been marred by violence at the polls, but the 1886 provincial election witnessed blatant acts of vote destruction in close ridings that had the potential to change the outcome. The most famous case was called in the press, “The Burning of the Gimli Ballots.”

A day after the December 9, 1886 election, newspapers reported ballot box irregularities. When opening the Fort Alexander ballot box at his St. Andrews house, the Brandon Sun said returning officer Young found that it had actually been opened en route and that the ballots had “mysteriously and unaccountably disappeared.”

Although the ballots were never found, Young interviewed the deputy returning officer for Fort Alexander and as a result of his testimony declared David Glass, Conservative, the winner in St. Clements Riding.

Rockwood was felt by political observers of the day to be one of many Manitoba ridings where the outcome could be determined by a handful of votes. The main contestants were Samuel Jacob Jackson, a Liberal (Reform) candidate and the founder of Stonewall, and Nathaniel Francis Hagel, the Conservative candidate and a famous criminal lawyer.

It became evident by the end of the day on December 9 that the winner of Rockwood riding would be decided by Gimli ballots that had yet to arrive. Follwoing the counting of the ballots already in Stonewall, Hagel had received a scant 21-vote majority, but it was known that Jackson was heavily favoured in Gimli. 

As it turned out, if the Gimli votes weren’t counted, Hagel would have been the victor in Rockwood.

On election night, December 9, 1886, scrutineers Charles Sibbald for Hagel and Colin McLean for Jackson set off in a horse-drawn sleigh with the locked Gimli ballot box, which was to be the delivered to the district polling headquarters in Stonewall and turned over to returning officer “Mr. Rutherford.” What happened en route has become a matter of historical speculation that to this day has not been satisfactorily resolved.

The Winnipeg-based Manitoban reported that the journey first took the ballot box to Selkirk where Sibbald had obtained another wagon, team and the driver “Wilson” from a “Mr. Pearson.” In Selkirk, the decision was reached to travel by the shortest route which meant a cross-country journey. Wilson said that while driving the wagon to Stonewall the ballot box was under his feet.

“Darkness having come on, the driver lost the way and they wandered on the prairie for some hours, but towards morning came to a farm house and went in to warm,” reported the Manitoban. 

It was at the Neary farm that the ballot box was apparently burned, although the eye-witness accounts of this incident are contradictory, thus the circumstances of its demise are somewhat vague.

In one report, it was said that  McLean and Wilson were warming themselves in the farm house when Sibbald and Neary left the house with the ballot box in hand.

Sibbald afterward contradicted this account, saying that they had arrived at the house of farmer “Smith” — not Neary (apparently not an oversight when Neary’s political affiliation became evident) — and had went “in to warm up, leaving the ballot box in the care of driver Wilson.”

“When I went outside (two hours later), the box was gone along with the horse’s bit. I began to search for the ballot box, and found it on heap of rubbish that had been burned along with the ballots. I have no idea who set the fire to the ballot box,” he said.

The Manitoban reported that Wilson went out to ready the horse team for continuing the journey to Stonewall and found that a halter and the ballot box were gone.

“Almost immediately afterwards he discovered it (the ballot box) in a fire on the ground some distance from the wagon, there being not the slightest doubt that it had been intentionally burned. The box was made of galvanized iron and the heat of the fire had melted the solder on one side and the bottom.”

The ballots from Gimli had been reduced to cinders. And because they no longer existed, Hagel insisted he had won the Rockwood election.

The Manitoban further reported that the deputy returning officer, who confirmed the burning of the ballots and had apparently also made the journey to the farm, later arrived in Stony Mountain at 8:40 a.m. on Saturday. “… while there he stayed at the hotel some little time and drank rather freely, taking no breakfast, so that when he got to Stonewall he was the worse of liquor, and he then delivered his box to the returning officer and went to bed.”

Testimony given to newspapers and to a provincial committee, charged to investigate the incident and declare a victor in Rockwood, varied considerably.

Wilson told Jackson’s lawyer that Sibbald and Neary had taken the ballot box to a haystack and set the hay on fire to destroy the contents of the box. Seeing this happen, he rushed to the house to alert McLean, but the damage had been done. 

Wilson would later change his testimony further obscuring the events of December 10, 1886.

Using the available testimony, it is likely that Sibbald and Neary did burn the ballot box. 

The Brandon Sun, several days after the incident, reported that Jackson had told McLean to be in Gimli to protect his interests, ominously warning of “knowing Mr. Sibbald well.”

Sworn testimony given by the Gimli polling clerk and three Gimli voters to the government-appointed committee said 30 votes had been cast for Jackson and three for Hagel with seven ballots improperly marked and declared invalid.

The Brandon Sun alleged that McLean had immediately after the count wanted a certificate of the Gimli vote signed by Sibbald — it also reported 30 votes for Jackson, three for Hagel and seven spoiled ballots — “but to his surprise Sibbald refused to give any certificate or written memorandum of the result” as called for under the Manitoba Election Act.

Sibbald contradicted the sworn testimony from the Gimli poll, declaring that only six votes were cast for Jackson and three for Hagel with all the rest being improperly marked, thus becoming spoiled ballots. If his testimony had been believed, Hagel would have won the Rockwood election.

In was also revealed at the inquest that farmer Neary was a Conservative and Norquay government supporter, providing a motive for the burning of the ballots favouring Jackson.

The committee believed the testimony from the poll clerk and Gimli residents and declared Jackson the winner. Officially, the margin of victory was 243-227. 


Jackson tried to have a second inquiry established to look into the burning of the Gimli ballot box. His call for another inquiry was motivated by a desire to have those involved in burning the ballot box arrested and punished. 

In the end, there was no second inquiry and police never arrested anyone for the ballot box burning.

The Manitoba Free Press, a Liberal-friendly publication, described the burning of the Gimli Ballot as a “black transaction.”

The Free Press gave five possible iinstances in support of the allegation that Sibbald had burned the ballot box:

1. Sibbald refused to sign the certificate.

2. The loss of ballot box was rumoured in advance.

3. Sibbald lost his way and the box was burned, providing justification for the earlier rumour mentioned in reason No. 2.

4. The box contained evidence of the Jackson majority.

5. In Hagel’s and Jackson’s presence at the legislature, Sibbald conveniently forgot “everything.”

When the final votes were tallied, the Norquay government was returned to power. The Tories won 21 seats and the Grits 14 in the Manitoba Legislature, although the popular vote was split down the middle between the Liberals and Conservatives. While both parties equally shared the popular vote, the Tories received the nod by narrowly winning close contests in some ridings.

The Toronto Globe, another Liberal-friendly publication, correctly predicted that Norquay would not survive another full term in the legislature. Actually, the Norquay government was soon after replaced by the Greenway Liberals.

By 1887, Norquay himself was embroiled in a scandal involving the use of trust funds set aside to resolve Metis land claims guaranteed by the Manitoba Act of 1870.

Amid the allegations of improper use of the trust funds, Norquay resigned as premier on December 23, 1887.

David H. Harrison, who was known as “the three-week premier” because he held the position only from December 26, 1887, to January 19, 1888, tried to hold together the Conservative coalition following Norquay’s resignation, but failed. Subsequently, Greenway was asked by the lieutenant-governor to form the new government.

In the general election of July 11, 1888, the Greenway Liberals won a resounding majority. 

In 1888, Norquay was re-elected in Kildonan riding, but only by two votes. He became the leader of the opposition, although he was not politically effective, having lost the trust of the local and federal Conservative parties and the favour of Manitoba voters. The province’s first native-born premier died in 1889 at age 48.

Greenway, who was the centre of controversy for enacting legislation abolishing the official use of the French language in Manitoba and ending government-funded Catholic-Protestant schools in favour of public education, stayed in power until January 6, 1900. Greenway died in 1908.

Hagel, despite several attempts, never won a seat in the legislature. He came to Winnipeg from Eastern Canada in 1881.

Jackson had a long career in the Manitoba Legislature, eventually becoming the Speaker of the House. He became the MP for Selkirk riding (1904-08). As the Selkirk MP, he was involved in the controversial St. Peter’s Reserve surrender of 1907.

“They (the Norquayites) have resorted to all sorts of wretched conduct,” said a Brandon Sun editorial following the 1886 election,  “from filling the voters’ list with bogus votes to the most cravenly attempts at intimidation, and their appointed officials (read Sibbald as an example), of all degrees of viciousness, who could be relied upon to perform any required act to see the Norquay candidate through. Their wicked ingenuity has discovered a great invention in the burning and losing of ballot boxes.”

The allegations cited in the preceding paragraph could be called a case of sour  grapes — after all Norquay’s Conservatives won the election — if there had not been so much evidence to back the allegations as revealed by later testimony. Yet, whether or not this led to “stealing” an election victory remains a matter of historical speculation.

However, what probably sealed the deal for Norquay was a personal visit, during the height of the 1886 provincial election campaign, by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, the aim of which was to bolster local Conservative strength. The “Old Chieftain’s” National Policy was contributing to growing dissatisfaction in Manitoba, but he still commanded great personal popularity which was used to Norquay’s advantage. Macdonald’s presence also gave the impression that he was actually heeding local concerns.

Norquay and his candidates were also helped by the strong presence of the federal Conservative Party machinery during the electioncampaign.

The Globe claimed that Dominion (Canadian) officials were heavily involved in the election, “and they have their hands on the throats of many voters.”

Months after the 1886 election, Macdonald had abandoned Norquay because the Canadian prime minister saw him as a political liability. In fact, Greenway and Macdonald worked together in 1888 to end the CPR monoply clause — something Norquay was unable to accomplish.