David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Lessons from the Election of December 1917

Brandon Sun, December 11, 2017 – David McConkey

One hundred years ago, Brandon – and all of Canada – was in the midst of a divisive federal election. It was framed by the First World War. But the course of the election has lessons for us today about keeping our democracy.

Canada 100 years ago was mobilized for war. The War Measures Act was passed at the start of the conflict in August 1914. By that legislation, the federal government gave itself the power to do whatever it deemed necessary to conduct the war.

Out of a population of 8 million, more than 600,000 served during the war in the armed forces. More than 60,000 died.
 
News was censored. Also, many newspapers perceived their duty as reporting the news in a manner favourable to the war effort.

In 1917, the war was not going well. Fighting along the western front – like the Battle of Passchendaele – exacted a heavy price. More men were needed. In response, the Conservative government under Prime Minister Robert Borden brought in conscription. Drafting young men to fight was opposed by some: especially in Quebec and among Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals.

Borden re-fashioned his administration as a “Union” coalition and invited pro-conscription Liberal MPs to join his government. Borden passed the Wartime Elections Act, in a blatant move to skew election results. This act took away the vote from conscientious objectors. It also disenfranchised those who had been born in enemy countries and became Canadian citizens after 1902. And – for the first time – it gave the vote to women, but only if they were close relatives of men serving in the armed forces.

Borden called a general election for Dec. 17, 1917. The chief issue was conscription. Traditional allegiances were disrupted. In Manitoba and elsewhere, people of various political persuasions rallied around the Union cause. (In Dauphin, Souris and The Pas, Union candidates were unopposed and were elected by acclamation.)

The Brandon Daily Sun carried much election news; the coverage was unabashedly in favour of conscription. The Sun supported Dr. Howard  Whidden, the President of Brandon College, who had been nominated as the Union, “Win the War” candidate.
 
“Shall we desert our soldier boys at the front and leave them to the mercy of the unspeakable Hun?” the Sun asked in one front page story. “Every patriotic citizen, every returned soldier, every widow, mother, wife and sister of the heroes in France, must stretch out a helping hand.”

The Sun denigrated people daring to oppose conscription, like those attending a Brandon meeting to find an alternative candidate.

“Anti-Conscriptionists, Socialists and Slackers Join Forces to Defeat the Union Government,” the front page headline read. “Masquerading Under Title of Labour Party, a Few Mad Kickers Nominate E.J.L. Bisson, Student at Brandon College.”  

Bisson later dropped out, leaving the Brandon election as a two-way race. Union candidate Whidden faced off against Liberal Hugh Paterson, a Winnipeg grain dealer.

In special front page messages before the election, the Sun implored citizens to get out and vote for conscription. One headline: “Vote for the Soldier: He Fights for You.”

The Sun outlined how it saw every voter’s obligation: “A vote for Dr. Whidden and the Union government is a vote for adequate reinforcements, for fullest participation till victory is won, the redemption of pledges and the maintenance of our national honour.”

But beyond the “win the war” exhortations, there were legitimate concerns about the goals and strategies of the war. In November, a secret British-French agreement to grab more Middle East territory after the war had been leaked and published in the U.K. newspaper, the Guardian. So, there was some realization that the war was less about freedom and more about imperialism.

And the following June, at a war council in London, England, Prime Minister Borden sharply rebuked Britain for its incompetence on the battlefield. Borden warned the British that if there were another disaster like Passchendaele, Canada would stop sending troops.  

The Dec. 17 election results in Brandon were decisive. Union candidate Whidden received 11,465 votes. Liberal candidate Paterson received 1,329.

Lessons learned from a century ago? A democracy can slip into authoritarianism by passing laws that restrict freedom of speech, voting, and other rights. “Groupthink” is a real danger when a country faces war or other threat. Especially during war, the majority can forget to respect their fellow citizens who have unpopular views. They can also forget that patriotic citizens should ask hard questions.

A free – and courageous – media reporting the news fully and accurately is vital to democracy. Propaganda as well as faulty information erodes the trust that the public has in news reports and even in the idea of truth and of objective facts. And, although the media should be free to express strong opinions, stating those views must be separate from reporting the news. 

* * * *
See also: 

On Tyranny: 20 Lessons from the 20th Century

Reflections on the Great War 

Francis Marion Beynon: Compelling Story of a Manitoba Suffragist, Pacifist

How Do We Remember War?

An Education Lesson From 100 Years Ago

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

 



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