With another federal election gearing up in the wings for October 2019, we at the Promoter thought it might be interesting to give some context to the long and colourful history that federal elections have had in this part of Ontario.
Many believe that this riding has long been a safe Conservative bastion, with little chance of opposition politicians being heard. History has proven otherwise time and time again. Many are surprised to hear that elections were once won or lost in this area by as few as five votes with Liberals battling Conservatives for every available vote. Long time locals are not surprised when they are reminded of the long history in the area of corruption, voting list gerrymandering and anti-Catholic exclusion from the electoral process as a whole.
Every good story has a beginning, and for federal politics in this part of Ontario the beginning was 1863 when Victoria County was separated from the United Counties of Peterborough and Victoria that it had been part of since 1854.
The piece of real estate that was sliced off Peterborough County was massive. In modern day terms, the new County of Victoria consisted of Muskoka, Haliburton, Victoria and a considerable piece of Simcoe County.
When Canada became a nation in 1867 this huge swath of central Ontario was separated into two federal seats: Victoria North and Victoria South.
Victoria North consisted of the following townships: Anson, Bexley, Carden, Dalton, Eldon, Fenelon, Hindon, Laxton, Lutterworth, Macaulay and Draper, Sommerviller and Morrison, Muskoka, and Monck and Watt.
Victoria South consisted of many fewer townships that included: Ops, Mariposa, Emily, Verulam, and the Town of Lindsay.
Campaigning in either of these ridings for that first election would have been brutal. Voters were widely scattered, and land transportation was rudimentary at best. Once European settlers started to arrive after 1821, there was an expectation that those granted land would offer their labour freely to build a series of concession roads that were hoped one day to link the county together. This contribution of labour was shirked by the early pioneers as much as possible, and road construction grew at a snail’s pace.
Provincial engineers determined that four roads would be needed to knit Victoria County together. Construction began on the Cameron Road which basically today is Highway 35, the Bobcaygeon Road which provides the winding path of modern day Highway 121, Monck Road which has been replaced by
Highway 503, and Portage Road which provided much of the roadbed for Highway 48.
The census of 1861 indicated that Canada had a population of 3.1 million people, and Canada West, that was now Ontario, had almost half that total with 1.4 million people. Most casual students of Canadian history might have justifiably expected that a majority of those Canadians were eligible to vote. Unfortunately, that was not the case anywhere in the new Canada.
The election of 1867 was much more of an “invitation only” event. The new federal government, to be based in Ottawa, accepted the voting rules that had been in place in each of the colonies about to join Canada. Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Ontario had radically different ways to obtain your right to vote, and in that first election of 1867 Canadians voted with five different sets of rules determining your access to the polling place.
The minimum qualification for all the colonies under British Common Law was, “the individual needed to be a male British subject, 21 years of age, who could pass a suitable property qualification test.”
When looked at through the franchise that exists today, the differences are staggering. Women, First Nations, Canadians of colour and those between 18 and 21 had no access to the vote. The property qualification further culled the herd until very few Canadians remained competing for the right to vote. Property was defined very narrowly, and it generally did not include personal possessions, regardless of their value. You had to own land, and often the land needed to be mortgage free. This excluded the overwhelming bulk of Canadians who rented their dwellings, or farmed on someone else’s land.
In Ontario, the laws were often expanded and manipulated to exclude Catholics, Jews and Quakers.
If that wasn’t enough, groups of “hard men” loyal to one candidate or the other would idle outside the polling stations on voting day ready to serve out brutal beatings to voters they knew supported the other party. Election Day violence in Canada was commonplace.
While a handful of “reformers” like Liberal candidate Alexander Mackenzie wanted to see a few more individuals allowed to vote, politicians, land owners and the churches agreed that a more generous franchise would saddle Canada with the American electoral model, which Sir John A. Macdonald described as “mob rule.”
Experts agree that the election of 1867 was fought with fewer than 13% of Canadians able to vote, and that number was further manipulated down by local elections officials loyal to either the Liberals or Conservatives depending upon the riding. The placement of voting stations, the hours they were open or manipulations of the final voters list depressed turnout even further.
A final feature of Canadian voting in the early days of Confederation is so foreign to us today that we find it shocking that it ever existed. The secret ballot did not exist in 1867. Voters had to publically swear in front of partisan election officials who they were voting for. The vote would be noted, and the potential fallout for you as the voter was enormous. If your candidate’s party won office, patronage appointments or government contracts for you were possible. If your candidate lost, the vengeful winning candidate could take his revenge on you in many financially and legally damaging ways.
Many who might have found their name on a final voters list stayed home in ridings where their candidate of choice was the underdog, fearing the repercussions of their public declaration more than their right to vote being unfairly infringed upon.
The election campaign of 1867 ran from August 7, 1867 to September 20, 1867, and its intended purpose was either to confirm or reject Sir John A. Macdonald and his Conservative Party who had been appointed by the British on July 1, 1867 to run a newly independent Canada.
In Victoria North, John Morison was chosen by the Liberals to represent their party. The Scottish born merchant had settled in Woodville and became the Reeve of Eldon Township. Morison was also the Postmaster of Woodville for sixteen
years, a prime political patronage appointment at the time. Morison had deep roots in the riding, and in his job as Postmaster had met many of the local citizenry.
In Victoria South the Liberals also selected another Scottish immigrant, George Kempt. Kempt had made a comfortable living in the mercantile and lumber business, and was a passionate advocate of reciprocity with the United States. Many Liberals, including Kempt, favoured an open border with the United States where goods and services could pass tariff free from one country to the next. A reciprocity treaty between British North America and the United States had ended in 1866, and the Conservatives feared economic domination by the United States if the treaty was resigned. Kempt had also gained valuable political experience and community profile sitting on Lindsay Township Council, and had also served as Reeve of Victoria County.
The Conservatives, despite apparently good local candidates available in both Victoria North and South, swung for the fences looking for a star candidate to carry their colours in this all important first election for Canada. The Conservatives selected Hector Cameron, an A-list corporate lawyer from Toronto, known all across Ontario for his work for some of Canada’s largest companies. The son and grandson of Scottish business concerns, politicians, and soldiers, Cameron looked and sounded the part of a successful politician. The Conservatives nominated Cameron first in Victoria South. Cameron’s last name was well known in Victoria as a whole
because his uncle had held the seat provincially from 1857-1861.
Hector Cameron was also a well known Orangeman, and the support of this fraternal organization was key to the success of most English speaking politicians across the former British colonies that made up Canada in 1867. In tight elections, the Orange Lodges could be counted on to get their voters to the polls giving their candidate a distinct advantage on Election Day.
Kempt saw his opponent in a completely different light, and apparently couldn’t believe his luck. Cameron had never lived in the riding, had no roots in the riding beyond being the nephew of a former MPP, and according to accounts published at the time, never seriously campaigned in Victoria South. Cameron was an advocate of tariff barriers with the United States, and that did not play well with many of the voters in Victoria South.
Meanwhile, Morison awaited a candidate to run for the Conservatives in Victoria North, and because electoral rules allowed individuals to be registered after voting had begun electoral officials refused to list Morison the winner by acclamation.
Despite the above issues, local Conservatives weren’t worried about Cameron as a candidate at all. They felt between name recognition, star power and local lodge support their man was going to Ottawa, and stood a real chance of winning in Victoria South.
Voting began on September 21, and went on for almost six weeks. Results came in early in Victoria South. Liberal George Kempt won by a comfortable margin over Cameron, 1001 votes to 801 votes.
The local Conservative Party, so baffled that their candidate had lost in Victoria South, then registered Cameron as the candidate for the Conservatives in Victoria North hoping he might be more successful if given a second opportunity. Morison had an opponent finally, and when votes were finally counted in Victoria North, John Morison too had defeated Cameron 687 votes to 403.
What many modern day observers find amazing is that on such short notice, Cameron still polled 403 votes in a riding where he was truly nothing but a name on a ballot.
Canada’s first election was done, and the voters of Victoria County sent their first two members to parliament in Ottawa ever. Rather than send the famous and wealthy outsider, voters chose to send the store owner from Victoria North and the lumberman from Victoria South. Voters in the ridings voted for people they knew, respected, and people who were truly their neighbours. “Parachute candidates” were sent a very
clear message in 1867 that in most normal election cycles, “carpetbaggers” were not welcome in Victoria North or South, and that pattern would play out with some predictability both provincially and federally right into the 21st Century.