Conservative operatives in Victoria County spent Sir John A. Macdonald’s’ first term in office bemoaning what could have been.
Macdonald, the Conservative leader, swept to a comfortable victory right across the five former colonies that made up Canada in 1867, defeating a Liberal Party wracked by arguments over whether the party should have an official or unofficial leader. The Liberals had also staked out a rabidly anti-Catholic stance that made them poison to voters in Quebec, further playing to the Conservatives’ strengths as the party of both Ontario and Quebec, led by Sir John A, and his Quebec lieutenant Georges Etienne Cartier.
The ridings of Victoria North and South bucked the national trend in 1867, and returned Liberals to Ottawa. With patronage politics firmly entrenched in Canadian colonial experience, little federal money flowed into either riding. Roads remained unfinished and Victoria certainly did not get its fair share of the federal pie.
Local Conservatives recognized that they had made two key mistakes in 1867. The first was running a high profile candidate, Hector Cameron, in the ridings where he had few actual ties and little connection with average voters beyond a familial last name courtesy of an uncle who had been MPP pre-Confederation. Conservatives also learned from George Kempt and John Morison, the two victorious Liberal candidates, that a record of local service and a face that people had actually met would be keys to winning the vote in Victoria North and South in upcoming elections.
Conservatives set out to find local candidates who had real Victoria County connections and a political track record of meaningful service in the areas in which they were running.
The riding of Victoria North was going to change geographically in a massive way for the election of 1872. The Township of Muskoka had been incorporated in 1868, and that entire northern section of Victoria North was cleaved off to form the new federal riding of Muskoka. While Victoria North still remained a huge piece of real estate to campaign in, at least in 1872 it only contained a slice of modern day Victoria County from Fenelon Falls north, and what today would be the entirety of Haliburton County.
In Victoria North, the Conservatives nominated Joseph Staples to run against incumbent Liberal John Morison. Documents from the time suggest that Morison was not a well man, and some thought he might not even run again in 1872. With an average life expectancy of 55 in 1867 for Canadians, Morison at 54 was an old man.
Staples was born in Cavan Township and had served many years with the local militia where he had risen to the rank of Captain. A lifelong bachelor, he had devoted his life to politics
and the military. Staples had served as the Reeve of Bexley Township and had twice been the Warden for Victoria County, holding that position from 1866-1868 and 1870-1872. Staples had run unsuccessfully for the provincial seat of Victoria North in 1867 and been narrowly defeated. Regardless of that loss in 1867, the Staples name was well known in the riding, and there were few voters that he had not personally met in his municipal and provincial electoral runs.
In Victoria South, the party was still looking for a candidate with the pedigree that Hector Cameron had, without the drawbacks that had made his election difficult in 1867. In George Dormer, the Mayor of Lindsay since 1871, the Conservatives thought they had their man. A fluently bilingual lawyer who had done his undergraduate degree at Laval and his Law degree at Trinity College, University of Toronto, Dormer was well connected. He had worked with Sir John A. as a lawyer in Kingston after being called to the bar in 1861. After re-locating to Lindsay and establishing a law practice there, Dormer, only in his late twenties, became immersed in municipal government, culminating with serving a term as Mayor.
Kempt knew he had his hands full with this new candidate, and when the election writ was dropped, the campaign in Victoria South became intensely personal as Kempt was not only pathologically anti-French, but also like most of his fellow Liberals from party leader Edward Blake down, anti-Catholic. Dormer was a bilingual Catholic from a privileged background, and Kempt attacked the young lawyer ruthlessly.
The evidence remaining about the competition in Victoria North is fragmentary at best, but one expects that Staples wrapped himself in the Union Jack and campaigned as Macdonald did on patriotism, finishing the national railroad, and protective tariffs for Canada’s nascent manufacturing plants and mills.
One suspects that Staples, who was a natty dresser, also wasn’t afraid to campaign in the full regalia of a militia Captain that would have easily impressed voters attending rallies from Fenelon Falls to Dorset.
When the campaigning ended and the voting began, Canadians of all political stripes were aghast that it took thirteen weeks to counts the ballots and tentatively declare winners. Some of the delay was blamed on the logistics of running elections in the two new provinces of British Columbia and Manitoba, but some newspapers, led by the Toronto Globe, darkly whispered that the Conservatives needed the time to stuff the ballot boxes coast to coast and to engineer another majority government for Sir John A.
When the winning candidates from “sea to shining sea” were finally announced, Canada was looking at its first minority government with the Conservatives only able to govern by gaining the support of two “Independent Conservatives” who did not run under the overall party banner.
What of Victoria South and North? Had the Conservatives finally discovered the formula to get members elected in their respective ridings?
Joseph Staples defeated John Morison 629 votes to 541 votes to win Victoria North for the Conservatives. George Dormer in Victoria South had survived a nasty and racially charged campaign to defeat George Kempt by 1228 votes to 1070 votes, also winning the riding for the Conservatives. One only wonders, particularly in Victoria South, the anguish that the local Orangemen went through voting for a Catholic because he was carrying the Conservative banner. Without their votes, Dormer would have been dead in the water so many hypothesize that, at least in this election, party loyalty trumped religion as a determining factor at the polls.
Sir John A. desperately needed those two members from Victoria County to allow his Conservatives to cling precariously to power in Parliament between 1872-1874.
Defeated Liberal candidate John Morison died on December 5, 1873, perhaps confirming the rumours of ill health that circulated during the election of 1872. George Kempt took his defeat in stride and was appointed the Sheriff of Victoria County in 1872, serving in that position until he died in 1884 at the age of 63.