The Reform Movement in Manitoba, 1910-1915
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1959-60 season
The stories of the Progressive Party in the 1920s and of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 are comparatively well known in Manitoba history. In contrast, the role of the reform movement immediately preceding these events has been largely neglected. This omission is unfortunate, since at that time politics were colourful. Furthermore, the effects of decisions made then are still being felt today.
The 1915 provincial election in Manitoba saw the Liberal party of T. C. Norris elected with the largest majority ever accorded a local party. The Conservative group were all but swamped - salvaging five out of forty-nine seats. Indeed, exposure of election irregularities later led to the resignation of one of the opposition members, leaving only four.
What accounts for the landslide victory of 1915? A simple explanation might be the scandal over the construction of the Legislative Buildings. Public shock at the mismanagement of funds had been so great that the Conservative administration of Redmond P. Roblin had been forced to resign.
A closer inspection of the period might concentrate on the spirit of reform that existed in the English-speaking world in the decades at the turn of the century. Political excitement was at a high level. Great Britain saw the rise of the Labour Party, the controversy over clipping the powers of the House of Lords, demands for more social welfare. The United States witnessed a growing Socialist Party, trust-busting led by Teddy Roosevelt and increased labour strife. Generally, the period was featured by a reaction to the influence of big business, a demand to make government more responsive to the people and a desire for more government intervention for general welfare.
These external events were well publicized in local publications, particularly the politically independent Winnipeg Tribune, edited by R. L. Richardson, the Grain Growers' Guide, organ of the Grain Growers' Grain Company, and The Voice, representative of organized labour in the province.
This paper deals with the reform movement in Manitoba - a product of external influences and local conditions.
Where did Manitoba stand at the beginning of the twentieth century? The province was undergoing a tremendous period of growth. Population had risen from 255,000 to 461,000 in the years 1901 to 1911. The complexion of the province was changing with the rural folk declining sixteen per cent and with a growing number of immigrants arriving from Eastern and Central Europe.
Optimism was in the air. The year 1910 saw Winnipeg top all Canadian cities in the amount of construction. A "Million for Manitoba League" was organized to promote the reaching of that number by the 1921 census. Real estate advertisements proclaimed: "Can't you see Transcona is destined for the Great Industrial Town of Canada?"
Such rapid growth produced many strains as new conditions out raced man's ability to adapt to them. Urban workers found few laws to regulate abuses within the new factories. New racial groups - the men in sheepskin coats - were somewhat isolated by differences in language, religion and other customs from the dominant Anglo-Saxons. In addition, farmers were being drawn into the sensitive world economy and were less able to be rugged individualists.
Many turned to the government of Manitoba to help solve their problems. The Conservatives responded; although none too quickly, critics charged. Manitoba moved into the field of a provincial telephone system; larger grants to education, such as the construction of the Manitoba Agricultural College; extensive aid to provincial railways; introduction of workmen's compensation; a system of government line elevators; and the construction of a public abattoir.
The success of keeping the government tuned into the needs of the province was largely due to the work of Redmond P. Roblin, the Premier, and his right hand man, Robert Rogers, the Minister of Public Works. Hard-headed practical businessmen, both regarded the reform spirit as a fad inspired by subversive American republican principles.
The Conservatives drew strength from southwestern rural Manitoba primarily inhabited by former citizens of Ontario. Support from immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe, who had been forced to settle in the poorer areas of the province, had been gained by extensive public works. The latter group also was favoured by the provincial system of bilingual schools. So successful a politician was the premier that he managed to keep representatives from the Orangemen and the Roman Catholic hierarchy in his Cabinet. Riding along a boom economy, seizing popular issues, and directing an efficient organization, the provincial Conservatives, first elected in 1899, were returned in 1903, 1907, 1910, and 1914, besides arranging federal victories in 1908 and 1911.
To some extent the Conservatives were aided by the Liberals of Manitoba. Many Liberal sympathizers were disgusted with that party. They found it difficult to reconcile the change in the federal party since the victory of 1896. The Laurier government was under attack as it appeared little different from the Conservatives. The Liberal organization was foundering, having gone through four leaders in ten years. To compound its problems, the Liberals had not found a constructive platform to attract the voter. Indeed, the party concerned itself with such lacklustre appeals as the need for economy and corruption in government. Thus, the party leaders were labelled as "the prophets of Gloom and Doom".
The 1910 election found the Conservative government returned with twenty-eight of the forty-one seats at stake. The government campaigned on its record and virtually ignored the platform of the Liberal Party.
Three of the latter's planks do deserve mention: temperance, direct legislation, and compulsory education. All would play a larger role in the years following.
The next four years saw a change in the platform of the Manitoba Liberals. This transformation reflected a drive to make capital of the discontent of a number of groups that could not find satisfaction from the Roblin government. The temperance forces were among the more influential of the dissatisfied. The question of controlling the sale of alcohol had a long history in Manitoba politics. Traditionally, the party in opposition pledged itself for some reform, but on election, would forget its promise. The Conservatives, for example, had neglected their promise to carry out the prohibition referendum of 1898.
Temperance forces had been divided among themselves over the degree of restrictions that should be enforced. The organization of the Manitoba Social and Moral Reform Council in 1907, while designed to get legislative reforms on problems of concern to Christians, concentrated temperance feeling on a "Banish the Bar" slogan. Of all the means of purchasing liquor, the saloon was the worst. Those who advocated its abolition used the cartoon showing a drunken father at the bar, while his undernourished, ragged child waited at the saloon door. The Council represented all temperance groups (the Aurora Council in Winnipeg being the largest in the world), the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association, and practically all major religious bodies.
At this time, prohibition in Manitoba was decided by local option. Almost insurmountable hurdles had to be overcome, however, before a favourable vote could be effected in a district. Generally, the liquor interests looked for slight deficiencies in the many details that had to be covered before passage of a local rule against liquor sale. Temperance forces did not have the necessary funds to fight many court cases.
Premier Roblin displayed his political skill in countering the temperance folk. First, he threw confusion into their ranks: to one group, he said that temperance should not become involved in politics; to another, he stressed the democratic nature of local option. Second, the Premier stressed "common sense" to others in the community: it was impossible to stop drinking; the bar was an evidence of neighbourliness and a method of showing good-will; the barroom revealed the social side of man which was the thing that distinguished men from brutes; and if the bar was banished, there would be no limits, as men would go home and drink.
As the temperance groups did not see one municipality added to local option during the 1910-1914 period, their support of the Liberals increased. The opposition party promised to have a referendum on the subject and follow its decision. To show their good intentions - that temperance would not be ignored after the election - the Liberals allowed representatives of the Moral and Social Reform Council to draft the "Banish the Bar" plank into their party platform.
A strong core of support for temperance and other reform came from Protestant churches, in particular, the Methodists and Presbyterians. Little headway had been made in converting the many Catholic and Greek Orthodox immigrants. At the same time, urban workers and rural tenant farmers were drifting from the church. To help vitalize the church with a more positive Christianity, these churchmen became involved in touchy situations that would bring them into opposition to the Roblin Government.
The Methodist General Conference of 1910 condemned the lack of understanding between rich and poor, deplored the inequality of economic conditions, and approved the eight-hour day. Support to such planks as a system of national schools as opposed to the bilingual found their interests akin to those of the Liberals. Indeed, by 1912, the Winnipeg Presbytery condemned Conservative campaign tactics in the Macdonald and Gimli by-elections. Their charges were well-founded - $93,000 of the total provincial budget of $130,000 for roads, bridges, and drains had been spent in Gimli.
The future careers of some of the more outspoken ministers might indicate that they were not Conservatives by nature. One can refer to men like J. S. Woodsworth, William Ivens, later prominent in the C.C.F., and A. E. Smith, a future leader of the Communist Party of Canada. Roblin was not unaware of their bias:
Nevertheless, the hostility of the Presbyterian and Methodist Churches could not be taken too lightly. Their adherents numbered 185,000 in the province at that time.
Several other reform groups also pressed the Conservative government for favourable legislation. The most colourful of these were the women suffragettes. Primarily drawn from Anglo-Saxon ranks, a Political Equality League was organized by such people as Mrs. Nellie McClung, Dr. Mary E. Crawford, Mrs. Cora E. Hind and Mrs. C. L. Clendennon. This group was interested in seeking the vote for a variety of reasons: to seek fairer laws for the status of women; to obtain social and economic equality; to help clean up the mess in politics as women had cleaned up the home. These women were certain that they had a better understanding of political life than ignorant foreigners who had the vote simply because they were men.
In contrast to the violence of suffrage campaigns in Great Britain, moderation marked the local scene. The Premier, however, refused any hope to the group. To a 1914 suffrage delegation, Roblin pointed out that he believed in the home "as the type of every national excellence" but:
Naturally the leaders of the suffragettes moved closer to the Liberal movement. In 1914, the Political Equality League staged a Mock Parliament at the Walker Theatre, featuring Nellie McClung as premier, and parodying Roblin in refusing the request of a delegation of men asking for the right to vote.
Independents and others, who were becoming dissatisfied with the state of politics, looked to direct legislation to solve their problems. Basic to direct legislation was the belief that the governmental apparatus had grown too distant from the people and in so doing had become unresponsive to their wishes. Farmers and labour felt that the Liberals and Conservatives did not represent them and complained about the favours these parties granted to big business.
To cure the ills of the body politic, they reasoned that the rule of the people must be restored. This could be done by the tools of direct legislation: the initiative - the authority for the people to originate bills; the referendum - submission for public decision on any measure on demand of a certain percentage of the electors; the recall - the right to recall any official who does not follow the wishes of the people. The leaders of the Direct Legislation League looked with pride on the large number of groups interested in politics and its operation in Oregon and Switzerland. Direct legislation could avoid the intrusion of the politicians. Measures would be decided on their merits, not on partisanship.
There now appeared a real need for direct legislation in Manitoba. Needed legislation, such as temperance regulations that had been frustrated by partisanship, would be taken directly to the people. The Premier appeared ready to go to any lengths to achieve his ends. He had threatened in 1912 to read the riot act to break up any demonstrations against a purported government attempt to damage the new publicly owned City Hydro. A growing number of groups supported direct legislation and in 1913, a petition signed by some 10,000 Manitobans requested such a step. Prominent in the Direct Legislation League were J. H. Ashdown, S. J. Farmer, D. W. Buchanan and F. J. Dixon.
Premier Roblin summed up his government's opposition to direct legislation. His main point was that it endangered the British constitution. He also suspected this "degenerate republicanism", implying that it meant the United States had a better form of government than the Canadian. "It was socialistic because it was so revolutionary to destroy what had taken 800 years to build up." Debate in the Legislature was usually cut short following a government motion that:
While an impressive number of groups supported temperance, women's suffrage, and direct legislation, little headway was made. A combination of further incidents was to prove decisive in bringing these groups firmly into the Liberal camp.
The organized farmers of the province, as represented by the Manitoba Grain Growers' Association, gradually became disillusioned with the Conservative Party. Throughout most of this period they feared any entry of the Association into politics might threaten their extensive operations in such fields as lumber yards or wire manufacturing. The loss of one-third of the membership during the 1911 reciprocity election underlined the strength of their fears.
There had been little incentive for such organizations as the Grain Growers' Association to take an active part in local politics before 1910. The Conservative administration had passed favourable railway legislation, extended the Manitoba Agricultural College, compelled the Winnipeg Grain Exchange to accept the Grain Growers' as a member, and inaugurated public ownership of telephones.
A number of incidents did make a growing number of the Grain Growers' restless. Charges of politics in the administration of the public grain elevators and the public telephones embarrassed the local Conservatives. It appeared that undue influence was deliberately harming these public institutions. The result was higher charges and growing deficits. The government managed to curb some of the criticism by leasing the elevators to the Grain Growers' Association and placing the telephones under an independent commission. The government and members of the Association, however, had exchanged angry words, the first of such incidents.
A series of other events contributed to the government's growing unpopularity with organized farmers. Naturally both groups found themselves at opposite sides of the political fence on reciprocity. The Association's officers are also found quite active in the fields of temperance, equal suffrage, and direct legislation-all points that the Liberal Party were advocating.
The farmers were faced with three alternatives of political expression. First, the use of direct legislation, which would avoid direct political involvement. But it had to be passed by a friendly legislature before it could come into effect. Second, a farmer-labour alliance had been suggested a number of times by representatives of each. However, a feeling that their interests were incompatible kept these two groups apart. During the urban unemployment of 1915, when the country areas still needed farm labour, one correspondent wrote in the Pilot Mound Sentinel:
Third, attempts at independent politics during this time were generally unsuccessful. Those that were prepared to break political ties in 1914 believed that farmers should support whatever party followed the aims of farmers. In their search for support, the Liberals had ranged themselves on the side of most of the farmers' demands.
There was one other group in Manitoba that drifted from the Conservative cause. While there were few industrial centres in Manitoba by 1910, organized labour was beginning to play a larger role in politics. Labour was not only dissatisfied with the lack of sympathy among the elected representatives, but it was also very critical over the lax enforcement of the few acts regulating conditions at work, safety at work, hours of labour and compensation for injury.
Organized labour felt that the lack of enforcement was the result of the lack of labour representation in the Legislature. Until 1914, labour's record was one of a few minor victories and many defeats. One reason for this lack of success was the split within labour ranks. In 1910, the Manitoba Labour Party, modelled on the Labour Party of Great Britain, united all except the extremists from the Socialist Party of Canada. Moderates such as R. A. Rigg, S. J. Farmer, A. W. Puttee, and J. Queen, were prominent on the executive.
Unlike other groups that have been mentioned, organized labour drifted away rather than closer to Liberal advances. To many workers, the lack of sympathy shown them during the 1913 and 1914 depression, served to underline their isolation. To emphasize this fact, the local trades and labour council broke with the Direct Legislation League and the Political Equality League on charges that they were tools of the Liberal Party. Basically, more of the labouring class felt their interests were absolutely opposed to those of the Liberal Party. Encouraging to the labour group in 1914 were successes in local politics in Winnipeg and Brandon. The Liberal Party intensified its efforts to attract the growing number of working class votes. One ace held by that Party was the work of S. Hart Green, M.P.P. of Winnipeg North, who was recognized as the spokesman for labour in the Legislature.
If labour was drifting away from the Liberals, Liberal enthusiasm rose with the breaking away of one of Premier Roblin's key supports the Loyal Orange Lodge. As mentioned, the Premier had both Orangemen and Catholic representation in his cabinet. He managed this agile feat by avoiding any clash over his school policy. He had maintained that his government would not reopen the wounds of the Manitoba School Question of 1890-1896 - he would not discuss it - he would prevent any discussion. At the same time, the government was reluctant to do anything on the matter of compulsory schooling. The latter problem was growing more serious. In Winnipeg, for example, one-fifth of the children in the five-to-seventeen-year bracket were not registered in any public or private school.
Many Anglo-Saxons, however, were becoming more concerned about assimilating the foreign immigrants to the British way of life. Public schools were regarded as the instrument for this job. W. J. Sisler was demonstrating that many diverse nationalities could be assimilated in his North Winnipeg Strathcona School. Bilingual instruction prevented this blending from happening over all the province. Of equal importance, instruction in the foreign language schools was poor. Often the teachers themselves were barely literate in the English language. When there were ten children of one nationality in a school, the parents could petition for instruction in their own language. Some country districts found themselves in awkward situations. One one-room school of thirty-two pupils advertised for a teacher with a command of English, Gaelic, and Polish.
Matters came to a head in 1912 when amendments to the Schools' Act were introduced aimed at relieving the double school taxation which Brandon and Winnipeg Roman Catholics had to pay. This action touched off fears that the proposed legislation was the first of many acts to give aid to sectarian schools. The inclusion of the first French-Catholic in the cabinet in twenty-three years only served to strengthen these fears. The reform groups were in the forefront of the defenders of the public schools. The alert T. C. Norris risked the loss of French-Catholic votes to the Liberal Party to win the support of influential Orangemen.
Thus, as the 1914 election approached, the Liberal Party appeared much stronger than four years previously. Its basic strategy to convince the electorate that their Liberal Party was one that did not have to rely upon corrupt methods but was one that accurately mirrored the people's wishes had been profitable. An impressive list of provincial groups had passed resolutions favouring the Liberal Party. Some of the more prominent: the Methodist and Presbyterian Conferences, Baptist Ministers, the Social Service Council, the Orangemen, the Political Equality League, the Manitoba Free Press, the Winnipeg Tribune, and the Grain Growers' Guide. While some of these groups supported the Liberals only on one or two specific points, that Party, by dropping any federal entanglement, appeared the champion of provincial interests, secular and reform. In addition, economic conditions had turned against the Conservatives with rising unemployment in the cities and declining prices of agricultural products.
The spirit of the transformed Liberal Party was sounded at the 1914 convention by T. C. Norris:
Though the government appeared in serious straits, they could still point with pride to some positive achievements: an extensive revision of the public health act; the appointment of a public utilities' commissioner; extensive public works, such as the start on the new provincial Parliament Buildings; and the acquisition of a larger Manitoba boundary in 1912.
Then there was the party machine. With party loyalties tight and the voting population small, any means to sway a small percentage of the voters could prove decisive. In 1910, a change of one vote per poll could have changed the results in four seats. Politics was not a game, but a form of civil war with only lethal weapons barred. The Tribune pointed out in 1910 that only seven out of ninety candidates had not been called liars, boodlers, or crooks. Patronage was used lavishly. One rural newspaper summed up local government political activity prior to the 1914 elections:
Another glaring case is advertising and other printing contracts supplied to the party's subsidized Winnipeg Telegram. In 1910, for example, that paper received over $26,500 compared with the $145.46 of the opposition Manitoba Free Press. After receiving the contract for the construction of the Manitoba Agricultural College, one firm had to contribute $22,500 to the Conservative war chest. Generous distribution of liquor and money would send out hordes of men to vote at a number of polling booths under different names. There were many names to go around for them - one voters' list contained seventeen residents on a vacant lot. To forestall Liberal complaints on election day, the government cancelled the licenses of those justices of the peace who happened to be Liberal. Another strategem was the changing of F. J. Dixon's telephone number at campaign headquarters on election day. A needed redistribution of seats was completed, but the city of Winnipeg with one-third of the province's population was quite underrepresented with six seats out of forty-nine. The only two Conservatives to lose their seats with the 1914 redistribution had happened to vote against the government on one of the rare occasions when such a thing occurred.
The Liberal platform was not ignored by the Conservatives in 1914 as in 1910. The Premier described it as "Socialist" and "all that was needed to make the Liberal platform complete as a Republican concern was marriage as a civil contract and police court divorce." Naturally old slogans that had meant success for the Conservatives in the past were dragged up:
The Conservatives won. The election results are interesting in a number of respects. The discrimination against Winnipeg is clearly seen if one compares the vote of F. J. Dixon, elected in Winnipeg Centre. His vote of 9,200 was greater than the total of 8,900 of the cabinet of seven men. A strong labour feeling in several areas enabled the Conservative candidate to win on a minority vote. The government won twenty-eight of forty-nine seats with forty-six percent of the vote. Marked defections from the Conservative camp were noted in Anglo-Saxon districts.
The return of the Roblin government did not stop the complaints of the reform groups. The outbreak of war made their complaints even stronger: the work of women in the war effort added fresh fuel to the demand for equality; total prohibition was urged - not Banish the Bar - so all energies could be directed to the war effort; less toleration of immigrants and hence bilingual instruction resulted from the suspected loyalty of non Anglo-Saxons. The notorious Parliament Building scandal finally destroyed the government - the enormity of the scandal clearly substantiated the reform groups' charges about the evils of party government. September of 1914 saw the Minister of Public Works announce that due to errors of the architect, the original cost of the Parliament Buildings would be exceeded by fifty per cent. After being forced to appoint a Royal Commission on the matter, the Premier and all his cabinet resigned from office and public life on May 12, 1915. The subsequent report found that the contractor had been overpaid by close to $900,000 and that he had paid large sums to the Conservative party.
The results of the 1915 election were a foregone conclusion. A smashed Conservative Party tried to remodel itself by taking over many of the reform planks it had opposed for so many years. Two exceptions were continued opposition to direct legislation and abolishing bilingual instruction. Still, the tenor of reform was evident in such proposals as: the introduction of compulsory voting; the conservation of Manitoba water resources for the public use; the elimination of the spoils system and the establishment of a civil service based on merit and efficiency alone.
Propelled by a strong public feeling to clean up the mess, the Liberals almost completely wiped out the Conservative party, capturing forty-two of the forty-nine seats. Labour won two.
The victory could not be accounted a triumph for the Liberal Party per se. As the Winnipeg Tribune summed up:
in other words, the reform groups.
The next five years saw an almost complete reversal in the course of Manitoba politics. The spirit of nonpartisanship was unique. Barring criticism from the French members on school matters, debate in the Legislature was carried on without the bitterness that had marked the pre-1915 period. So far did this nonpartisan spirit go that, in 1918, Liberals and Conservatives joined to elect a Union candidate in a North Winnipeg by-election.
The amount and scope of legislation passed by the Norris government is breathtaking even by today's standards. Much of the reform spirit was placed into law. A civil service commission, a public health commission, a mother's allowance act, the abolition of bilingual schools, a hydro-electric commission, a minimum wage board, prohibition of the sale of liquor, remodelling of electoral laws, overhauling workmen's compensation and factory acts, cheaper farm credit, compulsory education, automatic dialing in telephones, a wider base for municipal taxation, woman suffrage, proportional representation, reorganization of the University of Manitoba and an initiative and referendum act. The government pioneered in a number of fields. Never had a Manitoba government undertaken such an extensive programme.
Despite this record, it is interesting to note the reverses of the Norris government in the 1920 election and its subsequent defeat in 1922. Despite the attempt of the government to respond to the wishes of the electorate by passing progressive legislation and at the same time being nonpartisan, the Liberals were still not trusted. Farmers and urban workers had become more class conscious and were organizing politically. This class interest combined with supporters of separate schools, former Conservatives, to reduce the once mighty Liberal majority.
But what had happened to the reform movement that had done so much for the initial Liberal victory in molding its platform? A large number melted away after attaining their objectives-the suffrage and temperance groups are prime examples. The main impetus behind direct legislation was to by-pass hostile politicians and with the agreeable Liberals in office, its supporters rapidly fell away. The farmer-labour alliance, never strong, was put further to a test by the 1918 and 1919 strikes. Still, some cooperation can be found in a number of districts during the 1920 election. A small core of ministers, such as Salem Bland, William Ivens, and J. S. Woodsworth, remained to continue the social gospel.
Reform had collapsed. The case study of F. J. Dixon dramatically illustrates the end of the movement. Dixon had been in the forefront of many of the reform groups. Elected as a Liberal-Labour member of the Legislature in 1914, voters of all shades of political opinion originally supported him. Prominent leaders of both the Grain Growers' Association and the Trades and Labour Council contributed to his campaigns. His views on direct legislation, suffrage, compulsory education were well known throughout the west-a result of countless speeches presented to diverse organizations. The effects of wartime tarnished his reputation among many of these groups. Dixon did not join in the whole-hearted hysteria of the war period. He carried on his prewar policies: he asked that the dominion government conscript wealth as well as men; he demanded fair treatment for the suspected aliens. By 1917, nearly three thousand Centre Winnipeg voters drafted a petition to have him resign from the Legislature. Members of the Legislature would leave the chamber when he spoke.
The achievement of short-run objectives and the strains of wartime proved too much for the Manitoba reform movement. Its quick demise might also be explained by its narrow base. Primarily drawn from Anglo-Saxon citizens, the reform groups had not recruited many adherents from other groups in the province. When one notices the large number of Methodists and Presbyterians active as leaders the base appears even narrower. Some of the staunch groups appear weaker than their titles might otherwise indicate. The Manitoba Grain Growers' Association, for example, never claimed more than fifteen per cent of the province's farmers as members.
Perhaps Premier Roblin was correct in ignoring the repeated pleas of the reform groups from 1910 until 1915. If he was right, then his defeat can be attributed to the economic decline, the loss of Orangemen's votes on the school question, plus the growth of dry rot in his party.
Whatever the case, the reform movement produced far-reaching effects on the province. The statute book bears witness to the changes brought on by the Liberal Party. Highly controversial issues such as temperance and aid to separate schools were buried until recently resurrected. The concentration on nonpartisan, business-like governments produced a series of administrations stressing lack-lustre, economy minded programmes. Then the Conservatives, who were shocked out of their traditional allegiance by the attacks from 1910 to 1920, wandered through the political wilderness of independence, Progressivism, and Liberalism until returning home with the current Conservative government.
Before more trends can be examined, further attention must be paid to the first decades of the twentieth century in Manitoba, a decisive period in provincial history.
Page revised: 22 October 2011