For students of Canadian politics, the 1920s is one of the more interesting periods in our history.
The decade began with strong third party movements in most provinces and at the federal level.
In Ontario the United Farmers formed a government, only to be given the bum’s rush in 1923. At the federal level a number of members took seats under the Progressive Party banner, but that movement as well soon disintegrated.
In the fall of 1925, W.L. Mackenzie King, prime minister since 1921, called a general election. His Conservative opponent, Arthur Meighen, was making much of the economic problems that plagued the economy. For Meighen the early 1920s were a hard slog – his party was in third place, and the Progressive Party formed the official opposition.
Meighen came out strongly in favour of higher tariffs, low taxes and an embargo on some raw materials shipped to the United States in order to jump start Canadian industry. Mackenzie King put the best picture he could on his administration. For their part, the Progressives were disintegrating. Their leader since 1922 had been Robert Forke, a figure unknown today to even keen students of Canadian history.
In Wellington South the Progressives held a convention but decided, as they did in two-thirds of the ridings, not to run a candidate. The Conservatives ran with their old war horse Hugh Guthrie, who had started his lengthy political career as a Liberal.
The Liberals nominated a newcomer to politics, Bob Gladstone, a former teacher who was now the proprietor of the Canada Ingot Iron Company of Guelph, a manufacturer of galvanized pipe and culverts. He would take on Guthrie in a two-way fight.
Guthrie took nothing for granted, and set up a series of meetings and rallies immediately when the election was called. At Fergus, Guthrie’s supporters almost filled the old town hall that formerly stood to the west of Melville Church. Interestingly, women formed about half the audience.
Dr. Abraham Groves chaired the meeting, assisted by Duncan Sinclair, the Conservative candidate in Wellington North. He also was in a two-way race, but in Wellington North the Liberals decided not to run a candidate, and instead endorsed the Progressive.
There were about a half dozen speakers that night, and all dwelt on the need for tariff protection to shield Canadian industry and jobs. Guthrie’s decision eight years earlier to switch parties was still a controversial one, and he spent more than half his speech defending that decision.
Many Liberals hoped the Progressives would endorse their candidates, but that did not happen. Initially it seemed that Bob Gladstone would show very poorly. He was no speaker, and at his first meetings he stumbled through his words. Guthrie, on the other hand, was known to everyone and he was an excellent old-time stump speaker. He had an experienced and well-oiled organization behind him.
Even though he was no orator, Bob Gladstone still made a good impression. He was a quick learner as a speaker, and he struck people as sincere. He was also interesting in that he was a manufacturer, but rejected the high-tariff policies advocated by most Canadian industrialists.
A week after Guthrie’s rally in Fergus, it was the turn of Bob Gladstone at the Fergus town hall.
Gladstone’s campaign people decided to hold a rally in Elora the same night, alternating speakers between Fergus and Elora. Gladstone spoke first at Elora, then headed to Fergus, turning the podium over to J.W. Oakes until the arrival of Hon. Duncan Marshall from Elora. But Marshall did not arrive. Oakes did the best he could for almost two hours. Then Marshall arrived, and he turned out to be such a crowd pleaser that he spoke for another two hours. The meeting lasted until midnight.
At Fergus it was clear that Bob Gladstone had improved significantly as a speaker. He said the Liberal platform stood for progress for all Canadians, and that the party favoured the development of Canadian resources. He won points from the audience for admitting that both parties had blundered in the past.
Many observers, among them Hugh Templin in the Fergus News Record, noted that the Conservative emphasis on high tariffs was likely to alienate farmers, who traditionally had been low-tariff people. In Wellington South Hugh Guthrie realized the dangers of that rhetoric, and he toned down that part of the Conservative message.
As the election neared Gladstone held a second meeting in Fergus on Oct. 27, three days before the election. Featured speaker that night was a Mrs. Birss of Brampton. She was the wife of a shoe manufacturer, and she tore into the weaknesses of the Conservative tariff policy. Following two more speakers, Bob Gladstone arrived. He was still elated from the reception he had received earlier in the evening from a crowd of more that 3,000 in Guelph.
Gladstone had continued to improve as a speaker, but he did not rely on flowery oratory. Instead, he offered his listeners a factual and logical analysis of the issues. He realized that a high tariff policy would be bad for Canadian manufacturing. He used his own example, stating that he used specialty steels made only in the United States, and that high tariffs would harm firms such as his own. He noted that the consequences of high tariffs would be equally bad for Canadian farmers.
Local rallies, though, were not the only major component of the campaign. For the first time in Canadian history, radio was playing a part. In particular, the national party leaders appealed to voters for support.
In southern Ontario, the important broadcasts were from Toronto, where both parties broadcast rallies, a couple of days apart, over station CFCA, which was owned and operated by the Toronto Star.
At the Liberal rally, Mackenzie King and his Liberals emphasized the rising prosperity of Canada, and attempted to show a national theme, with speakers from Quebec and the Prairies. Vincent Massey, of the farm implement firm, added his voice to the Liberal cause.
The Conservative message was that the country faced ruin, and that urban populations were declining. Hugh Templin, in an editorial that week, showed that the Conservative figures were bogus. As a known Liberal, he was delighted to offer the correct numbers. Not many people had radios in 1925, but the new medium, and newspaper commentary on the broadcasts, certainly played a role in the voting decisions of the public.
When the votes were counted, Hugh Guthrie retained his seat, with a majority of 900 over Robert W. Gladstone.
But the results showed a riding badly split on a town-and-country basis. Guthrie racked up a huge majority in Guelph, topping Gladstone by a vote of 5,953 to 3,468. Outside of Guelph, Guthrie had a majority of 137 in Fergus, but he lost every other municipality to Gladstone. The most one-sided was Puslinch, where Gladstone took 809 votes to 311 for Guthrie.
Nationally, Mackenzie King’s Liberals dropped from 118 seats to 100. Arthur Meighen’s Conservatives jumped from 49 seats to 115, while the Progressives fell from 58 seats to 22.
The following months would be some of the more interesting in Canadian political history.
Initially, Mackenzie King refused to resign, claiming that the Progressives would sustain him in power. He blew the situation into a constitutional crisis.
Eventually he did resign, but Meighen’s minority government lasted only a few days before falling to defeat, and plunging the country into another election in 1926.
But that is a story for another time.