Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Laurier's Electoral Brawl for Arthabaska, 1877

Wilfrid Laurier, M.P. (Drummond-Arthabaska, 
Quebec)  Apr. 1874Credit: William James Topley
 / Library and Archives Canada / PA-026430
When appointed to Alexander Mackenzie's cabinet in 1877, Wilfrid Laurier hoped to gain the federal seat from Arthabaska by acclamation.  Laurier had just become a national sensation, when his address to the Young Men's Liberal Association was publicized broadly, serving as a manifesto of reform based liberalism.  Fortunately coincident with the event, was the announcement by the clergy of Quebec that the "Catholic Program", church policy which fought against Catholic Liberalism, was not to discriminate against any specific political party.  With Laurier as the beaming Rouge ray of liberalism in Quebec, the Conservative party would rally its unseemly electoral goons to try to damper the glare.

Bourbeau, 1879. Topley Studio;LAC;PA-028311
Desire-Olivier Bourbeau emerged as the opposing candidate, whom Joseph Schull in his Laurier: The First Canadian (1967), described  as "tall, bearded, and heavy, principally distinguished for a cane that rattled the wooden sidewalks and a voice that shook the windows of the church when he sang." (p.123)  One contemporary noted that Bourbeau addressed the tariff, "like a blind man speaking of colours [and] talked of hay, oats , and buckwheat and was stopped by his friends at the moment he was going to pass the potatoes."  Bourbeau found himself supported by a host of Conservatives who flooded in from other constituencies.  Laurier would later claim he was defeated due to the fact that 3,800 votes had been placed in a a constituency of 3,200 registered voters. (p. 132)

The election itself exposes the unseemly side of 1870s Canadian democracy.  The priests opinions were still well known and there would be no separation of the Quebec clergy from politics.  Schull writes that, "brawls and broken heads were a feature of every meeting and at one of the loudest of them a Rouge supporter was kicked to death." (p.124)  One supporter was noted as being "seemingly equipped with seven-league boots, certainly with a thunderous voice, and possessed of a portable grandmother who had been born within a mile of every stump he spoke from."  In one municipality a Bleu secretary failed to post the electoral lists for registration, and thus nullified many Rouge voters.  Bribery was used in three large parishes, as Laurier himself described it "railway contractors of the provincial government came there on the night of Friday to Saturday and went on buying votes as in the good old times."
Last of the Open Ballots, 1872.  Canadian Illustrated News. Elections Canada.

Laurier would lose the close battle for Arthabaska, but the new minister needed a seat.  In East Quebec, where he would earn his place in parliament, the authorities were called out to protect the peace.  Schull notes, "Early in the morning a battery of artillery and several squads of police were drawn up in Jacques Cartier Square.  Gangs of election 'whackers' moved restlessly about, but under the mouths of the guns and the eyes of the constabulary not a club was lifted.  Polls opened at nine with the strong-arm men of the parties standing by at the ready and again there were only glares." (Schull, p. 128)

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