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SIMON LLOYD: The 1917 election campaign was one of the most bitter and divisive in Canadian history

The federal election of 1917 is recognized as one of the most bitter in Canadian History. SUBMITTED PHOTO
The federal election of 1917 is recognized as one of the most bitter in Canadian History. SUBMITTED PHOTO

 

Reviewing 1917 in its lead editorial of Jan. 1, 1918, The Guardian, usually so vocal on political matters, made no reference to the Dec. 17 federal election. The omission was, perhaps, unsurprising, since the initial result – Liberal victories in all four Island ridings – must have been a shattering disappointment to The Guardian, as a fervent supporter of Sir Robert Borden and his new Union government. 

Fought largely on the issue of conscription, the 1917 election campaign remains notorious as one of the most bitter and divisive in Canadian history, with francophone Canadians largely opposed to the draft and English Canada overwhelmingly supportive. While Borden’s pro-conscription Unionists won handily overall, this was small consolation for his supporters in the one Canadian province – apart from Quebec – in which the Union government failed to carry the day.  

There remained a flicker of hope, however, for The Guardian and other Union supporters: one of the many extraordinary features of the 1917 election was the provision for voting by military personnel overseas. Although the “soldier vote” had also been cast in December, the logistics of gathering and counting these ballots meant that the results would not be known until February 1918. Thus, Prince Edward Island began the new year very much in limbo, as far as its federal representation was concerned.

Along with the prevailing uncertainty, January may also have found The Guardian suffering from a certain editorial exhaustion, after spending so much energy – apparently in vain – urging Island support for conscription. A Jan. 3 editorial sniffed at the “selfishness” reflected in the election result, but there was little trace of the earlier fury. 

Even so, The Guardian did not demur in letting Islanders know what observers elsewhere thought of their vote. On Jan. 9, for example, a piece by Ottawa columnist H.F. Gadsby had a paragraph – helpfully highlighted in bold type by The Guardian – scolding Maritime voters for politics which were “the petrified relics of fifty years ago”. Even more pointed criticism appeared on Jan. 12, in a lengthy excerpt from Sydney’s Daily Post, castigating, “the patrizanship, parochial jealousies, sectionarism and dread of military service,” that had caused Island voters to, “join hands with the recalcitrants of Quebec.” 

Letters from soldiers were equally stinging. In a rare move, The Guardian quoted one serviceman’s letter on the front page of the Jan. 18 issue, under the headline, “Island Boys Ashamed of P.E.I.” The “anonymous” letter-writer lamented: “It’s a sorry day for Prince Edward Islanders over here. The day after election we were almost ashamed to show ourselves on the parade grounds, and nearly everybody we met would cast a sarcastic remark about us.” A letter from, “an Officer serving with a P.E.I. unit overseas,” printed the following day, was even more bitter:  “Some of the ‘rotters’ at home would rather see Sir Robert Borden defeated than the Kaiser. … It is too bad a Hun Submarine could not give some of those pro Germans you have down there a taste of what we shall get shortly. … For once in my life I am ashamed to acknowledge I come from the Island.”  

Even in his fury, however, the anonymous officer held out hope that, “the soldier’s vote may change some of it and remove the dirty stain from the Island’s shield.” This was not simply wishful thinking: on Jan. 22, the lead editorial in The Guardian inferred that its Liberal arch-rival, The Patriot, was anticipating that the soldiers’ vote would, “go practically solid for the Unionist candidates in this province, thus reversing the decision at the polls on December 17.” A Jan. 26 report on Premier Arsenault’s recent trip to Ottawa noted: “Enquiries made in Ottawa by Mr. Arsenault indicate that in all likelihood three if not four Unionist candidates in this province will be elected by the soldiers’ votes.” The “Ottawa Letter” column of Jan. 31 was even more precise – if less expansive – reporting that the soldiers’ vote was “practically certain” to elect two P.E.I. Union candidates, James McIsaac and Alexander Martin, and so lift from P.E.I. the shame of being branded “little Quebec” in Unionist Ottawa. 

Exactly how the premier and the Ottawa Letter correspondent – both keen supporters of the Prime Minister – were able to obtain such detailed information about the military balloting, weeks before the results were announced, does not seem to have concerned The Guardian unduly. Hindsight may allay some of our suspicions on this score, however, as we shall see in next month’s column. 

Simon Lloyd is librarian responsible for the P.E.I. collection at the University of Prince Edward Island Robertson Library's University Archives and Special Collections. This is part of a monthly series of lookbacks at the First World War he will be providing, drawing on the historic issues of The Guardian available online at islandnewspapers.ca.

 

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