Skip to main content
opinion

The Dominion of Canada's 39th general election is under way and already pundits have been tripping over each other declaring it to be the most divisive election in our history. Only on Monday, one headline on this page referred to the coming election as the "dirtiest campaign in our history."

Perhaps, it was only the dirtiest campaign since the last election, in 2004, labelled by Maclean's magazine as the "nastiest" in our past.

It's not a huge surprise that everyone could use a history lesson here. Whatever happens in this unfortunate election -- and it may well turn out to be nasty and brutish (but not short) -- it will not compare to the division, animosity and intolerance sewn in the federal election of 1917.

This was the famous conscription election pitting prime minister Robert Borden's Unionists -- a combination of his Conservatives and a smattering of pro-conscription Liberals -- against Wilfrid Laurier's remaining Grits. And while the campaign ended eight days before Christmas, you would not know it from the mud that was flying.

Both Borden and Laurier, much like Paul Martin and Stephen Harper today, had run out of the goodwill needed to keep Parliament alive and productive. With the election about a clear issue -- conscription -- and the country divided along familiar French-English fault lines, it was going to take a huge effort from both parties to keep the campaign from spiralling into misery.

"On both sides of this sad and sordid domestic quarrel it was the extremists who made the most noise and did the most damage," wrote historian Roger Graham. "The moderates were inarticulate and ineffectual against the shrill-voiced vendors of rancour and prejudice."

And the extremists certainly had their day. Newspapers were party organs then. The old Toronto Daily News ran a map of Canada with Quebec inked in black under the title the "Foul Blot on Canada." Another Conservative paper, The Toronto Mail and Empire, said a vote for Laurier was a vote for the Kaiser (remember, the First World War was still very much on), and portrayed him as a Bolshevik sympathizer. One Unionist MP called Quebec the "plague spot on the whole Dominion."

So bitter were the sentiments in Quebec that Borden made not one speech in the province as he became the country's first prime minister to require a security detail. Some Union candidates in Quebec were literally run off the stage at campaign rallies.

"The result was a campaign of insinuation and innuendo, of intimidation of and violence against candidates," wrote Robert Craig Brown in volume two of his superb biography of the country's wartime prime minister.

"The election of 1917 was the bitterest, most divisive exercise of the democratic process in Canadian history."

Borden himself reflected: "No more severe a trial of the self-endurance of a democracy was ever made."

The results of the election did nothing to heal the nation. In a situation that could presage our own coming verdict, the Unionists won just three seats in Quebec, none of them francophone.

A defeated minister had to be appointed to the Senate to ensure French-speaking Quebec's representation at the cabinet table. A motion on Quebec separation was tabled but later withdrawn in the National Assembly.

In the rush to give the present a breathless and dramatic caché, history has been overlooked. If the current election campaign ever truly becomes our dirtiest or ugliest, we should all be very concerned.

The challenge for Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, Jack Layton and Gilles Duceppe, is not to return to a lamentable episode in our past but to give Canadians a campaign they deserve -- one of statesmanship and ideas.

J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at The Bishop Strachan School in Toronto.