Politics

The Bizarre Tale of How John A. Macdonald Got Elected Victoria MP

As Canada goes to the polls today, The Capital revisits what still stands as the weirdest federal election result Victoria has ever delivered

Politics

The Bizarre Tale of How John A. Macdonald Got Elected Victoria MP

As Canada goes to the polls today, The Capital revisits what still stands as the weirdest federal election result Victoria has ever delivered

Politics

The Bizarre Tale of How John A. Macdonald Got Elected Victoria MP

As Canada goes to the polls today, The Capital revisits what still stands as the weirdest federal election result Victoria has ever delivered

The Bizarre Tale of How John A. Macdonald Got Elected Victoria MP

It’s been slightly more than one year since a bronze statue of Sir John A. Macdonald was removed from outside Victoria City Hall in what mayor Lisa Helps said was an act of reconciliation. Lost in much of the surrounding controversy, however, was why Victoria had a statue of Macdonald in the first place.

Western Canadian cities don’t typically put up statues of Fathers of Confederation.  And despite having been Canadian prime minister for more than 20 years, Macdonald would ultimately spend only a few token days in the B.C. capital.

Nevertheless, Macdonald got his effigy on Pandora St. for the simple reason that, from 1878 to 1882, he was technically Victoria’s representative in Ottawa. And in an era when Canadian politics was a swamp of backroom deals and shady political maneuvering, Macdonald’s unconventional Victoria election win was no exception.

In 1878, Canadians were going to the polls in the country’s fourth ever federal election, and the second since B.C. had joined. Given what he had done, it was a miracle that John A. Macdonald could even go into the campaign as one of two viable options for prime minister.

Sir John A. Macdonald right around the time he served as MP for Victoria (Credit: BC Archives).

Only five years before, Macdonald had been caught red-handed in the midst of what remains the most explosive scandal in Canadian history. The Pacific Scandal, as it became known, involved Macdonalds’ Conservative government openly taking bribes in exchange for contracts to build the Canadian Pacific Railroad.

At the time, even veterans of Tammany Hall, the famously corrupt New York political machine, stood in awe of the unfettered sleaze that ran through John A. Macdonald’s Ottawa. As the historian R.T. Naylor would sum it up in 1975, “the level of corruption in the Canadian political process of the period, especially under the auspices of John A. Macdonald, is truly astounding even to the cynic.”

But the scandal-plagued Conservatives had been turfed from office just in time for Canada to be hit by a devastating recession. By the time another election came around, Macdonald was back to pitch Canada an economic policy not too different from the one now favoured by U.S. president Donald Trump: Tariffs.  

Canada ate it up. Except, that is, for the very people who knew Macdonald best. While Macdonald’s Liberal-Conservatives secured a majority, the voters in Macdonald’s hometown of Kingston turfed him out in favour of a grocer named Alexander Gunn.

Nowadays, in the rare circumstances that a party leader wins an election while losing their own seat, the leader simply ask for one of their caucus to resign so they can contest a by-election in the vacant seat. But Macdonald had an even better trick up his sleeve: He was already on the ballot somewhere else.

Detail of an 1878 map of Victoria (Credit: B.C. Archives).

Canadian party leaders used to routinely go into federal elections while running in several ridings at once. It was a kind of electoral insurance policy, and if they won both elections they’d simply resign from their least favourite.

Macdonald went into the 1878 campaign running in three places: Kingston, the Manitoba riding of Marquette and Victoria. So, when he lost in Kingston he simply settled for his second favourite of Victoria, leaving Marquette to find someone else.

Victoria, in turn, didn’t object at all to being Macdonald’s Plan B. Voters gave him an incredible 46.8% of the popular vote and The Daily Colonist, predecessor of the modern-day Times Colonist, became an over-the-top cheerleader for the absentee candidate.

In the paper’s Election Day edition, editors devoted the entire issue to praising the “great and worthy chief of the Liberal-Conservative party” and the “favorite of the Dominion” at the expense of their incumbent MP, Amor De Cosmos.

In page after page of personal attacks, De Cosmos was lambasted was a man whose political record was a “nonentity except that of vanity.” The Daily Colonist bemoaned him as a dim-witted “United States-man” who did not fear God and was an embarrassing holdover from the days when B.C. was “lax in political calibre.” They even made fun of his name, an adopted moniker meaning “lover of the universe,” calling it a “vanity signboard.” “Amor de Cosmos has no friends on either side in the Dominion Parliament,” it read.

Then, just to be sure that readers remembered to vote Macdonald, the Daily Colonist published a mock ballot with step-by-step instructions. “To-Day the proper thing to do will be to place a X against the (name) … of Sir John A. Macdonald, leaving the name of Mr. De Cosmos untouched, just as if it was not on the ballot paper at all.”

The Daily Colonist’s mock ballot paper, explicitly warning readers not to mark their X next to De Cosmos.

In a submission to the paper labelled as a “patriotic letter,” one reader even suggested that every other candidate for Victoria should suspend their campaigns immediately just to make absolutely sure that Macdonald got the job.  

However, in another confusing twist of 19th century Canadian elections, Amor De Cosmos would also get a seat in parliament by virtue of Victoria being a two-member constituency.

Macdonald can’t be said to have been a particularly attentive representative of Victoria, if only for the fact that he didn’t actually see the city until long after his term had ended.

However, it was while representing Victoria that Macdonald would set in motion many of the most controversial aspects of his legacy. His return to power in 1878 coincided with an all-out drive to complete the railway to British Columbia. To do this, Macdonald made sure to appoint himself as Indian Affairs minister, and embarked on an aggressive campaign of relocation and assimilation of Indigenous peoples in what is now Saskatchewan and Alberta.

It was as Victoria MP that Macdonald told the House of Commons of his aim to “wean” Prairie natives from their “nomadic habits, which have almost become an instinct.” This goal would later precipitate his inauguration of the Indian Residential School system.

But the Victorians of the 19th century would come out relatively pleased with their vote for the MP they never knew. They never saw the hard hand of government on the prairies; only the railroad that it precipitated.

Nor did Victorians see Macdonald the way the rest of Canada seemed to view him. Canada’s first prime minister would come to occupy a role that would become quite familiar to almost all subsequent Canadian prime ministers: Despite being able to soundly win elections, most of the country still seemed to hate Macdonald.

Sir John A. Macdonald visits Government House in 1886. He is visible just under the house’s awning (Credit: B.C. Archives).

But in 1886 when a 71-year-old Macdonald finally came to Victoria on the railroad he had promised B.C., he found a city so drunk on the promise of the rails that they treated him like a demigod.

In a front page Daily Colonist column that praised Macdonald as the “ruling spirit of Canadian confederation,” the paper also reminded the prime minister that he was facing a city that “in his hour of need had returned him to a seat in the Dominion Commons when he had been rejected by his own constituency.”

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