Monday, November 13, 2017

Book Notes: Dutil and Mackenzie on the 1917 election

Ryerson profs Patrice Dutil and David Mackenzie today launch an important new book, Embattled Nation: Canada's Wartime Election of 1917.

Embattled Nation is a followup to Canada 1911, their earlier work on the general election of 1911. But 1917 is a special case among Canadian elections, undoubtedly the most corrupt general election ever held in this country. The government in power decided the great war for democracy was so important that democracy would have to be subverted in order to guarantee its reelection.

Dutil and Mackenzie document what they call "the great gerrymander," the removal of votes from (hundreds of?) thousands of women, the bestowing of the vote on a much smaller number of women expected to support the government, the calculated use of the soldiers' vote as a sort of slush fund to be applied where the government needed votes, and so on. Quantifying a great deal of previously unexamined data on the election, they establish (among many other things) that the 1917 election had the highest turnout of eligible voters of any election in Canadian history.

In the end, the authors conclude, much of the gerrymander, anti-democratic as it was, was not central to the outcome. "The Union's 'great gerrymander' had worked, but it had not been necessary. A majority of Canadians supported the Borden government and gave it a resounding mandate," they argue, presenting data to show the rigged soldiers' vote did not much effect the outcome, while the impact of the rigged women's vote is incalculable.

(Dutil and Mackenzie may understate the impact of women's disenfranchisement. "By 1917 women had won the vote in all provinces west of Quebec and there was talk of granting all women the vote federally," they write. But until the changes in election law were imposed in 1917, the provincial franchise had determined the federal franchise. Most if not all women west of Quebec did have the right to vote federally. That is, the Borden government did not refuse to enfranchise them; rather, its Wartime Elections Act specifically disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of them. See my exploration of this matter here, though more work is needed.)

That aside, the Borden government won re-election, they conclude, less by rigging the vote than by creating and exploiting war hysteria and ethno-cultural prejudices. Laurier, aged and ill, aided and abetted these divisions, they argue, by failing to create a coherent alternative. It was the profound English-French divide  -- that the Borden government actively encouraged and exploited and Laurier failed to head off -- that was the real calamity of the 1917 election, Dutil and Mackenzie conclude.
This is the story of how the country was almost lost by politicians blinded by ambition, lacking in imagination, and often paralyzed by incompetence and dithering.  Unable to create consensus, they brought their embattled nation to the brink of disaster. 
A sharp and negative assessment of the Borden government runs through this book. Borden often still gets a kind of residual credit for being the nation's war leader through the First World War, but Dutil and Mackenzie make clear how much his government's naval policy, its indifference to Ontario's anti-French educational policies, its neglect of francophone inclusion in the rapidly expanding military establishment, and its instinctive homage to imperialist sentiment made the Canadian situation consistently worse throughout the war.

A question Dutil and Mackenzie don't take up (maybe it's for their book on the next election?) is why the same government that so calculatedly manipulated the electoral process in 1917 moved soon afterwards to create the non-partisan Chief Electoral Officer and to create the institutions that have largely depoliticized both the design of electoral constituencies and the management of voters' lists ever since.  Guilty consciences?

When we see the profound and horrifying extent to which American constituency boundaries and voters' lists continue to be politicized -- and ruthlessly exploited to rig American election results -- the broad depoliticization of voting processes achieved in Canada in the wake of the 1917 federal election seems all the more remarkable. And to my knowledge, largely unconsidered and unexplained. 
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