Historicist: How Not to Run a Liberal Election Rally
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Historicist: How Not to Run a Liberal Election Rally

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent addressing the audience at a Liberal party rally at Maple Leaf Gardens under the gaze of William Lyon Mackenzie King and Wilfrid Laurier, June 7, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4210.

The 1957 federal election campaign was not going well for the Liberals. The party had run Canada for 22 years and believed it had the power to do anything it wanted. While the ruckus over its attempt the previous spring to force closure on debate over building a national gas pipeline had cost them some popularity, wouldn’t Canadians appreciate all the Liberals had done for them during the postwar economic boom?
Party brass was content to run a campaign based on the status quo, but they hadn’t foreseen the charismatic abilities of new Progressive Conservative leader John Diefenbaker. As crowds at Tory rallies grew, the Liberals panicked. The party hoped that a giant rally at Maple Leaf Gardens three days before the election would provide a final burst of energy to reverse the surge in Tory popularity. Instead, what started out as a glitzy night of entertainment and policy speeches nearly turned to tragedy.

Prime Minister and Mrs. Louis St. Laurent at Liberal party rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, June 7, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4213.

While Diefenbaker provided the Tories with an energetic leader who had the ability to connect with the concerns of voters, the Liberals ran a prime minister who wasn’t aging well. While the staunchly Liberal Toronto Star declared that Louis St. Laurent was a “vigorous, dignified man of 75,” he showed signs of decline. During the pipeline debate, St. Laurent quietly let his ministers take the lead in defending the government’s actions. As the pre-election parliamentary session wore on, St. Laurent was increasingly prone to fits of temper, possibly provoked by growing bouts of depression. As historian Michael Bliss has speculated, “we do not know how often the septuagenarian prime minister was clear-headed and in command of the government between 1953 and 1957. Like the British Cabinet during [Winston] Churchill’s final years as a senile figurehead in the early 1950s, St. Laurent’s ministers had every interest in minimizing his debilities.” St. Laurent’s advisors portrayed him as kindly, soothing patriarch “Uncle Louis,” but this image faltered when he grew irritated during campaign stops to the point of snapping at children to whom he was supposed to be teaching a history lesson. Unlike Diefenbaker, St. Laurent adapted poorly to the new medium of television—he believed the use of makeup and teleprompters was dishonest and refused to give up the comfort of using hand-held notes. St. Laurent was not helped by the arrogance of leading ministers like C.D. Howe, who had developed a penchant for offending voters and local party officials during campaign stops. The public was starting to sense that the Liberals were out of touch.
The Star heavily promoted the June 7, 1957 rally, promising readers that it would be “in the old fashioned tradition of hoop-la and bands.” In his study of the campaign, John Meisel summed up the entertainment lineup that night at the Gardens: “There were massed bands, bagpipes, dancing girls, the Leslie Bell Singers, drum majorettes, cheerleaders, cowbells, noisemakers, Lorne Greene as Master of Ceremonies, and a tandem bicycle.” All of the local candidates were seated on stage while their supporters waved signs on the arena floor. Some faithful came in costume, like a group of stereotypical “Indians” who whooped it up when High Park candidate Pat Cameron was introduced.

Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent addressing the audience at a Liberal party rally, Maple Leaf Gardens, June 7, 1957. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4211.

There were also plenty of hecklers ready to spoil the fun. Among those waiting to toss barbs at the stage was 15-year-old University of Toronto Schools student William Hatton. According to his mother, William’s class was encouraged to take an active interest in politics and received credit for attending rallies. Her son supported the Tories and was shocked to see some of the nasty attacks the Liberals desperately made against Diefenbaker. As Mrs. Hatton told the Star, “Adults read what the leaders say about each other; but they know the leaders still go out and have a coffee together afterwards. Teenagers get to take these things pretty seriously. Bill had been reading in magazine articles how the art of heckling was dying; so I guess he decided to do something about it.” (Mrs. Hatton’s view of politicians is commendable, though we can’t imagine Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff, and Jack Layton enjoying a friendly cup of java together anytime soon.)
While a group of Tories paraded around the floor with pro-Diefenbaker signs, Hatton was handed a small St. Laurent placard. When the prime minister attacked the Conservatives for acting selfishly during the pipeline debate, Hatton took action. Without anyone noticing his approach, Hatton climbed the steps leading to the platform. He stepped in front of St. Laurent and made his feelings clear by tearing the placard in half, which brought a look of disgust upon the prime minister’s face. “As I was doing this,” Hatton later told the Telegram, “some fellow approached me from the side. I’m not sure what he said. Something about ‘what are you doing? You have no business up here.’ I thought he was going to call an officer.”

Caption when this photo was used in the June 8, 1957 edition of the Telegram: “Teen-age heckler William Hatton starts to fall from platform stairway after brief tussle with Vincent Regan, president of Toronto and Yorks Liberal Association. Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent watches in consternation.” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4215.

The “fellow” was F. Vincent Regan, president of the Toronto and Yorks Liberal Association, who leapt from his chair and lunged toward Hatton. Depending on the account, Hatton was either pushed from the stage by Regan or lost his balance as he moved backwards. Both men tumbled down the steps leading from the stage, but while Regan regained his balance, Hatton hit his head on the concrete floor. “When the boy crashed to the cement floor,” reported the Telegram, “all the steam—all the fun—went out of the meeting. The 12,000 in the audience who had been enjoying the traditional combat of speakers versus hecklers were stunned into a sickened silence.”
The Globe and Mail reported what happened next:

Newsmen at tables surrounding the stage and members of the 48th Highlanders band reached to assist Hatton, whose grey flannel suit had flown open in disarray. His glasses had fallen off and his shoulder-slung camera caught him in the kidneys as he hit the floor. An attendant opened the stunned boy’s collar. Meanwhile a crowd formed around him. One spectator shouted: “This is what happens under a Liberal government!” Before reporters could get Hatton’s name, he was whisked out of the arena into the gymnasium on the east side. As he left between a policeman and an attendant, the crowd began to boo vigorously.

Caption when this photo was used in the June 8, 1957 edition of the Telegram: “Youth tumbled down stairs and struck his head on the floor. Mr. Regan looks worried as he bends to give the injured boy aid. He was examined in hospital for a head bump and released.” City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 4216.

The police slammed the door on the press. Hatton was held for 10 minutes before going to St. Michael’s Hospital for examination. Apart from a bump on the head, he was deemed to be fine and taken to his aunt’s home (his parents were out for the evening—they later referred to the incident as a “schoolboy prank”). Police Inspector Charles Bond told reporters that, because it was “politically impossible” to figure out what really happened when Hatton toppled, no charges would be laid. Bond noted that “I have never known a lad of his age to have such strong convictions. It is very unusual for a boy let alone a man to be so radically Progressive Conservative and so violently anti-Liberal in his thinking.” Had the Liberals imposed any 2011 Conservative-style blacklists for those attending party rallies, we imagine Hatton wouldn’t have been let anywhere near future Grit gatherings.
Back on stage, St. Laurent gripped the lectern and waited a few minutes before resuming. “It is, of course, unfortunate that this young man fell from these steps,” he told the crowd. “I hope that those who are attempting to prevent me being heard realized that this was not the right thing for this young man to do. I am sure that this is not the way Toronto audiences usually act. I hope there are no further consequences from this unfortunate incident than this momentary disturbance.” St. Laurent carried on with his planned speech with minimal heckling.

Headline, the Globe and Mail, June 8, 1957.

Reactions in the press the following day were generally negative toward the rally. Sharp criticism came from Charles King of the Ottawa Citizen, who called it “the most unnerving thing I have witnessed in six weeks of campaigning across nine provinces with both national party leaders.” King felt the show was so over the top with its slick, expensive Hollywood aspirations that “it invited demonstrations.” Hatton’s fall “ruined a night that Liberals had counted on to bolster their sagging popularity with a splash of publicity in the newspapers.” Toeing the party line, the Star downplayed the incident in favour of the colourful aspects of a rally that otherwise went well. Unlike the other Toronto papers, the Star failed to mention Hatton’s fall on the front page, which bore the headline “CHEERING LIBERALS OUTDO ALL HECKLERS RALLY LIVELIEST EVER.”
How did the Tories react? Diefenbaker joked that if anyone disagreed with his policies, he would shove them off a platform—“if they break their necks, that’s just too bad.”
Three days after the rally, voters cast out the Liberals and handed Diefenbaker a minority government. St. Laurent gave the impression of barely comprehending what had happened when he gave his concession speech. Within a few months, St. Laurent was replaced as Liberal leader by Lester Pearson. The party wasn’t accustomed to being in opposition and its lingering arrogance cost it dearly in the 1958 federal election. William Hatton later became an executive for British Petroleum and landed a seat on the train that took Diefenbaker’s body from Ottawa to Saskatchewan after the Chief died in 1979.
Additional material from Pendulum of Power by J. Murray Beck (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1968), Right Honourable Men by Michael Bliss (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1994), Fights of Our Lives by John Duffy (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2002), The Canadian General Election of 1957 by John Meisel (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1962), and the following newspapers: the June 8, 1957 edition of the Globe and Mail; the June 8, 1957 edition of the Ottawa Citizen; the June 4, 1957, June 7, 1957, June 8, 1957, and August 20, 1979 editions of the Toronto Star; and the June 8, 1957 and June 9, 1957 editions of the Telegram.