Historicist: York South or Bust
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.
Arthur Meighen at the CNE, 1930s. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 3690.
Whenever Canada’s prime ministers are ranked, Arthur Meighen is never found near the top of the list. Though some historians praise his debating skills and hard-working nature, Meighen’s flaws are quickly catalogued: inflexibility, arrogance, reactionary tendencies, inability to learn from past mistakes, a cold public persona, alienating colleagues, alienating entire regions of the country, and so on. The former schoolteacher never learned one particular lesson: never underestimate your most hated rival, who for Meighen was Liberal leader William Lyon Mackenzie King. A 1942 by-election proved remedial for Meighen: a working-class suburban Toronto riding rejected his last attempt to lead the Conservatives to political glory in favour of another schoolteacher.
Following R.B. Bennett’s defeat in the 1935 federal election, the Tories hit a rough patch. The party’s old guard, including Meighen (who had been appointed to the Senate in 1932), never warmed to Bennett’s successor as party leader Robert J. Manion, especially when the new guy made noises about instituting progressive social reforms and vowed not to enforce conscription when war came. Manion resigned after a disastrous election campaign in 1940, during which the party was unsuccessful in selling voters on the concept of forming a “national government” along the lines of the First World War–era Union government. The party turned to R.B. Hanson to lead the caucus in the House, but he had no desire to be a full-fledged party leader.
In November 1941, the party held a conference to resolve their leadership problem. After a failed attempt to persuade Manitoba Premier John Bracken to run for leader, Meighen found himself drafted for the job he had lost in 1927 after two brief stints as prime minister. As a letter to his son Ted indicates, Meighen wasn’t sure he wanted the position:
They are determined to name me leader and to come out for a total war, national Gov’t and conscription. I have worried over this—feeling for months that just such a situation would arise. Hanson I am sorry to say has failed. The job is too big. I really thought he would do better. Cannot go into a long review but I am in a terrible position. If I refuse under the desperate circumstances of this time I will unquestionably lose the regard of the party and in large degree of Canadians, at least I fear that. If I agree—well the consequences are so many and so awful I simply shrink from reciting them. Not unlikely at my age and taking things as hard as I do the turmoil and strain will—well shorten my life. Truly dear son I have never felt so distressed as I do now.
Nearly a week after the convention offered the leadership to him, Meighen accepted. One problem solved.
Headline, the Globe and Mail, November 13, 1941.
Next problem: the party needed him to lead them in the House of Commons, not the Senate. While the Tories had governed the country with leaders sitting in the upper chamber back in the 1890s, the results had been less than awe-inspiring: John Abbott didn’t want the job, while Mackenzie Bowell should have never been given the job. Somebody in the elected caucus had to sacrifice their seat, so York South MP Alan Cockeram volunteered to resign. The riding had been held by Conservatives under various banners since its establishment, so it seemed like a safe seat for Meighen to contest, to ride to an easy victory. The governing Liberals were even going to play nice and, as per tradition for party leaders attempting to enter Parliament via a by-election, not to run a candidate…or so it appeared publicly.
That move should have set off warning bells for the Tories, since Meighen and Prime Minister King were anything but friends. As veteran journalist Bruce Hutchison put it, “King could not tolerate Meighen’s presence as a man near him in Parliament. He could not manage the war with Meighen’s presence as a statesman and as a conscriptionist.” Upon Meighen’s return, King felt that he was “getting past the time when I can fight in public with a man of Meighen’s type who is sarcastic, vitriolic, and the meanest type of politician.” The prime minister feared that if Meighen pushed a hard pro-conscription platform, the country would be split even worse than it was in 1917, especially given that the Tories had no MPs in the one province that wouldn’t support enforced service: Quebec. If King could find a way to scuttle Meighen’s chances by any means possible, he would.
Left: advertisement, the Weston Times and Guide, February 5, 1942. Right: advertisement, the Globe and Mail, February 9, 1942.
In Toronto, the editorial pages of pro-Tory newspapers the Globe and Mail and the Telegram praised Meighen to the point that a reader might believe a deity had sent him as an avenging angel to restore democracy to a House of Commons demonized by a Liberal government prone to keeping secret information and passing laws via orders in council. One can sense the irritation that must have been in the Globe and Mail’s boardroom when a front page article on December 2, 1941 opened with a declaration that Meighen was “barred” from being acclaimed in York South after the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the predecessor to the NDP) held a nomination meeting at Massey Hall. Chosen to face Meighen was high school English teacher Joseph Noseworthy, who told the audience that he believed “the voters of South York should be given the democratic right to determine whether they wanted Senator Meighen to replace a man they had formerly elected in the person of Major Cockeram.” The Globe and Mail was outraged by the audacity of the no-good socialists in the CCF to run a candidate:
The electors of South York, we think, will resent the refusal of the CCF to give Right Hon. Arthur Meighen an acclamation…Obviously the only object of the CCF in opposing the return to the House of Commons of Mr. Meighen is to use the hustings for Socialist propaganda. That is its privilege. But in seeking to bar Mr. Meighen from the House of Commons, where his brilliant talents are urgently needed to spur the Government and the country to a greater war effort, it is not necessary for the CCF spokesmen to misrepresent the position of the Conservative Leader.
The “position” under debate was the CCF charge that the Tories would only conscript people for the war effort and not force Meighen’s allies in the business community to give up some of their wealth to battle the Axis. When asked about this, Meighen replied, “If we have to conscript wealth to win the war we will, but people of common sense don’t advocate that until the last gasp.” As the campaign wore on, the CCF continually attacked Meighen for being in the thrall of mining magnates, Globe and Mail owner George McCullagh, and, as the Canadian Forum put it in an anti-Meighen editorial, other “frustrated Toronto megalomaniacs.” Noseworthy also conducted an intense door-to-door campaign in the riding.
Meanwhile, in Liberal backrooms, moves were afoot to provide Noseworthy with all the help he needed. At least $1,000 was directly provided to the CCF by high Liberal officials as a campaign donation. When the throne speech was read to the House of Commons on January 22, 1942, King’s government revealed that it intended to hold a plebiscite on the issue of conscription (the question would ask voters if they would allow the government to go back on past promises not to invoke mandatory service, which lead to King’s famous phrase “not necessarily conscription but conscription if necessary”). This move took some wind out of Meighen’s sails and, as his biographer Roger Graham noted, may have caused voters in York South to ask themselves “was it reasonable…to condemn a government that was willing to consult the people in this democratic fashion.”
Advertisement, the Weston Times and Guide, February 5, 1942.
One person the proposed plebiscite angered was Ontario Premier Mitch Hepburn. Under Hepburn, the provincial Liberals had broken with their federal counterpoints to the point where the Premier’s relationship with King was similar in dynamic to that between the prime minister and Meighen. Hepburn felt that “the calling of a plebiscite on the question of conscription is the most dastardly, contemptible, and cowardly thing ever perpetrated on a respected and dignified country by any government.” He soon wrote to Meighen to offer his assistance in York South. Hepburn, too, campaigned with provincial Conservative leader George Drew against the Liberal candidate in a concurrent by-election in Welland. In a radio broadcast, Hepburn promised that “with Mr. Meighen its leader in the Commons, it will be an inspired force to see that the Government gives Churchill and our allies a total effort and our enemies a total war.” Hepburn’s actions had disastrous consequences: his support for Meighen drove some Liberal supporters to back Noseworthy, while his more general antics deepened rifts within the provincial government. By the end of 1942, Hepburn was out as premier.
On the campaign trail, Meighen focused on promoting a total war effort, complete with conscription. He attacked the plebiscite as a way of wimping out on Canada’s duty (the country “cannot dawdle with plebiscites and compete for popularity while the world around us is in flames”) and the CCF’s tradition of pacifism. It doesn’t appear that he discussed local issues much, as the focus of his wrath tended to be King, not Noseworthy. Nor did he show much concern for the problems of working-class constituents who had survived the Great Depression, being of the school that any move toward social welfare was code for dictatorship in waiting. As he told a group of businessmen during a speech in early 1941, one that haunted him throughout the campaign, “if property, profit, the reward of toil, the fundamental instinct of the human race to gain, to acquire, to have, to reach somewhere is taken away, then I, for one, do not feel that we have anything worth fighting for. Wherever socialism prevails today, the sword, the hangman, the axe prevail.” As election day neared, Meighen and his newspaper allies found themselves defending daily against perceived and real character assassination from the CCF and Liberals.
Front page, the Weston Times and Guide, February 12, 1942.
Heavy snow was among the factors blamed for a lower-than-expected turnout at the polls in York South on February 9, 1942. When the ballots were tallied, Noseworthy defeated Meighen by just under 4,400 votes. The CCF captured 93 out of the 117 polls in the riding. Most of those won by Meighen were found in Forest Hill.
When Noseworthy arrived at an assembly at Vaughan Road Academy the next morning, he was greeted with applause by 400 senior students. He told the crowd he was pleased to find out many of his former students had been out on the streets on election day, urging voters to choose him. After the assembly ended, the new MP was surrounded by students wanting his autograph before they were let out for an afternoon holiday. As Maclean’s magazine noted, “It is obvious that Mr. Noseworthy had won the confidence of the young people with whom he was in contact. That may cause the older parties to do some thinking.” Noseworthy represented the riding until he was defeated by Cockeram in 1945. Four years later, Noseworthy was re-elected and served as an MP until his death in 1956.
Despite accounts that Meighen took his loss well on election night, he found his defeat humiliating. In his mind, he had served his country so well in the past, still had so much to give the national war effort, had earned the support of two-thirds of Toronto’s daily press—didn’t he deserve the seat? But his track record, his opposition’s ability to play upon his weaknesses, and a fundamental disconnect with his potential constituents sealed his fate. Meighen continued as party leader for the rest of the year, before being succeeded by John Bracken. He seemed increasingly out of sync with more progressive elements in the party, as he continued to push a conscripted war effort at any cost.
When King heard the results in York South, he wrote in his diary that evening. “I felt tonight that public life in Canada had been cleansed,” he scribbled, “as though we have gone through a storm and got rid of something that was truly vile and bad, and which, had it been successful at this time, might have helped to destroy the effectiveness of our war effort.” For the last time, he had outmanoeuvred his longtime rival.
The final word goes to Bruce Hutchison, who summed up Meighen’s defeat for the Vancouver Sun:
When the leader of the Conservative Party is defeated by a Socialist in the Conservative “pocket borough” of Ontario all observers must recognize a profound portent in Canadian affairs. Mr. Meighen obviously was defeated because his economic views, his extreme Toryism, his hatred of socialistic methods and his long association with big business are no longer acceptable to the people of this country—not even to the people of Tory Toronto. Today leaders of the CCF in Ottawa rightly claimed the greatest victory for their theory of society in the history of this country. They see in the astounding eclipse of Mr. Meighen the close of an era in our politics, the beginning of the Conservative Party’s end and the emergence of a Leftist party as the true alternative to the Liberal Party. Conservative politicians, dazed by the unimaginable disaster of Mr. Meighen’s fall, realize that their party will die over a period of years unless it discovers a new idea different from the government or a new leader who can outshine Mr. King. At the moment neither is in sight.
Additional material from Arthur Meighen Volume Three: No Surrender by Roger Graham (Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1965), Mitch Hepburn by Neil McKenty (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967), King’s War: Mackenzie King and the Politics of War 1939-1945 by Brian Nolan (Toronto: Random House, 1988), Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter, 2009), and the following publications: the January 1942 edition of the Canadian Forum; the December 2, 1941, December 3, 1941, and February 7, 1942 editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 1, 1942 edition of Maclean’s; the February 10, 1942 edition of the Toronto Star; and the February 10, 1942 edition of the Vancouver Sun.