Historicist: Shuffling the Provincial Political Deck
One party got the boot. One party launched a dynasty. One party became the first to have female MPPs in its caucus. The tale of the 1943 Ontario election.
It was a dreary day for a provincial election in Toronto. The drizzle began shortly after the polls opened on August 4, 1943, slowing down the early morning lines of ballot casters. As the rain intensified, election officials noticed a lighter-than-usual turnout. It wasn’t entirely the rain’s fault—with a war on, many eligible voters were fighting on the frontlines of Asia and Europe. Gas rationing curtailed the traditional rides offered by candidates to get out the vote, or provided an excuse for lazy citizens to skip their civic duty.
Those who marked ballots that day participated in one of Ontario’s landmark elections. When the votes were totalled, Ontario witnessed the birth of the Progressive Conservative dynasty that governed the province for the next 42 years, the emergence of the CCF as not only a viable party but the official opposition, the first women to win seats at Queen’s Park, and the collapse of an internally ravaged Liberal party.
If the defeat of the Liberal government that had ruled Ontario for nine years could be pinned on any one person, that lucky man was former Premier Mitch Hepburn. A combination of little sleep, medical woes, and an obsessive hatred of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King had led Hepburn to act in a manner over the previous year-and-a-half that biographer Neil McKenty described as “confused, incoherent, almost irrational.” Having severed ties with the federal Liberals years earlier, Hepburn relished every opportunity to attack King, especially regarding liquor rationing. Nobody heeded his call for all provincial parties to unite to form a front to oppose federal policies. During the federal by-election in York South in 1942, Hepburn openly campaigned for Conservative leader Arthur Meighen. His hatred of King likely inspired his appearance at several public rallies for the Communist Party, whose activities were banned by Ottawa—this despite Hepburn’s labour-crushing techniques during the General Motors strike in Oshawa in 1937. By the time Hepburn resigned as premier in October 1942, the provincial Liberals had fractured into factions with varying degrees of loyalty to their autocratic leader and/or King.
With little consultation, Hepburn turned over the premiership to attorney-general Gordon Conant while retaining his title as provincial treasurer, which provoked outrage within the caucus. During Hepburn’s final speech as treasurer on February 19, 1943, all parties at Queen’s Park looked on with embarrassment as the former premier compared King to Adolf Hitler.
Two hours after Conant asked for his resignation, Hepburn gave the press a letter which accused King of having succeeded in creating a “Quisling Government” in Ontario. Conant soon gave in to caucus demands to have a proper leadership review, where Hepburn shocked everyone again by supporting Harry Nixon, who had been one of his strongest critics. Nobody ruled out the possibility of the erratic Hepburn trying to get his old job back, but he relieved everyone by staying out. Nixon easily won the leadership contest and soon set a date for an election. Lacking Hepburn’s colour, Nixon ran a lacklustre campaign that offered little to voters apart from the government’s record.
While the Liberals were in turmoil, Progressive Conservative leader George Drew plotted his party’s return to power. Drew built his campaign around a 22-point platform with promises of increased educational funding, better natural resource management, universal medical and dental care, improved pensions for seniors, and other social welfare benefits that provided a sunnier outlook for postwar Ontario. Though many of the proposals would wait for Drew’s successors before being enacted, the document provided a blueprint that set the course for future Tory rule. Drew also benefitted from Globe and Mail publisher George McCullagh’s exasperation with his inability to continue manipulating the policies of Hepburn and the Liberals. The paper switched its support and promoted via front page editorials “the finest social document in the history of this Province.”
The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the forerunner of the NDP) also presented a platform promising future prosperity, but found itself under attack from a largely pro-Tory press as a group of radical socialists out to destroy Canada’s ties to Britain and curtail individual liberties, as they nationalized everything in sight. The attacks grew as polls showed a steady increase in CCF support, especially among those tired of the older parties’ shenanigans: following the election, the Star viewed the party’s rise as the result of “the determination of the great masses of the people that a better day shall dawn for the common man.”
What had been a loose assembly of candidates in previous elections selected Ted Jolliffe, a 34-year-old lawyer and former Rhodes Scholar, as their leader in 1942. Jolliffe’s own campaign in York South was a family affair; his wife Ruth handled publicity. Like future federal NDP leader Jack Layton, the Jolliffes lived on Huron Street, where Ruth balanced raising a family and political activity. “One thing I am keen on, in connection with my politics,” she told the Star, “is that it shouldn’t be divorced from the home. Every mother should interest herself in civic activities because it affects her life so intimately. The success of the CCF to a great extent is because of the active participation of women, along with men, for fighting for the things they want for their families.”
Among the women involved in the CCF campaign were two Toronto-area candidates who became the first female MPPs to sit at Queen’s Park. In York East, Agnes Macphail brought two decades of experience serving the residents of Grey County as Canada’s first female MP. Macphail was originally sent to Ottawa as a member of the United Farmers of Ontario (UFO), whose founder was the father of Bracondale victor Rae Luckock. While she had observed her father building his organization during her childhood, Luckock stayed out of politics until she noticed the CCF while teaching Sunday School in the early 1930s. She endured five unsuccessful attempts to become a Toronto school trustee before winning in January 1943.
When the ballots were counted, Ontario had its first minority government since the UFOs formed a coalition in 1919. As Mitch Hepburn biographer John T. Saywell noted, there wasn’t much time for “amiable, ambling Brant farmer” Harry Nixon to “establish an image of being anything other than just one of the folks. There was no one in the unreconstructed cabinet who could match Drew on the platform or feel the pulse of the urban Ontario that was emerging from depression and war.”
The Liberals fell from 63 seats to a 15-seat third place finish, behind the Progressive Conservatives (38 seats) and CCF (34 seats). The Liberals were shut out of Toronto, with the seats split between the CCF, PCs and two Labour-Progressives (the renamed Communists). When Ruth Jolliffe was asked what her husband’s immediate plans were now that he was leader of the opposition, she joked that “we’re going to see what our chesterfield feels like again. It’s going to be a lot more comfortable than those committee room chairs!” Jolliffe refused to enter into a coalition with Drew, who had defeated his CCF opponent in High Park by just over 500 votes.
And so Drew began the Progressive Conservatives’ reign over Ontario that lasted until another minority government collapsed in 1985. Reduced to a rural rump, the Liberals took on a conservative air that frequently led to policies further to the right than the Tories—somehow “Blue Grit” never gained the popular use that “Red Tory” did. The CCF served as the official opposition off and on until 1951, faced oblivion, and rebuilt slowly until, as the NDP, the party regained second place under Stephen Lewis in 1975. Following the election of Luckock and Macphail, the next milestone for women at Queen’s Park was a cabinet seat, which didn’t occur until William Davis named Scarborough East MPP Margaret Birch a minister without portfolio in 1972. But the pace of such change was like the slow drizzle voters encountered on a monumental election day.
Additional material from Mitch Hepburn by Neil McKenty (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), ‘Just call me Mitch’: The Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn by John T. Saywell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991), and the following newspapers: the August 4, 1943 and August 5, 1943 editions of the Globe and Mail; and the August 4, 1943 and August 5, 1943 editions of the Toronto Star.
Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.