The Conservatives experienced a nasty split in Toronto Northeast.
The 1926 federal election campaign was going to be long and ugly. It was precipitated by a constitutional crisis, two brief minority governments, and a customs scandal involving bribery and booze. The two main party leaders—Conservative Arthur Meighen and Liberal William Lyon Mackenzie King—were mortal enemies whose war began as student debaters at the University of Toronto. Lasting over two months, the campaign witnessed vicious accusations, excessive media partisanship, and all the wonderful sides of humanity elections bring out.
In Toronto, the ugliness manifested itself in several ridings where more than one Conservative candidate ran. The noisiest battle was in Toronto Northeast, which covered the old City of Toronto north of Bloor Street and east of Bathurst Street.
When the election was called at the beginning of July 1926, the Conservatives held every seat in Toronto and York County. Incumbents elected the previous year, such as rookie Toronto Northeast MP Richard Langton Baker, expected to be acclaimed at nomination meetings. The first sign of trouble for Baker’s coronation occurred during a July 27 Toronto Northeast Conservative Association (TNCA) meeting, when Lieutenant-Colonel Newton Manley Young’s name was suggested as a potential candidate during a motion to support Baker. Accusations flew between supporters of both men during the next few weeks over unfair tactics.
By the time the official nomination meeting was held at the Masonic Temple at Yonge and Davenport on August 17, a third candidate had emerged. Speaking last, Baker sensed something was amiss. He dropped a bombshell during the final sentence of his speech. Baker declared, “I will not submit my name to this convention, but I will submit my name again to those who voted for me last October, for I will be nominated and I will be elected again by the 20,877.”
Shouts ranging from “Atta boy” to “He’s a traitor” echoed through the hall. Young received the nomination, thanks to the support of local ward associations and women in the audience. Despite urging party unity and denying rumours he was really a Catholic with Liberal leanings, Young was booed off the stage. The same treatment greeted Young supporter John Currie after he criticized Baker.
Baker immediately bought newspaper ad space stating his interpretation of what had transpired. He filed a protest with the Central Conservative Association of Toronto (CCAT), claiming that neither delegate who nominated Young lived in the riding. He officially launched his campaign a few days later in North Toronto at a TNCA meeting, where some members noted irregularities in the distribution of delegate cards and demanded the resignation of the TNCA’s president. Baker refused to “lie down and allow a steam roller to run backward and forward over him.” He also grumbled that while he had recently heard the concept of “British fair play” uttered 10 times in as many minutes, it wasn’t fair play to dump him for no reason.
The CCAT ignored Baker’s complaints and reaffirmed Young’s candidacy. The ensuing advertising war (a melodrama played out in the gallery above) trumpeted each man’s Conservative qualifications and loyalties. Both insisted Prime Minister Meighen backed their candidacy, though it was claimed Baker only quoted the first half of a telegram from Meighen—the balance stressed party unity. Baker depicted the party establishment as downtown “bosses” akin to the corrupt Tammany Hall political machine which ran New York City for decades. He also ran splashy rallies, including one at St. Alban’s Square in the Annex that included bagpipers and a cornet player. Alternately, Baker was accused of having paid for 143 party memberships during the 1925 campaign, and of trying to convert the TNCA into his own political machine.
Newspaper editorials across the political spectrum frowned upon the antics in Toronto Northeast. On the Liberal side, the Globe felt the row was “wholly degrading, and must result in lowering the tone of politics.” The Star observed that the shaky Conservative nomination process “does something to explain the often extraordinary selection of candidates which the Conservatives make in a city that should be able to send half-a-dozen men of cabinet rank to Ottawa, but scarcely ever sends even one.” It suggested that the Ministry of Justice launch an inquiry. The Telegram backed Young for his military service and promises to support veterans’ issues. They went overboard denouncing Baker, painting him as a mere civilian who opposed the public ownership of hydro and provided the Liberals with a wedge to split the Conservative vote. The Telegram saw a vote for Baker as a vote for Mackenzie King, who was frequently depicted as a traitor preparing to sell Canada out to the Americans (while Meighen was the saviour of the British Empire).
As the ballots were counted on September 14, numbers from North Toronto gave Baker a comfortable lead. Around 9 p.m., the faces at Young’s headquarters brightened when they were notified 1,000 votes had been miscounted. The votes from the south end reversed the results, and Young defeated Baker by over 1,100 votes. The Liberals failed to benefit from the split, as the combined Baker-Young total outpaced the Grits by over 12,000 votes.
“My idea of things is to win without boasting, and lose with a smile,” Young told the Globe. When a Telegram reporter visited Baker’s headquarters around 11 p.m. to check if the losing candidate was around, a worker replied “no, but there are a lot of undertakers around here just now.” Baker’s later response lacked grace: “Apparently the people do not want cleaner politics,” he muttered. Reflecting upon the Conservatives’ national loss to the Liberals, Baker observed that “[i]f the same effort had been made by the machine to defeat the forces of Mackenzie King in the other Ontario risings as was expended in Toronto Northeast the Conservative majorities would have brought more honour to the party.”
Baker spent the next few years mending fences with the party establishment. In 1930, he wrested the nomination from Young, and won the riding as part of R.B. Bennett’s national sweep. Moving to the new riding of Eglinton in 1935, he remained an MP until 1940.
Additional material from the July 28, 1926, August 18, 1926, August 19, 1926, August 23, 1926, September 10, 1926, and September 15, 1926 editions of the Globe; the September 15, 1926 edition of the Mail and Empire; the August 20, 1926, August 21, 1926, September 9, 1926, September 10, 1926, and September 15, 1926 editions of the Toronto Star; and the September 9, 1926, September 11, 1926, September 13, 1926, and September 15, 1926 editions of the Telegram.