Was the winter carnival a communist plot?
Library and Archives Canada photo PA-047082/Yukon News
The current election brings to mind elections from the past. It seems some things don’t change all that much, especially the personal attacks.
In 1945, Canada had survived both the ravages of a crippling depression that had lasted a decade and a war that had lasted nearly six years.
The Yukon had undergone dramatic changes as a result of the war, including the construction of a chain of airfields and the building of the Alaska Highway and Haines Road.
In addition, there was the Canol Project, which consisted of an oil refinery in Whitehorse and a pipeline to supply it from the oilfields at Norman Wells.
The territory had been a sadly neglected backwater since the end of the First World War, but saw an influx of people and an economic boom unlike anything since the Klondike Gold Rush.
Like the gold rush, the wartime stampede had a major American flavour to it, but it was centered in Whitehorse, not the Klondike. Dawson was not at the centre of events any more, and in a few years would lose its status as the territorial capital.
The Liberal government of MacKenzie King had controlled Parliament for a decade, and an election was scheduled for June 12. This vote would impact the Yukon, which was on the cusp of life-altering transformation.
The demographics of the territory had changed. Almost overnight, the southern Yukon held the bulk of the population.
For example, in the 1945 election, Bunny Lelievre, the Dawson nominee for the candidacy of the CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation) Party, lost to Clive Cunningham, the nominee from Whitehorse.
The CCF was a socialist party formed in 1930 that aimed to alleviate the suffering of the Great Depression through economic reform and public “co-operation.” It championed universal pensions, health care, children’s allowances, unemployment insurance, workers compensation and public ownership of key industries.
Cunningham, who came from British Columbia in 1943, symbolized the thousands of new arrivals contributing to the social, economic and political metamorphosis of the Yukon.
Tom McEwen was a fly-in candidate from British Columbia, representing the Labour Progressive Party. The LPP was a newly minted organization which came into existence after the Canadian government banned the Communist Party in 1940. This was their first nationwide election.
George Black, the incumbent, was a staunch Conservative. He had served three terms as territorial councillor, four years as Commissioner, and nearly 20 years as Yukon’s Member of Parliament.
The territorial Liberals feared a “Red” being elected far more than seeing their old nemesis Black back on Parliament Hill, so they threw their support behind the Yukon’s political war horse and did not run their own candidate.
The Labour unions threw strong support behind McEwen. With the influx of war-time tradesmen, the upswell of support for a Labour-Progressive candidate could not be underestimated.
During the winter, the All-Union committee spent $15,000 sponsoring a winter carnival, the precursor to the present-day Sourdough Rendezvous, in support of McEwen.
The platform of the LPP seemed progressive, embracing collective bargaining, family allowance, old age pensions, workers’ compensation and equality for “Indians and Eskimos,” who had served honourably during the war.
McEwen had visited Dawson the previous fall and addressed 150 people at a meeting where he talked about plans for developing the economic potential of the territory, true representative government and attainment of provincial status.
In response to the labour interests, the Conservative Party platform also addressed collective bargaining, minimum wages, maximum-hour and minimum-age laws, paid holidays, unemployment insurance and labour representation on government boards.
In fact, both the Conservatives and the Labour-Progressives seemed to promise many of the same social programs to voters.
To the reader of the campaign advertisements in the newspaper, it seemed that
both parties were offering an early Christmas wish list. Neither had anything good to say about the CCF Party, which claimed to be the “only real challenge to the continued power of the monopolists and economic dictators…” in Canada.
Newspaper coverage of the election campaign was disappointing. While publishing letters from the candidates and advertisements from the parties, the Whitehorse and Dawson rags did not cover any of the public meetings the candidates attended.
Oh, how interesting these events must have been, how lively the discussions, how combative the candidates!
But the newspapers did not reveal the heated back and forth of their debate because they did not report upon it at all.
The candidates, however, filled the pages of the newspaper with advertisements and letters.
McEwen, for example, wrote Prime Minister Mackenzie King, March 23, asking if the government was going to take over the maintenance of the Canol Project. Black reacted by raising the question in Parliament, forcing an inconclusive response from the government.
As the date for the election approached, the tone of the campaigning heated up and sizzled with invective. The Labour-Progressive ads accused the Conservatives of being reactionaries who wanted things to remain as they were before the war. Black, they claimed, was the “Tory Charley McCarthy Page Boy of Reactionary Capital.”
The use of negative campaign advertising was as much of an election campaign tool then as it is today.
Black, said McEwen, was only a latecomer to the labour cause, who had embraced the social programs only because of the election. “For cleaning out the Hitlerite Tory Fungus,” he proclaimed, “Vote Labour.”
Black stood on his record, and struck out at the absent Liberals, accusing them of running a shell game, but he saved his greatest venom, for the other candidates.
He attacked the Pinks (CCF) who would destroy freedom of speech and personal liberty. The Labour-Progressives (The Reds), he claimed, would reduce citizens to virtual slaves of the state.
The CCF, on the other hand, accused both the Tory and the Labour-Progressives of using scare-mongering tactics to steer people away from voting for them. At the same time, they claimed to be the only real challenge to the continued power of the economic dictators of Canada.
When the dust settled after the election, George Black had won another term in Ottawa. While he garnered only 40 per cent of the popular vote, he split the support for his opponents and scored a victory against the “red menace.”
This was Black’s last term in the House of Commons. When the next election was called in 1949, The Yukon and the Northwest Territories were lumped into one giant northern riding, and Black, who had opposed such a merger his entire career, refused to stand for re-election.
When the 1953 election was called, the Yukon riding had been restored to its former size.
Black, now 78 years old, was chosen to run one final campaign.
He placed a distant third behind two other candidates, neither of whom ran under a socialist banner.
Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer living in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available in good stores everywhere in the territory.