The Canadian election of 1911 was fought largely on the issue of “Reciprocity” (a mixed bag of free and inhibited trade) with the United States. It saw the defeat of the Liberals under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier, in office since 1896, who favoured Reciprocity, and the victory of the Conservatives under Sir Robert Borden, who was to hold office until 1920, and opposed it.
Anyone who thinks it a recent phenomenon that corporate Canada can influence elections and policy by flooding campaigns with money and propaganda should study this election. Corporate Canada, largely centred in those days in Toronto and Montreal, was opposed to Reciprocity, having grown accustomed to the shelter of Sir John A. Macdonald’s “National Policy” and its protective tariffs. Money and propaganda flowed in buckets into the anti-reciprocity campaign.
Prominent among the opponents was none other than our crotchety friend Stephen Leacock. In his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, written in 1912, he described the election in this way:
I only know that it was a huge election and that on it turned issues of the most tremendous importance, such as whether or not Mariposa should become part of the United States, and whether the flag that had waved over the school house at Tecumseh Township for ten centuries should be trampled under the hoof of an alien invader, and whether Britons should be slaves, and whether Canadians should be Britons, and whether the farming class would prove themselves Canadians, and tremendous questions of that kind.
That about sums it up. There are advantages to fighting elections based on predictions of how things are going to turn out. Prejudice, self-interest and imagination can be allowed free rein. Leacock captures this principle perfectly in his description of Josh Smith’s approach to trade statistics. He does not however tell us anything the following incident, described in Canada 1911: The Decisive Election that Shaped the Country, by Patrice Dutil and David MacKenzie (Dundurn, 2011), page 123:
Earlier in the night [Clifford] Sifton [described by the authors as the eminence grise of the anti-reciprocity movement] gave a speech at McGill University where he was frequently interrupted by a crowd of pro-reciprocity students. The plan was for Sifton then to be escorted to the nearby Windsor Hotel in a carriage pulled by some friendly students, followed by a band and torchlight demonstration. Accompanying Sifton was a fellow speaker for the night, Stephen Leacock, the McGill economist and a founding member of the Anti-Reciprocity League. Showing no respect for one of their university’s most respected faculty members (or for Clifford Sifton, for that matter), another group of McGill students attacked and overturned the carriage, forcing Sifton and Leacock out onto the muddy street. The carriage was filled with wood, torched, and then dragged as it burned through the streets of Montreal, while the students smashed store windows and broke into automobiles. The police arrived … [t]he student riot was quelled and a few arrests were made. … Sifton and Leacock, meanwhile, walked the rest of the way to the Windsor Hotel.
Stephen Leacock was basing his anti-reciprocity rhetoric not on economic analysis but on quite understandable pro-British prejudice. There is nothing wrong with that, unless he was pretending to be an economist while he was doing it. The profession of economics, when validly pursued, is of course based on the rational analysis of data, not the emotional articulation of prejudice. The art of prognostication is, of course, something else entirely.
As we now know, the much vaunted British tie turned out to be worth little in the long term, costing us much in lives and treasure, and we have “reciprocity” with the United States, which has not moved to annex us yet, at least not formally. The ghost of Sir Wilfred Laurier must have laughed at the 1988 election. For more, too many more, of my thoughts on on Stephen Leacock and Sunshine Sketches, see https://mariposabyconway.wordpress.com.