Montréal’s Anglo Mayor: Dr. JJ Guerin

November 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

So Montréal got itself a new mayor today, Michael Applebaum.  He wasn’t democratically elected, but given the sudden resignation of the scandal-plagued Gérald Tremblay on 5 November, he has to be an improvement.   The big woopedy-do about Applebaum is that he’s Anglophone (he’s also the metropole’s very first Jewish mayor).  Montréal hasn’t had an Anglo mayor since 1910, when James John Guerin sat in the mayor’s chair.

Guerin, despite the last name, was Irish Catholic.  He was also a central player in one of the most vicious election campaigns in Canadian history.  In 1917, at the height of the First World War, Prime Minister Sir Robert Borden called an election over the issue of conscription.  Borden had invited the Liberal Party, under Sir Wilfrid Laurier (Prime Minister of Canada, 1896-1911), into his government to form a Union government for Canada for the duration of the war.  Laurier, however, could not countenance conscription nor could his Québec powerbase.  He refused.  Borden called an election for 17 December.

By 1917, voluntary enlistments into the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) was pretty much drying up.  The war had been going on for three years.  And the Great War was little more than a killing field.  Mechanised warfare wreaked havoc on the soldiers.  Casualty rates were enormous.  Canada, with a population of little more than 7 million, lost 65,000 men, with another 150,000 wounded.  Many of those who were wounded and survived were never the same again.  They lost their eyesight, their hearing, limbs; their lungs were destroyed by the Germans’ poisonous gas; they were shell-shocked.  It wasn’t just in Canada that enlistments were drying up by 1917, the same was true in England, Scotland, and Wales.  Thus, conscription was needed to compel young Canadian men to fight.  Conscription was made palpable in the rest of Canada, in part, due to exemptions.  The most famous case was that of farmboys, whose labour was needed on the farms of the Prairies (and Ontario). (Not that Borden kept this promise).  But, in Québec, nationalists failed to see why Canada should be wrapped up in an imperialist war that had nothing to do with Canada’s interests.  Indeed, Henri Bourassa, the most influential nationalist leader of the day, and founding editor of Le Devoir, argued in that paper’s pages

Le Canada aurait pu intervenir comme nation, lié a l’Angleterre par des attaches politiquées, et à la France par des motifs de sentiment et d’intérêt, sans compromettre en rien son état politique…[and that Canada had] aucune sort d’obligation morale ou légale de participer à la guerre et tenir compte des conditions particulières, des intérêts vitaux qu’il doit sauvegarder comme pays d’Amérique avant lier sont à celui des nations d’Europe.

Bourassa wasn’t entirely correct, Canada did have a legal obligation to participate.  Britain still controlled Canada’s foreign affairs, and would continue to do so until the Statute of Westminster in 1931.  Thus, when Britain went to war, Canada went to war.

At any rate, the Liberal Party of Canada split over conscription in 1917.  Most Liberals outside of Québec took Borden up on his offer; most Liberals in Québec stood behind Laurier.  The outcome of the election was a foregone conclusion, of course.  But that didn’t stop the Bordenites from engaging in some skeezy politics.  They enfranchised women who had sons or husbands in the military, calculating that they would vote for the Bordenites.  They gerrymandered ridings to ensure the best possible outcome for the Unionists.

One of the gerrymandered ridings was St. Ann’s, in Montréal’s west end.  Prior to the 1917 election, the riding was comprised of Griffintown, Little Burgundy, and Pointe-Saint-Charles, a working-class industrial slum.  The sitting member was Charles J. Doherty, a Conservative and the Minister of Justice in Borden’s government.  He was initially election to represent St. Ann’s in 1917.  He was also Irish-Catholic, so, in essence, the Irish of Griffintown (and Pointe-Saint-Charles) had elected one of their own.  Again. St. Ann’s was one of those ridings where the outcome was not a foregone conclusion.  It could just as easily go Liberal.  Thus, the gerrymander.  Conservative, non-Irish, neighbourhoods including the western part of Pointe-Saint-Charles and all of Verdun, were added to the riding.

The Irish were an issue in 1917 because of the effect of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin on the Irish diaspora.  The 1916 Rising, and the brutality of the British response, served to radicalise the Irish, both in Ireland and the diaspora, including and perhaps especially, Griffintown.  Griffintown was home of the most radical republican Irish nationalists in Canada in the 1910s, mostly centred on the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).  Thus, for the Bordenites, it was essential that Doherty, who was responsible for conscription, be protected at all costs.  Hence, the gerrymander.

Borden was opposed in the riding by two Liberals at the outset.  Daniel Gallery, the former Liberal member (and city councillor) for St. Ann’s, as well as Dr. J.J. Guerin, a long-time city councillor and former mayor of Montréal.  Gallery, though, ultimately lost the Liberal Party’s endorsement and was left to run as an independent against the Liberal Guerin and the Conservative Doherty.  The election was vicious in Griffintown.  Goon squads intimidated followers of all three candidates.  All three were heckled mercilessly on the campaign trail.  Threats were made.

Doherty won the election handily.  Indeed, he won with the largest margin of his career.  But he also won in large part due to the gerrymander.  In Griffintown, the heart of St. Ann’s, Guerin walked away with the vote, outpolling Doherty by an almost 2-1 margin.  Gallery, despite a long career in service of Griffintown, was never a credible candidate.  He spent most of his time denying that the Unionists were paying him to split the Liberal vote with Guerin.  He garnered fewer than 1000 votes.  Guerin may have lost the election, but he won Griffintown.  And he eventually succeeded in representing St. Ann’s in Parliament; he was elected the Liberal member in the 1925 election and held the seat until his death five years later.

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