This Week in History
Canada's First Election
This story was initially published in 2003
On August 7, 1867, voting began in the Dominion of Canada’s first election since Confederation on July 1, 1867. Though this first election shared the same purpose as those held in modern times, it has little in common with today’s election procedures.
Canada’s four original provinces—Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia—participated in the election. Most people still thought a uniform national campaign was impractical, and so slogans and platforms varied from province to province. The election lasted six weeks, with polls to be open only two days in each electoral district. All provinces but Nova Scotia allowed different districts to hold elections on different days. This rule was a safety net for politicians, because it meant they could run again after losing.
For the citizen, going to vote could be risky, since threats were common. These threats were effective since voters had to stand on a platform called the hustings and announce their vote, rather than casting an anonymous ballot. Being ridiculed, pelted with eggs, or involved in a fistfight was common during elections of this period.
Regulations regarding who was allowed to vote also varied from province to province. However, there were three basic conditions: a voter had to be male, at least 21 years of age, and a British subject. Many districts also had property requirements. It would be several decades before all citizens of Canada had the right to vote.
The most important issue in the campaign of 1867 was Confederation. Pro-Confederation candidates, like Sir John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier, faced strong opposition from politicians like Joseph Howe and Antoine-Aimé Dorion. The Confederation question added to the already intense political atmosphere of the time, which concerned itself with a variety of local issues. As leader of the Liberal-Conservative coalition, Sir John A. Macdonald needed to win the election, in order to remain Prime Minister and to continue leading the Confederation movement to fully unite the provinces into one country.
When all the votes were counted, the Liberal-Conservative coalition won the election. Sir John A. Macdonald was able to keep his job as Canada’s first Prime Minister. Canadian voters elected 181 members to the country’s first House of Commons, compared to 338 members in the House today.
Sir John A. Macdonald and George-Étienne Cartier are designated national historic persons. To learn more, read Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th Birthday and Until we meet again in This Week in History’s archives.
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