Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Riding History: Calgary Southwest

This is the second part in a series of riding histories, the last being a look at Toronto--Danforth. Today, we'll take a look at Calgary Southwest, a riding that has sent two Prime Ministers to Ottawa. With some geographic changes over the years, and links through candidates who ran in the riding and MPs who represented the riding, Calgary Southwest's history stretches back to the old provisional district of Alberta, through to Calgary, Calgary West, and Calgary South before becoming Calgary Southwest in 1987.
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Donald W. Davis was the first Conservative to represent the Alberta riding after winning the 1887 election with 50.5% of the vote (1,037 in all), defeating an independent Conservative candidate, R. Hardisty. J.D. Lafferty placed third for the Liberals.

Davis was born in 1849 in Londonderry, Vermont. He was a merchant and served with the Union Army at the end of the American Civil War. He rose to the rank of Quarter-Master Sergeant, and served in Montana as late as 1871. Undoubtedly, he crossed the frontier to make his fortune in the Canadian West.

Davis was re-elected in 1891 with 74.6% of the vote, defeating another Conservative candidate (no other party was on the ballot). In 1896, however, Frank Oliver won the riding for the Liberals with 55.4% of the vote. Oliver, who had been a legislator in the Northwest Territories and would later run in Edmonton and represent that riding through to 1911, was Minister of the Interior under Wilfrid Laurier. Oliver was re-elected in 1900, defeating a certain Conservative candidate named R.B. Bennett. The future Prime Minister, then, lost his first bid at federal office here.

The boundaries changed in 1903 and Calgary was given its own riding. Its first MP was Maitland S. McCarthy, who took the riding for the Tories with 54% of the vote. McCarthy was born in 1872 in Orangeville, Ontario. A lawyer, he headed a commission investigating the differences in wages between the Municipal Corporation of the City of Edmonton and its street car employees.

McCarthy's family had a long history in the law, with his grandfather and uncle being lawyers and his father a county court judge. He attended Trinity University in Toronto before practicing law in Sarnia. It was in Sarnia that McCarthy got involved with the Conservative Party.

He moved to Calgary in September 1903 and, after being elected, spoke often in the House of Commons. He was "noted for his constant attendance."

McCarthy was re-elected in 1908 with 49.7% of the vote. Notable in this year was that the Socialist candidate Frank Sherman took 9% of the vote.

McCarthy was offered the leadership of the Alberta Conservative Party in 1909 but declined it, and he was eventually appointed to the Supreme Court of Alberta in 1914. According to the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, "he spoke slowly, with a sense of humour; a generalist, he gave more weight to common sense than to legal technicality." But, "according to one associate, he became a heavy drinker and could forget his legal training." Accordingly, he became the chairman of the Alcoholics Anonymous Association in Alberta.

McCarthy retired in 1926 and died in 1930, while in Montreal on vacation.

In 1911, R.B. Bennett stood again for the Tories and won with 58.2% of the vote.  But in 1917, when the riding became Calgary West, it was Thomas M. Tweedie who won the riding for the Conservatives, with 73.2% of the vote. Bennett attempted a comeback in 1921, but was defeated by Joseph T. Shaw of the Labour Party. Shaw was a veteran of WWI, and took 45.9% of the vote, narrowly defeating Bennett.

In the re-match of 1925, however, Bennett bested Shaw by 62.9% to 37.1%. Shaw was not done with politics, however, and would run as a Liberal in 1935 in Calgary East.

Bennett would be re-elected three more times, always taking a majority of the vote. Bennett was briefly Minister of Finance, Mines, and the Interior under Meighen in 1926, and became Leader of the Opposition from 1927 until the 1930 election, when he led his Conservative Party to government. He remained Prime Minister (and Minister of Finance) until 1935, and leader of the Conservative Party until 1938. In the 1935 election, Bennett's main test came from Social Credit, which took almost 32% of the vote. It was the only time, however, that Social Credit finished second in the riding. 1935 was also the debut for C.C.F., which took 3.8% of the vote.

After Bennett's resignation, Douglas G.L. Cunnington was acclaimed in the 1939 by-election. Cunnington, a colonel in the army, had fought in WWI and had been wounded and captured by the Germans.

Cunnington did not remain for a long time, as in 1940 Manley J. Edwards won the riding for the Liberals with 36.9% to Cunnington's 34.8%. Rose Wilkinson, a graduate nurse running for New Democracy, won 21% of the vote.

Calgary South in 1952
Edwards only held the riding until 1945, when Arthur L. Smith won it back for the Progressive Conservatives with 38.4% of the vote, winning it again in 1949 with 42.7%. Smith resigned and a by-election was held in 1951, won by Carl O. Nickle, a lieutenant in the army during WWII. Nickle was re-elected in 1953, after the riding was changed to Calgary South, but did run again in 1957, when Art Smith (son of the former MP) ran as the P.C. candidate, winning the riding that year, as well as in 1958 and 1962. Smith, a pilot in WWII who won the DFC in 1944, would be an eventual recipient of the Order of Canada.

Smith did not run for re-election in 1963, and the riding was won by Liberal Harry W. Hays with 40.1% of the vote, the Conservatives finishing second with 36.7%. Hays was named Minister of Agriculture in Pearson's government, and was sent to the Senate in 1966. He was available for the posting as Ray H. Ballard won the riding back for the Tories in 1965 in a narrow race: 39.1% to 38.9%.

Calgary South (#5) in 1968
The Liberals won the riding again in 1968 under Pat Mahoney, in another very close contest. Mahoney took 47.6% of the vote to Ballard's 45.9%. It was the last time that Calgary South and its successor Calgary Southwest would be won by a narrow margin.

A string of P.C. victories began in 1972 with the election of Peter Bawden, who defeated Mahoney by almost 30 points. Bawden, a future recipient of the Order of Canada, won the riding again in 1974. John Thomson, who had been an unsuccessful Tory candidate in Etobicoke in that election, then won the riding for the P.C.s in 1979 and again in 1980 with over two-thirds of the vote. In 1984, Bobbie Sparrow (the first woman to represent the riding), won it with 77.9% of the vote and served briefly as the Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources and of Forestry under Campbell's administration after fending off the Reform Party in the 1988 election (the riding was then called Calgary Southwest).

Calgary South (#6) in 1979
She could not fend off the Reform Party in 1993, her vote dropping from 65.2% to 18.6% as Preston Manning won Calgary Southwest with 61.2% of the vote. Leader of the Reform Party since 1987, Manning would be a recipient of the Order of Canada and Leader of the Official Opposition from 1997 to 2000.

This was not Manning's first political test. He had ran in 1965 for Social Credit in Edmonton East and in 1988 in Yellowhead for Reform. His father, Ernest Manning, was a Social Credit senator and was Premier of Alberta from 1943 to 1968.

After Manning's resignation, Stephen Harper won the riding for the Canadian Alliance as party leader in 2002 with 71.7% of the vote. He was not the only party leader running in that election, however, as Ron Gray of the Christian Heritage Party also ran.

Harper had first run for the Reform Party in 1988 in Calgary West, but had been unsuccessful. He was elected there in 1993, however, and later resigned to go to the National Citizen's Coalition.

Harper won the riding again in 2004 under the new Conservative banner with 68.4% of the vote, the lowest share he has ever taken. Leader of the Official Opposition since 2002, Harper became Prime Minister in 2006 after his Conservatives were elected to a minority government. Harper then won the riding again in 2008 and 2011, his last share of the vote (75.1%) the highest taken by any candidate since Sparrow in 1984. Also notable was that, with 11.9% of the vote, the NDP took its highest share in a general election since the C.C.F. took almost 16% of the vote in Calgary West in 1945.
Calgary Southwest is, and has been, a very Conservative riding. Adding in victories by the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance, the Conservatives have won this riding 33 times, with the Liberals winning it only five times and Labour once.

Since 1935, when the C.C.F. first appeared, the Conservatives (including Reform and the Canadian Alliance) have averaged 61.6% of the vote, with the Liberals placing second at an average of 23.3% and the NDP third with 7.2%.

Since 1972, the main conservative option has never taken less than 58% of the vote, and Manning and Harper have managed over 65% over the last five elections. The Liberals, who were quite competitive in the riding between 1962 and 1972, have not been a factor for 40 years. It seems unlikely that any party will challenge the Conservatives' hegemony any time soon.

Calgary Southwest has a rather prolific history. Six of its MPs have either been the Leader of the Official Opposition, a cabinet minister, or the Prime Minister. The riding boasts two Prime Ministers and three leaders of the opposition. The cabinet portfolios assigned to its MPs (Interior, Finance, Mines, Agriculture, Energy, Resources, and Forestry) are a good reflection of Calgary's economic profile.

Calgary Southwest has been led by rather important figures for the last 20 years. Stephen Harper is likely to represent it for some time still. The next MP from the riding will certainly have some big shoes to fill, and a lot of history to live up to.


  1. A remarkably unsophisticated political culture in that riding, as I know from having grown up there... monolithic, unthinking support for the Business Option (PC, Can Alliance, etc.)... A shame.

    1. From my interactions with the various Boards and Committees in this riding I can certainly agree that the crowd is quite conservative. I'm still living in it and don't really expect to see any changes until they run some serious contenders against Harper.

  2. This was very interesting, thank you.

    Where did you find those old riding maps?

    1. Natural Resources Canada ( and Library and Archives Canada. (

      Unfortunately, even these still leave a gap of about 50 years between 1901 and 1952. I can't find anything for that period.

    2. Thanks.

      Before 1996 (which is as far back as Elections Canada seems to maintain archives), I'd only been able to find text descriptions of riding boundaries. Those are here:

    3. Yes, that is my main source for these histories. But text descriptions are hard to use the further you go back, since they can describe streets, roads, and boundaries that no longer exist.

  3. Peter Woolstencroft06 June, 2012 20:43

    Very interesting and a remarkable chronology of an electoral district. I note that in the Toronto-Danforth discussion that it should be John A. Macdonald. As for the lack of maps for the years from 1901 to 1952, I am afraid they went to the furnace - pity.

  4. Peter, ahem, could it be that they simply are not on the internet? The 'net has been a huge boon for info and research no doubt, but perhaps in this age if it is not on the internet **it does not exist.**

  5. No offence, but given the by-election next door, it seems like you picked this riding in error.

    Also, on the maps, I have editable riding maps going back to 52 that are free-for-use for anybody. If you are interested eric (or, indeed, any of your readers are interested), just email me at thenewteddy then all that stuff about being at hotmail dot com.

    1. I picked this riding because it is the Prime Minister's riding.

    2. South Parkdale Jack07 June, 2012 11:36

      Eric. It's your site; you do as you like! I'm sure we all appreciate any and all.

  6. You said: "Also notable [in 2011] was that, with 11.9% of the vote, the NDP took its highest share in a general election since the C.C.F. took almost 16% of the vote in Calgary West in 1945." However your graph shows the NDP getting 21% support in 2002

    1. Yes, but that was a by-election. The Liberals did not present a candidate against Harper.

  7. The political history of Louis-Hebert in Quebec City is quite interesting. Since 2000 it has elected an MP of a different political stripe. You should consider looking into this riding as part of your column.


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