Friday, March 27, 2015

Riding History: Winnipeg North

A few threads run through the history of Winnipeg North. One is that the riding has, for the great bulk of its history, kept itself out of the corridors of power. Another is the thread of the labour movement, and the spectre of communism. Accordingly, our story starts with the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

Winnipeg North was created in 1917. Its predecessor ridings were those of Selkirk and Winnipeg, which it shares in common with the riding of Winnipeg South Centre. You can review the history of these ridings prior to 1917 here.

Winnipeg North's first MP was a Conservative, Matthew Blake. A physician born in Ontario and educated in Toronto, Dublin, and London, Blake won the riding in 1917 with 74% of the vote, easily trouncing his Liberal opponent in the midst of the First World War. 

That war was good for business - but not so great for workers. When the strike was launched in May 1919, a few months after the end of the war, it found in Matthew Blake an opponent.

Winnipeg General Strike
Speaking of the strike in the House of Commons on June 2, 1919, Blake theorized that "the aim and object of many of the workingmen today seems to be to get the most possible money for the least possible expenditure of energy. The tramp says the world owes him a living, and he is going to get it. I hope we are not coming as a nation to the same status as the tramp."

Matthew Blake
Suffice to say, Blake was defeated when he faced his tramp-like constituents again in 1921.

It was an election dominated by memories of the strike. Opposing him were Robert Russell, the Socialist candidate and a leader of the strike, who captured 29.4% of the vote, and Edward McMurray, a barrister who had served as defense counsel for the strike leaders. McMurray won the riding for the Liberals in a close-run three-way race, with 36%. Blake saw his support collapse to just 29%, putting him in third place.

The rise of Labour

McMurray was named Solicitor General of Canada in 1923. As was the convention at the time, he forced a by-election to be held. But rather than allow McMurray to be acclaimed, as was also the convention, the Labour Party put up a candidate (the Conservatives did not). This was Abraham Heaps, another one of the strike leaders, and he captured 33% of the vote. McMurray prevailed with 65%.

He stayed in his post until 1925, when he resigned "over matters of a professional and private nature". But he took another shot at re-election - as did Blake.

But it was Heaps of the Labour Party that won, taking 39% of the vote to 32% for Blake's Conservatives and McMurray's Liberals.

Heaps had been jailed during the strike, but was later acquitted of sedition. He had political experience, being a city councilor for Winnipeg since 1917. He had labour experience as well, being a member of the Trade Union Council.

He was the strikers' man, and he was re-elected easily in 1926 and 1930, taking 49% of the vote in each election. Poor Blake even tried another comeback in 1930, only to fall short for the third time.

The CCF-NDP era

By the 1935 election, Heaps and other MPs from the labour side of the spectrum had joined together to form the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Under this new banner, Heaps again won re-election with 42% of the vote, defeating the Liberals and the leader of the Communist Party, Tim Buck, who captured 25%.

The storm clouds of war were gathering over Europe, and in the House of Commons Heaps fought against putting quotas on Jewish immigration. But when war broke out, Heaps, a pacifist, was on the wrong side of the debate. His opposition to the war did not go over well with Jewish voters, and he was defeated in 1940.

The winner was Charles Booth of the Liberals, who had failed to win the riding in 1935. The riding could not have swung any more dramatically, as Heaps the pacifist was replaced by Booth the war hero.

A veteran of the First World War and a pilot who served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force in the 1920s, including a stint in northern Russia during the Russian Civil War fighting the Bolsheviks, Booth renewed his service during the Second World War. He was posted to the 1st Canadian Corps HQ in London, and was named a Brigadier and Deputy Adjutant General in 1943. Due to these responsibilities, however, Booth only sat in the House of Commons once, while he was on leave from duty.

Booth decided not to run for re-election in 1945, and the riding swung back to the CCF. Alistair Stewart, a Scot who immigrated to Canada at the age of 25, was an accountant and a founding member of the party. He took 38% of the vote as the Communists finished in second place with 27%, beating out the Liberals.

Alistair Stewart
Stewart would secure re-election three more times in 1949, 1953, and 1957. By the end of his tenure, he was capturing 49% of the vote. The Liberals managed to move back into second place, as the Communists were replaced by the Labour-Progressives. Nevertheless, the LPP captured 17% of the vote in 1949, but that dropped to 8% by 1953.

By 1958, the tide was turning and the Progressive Conservatives under John Diefenbaker, elected to a minority government the year before, stormed the electorate to win a huge majority. Murray Smith, the PC candidate in Winnipeg North, was one of the beneficiaries, eking out a victory with 42.4% of the vote to Stewart's 42%. Smith was the first Tory elected in the riding in over 40 years. He would also prove to be the last.

Smith was the first MP for the riding to have been born in Manitoba, and 1958 had another first for Winnipeg North. Nina Partrick, a 'housewife', was the Liberal candidate and the first woman on the ballot in the riding. She took just 12% of the vote, the worst the Liberals would ever do in this riding until 2008.

The riding returned to form in 1962, as David Orlikow, a pharmacist and labour educator, won the riding for the newly formed New Democrats. He captured 37% of the vote, as Smith's PCs dropped to 28%.

David Orlikow
Orlikow was an experienced politician, having been a municipal alderman and later a CCF and NDP MLA in the Manitoba legislature. He would hold numerous critic portfolios in his long tenure as an opposition MP. But he might best be remembered for a strange situation involving his wife, the CIA, and experiments with mind control

He should also be remembered as Winnipeg North's longest-serving MP, occupying the post for over 26 years and serving under Tommy Douglas, David Lewis, and Ed Broadbent. He was re-elected an incredible eight times, capturing over 40% of the vote in every election between 1965 and 1984 (and a majority of it in 1979 and 1980). 

He fended off the Liberals in the 1960s, including in 1968 when Pierre Trudeau won his first election and the Liberals came close to ousting him. He then fended off the Progressive Conservatives, who supplanted the Liberals as runner-up in the 1970s and early 1980s.

Brief Liberal interregnum

But Orlikow's winning streak came to an end in 1988, when he was defeated by Rey Pagtakhan of the Liberals. Pagtakhan was the first MP from the Philippines to be elected to the House of Commons, fittingly for a riding that is today the one with the most Filipinos in the country. A doctor and school trustee, Pagtakhan took 38% of the vote in the 1988 election, just squeezing past Orlikow's 34%. The Tories took 25% in this close race. Also on the ballot here in 1988 was a candidate for the fledgling Reform Party, capturing 2%.

Pagtakhan was re-elected in 1993, as the PC vote collapsed to just 5% here and the NDP dropped to 32%, marking its worst performance in its history (including that of the CCF). In 1996, Pagtakhan was named Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, the first MP from Winnipeg North to get this close to cabinet since the days of McMurray.

The return of the NDP

The riding boundaries shifted in 1997, and Pagtakhan went on to run in Winnipeg North - St. Paul. The new boundaries helped the NDP in Winnipeg North Centre, as Judy Wasylycia-Leis won it for the NDP with 50% of the vote. And this after her dismal performance in Winnipeg North in 1993.

Results, 1988-2011
Wasylycia-Leis had a long history with the NDP at this point, being a staffer for the party and a provincial candidate for the Ontario NDP. She sat in the Manitoba legislature as an NDP MLA from 1986 to 1993, and was a cabinet minister over that time.

She captured 58% of the vote in 2000, at that moment the highest share of the vote won by any party in the riding since 1923.

The boundaries shifted again in 2004, and Winnipeg North took its present shape. Pagtakhan decided to run here for re-election after successfully winning in 1997 and 2000, but fell short. Wasylycia-Leis took 48% to Pagtakhan's 37%.

She returned to her thumping victories in 2006 (57%) and 2008 (63%) as the Liberals' vote collapse - first to 21% in 2006 and finally 9% in 2008. The Conservatives moved back into second place here, but with 22% were still far behind.

Lamoureux and the Liberals

In 2010, however, Wasylycia-Leis resigned her seat to run for mayor in the first of two unsuccessful bids for the job.

The by-election was supposed to be an easy win for the NDP, coming off their 40-point victory in 2008. But the Liberals managed to recruit Kevin Lamoureux, a long-time Liberal MLA for the riding of Inskter first elected in 1988. He ran twice for the provincial party leadership, in 1993 and 1995, losing both times.

With Lamoureux on the ballot, the Liberals pulled off a stunning victory with 46% of the vote, the party's best performance since 1993. The NDP finished second with 41% of the vote.

Nevertheless, the riding was still dominated by the NDP's long history. And in the context of a worst-ever performance nationwide in 2011, Lamoureux would not have an easy time securing re-election in 2011.

He managed it, though just barely. With 9,097 votes, Lamoureux beat out the NDP's Rebecca Blaikie, who took 9,053 votes. Two-tenths of a percentage point separated the two, as the Conservatives improved their share from 11% in the by-election to 26%.

But coming from such a low ebb, Winnipeg North looks to be a Liberal hold in the coming election. In the context of its history, however, that makes it - for the time being - a Lamoureux riding. Over the last 90 years, an MP from Labour, the CCF, or the NDP has failed to win only six times. That is a lot of historical baggage for the Liberals to keep locked away indefinitely.