Monday, July 20, 2015

Riding History: Halifax

Two premiers, two Leaders of the Opposition, three federal party leaders, and a prime minister: the federal riding of Halifax has been represented by a lot of powerful men and women. Fitting, perhaps, for one of Canada's oldest provincial capitals. But for almost two decades Halifax has been shut out of the halls of power in Ottawa. Is that about to change?

The riding of Halifax has an unusual history, in that for the first century of its existence it returned two MPs to Ottawa, rather than one. The riding occupied what is today the Halifax Regional Municipality, and parties could place two candidates on the ballot. Voters could make two choices.

It makes for a somewhat more convoluted history to recite, but it is also a good example of what can happen in ridings with multiple candidates. In all but five of 27 general elections held in Halifax until 1968 only one party captured both seats. It was very rare for voters to select candidates from two different parties, though most of those elections were decided by the slimmest of margins.

The first election in Halifax was different from any other. Instead of the usual contest between Liberals and Conservatives, the 1867 vote in Nova Scotia was primarily between Joseph Howe's Anti-Confederation Party, which opposed Nova Scotia joining Canadian confederation, and the Conservatives.

Howe's party triumphed in Nova Scotia, as well as in Halifax, though it was close: 52.4% for the two anti-Confederate candidates against 47.6% for their pro-confederation opponents.

Alfred Jones
One of the two was Alfred Jones, a merchant involved in the West Indies trade who was born in Weymouth and who moved to Halifax at the age of 18. It would be his first of eight federal election attempts (four of which were successful).

Staunchly anti-confederation since 1864, he nevertheless decided to take his seat in the House of Commons after winning election in Halifax. In his maiden speech, he said he would "support good measures and oppose bad, without regard to either party."

Patrick Power
The other anti-Confederate was Patrick Power, a dry goods merchant born in County Waterford in Ireland, but whose family had immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1823. Unlike Jones, Powers initially refused to take his seat in Ottawa, but finally relented in 1868.

Once it became clear that, despite their victory at the polls, the Anti-Confederates would not get their way, Joseph Howe led most of his party into John A. Macdonald's cabinet. Neither Power nor Jones followed. Jones was especially angered at Howe's betrayal, and actively campaigned against him in the by-election that followed Howe's naming to cabinet. Arguing that a victory by Howe would mean "Canadian rule for ever", Jones failed to prevent Howe from winning.

In 1872, Power ran as an Independent Liberal and Jones just as an independent, and both failed to secure re-election by a slim margin. Power took 2,452 votes and Jones 2,430, while William Almon of the Liberal-Conservatives captured 2,528 votes and Stephen Tobin of the Liberals took 2,486.

Almon, an influential and important physician in the province, was about as pro-Confederate as it gets - he was a supporter of the Confederacy during the American Civil War and was said to have been personally thanked by Jefferson Davis, president of the South. Tobin had a less unusual history, being an insurance agent and merchant who served as mayor of Halifax from 1867 to 1870.

When the next federal election occurred in 1874, both Almon and Tobin chose not to run again. Both would continue their political careers elsewhere, however, as Almon would be named to the Senate in 1879 by Macdonald and serve until 1901. Tobin would be mayor of Halifax again between 1878 and 1881.

This paved the way for the re-election of both Power and Jones, as they were up against only one independent candidate. Power was listed as an Independent Liberal again and Jones an independent, but both were supporters of Alexander Mackenzie's Liberals in Ottawa.

The Conservatives and Borden to the fore, 1878-1935

Halifax would see two federal elections in 1878. The first was a by-election forced by Jones's resignation. Seeing the writing on the wall that he would be booted from the House of Commons, Jones stepped down for an apparent conflict of interest (a government contract had been awarded to the Halifax Citizen, in which he had some holdings). He nevertheless won the by-election, and was named Minister of Militia and Defence for the rest of the year.

Matthew Richey
But then the 1878 general election occurred, and both Jones and Power were defeated. This time Halifax sent an all-Conservative slate to Ottawa, as Matthew Richey and Malachy Bowes Daly were elected. Richey had a long history in municipal politics, being a councilor from 1858 to 1863 and mayor twice from 1864 to 1867 and from 1875 to 1878. Daly was a lawyer and a keen cricketer, having played with the national team on several occasions.

M. B. Daly
Richey and Daly would win re-election in 1882 (beating Jones again), though with reduced numbers. Richey did not finish his term, as he resigned in 1883 to become the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia.

John Stairs, a wealthy industrialist, was acclaimed in his place. Recruited by Charles Tupper, this former provincial Liberal-Conservative would become a confidant of Macdonald.

John Stairs
But Stairs's tenure would be cut short in 1887. Daly declined to run again but Stairs stood for the first time in front of the electorate, coming up short. Jones, now with the Liberals, was elected, as was Thomas Kenny of the Conservatives, a merchant from a wealthy family.

Stairs had better luck in 1891, as he and Kenny were elected. But Jones and Edward Farrell, his running mate, accused Stairs and Kenny of 'bribery and other illegal acts', leading to the election results of 1891 being declared void. It didn't matter, though, as both Conservatives were returned to Ottawa in 1892.

By 1896, Jones was through with elected politics (but he would be named Lieutenant-Governor in 1900, serving until his death in 1906) and declined the Liberal nomination. Stairs, too, was done with federal politics. He stepped aside to make room for a certain Robert Borden, and returned to provincial politics. He took over the Nova Scotia Liberal-Conservative Party, leading it to catastrophic defeats in 1897 and 1901.

Robert Borden
Though Kenny was not successful in securing re-election (Benjamin Russell, a Liberal lawyer, won instead), Borden did manage to fill Stairs's seat. Borden, a 42-year-old lawyer born in Grand Pré, had become known to the Conservatives in work he had done for the Macdonald government. Before long, he was arguing cases in Ottawa and was asked by Tupper to run in Halifax. After his narrow victory, Borden sat on the backbenches as Wilfrid Laurier's Liberals took power in 1896. But by 1899, Borden had been moved to the front opposition benches and was seen to have a bright future in the party.

William Roche
Borden, along with Liberal William Roche, won the election in Halifax in 1900. But Tupper stepped down as Conservative leader, and threw his weight behind Borden as his replacement. He was a fresh face for the Conservatives, but Borden was reluctant. He believed that it "would be an absurdity for the party and madness for me." He nevertheless agreed to run, and became leader of the party (and the opposition) in February 1901. He would serve as leader of the party for the next 19 years.

He would go through some rough patches, however. In the 1904 election, Laurier's Liberals were re-elected and swept both of the seats in Halifax. Borden came up short by some 500 votes, but decided to stay on as leader (Laurier allowed Borden to be acclaimed for the riding of Carleton when it became vacant in 1905).

Instead of Borden, Roche was re-elected and joined by Michael Carney, a businessman born in Ireland. With 52.5% of the vote, it was the best performance by a joint-list of Liberal candidates since Confederation.

The pendulum swung back to the Conservatives in Halifax in 1908, as Borden and Adam Crosby (a former mayor) defeated both Roche and Carney. Laurier would late name Roche to the Senate, where he would sit until 1925.

Borden had increased the Conservatives' seat haul in Ottawa, but he had again failed to lead the party to victory. He decided to stay on, and would have to quell a few revolts within his own party along the way.

Borden and Winston Churchill, 1912
This all changed in 1911, as Borden led his Conservatives back into government against a tired Liberal Party. Borden won his seat but Crosby did not (Borden would name his seat-mate to the Senate in 1917), and Alexander MacLean of the Liberals instead split the ticket. It was an incredibly close election, with both the Conservatives and Liberals taking 50% of the vote. Borden topped the list with 25.5%, followed by MacLean at 25.1%, Edward Blackadder with 24.9%, and Crosby with 24.5%.

Borden was now Prime Minister, and he also took on the portfolio of Secretary of State for External Affairs. His first term in power would soon become quite complicated, as Canada was brought into the First World War in 1914.

By 1917, the killing fields in Flanders had bled the Canadian Army dry, and new recruits were being woefully outnumbered by the casualty lists. Borden wanted to enact conscription, and invited Laurier to join him in a unity government. Laurier declined, but many of his MPs from outside Quebec, where conscription was extremely unpopular, crossed the floor.

Alexander MacLean
One of them was Alexander MacLean, who ran with the Unionists in 1917. Borden, however, had moved to the riding of Kings in Nova Scotia, allowing both MacLean and Peter Martin to be acclaimed for the riding of Halifax. No Liberal ran against them.

By 1921, the country and Borden had moved on from the Conservatives. The Liberals, under Mackenzie King, were brought to power and Blackadder and MacLean (now back with his old party) won Halifax handily. They took a combined total of 53% of the vote, with the Conservatives, now under Arthur Meighen, taking just 34%. Two Labour candidates split 13% of the vote between them.

Martin would not run again, as was named to the Senate by Meighen and would sit there for Nova Scotia until 1935.

Robert Finn
A by-election was held in 1922 to replace Blackadder, who had passed away, and the Liberals again won it easily with 54.6% of the vote. Robert Finn, a lawyer, had sat with the provincial Liberals in Nova Scotia from 1906 to 1922, and was a cabinet minister for the last four years of his tenure. He had also been a war correspondent in South Africa during the Boer War.

Another by-election had to be held in 1923 after MacLean was named President of the Exchequer Court of Canada. This time, the country was moving back towards the Conservatives and William Black won the by-election. It was a return to the political theatre for Black, as he had been a provincial Conservative for three years at the end of the 19th century.

William Black
Meighen narrowly won the 1925 election, and this began three consecutive election victories for the Conservative duo of Black and industrialist Felix Quinn in Halifax. Black would sit in cabinet as Minister of Railways and Canals and Minister of Marine and Fisheries in Meighen's short-lived government.

After being re-elected in 1926, though Meighen was defeated, and 1930, when R.B. Bennett brought the Tories back to power, Quinn was named to the Senate, where he would sit until 1961. Black was not so lucky, dying in office before the 1935 election.

Liberal dominance under King and St-Laurent, 1935-1957

Gordon Isnor
The depression had gutted Bennett's re-election chances, and the country and Halifax swung back to the Liberals under King. With two Reconstruction candidates taking 13.3% of the vote, the Liberals easily won a majority as Gordon Isnor, a merchant and former provincial MLA who had served during the First World War, and Robert Finn were sent to Ottawa.

By 1940, the country was back at war. Finn tried running as an Independent Liberal but was unsuccessful as William Macdonald, a lawyer and veteran, took his place. The Liberals dropped below the majority threshold, however, as the Conservatives rebounded and Finn took a fair share of the vote. A lone CCF candidate, meanwhile, took 1.8%.

William Macdonald
The CCF was boosted to 16.9% in 1945, but both Macdonald and Isnor were re-elected as King led Canada victoriously out of the Second World War.

Macdonald did not survive the peace for very long, passing away in 1946. The by-election to replace him in 1947 was won by Liberal John Dickey, a lawyer who had served as a major in World War II and was Associate Prosecutor for the Canadian War Crimes Liaison Detachment in the Far East. Notably, the CCF candidate placed second, ahead of the (now) Progressive Conservatives, with 29.7%.

John Dickey
The Isnor-Dickey ticket was re-elected in 1949 by a wide margin (with a combined 57.1% of the vote, it was the best the Liberals would ever do), and in 1950 Isnor was named to the Senate by Louis St-Laurent, where he would sit until 1973. The by-election to replace him was won by Samuel Balcom, a pharmacist and veteran of two world wars.

Dickey and Balcom won the 1953 election against a rejuvenated Progressive Conservative Party, as the CCF vote plummeted to just 3.9%.

Conservative return and the Stanfield era, 1957-1988

Edmund Morris
Dickey and Balcom did not survive the 1957 election, as John Diefenbaker's Tories were narrowly elected to a minority government. Robert McCleave, an editor at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, and Edmund Morris, a broadcaster and journalist, took their place in a close contest.

The sweeping victory Diefenbaker won in 1958 was repeated in Halifax, as McCleave and Morris capturing 59.9% of the vote, the party's best result in the riding since 1925. But their big victory was reduced dramatically in 1962, as the McCleave-Morris ticket took just 46.9% of the vote to the Liberals' 45.4%. The NDP, in its first election, took 6.7% of the vote.

There was a brief Liberal interregnum in Halifax in 1963. McCleave went down to defeat while Morris chose not to run again, continuing his political career later on as mayor from 1974 to 1980 and as a Nova Scotia PC MLA and cabinet minister from 1980 to 1988.

Their replacements were Liberals John Lloyd, an accountant and twice mayor of Halifax, and Gerald Regan, another lawyer and father to future MP Geoff Regan.

Robert McCleave
The PCs returned in 1965, as Lloyd was defeated and Regan moved on to provincial politics, where he would become Liberal leader in 1967 and serve as premier from 1970 to 1978. McCleave was returned, along with businessman Michael Forrestall.

In 1968, the electoral boundaries were changed and Halifax joined the rest of the country as a single-member district, being reduced from Halifax County to just the city itself. Forrestall chose to run in nearby Dartmouth-Halifax East, which he would represent into the 1980s. He would later sit in the Senate from 1990 to 2006.

Robert Stanfield took up the PC banner in Halifax. Stanfield had been named leader of the Progressive Conservatives in 1967, after running the Nova Scotia PCs for almost 20 years and serving as premier from 1956 to 1967. Stanfield would continue his service as Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons until 1976.

Robert Stanfield
But his first foray into federal politics was a successful one, at least locally, as he took 60.3% of the vote in Halifax, the best any PC or Conservative would ever do in the single-member district. But Stanfield was powerless against the Trudeau juggernaut in the rest of the country, and saw both his party's vote and seat share drop from his predecessor's performance in 1965.

Things improved in 1972, as Stanfield reduced Trudeau to a minority government. His vote share dropped slightly in Halifax, though, as the NDP went from 4.1% to 12.3% of the vote, taking from both the PCs and Liberals.

He could not prevent a majority win for Trudeau in 1974, however, and his vote share dropped again in Halifax to 49.3%. The Liberals boosted their score to 40.7% in the riding as the NDP fell back.

Failing to topple Trudeau in three consecutive elections, Stanfield resigned as leader in 1976 but continued on as the MP for Halifax until the 1979 election. Stanfield would be done with active politics, but for his service at both the federal and provincial levels the international airport in Halifax was named after him in 2007.

Joe Clark won more seats than the Trudeau Liberals in 1979, but George Cooper, a lawyer and future Order of Canada recipient, nearly failed to hold on to the riding of Halifax with 40.5% of the vote to 40.4% for the Liberal candidate. Of note is the candidacy of Alexa McDonough for the NDP. She took 18.5% in her first federal election attempt.

Cooper was defeated in 1980, as Regan made a return to federal politics. He would be named Minister of Labour and subsequently Secretary of State, Minister for International Trade, and Minister of Energy, Mines, and Resources over the next four years.

But the PCs returned to power in 1984 under Brian Mulroney, and Halifax swung back to the PCs as well. Regan was defeated, and his political career was over. He would later be accused of committing a large number of sexual offences over his long political career, including while he was premier. He was acquitted of some, but other charges were later dropped due to the age of the accusations and Regan himself. A cloud still hangs over him.

Stewart McInnes instead won the riding in 1984, and would be named Minister of Supply and Services in 1985 and later Minister of Public Works.

Women to the fore, 1988-present

Though Mulroney was re-elected in 1988, McInnes narrowly lost his riding to the Liberals' Mary Clancy. Not only would this be the last time a conservative represented the riding, but also the last time its MP would be a man.

Clancy was re-elected in 1993. The PC vote plummeted to just 20.7% as Reform took 14.5% of the vote here.

By 1997, the NDP had recovered from its drubbing in 1993 and had named McDonough as its leader in 1995. McDonough was a seasoned political veteran by now, having been leader of the Nova Scotia New Democrats from 1980 to 1994. That made her the first woman to lead a major provincial or federal party in Canada. She easily defeated Clancy, with the best performance to date for an NDP or CCF candidate. She took 49% of the vote, as Clancy fell to third with 21.6%, behind the PC candidate.

McDonough would be re-elected three more times between 2000 and 2006, stepping down as leader in 2003 but continuing on as an MP for two more elections. Her vote share would fluctuate over this period between 40% and 47%, but only in the 2004 election did the Liberals come close to toppling her. The newly merged Conservative Party would not take more than 21% of the vote in its four elections in Halifax.

McDonough did not run for re-election in 2008. Megan Leslie, a community legal worker, took her place. She won 42.7% of the vote, down from McDonough's performance in 2006 but better than the 2000 and 2004 results, with the Liberals in the midst of their decline. The Green Party captured 8.7% of the vote, their best performance.

After a successful first term during which Leslie was named Best Rookie MP by Maclean's, Leslie won re-election in 2011 with 51.6%, the best the NDP has ever done in the riding. The Liberals dropped to 25.6%, their lowest since 1997, while the Conservatives dropped a few points as well. In 2012, Leslie was named one of the NDP's deputy leaders.

Where does Halifax go from here? For a time, it looked like the Liberal surge in Atlantic Canada could be powerful enough to swamp Leslie and the NDP in Halifax. But the Liberals have since dropped in the region, and the NDP has improved, which makes Halifax a riding that the NDP is likely to retain.

Halifax has not had an MP sitting on the governing benches since 1997, the longest period in its history. With the NDP leading in the polls at the time of writing, and the Conservatives unlikely to secure a majority government in even the best of circumstances, could that streak come to a close?


  1. Fascinating. I hadn't known that Canada had two seat ridings.

    1. Two seat ridings were pretty common across Canada in urban locales. I think PEI was the last province to do away with them, fairly recently 10 or 20 years ago (although I can't say that with metaphysical certainty).

      In B.C. two member ridings lasted until the 1986 general election. The BC Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform envisioned the re-establishment of multi-member ridings although the proposal failed to garnered the required electoral support.

    2. It didn't seem to do much in Halifax, in most of the elections it was 1-2 for the same party with virtually no difference in total votes. The number of people who voted for two different parties couldn't have been more than a few hundred most of the time.

  2. It is articles like this that continue to bring me back to this site (aside from the election and voting statistics and data analysis). The history provides colour, context and meaning to the numbers of votes and polls. Keeping on writing more!

    1. Thank you! These are my guilty pleasures.


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