How an Ontario premier triggered a federal election

In 1940, Premier Mitch Hepburn criticized Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s handling of the war effort — and ended up sending Canadians to the polls 
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Sep 30, 2019
Mitch Hepburn
Liberal Mitch Hepburn served as premier of Ontario from 1934 until 1942. (Archives of Ontario, F 10-2-3-8.1/archives.gov.on.ca)

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Mitch Hepburn was one of Ontario’s most unpredictable premiers. During his tenure, which ran from 1934 to 1942, the Liberal was often at odds with his MPPs and their federal counterparts. Sometimes, he declared himself a loyal Grit; other times, he appeared to be working with the Conservatives against the party. He had an on-again, off-again political relationship with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King — one that reached a new low in early 1940 after the premier provoked a federal election.

The federal Conservatives were not in a strong position. The party remained divided over the choice of Robert James Manion as leader in 1938. Originally a Liberal supporter, Manion had won a Military Cross for his heroism with the medical corps at Vimy Ridge. After being elected as a Unionist MP for Fort William in 1917, he had stayed with the Conservatives and served in the cabinets of Arthur Meighen and R.B. Bennett. It was hoped that “Fighting Bob’s” war heroism, compassion, and personal magnetism would help the party in English Canada and that his bilingualism, opposition to conscription, Roman Catholicism, and French-Canadian wife would appeal to those in Quebec.

But Tory traditionalists saw Manion as tainted by his religion, his past Liberal ties, his desire to reform unemployment, and his belief in social justice. In many ways, Manion was a “Red Tory” years before that element came to dominate the party. When the Second World War began, in September 1939, King and Manion agreed that one more parliamentary session would be held in January 1940 before an election could be considered.

In Ontario, provincial Conservative leader George Drew criticized King’s government for not doing enough to assist Great Britain’s war effort. “We represent one-third of the population and one-half of the industrial production of Canada,” Drew told the legislature in early January 1940. “We have the right to speak … we can sound a clear trumpet call to action, or we can utter pious and ineffective platitudes about our faith in democracy.” Manion, waiting for Parliament to return, failed to convince Drew that only the federal party should criticize King’s actions.

During the January 18, 1940, session, Hepburn stunned the legislature when he introduced a motion, based on discussions he and Drew had had with federal officials, censuring King’s handling of the war — they believed that the training process could be improved and that mobilization should be proceeding faster. The premier indicated that he would resign if it didn’t pass and said, “I stand firm in my statements that Mackenzie King has not done his duty to his country — never has and never will.”

Before reading the motion, Hepburn passed the scrap of yellow paper to Provincial Secretary Harry Nixon, who whispered, “Oh, Mitch, it is very foolish. I do not think it is at all wise to do.” Hepburn ignored Nixon’s advice and read the motion, which asked the legislature to join him and Drew “in regretting that the Federal Government at Ottawa has made so little effort to prosecute Canada’s duty in the war in the vigorous manner the people of Canada desire to see.”

Pandemonium ensued. Some Liberal backbenchers asked the speaker to rule the motion out of order or delay the vote. Others asked the party whip for an emergency caucus meeting. A few fled the scene. Enough MPPs were present to pass the motion 44 to 10 — all of the no votes came from Liberals voting against their leader.

When he heard about the censure motion, King decided to call an election immediately. “It shows how completely Hepburn has become a dictator,” King wrote in his diary, “and how fearful men have become of not bowing to his will and word.” He reasoned that the rest of the country should have the right to weigh in on the issue. And he, like many others, wondered whether illness or heavy drinking could be clouding Hepburn’s judgment.

During the January 25 throne speech, Governor-General Lord Tweedsmuir announced that Parliament was being dissolved. Manion and CCF leader J.S. Woodsworth criticized the move as undemocratic. (King kept his eyeglasses off so that he wouldn’t have to see the angry reactions of opposition MPs.) But the move created little stir in the Conservative press, and the dissolution failed to gain traction as an election issue.

The next day, Manion announced that, if he were to win, he would form a coalition “National Government” whose cabinet would attract the best and brightest politicians. The concept had echoes of the National Government that had ruled Great Britain throughout most of the 1930s — but it also brought up memories of the Unionists in 1917 and the Conservative dominance of that government. King and Woodsworth declined to participate. The Conservatives changed their name to National Government for the rest of the campaign, but few candidates switched parties (in Ontario, only two candidates previously associated with the Liberals ran under the banner). The party struggled to figure out how to sell the concept to voters and was unable to put together a strong slate of candidates. Manion also didn’t perform well on radio — his harsh tone compared unfavourably with the smoother speaking styles of King and CCF spokesperson M.J. Coldwell.

Privately, Hepburn promised to support Manion. It was rumoured that Hepburn and Drew were conspiring to form a provincial coalition government in hopes of embarrassing Ottawa. Both men, Saturday Night columnist B.K. Sandwell observed, were “exceedingly ambitious for power, and both of them dislike the relative insignificance to which their legislature is reduced in time of war.”

As the campaign entered its final month, Hepburn’s behaviour grew increasingly erratic. On March 4, he banned the Ontario release of an instalment of the National Film Board’s “Canada at War” series. Though the film was co-produced by an American newsreel series, and some allies felt it aided the overall war effort, Hepburn called it “pure political propaganda” that worked in favour of the King campaign. He then claimed that more than 700 trainees had left a flying school in St. Thomas because of inadequate clothing and training facilities — but he was later shown to have exaggerated the extent of the incident.

These developments, combined with Hepburn’s increasing friendliness with Drew, proved too much for Nixon, who resigned from cabinet on March 11. Drew questioned Nixon’s decision, noting that he hadn’t always agreed with King, and took issue with Nixon’s suggestion that, if Drew were so concerned about the war effort, he should join the army.

The next day, Hepburn called a cabinet meeting. Although he later said it had been amicable, there were suspicions that MPPs had told him to stop working against the federal Liberals and to patch things up with Nixon to prevent more resignations. That night, Hepburn visited Nixon’s suite at the Royal York hotel, in Toronto. When they emerged, Hepburn told the press there had been a misunderstanding and tore up Nixon’s resignation letter.

He remained largely quiet for the rest of the campaign. Other provincial Liberals campaigned hard for their federal counterpart — Nixon made a surprise appearance at a March 14 King rally at Toronto’s Massey Hall. “My good wife and I just drove down from the farm to be here and to say to you that come what may we are behind Mr. King,” he told the audience, who gave him a loud ovation. Three years later, Nixon briefly served as premier.

The March 26 vote saw the Liberals win 57 Ontario seats and the Nationals, 25. The Liberals garnered 51.5 per cent of the popular vote and 181 seats to the Nationals’ 40. Voters sensed that the Liberals would pursue a moderate, competent war effort and suspected that the Nationals, which counted such divisive First World War figures as Arthur Meighen as members, might suddenly implement conscription. Manion, who had represented London since becoming party leader, lost his second consecutive attempt to regain his old seat in Fort William and resigned. Among the other losers was Agnes Macphail, in Grey–Bruce, who ended her 20-year run as Canada’s first female MP.

Manion thanked Hepburn for having helped take on “the fat little jelly fish out at Kingsmere,” and the federal Liberals immediately tried — and failed — to launch a leadership coup. That summer, when it appeared that Hepburn might have a fatal case of bronchial pneumonia, King wrote in his diary, “I don’t often wish that a man should pass away but I believe it would be the most fortunate thing that could happen at this time.”

Hepburn’s attitude toward King remained changeable until the former left provincial politics in the mid-1940s: he fully supported the prime minister at times, but occasionally plotted against him (as when he supported Meighen’s failed attempt to return to Parliament in 1942). “Many of his faults came together in the prolonged feud with Mackenzie King,” observes the Dictionary of Canadian Biography. “While there was blame on both sides, the brutal fact is that the federal leader used the ongoing conflict to his ultimate political advantage, while his provincial counterpart allowed it to destroy his career.”

Sources: Pendulum of Power by J. Murray Beck (Scarborough: Prentice-Hall, 1968); Warlords by Tim Cook (Toronto: Allen Lane, 2012); King by Allan Levine (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2011); Mitch Hepburn by Neil McKenty (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967); Blue Thunder by Bob Plamondon (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2009); “Just call me Mitch”: The Life of Mitchell F. Hepburn by John T. Saywell (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991); The Conservative Party of Canada: 1920-1949 by John R. Williams (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1956); the March 12, 1940, March 13, 1940, editions of the Globe and Mail; the March 26, 1940, edition of the London Free Press; the May 1, 1940, edition of Maclean’s; the January 27, 1940, edition of Saturday Night; and the March 12, 1940, edition of the Toronto Daily Star.

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