Michael Dawe: Just like America, Red Deer has had its own tight elections

There has been a huge amount of attention to the closely fought and controversial American presidential election.

Some people have even gone so far as the claim that it has been the closest one in memory.

It isn’t. They are forgetting about such elections as the one in 2000, which was finally decided by the American Supreme Court.

There were very close and contentious provincial elections in Red Deer over the years, in particular, before and during the First World War (i.e., in 1913 and 1917).

The incumbent MLA was Edward Michener. He had been one of Red Deer’s most successful mayors and was one of the richest people in the community.

In 1909, Michener easily defeated the unpopular Liberal MLA John T. Moore.

Michener ran as an Independent Conservative, willing to support the popular provincial Liberal government.

However, in 1910, when R.B. Bennett stepped down as provincial Conservative leader, Michener dropped the Independent label and became the new Conservative party leader.

The new federal Conservative government was very anxious to boost the new Alberta Conservative leader. Hence, announcements were made to build armouries in Red Deer, as well as a grand new post office building.

The first project was completed (now Red Deer’s children’s library), but the second only remained an empty promise.

The provincial Liberal government was badly hurt by a railway scandal. That gave Michener an edge.

That was offset somewhat when the increasingly embattled Alexander Rutherford stepped down as premier and was replaced by Arthur Sifton for the new election.

The Liberals, with some credibility, were accused of gerrymandering when they set the new electoral boundaries for the election.

The Red Deer constituency gained new polls in the more Liberal-friendly rural areas west of the city.

For the April 1913 contest, the Liberals picked R.B. Welliver to be their new candidate. Welliver had been the popular mayor of Red Deer in 1911-12.

Combined with the popularity of the Liberals in rural areas, Welliver was a formidable opponent.

The result of the election was very close. Michener edged out Welliver by a mere 83 votes. It was the votes in the city that offset Welliver’s lead in the rural areas and put Michener over the top.

In 1917, there was a rematch between Michener and Welliver, with George Paton once again running as a socialist independent.

With the First World War now raging, the main issue was the war effort and conscription, rather than the economy and allegations of Liberal corruption.

One major twist to the contest was the attempt by Sir Robert Borden, the Conservative prime minister, to form a national “Win the War” Union government made up of Conservatives and western Liberals.

The proposal was popular with many Albertans, including Premier Arthur Sifton. However, Sifton was determined to keep the Alberta election a traditional Liberal/Conservative contest, with “Unionism” confined to federal politics.

Thus, the June 1917 election became very contentious. Michener thought he could hold his vote in Red Deer, but was worried about his support in the western part of the riding.

As things heated up, there was lots of allegations of cheating. For example, the Conservatives claimed that provincial civil servants were actively canvassing for the government.

The Liberals claimed that attempts were made to disenfranchise Liberal-leaning immigrant voters in the western rural areas.

The contest was again very close. Welliver did better than last time in Red Deer.

After three days, Welliver was ahead by seven votes, with three remote polls by Rocky Mountain House to be heard from.

When they finally reported, the results were surprising. Despite Michener’s worries, he won the Arbutus and Everdell polls, and then swept the Pleasant Vale poll by a vote of 27-1.

Thus, Michener squeaked back in by 31 votes. There were allegations of illegal voting in the remote western polls, but nothing was proved. There was no recount.

On the Saturday night, once the final results were known, a pro-Michener parade was formed and worked its way through Red Deer’s downtown streets.

The celebrants made sure that they went by Welliver’s house on 54th Street. They then gathered at the Oddfellows Hall for a boisterous party, marked by both joy and relief.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.