Scandal and unfulfilled promises are not new in Canadian politics, says Augustana history professor

Daniel Sims traces instances of scandal and deceit through Canadian politics from the first 1867 federal election up until the last, with ruminations on voting in the upcoming Federal Election.

Tia Lalani - 07 October 2019

By Daniel Sims

Each political party will be making promises for the upcoming election, but if history is any lesson, many of those promises will remain unfulfilled, says Augustana history professor. (Photo: Brian Wertheim via Unsplash.)


As someone who studies Indigenous history and political issues, I am all too familiar with the unfulfilled promises made by Canadian politicians. For those of you wondering which federal party is best for the Indigenous voter, all I can say is that no such voter exists. There is too much diversity contained in the term "Indigenous voter" to definitively state one party is better than all of the others. They all make promises and, if history is any lesson, many of them will remain unfulfilled.

Trudeau talked a lot about reconciliation but didn't do much to forward it. Based on previous elections, I doubt other parties will differ greatly, although I imagine the Conservatives, who as of the writing of this article have not released a platform, will make less grandiose promises of doing so.

Unfulfilled promises have been a common theme in Canadian politics from the start and have encompassed a wide range of issues. Just look at the 1867 federal election when the Anti-Confederation Party swept Nova Scotia on a promise of undoing confederation in that province. When it became apparent that London would not allow this reversal to occur, the party dissolved and most followed their leader, Joseph Howe, in joining the Liberal-Conservative Party.

The Liberal-Conservative Party was not some third party in federal politics at the time. They were the political party of John A. MacDonald. Unfortunately, to avoid confusion with the Liberal Party the full name was not always used then or now. One can make a parallel to the Progressive Conservatives of the twentieth-century both in name as well as in the fact that both parties emerged out of a union with like-minded liberals.

In MacDonald's case, they were liberals who supported confederation, while in the Progressive Conservative's case, they were liberals who had formed their own party in 1920-the Progressive Party-after joining Robert Borden's Union Government during the First World War against the wishes of the Liberal Party of Canada. Provincially, the emergence of province parties in Ontario and Western Canada, in the form of United Farmers parties, bolstered their support.

During the 1921 federal election, the Progressives dominated the Prairie provinces, and if it was not for their refusal to force members to vote in a block, they would have formed the official opposition. This lack of cohesion would hurt the party, especially since Mackenzie King actively worked to draw Progressive politicians back into the Liberal fold. Nonetheless, they would dominate Alberta in the 1926 election in no small part because of the success of their provincial wing, the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA). Three events in the 1930s would devastate the party.

The first was the Great Depression. Like all of the existing parties at the time, the Progressives were caught off guard and not sure how to deal with the Great Depression. This lack of solution helped other third parties emerge. The formation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1932 saw further defections from the Progressives. Finally, the 1934 sex scandal downed UFA premier John Brownlee when it was revealed that he had been having an affair with eighteen-year-old Vivian MacMillan after convincing her to move to Edmonton, telling her it was her duty to Alberta.

This incident has been mostly forgotten-no doubt because there is no Alberta heritage marker or statue on Highway 16 commemorating it-but it does highlight the fact that politics in this country has always involved scandals.

As status Indians living in British Columbia, my father's family did not gain the right to vote in provincial elections until 1949 and federal elections until 1960. My mother's family, on the other hand, has been voting in what became Canada long before 1867. Both sides remember slogans, broken promises and scandals and they, like I, will still vote on October 21.

As such, I would like to encourage you to vote…but please remember, it is not your duty to have sex with any political leader, for the province, country, or otherwise.


Daniel Sims, History, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column originally appeared in the Camrose Booster on October 1, 2019.