The 1944-1945 Grey North By-Election would surprise Prime Minister King and all of Canada as the Grey North electorate refused to be dictated to by Ottawas political elites.
Elections are supposed to enable citizens to choose whom they wish to represent them in the decision-making process of government.
Some would argue that, in a system centred around party politics, the individuality of the elected members takes a back seat to the overall platform of the party. If a member of a Parliament, or a particular party, appears to take their constituency for granted, then elections provide the opportunity for voter reprisals against the offending candidate and his party.
Perhaps one of the most famous incidents of voters taking a political party to task for its heavy-handed actions occurred in 1945 in the federal riding of Grey North.
In 1944, the Canadian army corps in Europe was seriously in need of replacements. J.L. Ralston, the Canadian defense minister, insisted upon sending conscripts to fill the void created by casualties, injuries, and just plain fatigue. This was not a popular decision in some parts of Canada, especially in Quebec.
Ralston refused to change his mind about the necessity of sending conscripts to Europe. Prime Minister King, fearing reprisals from Quebec where conscription was a sensitive issue, fired Ralston, and appointed the popular former commander of the Canadian army overseas, General A.G.L. McNaughton to the post of Minister of Defense. But first, McNaughton, who was not a member of Parliament, had to find a constituency to become a member of Parliament. He would have to run in a by-election and win, to remain the Defense Minister.
The Liberal Party needed a "safe seat." A constituency which had shown itself to be supportive of the Liberal Party, and one where General McNaughton could win without much of a battle. After all, the Defense Minister needed to be in Ottawa, not out stumping for votes in some distant riding. The Liberals found such a seat. Prime Minister King called for a by-election to be held on Feb. 5, 1945 in the Liberal stronghold of Grey North.
At first all of the political parties decided that they would not contest McNaughton’s election. However, Garfield Case, a former mayor of Owen Sound, decided that he would, indeed, challenge General McNaughton’s claim to the seat. Case was nominated as a Conservative candidate even though many Conservatives were willing to concede the riding to the famous general.
Garfield Case - Paul White Photograph Collection
Shortly after the campaign began, the Conservative Party hierarchy began to consider that perhaps the mayor of Owen Sound just might have chance in the by-election. House Leader John Bracken, John Diefenbaker, and Earl Rowe made trips to Grey North to campaign for Case. Due to the volatility of the conscription crisis, neither Prime Minister King, nor any of his powerful lieutenants came to support McNaughton. The Liberals were afraid that they would be questioned about conscription and were concerned that any loss by McNaughton would be viewed by the rest of Canada as a condemnation of their conscription policies.
These actions by both political parties virtually meant that McNaughton, who was a political rookie, had been literally thrown to the lions. But the Liberals and many political experts still expected the popular and famous war general to win.
The night before the election, the Conservatives held a meeting in Owen Sound. At the meeting were two officers of the Canadian Armed Forces who had just returned from Europe, George Hees and Larry Skey. These veterans told the audience about Canadian battalions being under-manned due to a lack of reinforcements. A focal point of their comments was the predicament facing the Grey and Simcoe Foresters. It was implied that this battalion was losing men because they were undermanned.
This information spread across the Grey North riding like a wildfire. Due to the timing of the Conservatives' meeting, the Liberals were not able to effectively refute the statements of the two officers.
The by-election votes were cast, and Case defeated A.G.L. McNaughton, Canada's most famous general of the Second World War and Minister of Defense. Case received 7,338 votes to McNaughton's 6,099 votes.
Many historians have argued over the reason why North Grey voters turned their thumbs down to the overtures of McNaughton. Some suggest that it was the issue of conscription, while others propose that the voters of Grey North felt slighted by having a candidate parachuted into their riding and they were sending a message to Ottawa. Whatever the reason, all political candidates should remember – there is no such thing as a safe seat – especially in this part of the country.
The information used in this article came from many different sources. Readers who wish further information should check the local library for books about Canadian politics during the Second World War. There are also newspapers on microfilm.
A version of "1944-1945 Grey North By-Election," originally appeared in my Local History column in the May 17, 1997 edition of the Owen Sound Sun Times.
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