The 1921 Federal Election

The political dynamics are part and parcel of each and every society, and it is a subject to change at all times. Two parties dominated federal elections for decades, and it seemed as if this will continue forever but alas! A surprise was due soon, and it would not only bring a slight alteration, but it would make one of the greatest Canadian histories. The political party system began to fall into chaos following the merger of the two prominent political forces. In the year 1917, pro-constriction Liberals were invited by the Conservatives to form a Union government, and this left the farmers angry due to the unfolding events that involved the raising of the tariffs. This development prompted them into creating a separate political movement. Canada had just come from the First World War with a weak economy and internal wrangles in the government. The two prominent parties Conservatives and the Liberals were struggling to re-establish themselves, another powerful political force of the populist movement that involved the farmers was getting stronger. It eventually developed into the Progressive party, and this formed the genesis of the Canadian regional politics. Politicians like Thomas Crerar, Arthur Meighen, and William Lyon Mackenzie King transversed the regions as they campaigned on issues of government accountability and tariffs hoping to lure voters from other regional bases. The election of 1921 became the most significant in the history of Canada since it gave room for the first ever government of minority and this led to the dramatic shift in the political landscape of the country.

Historical Background of 1921 Election

Before 1921, the politics of Canada had been evolving around the Catholic/Protestants an English/French divides. The previous government of leaders like Wilfrid Laurier had succeeded in balancing these interests for the greater good. However, the progressive movement came in to show the new reality in Canada. Due to the increase in population and the raising of agriculture as an important part of the Canadian economy, the westerners, who have been farmers, had sought for a channel by which they could air their demand. Since the two traditional parties of Conservative and the Liberal could not address their needs, they attempted to rally behind the Progressive party. This move became one of the most important aspects of the Canadian politics and had significant influence on the development of the country. In another aspect, the Liberals  registered an overwhelmingly win in Quebec, sweeping all the 65 positions after they had been disappointed in 1917 because of the Union government, which had defeated Laurier. The French were marginalized and when they had issues that conflicted with those of the English, the position taken by the English always prevailed. The place of woman in matters of politics before 1921 had been overshadowed, and it meant that they had been restricted in their rights. The legislation passed in the preparation for 1921 election enfranchised every woman aged 21 years and above to participate in the election. This achievement was a historical milestone since for the first time the women had an opportunity to vote. They were also eligible to contest for the seats in Parliament. In the process, a total of four women ran for seats with one vying for Liberal, one for Progressive and 2 for Labor.

Political Party Profiles

At that moment the Liberal Party had the daunting task of rebuilding itself as it had experienced numerous internal divisions following the conscription crisis. The parties still had the support of their loyalty from Quebec. The western farmers had approached the Liberals and asked them to run on the new platform of “New National Policy”, yet the politicians declined afraid that they would lose Quebec's support. Under the leadership of Mackenzie King, with his support for Laurier’s policies on leveling of the opposing views they created a strained relation with the westerns radical protestors. The Progressive Party, on the other hand, had the farmer of the west's support. The major issue with the western farmers was the free trade that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives were ready to articulate. Due to the economic decline after the First World War and absence of decent representation of their interests, the farmers had no other alternative but to form a political party of their own. The uniqueness of the Progressive Party was that it lacked both the policy platform and national leaders. They depended on the Canadian Council of Agriculture for its national organization. The party was decentralized and keen on the support of West. Conservative Party had pledged allegiance to the Union government during the First World War and thus came with a non-partisan approach afterwords. Their electoral support was baseless, and they had to reestablish themselves once more. They were also blamed for the economic deterioration and rising unemployment.

Leader Party Profiles

All the three leaders involved in the 1921 federal election were pursuing different interests and came from various backgrounds. Thomas Alexander Crerar, who led the Progressive Party, was born in Ontario in a place called Huron County in 1867. In 1872, his family shifted to Manitoba doubled as a farmer and a sawmill operator. Between 1907 and 1917 he was the Manitoba Grain Growers president and served as Agriculture Minister between 1917 and 1920 before pioneering the formation of the Progressive Party. His objective was the advancement of the removal of tariffs for the western farmers.

Arthur Meighen, the leader of the Conservative Party, was born in 1874 in Anderson, Ontario and went to the University of Toronto where he graduated with a mathematics degree. Before venturing into politics, he had worked as a lawyer, business person, and a teacher. He was elected to the parliament for the first time in 1908 serving until 1926. He was the leader of the Conservative Party since 1920 in which he led the country as the official opposition leader following the 1921 federal elections. This continued until 1926.

Finally, the head of the Liberal Party, Mackenzie King was born in Berlin, Ontario, in 1874. His grandfather was the leader of the Upper Canada Rebellion in 1837. He got his education at both the University of Chicago and the University of Toronto before being awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard University. Before his venture into the politics, he worked as a civil servant and later as an author. He first made his debut into politics in1908 as a member of parliament before serving as Liberal leader from 1919 till 1948. His ultimate goal was national unity and he intended to realize this mission through accommodation of other manager's perspectives.

The Election Issued in 1921

The management of the post- war world economy became a dominant matter to the Canadians. The issues that took central stage in this election were tariff and free trade. This development was contrary to the 1911 election that focused on a single issue. In different parts of the country and similarly in varied ways, the issue of the tariff was taken differently. For the farmers in the west, the question of taxes translated into a high cost of the farm implements and low returns on the agricultural products. Regarding the business interests among the easterners, they felt that tariffs were okay on the premise that they were an advantage for the protection of the country's manufacturing industries. Before 1921 Election, tax issue played a critical role in the formation of the Progressive Party as an independent party among the westerners. The electorate and leader's opinion on the subject of tariffs was a grave concern throughout the campaign.

The accountability and government mismanagement were another issue posed at the 1921 election. Canadian economy had begun to decline after the World War, with the biggest problems being the manufacturing drop as well as the unemployment. It was the incumbent government that had received all the blame on the Canadian economic difficulties. The sentiments put forth by the Union government included the increased taxes, resource wastage during the war and poor management of public affairs. Also, the old issues such as the conscription of support played a role in this election.

The 1921 Election Campaign

While the Liberals and Progressives were confident of support in their regions, the battle during the campaign was directed to those areas considered the sway votes. Liberals had the support of the Quebec while the Progressives were sure of the western provinces support. This issue left the battleground to be Maritimes, British Columbia and Ontario.

The conservative strategy involved retention of the tariffs. Yet, they promised of not rais them any further. Party members had conceded that the West would not give them support and instead focused on the districts of Maritimes, British Columbia, and Ontario. Meighen, who was the candidate from the Conservative party, reinforced his position on tariffs by giving the benefits accrued from their retention. His reasons included stated that it would help in the development and growth of the economy, previously in 1878 and 1891 the voters had voted in support of the tariffs being concerned that the American economy would overtake that of Canada if the taxes were scrapped off. Meighen also engaged in personal battle with Mackenzie King accusing him of vague and arrogant promises. The liberal strategy was spearheaded by Mackenzie King and it involved Union government’s economic and political records. In this way he aimed to entice the voters into questioning of Meighen and his party’s leadership abilities. He pointed out that the Union government had risen to power in 1917 via corrupt means, focused on the public debts and high taxes, failure to curb the Canadian war as well as blaming them for an economic decline after the World War. Mackenzie King had tried to use the government faults to cover his tariffs stance. The progressive strategy involved the supporting of the tariffs abolition, and since this was all what the West required, it was tougher campaigning in other areas. In other regions, he tried to woo voters by applying different strategies that included: refute on class based government support, emphasized support for reforms as well as attacking Conservative and Liberal campaigns for being corrupt. In the early election stages, Crerar had thought of working with Mackenzie King because they were fighting one opponent, but King had reconsidered it on the basis that Western support may deny a win for the Liberals.

The 1921 Federal Election Results

Liberals led by Mackenzie King won and for the first time in history formed the minority government. It was a historic event despite being short of one seat in winning and forming a majority government. The Liberals had won all the seats in Quebec together with the support they received in Manitoba and Ontario. The second to win most seats after the Liberals surprisingly was the Progressive party, the most unlikely to win. Although they were automatically eligible to form the opposition, they declined. The party refused to become the official opposition because they did not have a well outlined national structural organization. They had a huge influence in the west as they also captured a few seats in the region of Ontario. Nevertheless, the Official Opposition was formed by the Conservatives in spite of having little support throughout Maritime, British Columbia, and Ontario. The other surprise that came with this particular result was the emergence of women in the leadership positions. Agnes Macphail became the first woman to land into the Parliament after overcoming her family conservative expectations. She was supported by the farmers as she knew their challenges and took that advantage to represent them in the federal government. Before her prominent achievements in politics, the society at that time in Canada believed that the leadership role was patriarch in its nature. Women assuming a leadership position was an unthinkable notion and therefore Macphail had to prove she was worth it. It is out of this desire to show herself that she can do it, which made her not only represent the farmers but went a notch higher to champion for issues related to prison reforms, gender equality, and worker's rights. It is out of these elections that possibility of changes became evident to the Canadians. People had realized that everything was possible since the most difficult likelihood of women assuming the leadership positions had already been achieved. It was now open, and women could finally vote and vie for ruling positions. Those groups who felt that neither of the existing political movements were in a position to articulate their issues now had the confidence to form their party that could advance their needs. It was also an election that helped to bring significance to the French in Canada, since for a long time their views had not been considered. Upon the election they were heard and their ideas became the shaping force of Canadian society as well. Another shift that the election made was the voting realignment in which different groups now shifted their loyalty to the party that only could articulate their needs. This in one way put the leaders of the party in a position of hard work, since they had to understand the issues of the average citizens from all angles and base their policies on these matters.


In conclusion, it is vivid that the 1921 federal elections come at a very significant moment in the world's history since it was immediately after the First World War. The economy of Canada was declining due to the Union government, which had been on the receiving end for the wastage of resources allocated for the war, rising of the tariffs as well as the issue of the free trade. The election also brought together capable leaders who were of equal strength as no one, in particular, was assured of outdoing the other. The biggest surprise of all, however, was the emergence of the Progressive Party, which was supported by the western farmers as the other two parties could not represent their needs since they had already taken direction which opposed farmers’ interests. Election issues revolved around free trade, high tariffs and blaming of the Union government of the wrong management of resources. The most significant outcome of the election was the emergence of Progressive Party in the second position and the achievement of Agnes Macphail who became the first woman to be elected into the Parliament. It helped to provide a platform upon which major political reforms took place and hence to shape the country’s leadership in a democratic manner.